Of course I’m dating myself, but I remember the 1971 TV debut of All in the Family. I was a grad student, hanging out with my boyfriend at the UCLA Department of Meteorology, where he had a part-time job. We both had work to do, but the show was getting so much advance press that it seemed obligatory to check it out. So we watched it on a little black-&-white TV in someone’s office. Black-&-white seemed appropriate for a show that was intended to raise hackles via the views of a lovable bigot. Frankly, we didn’t know what to think.
All in the Family was inspired by a frank but funny British sitcom, “Till Death Us Do Part.” But it was all-American in its focus on the cultural conversation of its time. Over nine years, it tackled issues pertaining to race, religion, gender, and class, deliberately courting controversy. Before its long run was over, it had sparked such spin-offs as Maude, The Jeffersons, and Good Times. Credit for the show’s long-term success is usually given to Norman Lear, but his producing partner, Bud Yorkin was the one who started the ball rolling. Lear himself said it: “He was the horse we rode in on, and I couldn’t love or appreciate him more.”
I knew that Yorkin, who died this week at the age of 89, had made many contributions to TV and film comedy. Aside from his producer credits, he directed amiable films like 1963’s Come Blow Your Horn and 1967’s Divorce, American Style, then won Emmys for his stylish handling of one of TV’s seminal variety shows, An Evening with Fred Astaire. What I didn’t know until I read the obits was that Yorkin had an engineering background. After spending World War II in the Air Force, helping to install sonar systems in the Pacific, he earned an electrical engineering degree at Carnegie Tech, and his first stab at an entertainment job was a stint repairing TV sets.
I’m delighted by Yorkin’s engineering credentials because, though his route to Hollywood is not the usual one, he is not totally unique. My legendary former boss, B-movie maven Roger Corman, decided to break into showbiz after graduating from Stanford with a degree in industrial engineering. Many Cormanites have commented to me on how the engineer’s zest for problem-solving has shaped Roger’s filmmaking career: “He’s always written movies in three days, shot them in three days, used the same sets to shoot two or three movies. He loves that because that’s the efficient engineer in him. He loves that sense of being practical. You’ve had the expense of building the set, making the monster, now let’s get as much as we possibly can out of it.” One Corman veteran theorizes that “one of his great joys in life is to come into total chaos and to straighten it out. And I think this has something to do with his engineering background. I sometimes think Roger actually, on some levels, creates problems so that he can solve them.”
Of course, filmmaking is a creative business as well as a practical one, and what this Corman alumnus calls “a very formal, black-and-white, engineering approach” doesn’t make for great art. But sometimes engineers can surprise you. I knew of one aerospace engineer, Todd W. Langen, who became obsessed with screenwriting. He took courses, studied produced scripts, and worked out a careful formula for what a good action movie should contain. Then he quit his day job. I thought he was crazy—until he resurfaced as an award-winner for The Wonder Years.
This post is dedicated to the most important engineer in my life, on our special day.