It seems hard to believe now, but 50 years ago, only a handful of channels were available on TV. Cable? Streaming? On Demand? DVRs? Say what? Yet audiences in 1971, many of them watching for the first time on new color television sets, were witnessing history—the premieres of some of the most groundbreaking shows of all time.
“The switch from black and white to color was brain-wire transformative,” says John Leverence, the senior vice president of awards at the Television Academy in Los Angeles. “We believed black and white, but we trusted color.” And there was something for everyone, from topical comedies like All in the Family to the wholesome family fare of The Waltons and escapist variety shows such as Soul Train and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. And, to paraphrase iconic police lieutenant Columbo, just one more thing: Those new shows were paving the way for other programs for decades to come. Here’s a look at the classic TV shows of 1971, courtesy of the stars who helped make them special and some well-known fans who grew up watching.
Related: Parade Celebrates Five Decades of Films With Classics From 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011
Best TV Shows of 1971
1971–77, NBC; 1989–2003, ABC
Why It Mattered: Peter Falk’s trench-coat-wearing police lieutenant wasn’t a hardboiled toughie or a cool-cat case-cracker. This guy? A frumpy, crumpled detective who talked like he’d rather be in a New York deli than a police station. But his unassuming personality was his secret weapon, causing criminals to consistently underestimate him.
“I loved the character for his fallibility and his rumpled edges,” says actor Matthew Rhys, 46, who played the murderer in Columbo’s final installment (and who now portrays a private detective on HBO’s Perry Mason). “He always kept [audiences] hooked, even though we knew the formula so well.” Indeed, because viewers always saw the crime at the beginning of each episode, the fun wasn’t whodunit—it was how Columbo would figure it out.
Show Highlight: In a third-season episode, “A Friend in Need,” the lieutenant is presented with his biggest challenge—how to collar a killer who’s also his boss. Broadway star Richard Kiley played the guilty deputy police commissioner.
I’ll Never Forget… “We’d done a lot of rehearsals prior to the first day of shooting [for his 2003 episode, ‘Columbo Likes the Nightlife’]—but when I saw him in the coat…the coat…for the first time, it was truly surreal,” Rhys says. “And even though it was his 13th season, he approached the work as if it were seemingly the first.”
Did You Know? Columbo’s first name was never officially identified, though “Frank Columbo” was visible on pieces of identification (including his police badge) throughout the show’s run.
It Influenced: The Rockford Files, The Closer, Monk, Psych
Watch Now: Tubi
All in the Family
Why It Mattered: When it came to dealing with personal issues, the working-class Bunkers of Queens, New York, went way, way beyond prototypical sitcom fare like kitchen mishaps and workplace booboos. Instead, bigoted antihero Archie (Carroll O’Connor) and his “dingbat” wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton), along with their rebelliously progressive daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), and son-in-law, Mike, i.e., “Meathead” (Rob Reiner), mined comedy gold out of hot-button subjects such as racism, rape, immigration, gun control and homophobia—thanks to the risk-taking instincts of the show’s creator, producer Norman Lear.
“Anyone who has worked on a sitcom in the last 40 years has benefited from the intelligence and honesty that Norman Lear brought to the genre,” says actress Ellie Kemper (The Office and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), 41, who played Gloria in two live All in the Family re-productions on ABC in 2019.
Show Highlight: A season two classic: While moonlighting as a cab driver, Archie discovers a briefcase left behind in the backseat by Black entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. The star comes to the Bunker house to pick it up and agrees to pose for a photo—then plants a big kiss on Archie’s cheek just as the camera shutter goes off!
I’ll Never Forget… How “the characters…felt like actual, real people having candid, frank discussions about what was happening in the world,” says Kemper. “It was such an innovation.”
Did You Know? CBS rushed in the show—based on the British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part—as the popularity of its rural-skewing offerings such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres waned. The result: No. 1 ratings for five straight years.
It Influenced: One Day at a Time, Sanford & Son, Married…With Children, Roseanne, King of the Hill, plus spinoffs The Jeffersons and Maude.
Watch Now: IMDb TV
Related: The 20 Absolute Best TV Shows of All Time, From All in the Family to Modern Family
Why It Mattered: It actually started as a stand-alone 1971 TV movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, based on the upbringing of narrator and creator Earl Hamner Jr. But audiences responded deeply to what they saw, and a classic TV spinoff about a close-knit intergenerational family in rural, Depression-era Virginia was born the following year.
“It was completely different from anything else out there because it showed a family in long-form,” says Richard Thomas, 70, who played John Walton Jr. (“John-Boy”). “It also had a nostalgic lens; it was based on childhood memories, so there was an emotional tug to it.”
Show Highlight: For the two-part season seven premiere, the family mourned the death of Grandpa Zeb (Will Geer, who died during the show’s production hiatus) on what would have been his birthday, planting seedlings at his gravesite.
I’ll Never Forget… “At the Christmas party each year, the crew would show a blooper reel, and it was pretty blue,” Thomas says. “You’d see Grandpa and John-Boy mooning the camera and Grandma [Ellen Corby] sneaking into the cellar to smoke a cigarette. It was a pretty delicious counterpoint to the all-American family.”
Did You Know? Actor John Ritter, who appeared in 18 episodes of the series as the rural community’s young Rev. Matthew Fordwick, left the show after four years to take another part—the lead in a new network sitcom called Three’s Company.
It Influenced: Little House on the Prairie, Family, Eight Is Enough, This Is Us
Watch Now: For purchase on Amazon Prime
Why It Mattered: Though the music of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand had a good beat that you could dance to, Soul Train brought the funk (and R&B, hip-hop, jazz and disco) front and center to an audience that was ready to move and groove.
“It was the first major outlet for African Americans to do something that came so natural for our culture, which was music and dancing,” says Ruth Pointer, 75, of the hitmaking group the Pointer Sisters. “When we saw it, we were like, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve got to be there!” (They performed on Soul Train in 1973, 1975, 1981 and 1984.) Created and emceed by the smooth, baritone-voiced Don Cornelius, the show aired on weekends for 35 years, featuring breakout performances by hundreds of acts, including Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Janet Jackson, New Edition, Rufus & Chaka Khan, Labelle, Marvin Gaye, Run-DMC and Destiny’s Child.
Show Highlight: In 1974, the Soul Train Line—an idea revived from the 1950s dance hops in which guys and girls formed on opposite sides and danced to the same music—famously got down to Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.” (The YouTube clip has more than 4 million views!)
I’ll Never Forget… “I felt like I was at a block party in the ’hood,” Pointer says. “We were performing but the audience was so comfortable that they were yelling at us and saying things to us like, ‘You’re doing good!’ We hired one of the dancers to be our choreographer.”
Did You Know? Soul Train is the setting for a 1994 episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, when Will Smith and Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) have a dance-off.
It Influenced: In Living Color, The Arsenio Hall Show
Watch Now: DVD
Related: The Real-Life Stories Behind 15 of the Greatest Songs of 1971
McMillan & Wife
Why It Mattered: After a memorable movie stretch, Rock Hudson went to the small screen for this glamorous (and popular) cop show inspired by the Thin Man films of the 1930s and ’40s. He played Stewart “Mac” McMillan, a debonair San Francisco police commissioner who teamed up with his beautiful wife, Sally (Susan Saint James), to solve murder mysteries. And though Sally had a penchant for getting into trouble (usually in mansions!), the two always ended up safe and sound. “They started a genre of high-class folks chasing well-heeled scumbags,” says Leverence.
Show Highlight: Mac’s ex (Barbara McNair) is accused of murdering her husband and all the evidence points to her…or does it?
I’ll Never Forget… “It started the foundation of my lifelong friendship with Rock Hudson,” says actress Stefanie Powers, 78, who appeared in two episodes and later starred in the similarly themed Hart to Hart with Robert Wagner. “He was so charismatic and still had that star quality from his golden period of films.”
Did You Know? Even though they played husband and wife, Hudson was 21 years older than James: He was 45 and she was 24 when they were cast.
It Influenced: Hart to Hart, Remington Steele, Moonlighting, JAG, Bones, Castle
Watch Now: IMDb TV
The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour
Why It Mattered: Scoring chart-topping hits such as “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On” is impressive enough. Then Sonny Bono and his then-wife, Cher, were asked to take their comedy and music act to TV. A brief summer run turned into a four-year smash of music and sketch comedy.
“It was such a whirlwind trying to learn all these new things,” Cher, 75, recalls. “But I don’t think I was nervous for those first shows because we had Sonny and a comedy troupe and cool guests.” She adds that the opening monologues (always filmed in front of live audiences) were already honed from their nightclub performances. “I wouldn’t say it was re-learning, but we knew where we were coming from.”
Show Highlight: “We got unbelievable guests like Betty White and George Burns,” Cher says. A 1973 episode in which the two handed out the “Bono Awards” featured one of her all-time favorites: “Carol Burnett!”
I’ll Never Forget… “Our introduction to [Perry Mason actor] Raymond Burr [on the post-divorce Sonny & Cher Show in 1976] was the funniest thing that we did,” she says. “It took us forever to do because we were laughing so hard. They had to cut it down. Find the clip on YouTube that isn’t edited.”
Did You Know? All those eye-popping outfits that designer Bob Mackie crafted for Cher are now in storage. “I remember he would show me the drawings,” she says, “and then we’d talk about it, and then I’d go upstairs to his shop to the ‘beading room’ to see what the ladies were doing, and it was amazing. But I don’t know what to do with them now. Maybe a road show?”
It Influenced: Donny & Marie, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, The Kelly Clarkson Show
Watch Now: DVD
Related: Celebrate Cher With 7 of Her Best Duets
The Electric Company
Why It Mattered: Decades before Zoom video conferencing, kids learned how to read and write on the small screen thanks to this wildly imaginative variety show. Produced by the Children’s Television Workshop as a literacy-focused alternative for older kids to its own Sesame Street, the series taught basic punctuation and phonics via inventive cartoon shorts, sketches (starring a pre-famous Morgan Freeman!) and catchy songs. “It showed how entertaining an educational kids’ program could be,” Leverence says.
Show Highlight: “The Adventures of Letterman” was a clever animated superhero spoof featuring the voices of Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel and Joan Rivers. In one episode, the hero’s nemesis, the Spellbinder, devilishly rearranges and changes letters, transforming the word “snack” (and its corresponding object) into “snake”!
I’ll Never Forget… “I used to watch it a lot as a kid, and it was part of my coming-of-age DNA,” says Reggie Watts, 49, the comedian and Late Late Show With James Corden bandleader, who appeared on a 2009–11 reboot. “I loved the adventures that all the kids would go through. It had a good mixture of music and cool educational elements that weren’t heavy-handed.”
Did You Know? The original cast album, released by Warner Bros. Records in 1972 and featuring Rita Moreno and Bill Cosby, won a Grammy for Best Recording for Children.
It Influenced: Saturday Night Live, SCTV, 3-2-1 Contact, All That
Watch Now: For purchase on Amazon Prime
1971–75, ITV in the U.K.; 1974–77, PBS in the U.S.
Why It Mattered: Behold the first drama to weave together class dynamics—in this case, between the aristocratic “upstairs” Bellamy family and the dutiful “downstairs” servants in a posh townhouse in the Belgravia section of London from 1903 to 1930.
“There was no apology for the rich being rich or the poor being poor,” says Lesley-Anne Down, 67, who was just 19 when she was cast as socialite Georgina Worsley in the third season. “The writers just explained the social classes from a character-driven perspective. [And] if you tell stories humanely, you will succeed.”
Show Highlight: In the series finale, Georgina finally weds Anthony Andrews’ Lord Stockbridge and enjoys a lavish reception. “I wore a beautiful handmade wedding dress,” Down recalls. “The poor girl deserved that wedding. And the fans loved it!”
I’ll Never Forget… “We rehearsed in a territorial army center in North London, and we were evacuated about five times because of the IRA bomb scares,” Down adds. “The only good thing about it was that we were near a wine bar, so when we were evacuated, that’s where we went!”
Did You Know? Several episodes from the first season were filmed in black and white due to a dispute with a technicians’ union. These installments were omitted from PBS’ initial Masterpiece Theatre run and were not seen in the U.S. until PBS reran the series in 1989.
It Influenced: Downton Abbey, The Duchess of Duke Street, Beacon Hill
Watch Now: Britbox
Related: Need a Bridge Over Troubled Water? The 26 Biggest Hits of 1970 Might Be Just the Solution