Eric Monte- Not Norman Lear Is The Father of Black Television
If you’re familiar with early 70's television, you have seen Good Times, Sanford and Son, What’s Happening and The Jeffersons, all of which have been historically credited to legendary producer Norman Lear. For the past two years, Lear, now 99 years old, sat next to comedian Jimmy Kimmel as remakes of Lear’s early shows have been re-created in Live Before A Studio Audience.
Lear has been credited with bringing the first black family sitcoms to American television screen some 50 years ago. Already a successful producer thanks to All In The Family and Maude, Lear was already the toast of Hollywood. He would have a career that spanned a half century, lauded as a pioneering television creator.
Enter Eric Monte, a hopeful, 22 year old writer living in the infamous projects of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green with his Mother. Life in Cabrini-Green was rife with poverty and violence, a reality that saw residents abandoned by law enforcement who were afraid to come into the neighborhood due to gang wars. One of Monte’s close friends was murdered- a tragedy that would later inspire a key moment in what would become his groundbreaking 1975 film Cooley High, which examined the lives of close friends in Cabrini-Green and influenced the work of notable actors, music and filmmakers for years to come. Sharing his dream of become a writer in the entertainment industry, then dominated by white men, his Mother feared he was setting himself up for disappoint. In an NPR story by Katia Dunn conducted in 2006, he recalled her saying; “They have never ever had a black writer in Hollywood. If they ever get one he’s going to be some high-yellow black with a Harvard degree, not some high school dropout from Cabrini.” To which the determined Monte replied, “ I’m going to do this.”
He says that just a week later, he left home with $5 and a suitcase, went out to Route 66, and hitchhiked his way to Hollywood. Upon his arrival, he began taking classes in a local community college and started collecting an impressive catalog of ideas and scripts. For the next five years, he fought to get his writing in front of producers and found himself being turned away, with many people believing black led projects would not be marketable or lucrative beyond a niche audience.