In Memoriam: Hal Kanter, the Creator of Julia
The TV series lasted three years and only in its first season did it crack the Nielsen ratings’ top tier. It has never had much of a presence in the syndication market, doesn’t show up on TV Land, and has never been in VHS or DVD release. Julia, the NBC series created by Hal Kanter, the veteran Hollywood writer who passed away November 6, 2011, is nevertheless still considered a landmark show. So say the numerous obituaries noting Kanter’s passing, including the New York Times’ notice. While he received his Emmys for writing jokes for the Academy Awards, directed Elvis Presley, and executive produced All in the Family for a short while, Kanter’s main claim to fame remains his work on Julia.
The series appeared in 1968 amidst a fair amount of controversy considering the show was a light-hearted half-hour comedy about a beautiful widowed nurse and her cute and precocious six-year-old son. What stirred the controversy was the fact that Julia and her son, Corey, were African American. The series was network television’s first attempt, since the advent of the civil rights movement, to feature black characters as the stars of the show, rather than as sidekicks to white protagonists.
Hal Kanter, it almost goes without saying, was white. In fact, earlier in his career, he had written for both the radio version of The Beulah Show and the television version of Amos ‘n’ Andy. By the later 1960s, Kanter, a Hollywood liberal, was feeling guilty about his handy work with those shows. He attended a talk by Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, who discussed the lack of positive representations of blacks on television and the dearth of black personnel behind the camera. Wilkins appealed to Kanter because he was “reasoned” in his speech and “not angry.”[i] By 1968 many blacks were, in fact, angry. The nonviolent Southern-oriented movement having achieved legislative victories with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 began to find itself increasingly displaced by Northern-oriented and more confrontational “Black Power” politics. Sympathetic whites, like Kanter, wanted to do the right thing: he wanted to use his talents “to help the black people,” as he put it. Kanter probably could never see the degree of condescension that went along with those sentiments. He could respect Roy Wilkins because the NAACP leader didn’t make Kanter uncomfortable. Kanter would end up creating a black character who, similarly, was designed not to make white TV viewers uncomfortable. Julia would not be an angry Negro.
The series, despite Kanter’s best intentions, did make a number of people angry, however. White critics, black viewers, and racists, all found things to dislike about the show. Some critics objected to Julia’s middle class status and seemingly effortless integration into a white milieu when the experience of the majority of black people was so very different. Black viewers criticized Julia’s lack of a husband and the perpetuation of a “black matriarchy” image. Racists were incensed at the mere presence of black people on television, especially on equal terms with whites, which could only lead to miscegenation.[ii]
That Kanter’s attempt to “help the black people” by creating an innocuous sitcom about successfully-achieved integration ended up causing so much controversy must have puzzled the writer greatly. As a graduate student, I came across his collected papers at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. In files labeled “fan mail” I found audience letters addressed to Kanter and carbon copied responses. Kanter could be quite testy about viewer criticism of his show. To one black woman who argued that the show and Julia as a character were unreal and geared only towards white audiences, Kanter grumbled, “I’m glad you think our work is ‘good for an all white program.’ I’ll pass your praise along to our black writer and black actors.” Kanter could understand how his work on Amos ‘n’ Andy and Beulah was problematic. Those shows presented stereotypes – servile or buffoonish imagery. But Julia did nothing of the kind. If Julia and Corey were not stereotypes, but rather paragons of intelligence, style, education, and achievement, how could anybody complain? That they were the creation of a white man who really hadn’t spent much time with black people shouldn’t have mattered either. Kanter – along with much of white America – couldn’t understand how the politics of race relations had changed by the late 1960s. White benevolence on white terms wasn’t going to cut it in 1968. But Hal Kanter was sincere. He really did want to do the right thing.
In 1997, Kanter reflected back on the impact of his most significant creation, by noting, “We couldn’t get black people on the air until Julia came along to prove that white people will watch black people on television. I feel some gratification when I see that.” In the end, Kanter “helped the black people” by helping white people (some at least) accept a white version of blackness on television.
[ii] I discuss the contested reception environment around the series in a chapter of Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012) and in “Is This What You Mean By Color TV?: Race, Gender, and Contested Meanings in NBC’s Julia” in Lynn Spigel and Denise Mann, eds. Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).