2018-07-27 20:00:36 UTC
Bill Loud, the Father of TV’s ‘An American Family,’ Dies at 97
By William Yardley
July 27, 2018
Bill Loud was not the first person to play the role of a father on television. What made him a pioneer was that he was not acting — and that he was often not acting responsibly.
In 1973, when PBS broadcast “An American Family,” Mr. Loud, who died on Thursday in Los Angeles at 97, was the tan and philandering head of an affluent real-life household whose domestic dramas in Santa Barbara, Calif., were captured on 300 hours of videotape and edited into 12 hourlong episodes now regarded as the genesis of reality television.
“An American Family” shocked American families. Aired with the imprimatur of public broadcasting, it was portrayed as sociological exploration, not exploitation, and although many people found it irresistible, it was also hard to watch.
It showed Mr. Loud’s wife, Pat, bluntly discussing his adultery with her brother and sister-in-law. It showed her telling her husband to move out. It captured the Louds’ oldest son, Lance, living an openly gay life in New York — startling images for many people at the time.
Yet Bill Loud always regained his grin. He was the father of five — Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Michele — and his family was wealthier and more liberal than much of the country. The show did not suggest that they were a typical American family; indeed, the producer, Craig Gilbert, introduced the program by telling viewers that there was no such thing.
But the Louds became a cultural touchstone anyway. Decades before characters on reality programs like “The Osbournes” and “Dance Moms” one-upped each other’s outrageousness, the Louds were harshly criticized both for participating in “An American Family” and for their displays of self-absorption on camera.
As a father figure, Mr. Loud, who ran a company that made parts for heavy equipment, sent what could seem like mixed messages. He was seen pressing his children to be more responsible and work harder, even as he complained that modern family life had robbed men of their independence.
“You’ve got to do everything with everybody all of the time,” he told a friend over drinks in one episode (there were always drinks). He added: “I object. I don’t think it’s right. I think somebody has sold society a bad bill of goods.”
Viewers saw Mrs. Loud drinking glasses of wine and complaining about what she described as her husband’s flagrant infidelity, the absence of sex in their marriage and what she viewed as his general detachment, gone as he often was on business trips.
“We were only a part of his life,” she said, “a very good part, the best part, but only a small part.”
In early September 1972, about halfway through the eight months in which the family was filmed, Mrs. Loud calmly told her husband that she wanted him to move out. He told her she was being shortsighted, but he did not protest. He asked which of their three cars he should take.
“Take the Jag,” she told him. He did.
Mr. Loud said he knew he had not come across well in the series, but he was philosophical about it.
“We spent 20 years building a family, and they selected only the negative, bizarre and sensational stuff,” he said in an interview shortly after the show aired. “But I’m really grateful. It was a very gratifying experience.”
Three decades later, after he remarried and divorced, after he moved to Texas and started a new career in real estate, and after Lance Loud died from complications of hepatitis C in 2001 at age 50 (he had learned that he had H.I.V. in 1987), Bill and Pat Loud moved back in together in Los Angeles, near their daughters.
Their reunion, which surprised many people, was one of Lance’s dying wishes. They did not remarry, however. Over time, the cultural hand-wringing the show had prompted came to feel more antiquated than the show itself, and the family’s image improved with that evolving perspective.
In 2011, PBS aired a two-hour special on “An American Family,” and HBO produced “Cinema Verite,” a drama starring Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as Bill and Pat Loud. The HBO movie was promoted as portraying the real-life process of making the series, though it was criticized as inaccurate by the Louds and Mr. Gilbert.
“‘Cinema Verite’ makes reparation to the Louds,” Alessandra Stanley wrote in a review in The New York Times, “who insisted they were never as spoiled and decadent as the camera implied and the critics said.”
Interviewed by email for this obituary in 2013, Grant Loud said, “Television and the changing culture of the 1970s needed him to be a villain.”
He said that his father would “be the first to admit shame for his failings” but that “the older I get, the harder it is for me to judge him.”
“He loved life, loved people,” he added, “and — with the philosophy that ‘you only go around once’ — he wanted to experience as much of it as he could.”
He called his father ‘‘a terrific listener” and “an engaging conversationalist” who “went at both work and play with the same enthusiasm.”
William Carberry Loud was born on Jan. 22, 1921, in Eugene, Ore. He attended prep school in Portland and graduated from the University of Oregon. He served in the Navy during World War II as a PT boat commander stationed in England and was involved in the D-Day invasion at Normandy. He also served in the Korean War and received a bronze star.
He married Patricia Claire Russell on March 1, 1950, in Mexico City. She was also a native of Eugene, and they had met as children. Years later, when she was studying history as an undergraduate at Stanford, Mr. Loud would visit her from the University of Oregon.
Ms. Loud confirmed his death in a telephone interview on Friday morning. She said he died at their home in Los Angeles, where they had continued to live together.
In addition to her, he is survived by their four remaining children and two grandchildren.
In the 1970s the outside world had taken moral measure of Mr. Loud and found him wanting. But Grant Loud said his father had not been created by television and should not be defined by it. He noted that the family moved to Santa Barbara in 1962 with very little money, and that his father had created a successful business from scratch.
“It provided a family of five kids with a very comfortable life, and took him — and us — around the world,” he said by email in 2013. “As a kid, I never thought much about it. As a middle-aged guy, I can only shake my head in awe and respect.”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
© 2018 The New York Times Company