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Pat Loud, early reality TV star as matriarch on 'An American Family,' dies at 94

By EMILY LANGER | The Washington Post | Published: January 12, 2021

Pat Loud, a California homemaker who became known to millions of television viewers in the 1970s as the matriarch of "An American Family," a PBS documentary series that was by turns celebrated and blamed for ushering in the era of reality TV with its frank depiction of her private life, died Jan. 10 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94.

Her family announced her death in a Facebook post that did not cite a specific cause.

Created by television producer Craig Gilbert, "An American Family" was a sensation when it aired over 12 one-hour installments in 1973. Decades before the Kardashians became famous for being famous, or the Gosselins of "Jon & Kate Plus 8" announced their divorce, Loud and her then-husband, Bill Loud, allowed a camera crew to film their daily lives with their five children for 300 hours over seven months in 1971.

"We asked the kids, and they all agreed," she told The New York Times in 2013. "It seemed like a fun thing to do."

At the time, many American viewers still turned on the television expecting the idyllic presentations of family life that they had reliably found in sitcoms such as "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show," both of which ended in 1966. Even "The Brady Bunch," which ran from 1969 to 1974, managed to find tidy solutions to the problems presented by the melding of two families.

"An American Family" was something else entirely. Filmed in a cinema verité style, it followed the Louds of Santa Barbara through events both ordinary and monumental, among them a wildfire that menaced their house, Loud's decision to divorce her philandering husband, and the revelation that their oldest son, Lance, was gay.

At the time, the anthropologist Margaret Mead declared the documentary-style genre "as new and significant as the invention of drama or the novel." Nearly four decades after the program aired, Washington Post television critic Hank Stuever wrote that it "remains one of television's most memorable and emotionally conflicted events."

Gilbert, who died in April, told The Times that he encountered no shortage of subjects willing to participate in his project to document the everyday life and struggles of an American family. He selected the Louds, he said, because they were an "attractive couple" with "attractive" children.

They were "not 'the' American family," he emphasized — there being nothing of the sort — but "simply 'an' American family."

The Louds lived a comfortable lifestyle in a stylish home, with three cars and a pool, as viewers came to know. There was little they did not come to know, it seemed, as the show developed. When Loud tires of her husband's adultery, she matter-of-factly asks him to leave, telling him that he could "take the Jag."

(Loud later said that she was coerced into filming the conversation with her husband — a charge Gilbert denied — and that she was "probably drunk" at the time it occurred.)

An enduring legacy of the show was its sympathetic presentation of Lance Loud, who, by coming out, became one of the first openly gay people to appear on television. Years later he contracted HIV and, over his mother's initial objections, invited a camera crew to film "Lance Loud!: A Death in an American Family," a TV documentary that aired on PBS in 2003, two years after he died of hepatitis C.

When the original show was broadcast, some viewers pointed to the Louds as an example of the dysfunction of the American family, even as others found a degree of solidarity, even solace, in the story of an imperfect couple.

"It's about how you and I and everyone in this room and everyone in this country is fumbling around trying to make sense out of their lives," Gilbert once told Loud when she confronted him about his purpose.

The show came to attract 10 million viewers a week, a figure Loud said she found shocking. After it aired, she told broadcaster Dick Cavett that it had made her family "look like a bunch of freaks and monsters. . . . We've lost dignity, been humiliated, and our honor is in question."

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, offered another interpretation of how Loud was presented. She was "a modern, empowered American woman," he said in an interview after her death. "She was unhappy about things, she acted on that unhappiness, she communicated. . . . That maybe seems silly to even have to point out, but that was different from a lot of what we saw on television."

He continued, "Compare Pat Loud to Edith Bunker" of Norman Lear's sitcom "All in the Family," which was early in its run when American TV viewers met Loud. "Edith Bunker kind of did as she was told, stifled herself when she was ordered to do so. I don't think Pat Loud would have responded to the request to stifle herself nearly as docilely."

Patricia Claire Russell was born in Eugene, Ore., on Oct. 4, 1926. She had known her future husband since she was 6 and married him in 1950, two years after receiving a bachelor's degree from Stanford University, where she studied world history and English literature.

After her divorce, Loud worked as a literary agent in New York and lived for a period in Bath, England, before returning to the United States to care for Lance during his illness. On Lance's request, she reconciled with her former husband and resided with him until his death in 2018. Survivors include their children Michele, Delilah, Kevin and Grant.

The Louds appeared in the 1983 HBO special "An American Family Revisited: The Louds 10 Years Later" and were depicted in the 2011 HBO movie "Cinema Verite," a dramatization of the making of "An American Family" in which Diane Lane played Loud, Tim Robbins played her husband and James Gandolfini played Gilbert.

In 2013, The Times interviewed Loud alongside Carole Radziwill, a star of a modern reality TV show, Bravo's "The Real Housewives of New York City." Loud remarked that she had often considered what her life would have been like if she had not agreed to go on television in the early 1970s.

"I would have been up in that house, and my kids would have all gone, and I would have the empty nest syndrome. So I beat them to it. I got out of there before they did," she said.

Radziwill noted a degree of irony in the observation.

"In a way, the show probably allowed you to live your more authentic life," she said.

"Absolutely," Loud replied.