Sally Struthers Joined All In The Family After Being Brutally Dropped From Another Show

Before she was one of America's most famous sitcom daughters, actor Sally Struthers made her primetime debut dancing on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," the variety show that's now best-remembered for featuring performances from some of the best musical acts of the '70s. The gig wasn't the flashiest thing in show biz, but it was enough to get Struthers on the radar of Norman Lear, the up and coming writer-producer who would soon take the nation by storm with "All in the Family."

In a retrospective interview with Closer Weekly in 2021, Struthers spoke about the fortuitous circumstances that eventually led to her casting in "All in the Family." As with many big breaks, it came hot on the heels of a rejection that stung. "I had just come off 'The Tim Conway Comedy Hour.' I should have been on all 13 weeks of it, but after the fifth show, the executives said, 'Get rid of that dancer girl. She makes the show look cheap!'" Struthers recalled. Telling the same story to Newsday, she added that a producer for the show stuck up for her, attempting to explain to "the suits in New York" that her role as the show's sole dancer was part of a comedic bit about the series having no money.

The producer's attempts to save her job didn't work. "So I was let go," she told Closer. "I was distraught! I adored Tim Conway and wondered what would happen to me next." That iteration of Conway's series, it would turn out, would only last one year, while controversial water cooler conversation stirrer "All in the Family" ended up running for nine seasons, winning 22 Emmys in the process and establishing a stronghold on TV history that still remains to this day.

Struthers' audition made a strong impression

At the time, though, "McHale's Navy" star and future "Carol Burnett Show" recurring player Conway was a known entity, and Lear wasn't. "I went to read for this man nobody knew, Norman Lear," Struthers explained. "He said it was the role of the daughter, and he gave me a yelling scene." According to Struthers, she struck a chord with the show's creator due to another happy accident: an illness that left the actor, known for her distinctive voice, with even more recognizable vocals than usual.

"I had laryngitis that day, so my voice was raspy, but I guess it made him remember me," she said. "He narrowed it down to four young ladies, and I was one of the final four." Jim Cullins' book "Those Were the Days: Why All in the Family Still Matters" notes that it was Struthers' "Smothers' Brothers" appearance that got her in Lear's periphery when "All in the Family" director John Rich told Lear to check her out after catching the show.

"She auditioned with [co-star Rob Reiner] and it was another bolt of lightning," Lear is quoted as saying in Cullins' book. He'd later describe her and Reiner's casting, and their chemistry with the actors playing the Bunker parents, Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton, as the "magic" that made the show work. "The gods wanted me to come across Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers," the late TV legend told Entertainment Weekly in 2021. Struthers cites a similar serendipity in her own memory of joining the show, telling Newsday: "Very few people know that Rob Reiner and I were the third set of kids for that show. Talk about luck." 

She's right: it was the third series pilot that finally got "All in the Family" on the air, and it sounds like it might not have happened at all if Struthers hadn't been canned from her other gig.