Bill Loud, 1921–2018
The father who headed An American Family
Bill Loud had no way of knowing what would happen when he invited a TV film crew into his home. An American Family, which ran on PBS in 1973 as a 12-part documentary series, is now considered the first reality show, and the Loud family offered a preview of what would make the genre so popular. Camera crews spent eight months trailing Bill and Pat Loud and their five children—a handsome, upper-middle-class clan in Santa Barbara, Calif.—and viewers found the footage invasive and engrossing. Ten million Americans tuned in each week, and many watched open-mouthed as Bill got kicked out of the house for infidelity. Yet while reality TV became known for over-the-top outrageousness, the Louds remained strikingly even-tempered. “We spent 20 years building a family, and they selected only the negative, bizarre, and sensational stuff,” Bill said after the show aired. “But I’m really grateful. It was a very gratifying experience.”
Born in Eugene, Ore., William Loud served in the Navy during World War II and in Korea, where he “received a Bronze Star,” said The New York Times. In 1950 he married Patricia Russell, a childhood friend, and in 1962 they settled in Santa Barbara, where Loud sold equipment to mining companies. He was 50 years old when PBS started filming, with a “struggling business” and a “lively, somewhat out-of-control household,” said The Washington Post. Viewers saw the Louds’ home nearly burn down in a wildfire, the kids test their freedom, and the parents gab at cocktail parties. Some admired the family’s openness; others called them superficial and self-absorbed.
An American Family became a “cultural hot spot,” showing the coming out of eldest son Lance, “one of the first openly gay TV characters,” said Deadline.com. Family turmoil defined the show. Suspecting her husband of cheating, Pat tells Bill in one emotionally powerful scene, “I’d like to have you move out.” Without much objection, he reserves a room at a motel, takes an extra suit and tie, and drives away in their white Jaguar. By the time the show aired, the Louds had divorced. They reunited in 2002—a deathbed wish of Lance, who succumbed to hepatitis C and HIV-related illnesses at age 50—and moved in together as “roommates.” Reflecting on the bad behavior caught on film, Bill said, “If you could see yourself as others see you, you probably wouldn’t do half the things you do.”