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 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 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 filmed 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.
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 in one episode over drinks.
Viewers saw Pat Loud drinking glasses of wine and complaining about what she described as her husband’s flagrant infidelity.
In early September 1972, about halfway through the eight months in which the family was filmed, Pat Loud calmly told her husband that she wanted him to move out.
Bill 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.”
Pat Loud confirmed his death in a telephone interview Friday morning. She said he died at their home in Los Angeles, where they continued to live, though divorced, as “roommates.”
In addition to her, he leaves their four remaining children and two grandchildren.