At the pinnacle of television showrunner and executive producer Norman Lear’s storied career, he was overseeing nine groundbreaking shows on-the-air simultaneously. Lear was responsible for developing character-driven prime time sitcoms such as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Good Times, Maude, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
Each series, in some shape or form, addressed issues involving race, sex, class, family and politics never explored before on scripted network television. “American families have a natural order of things for life to be emotionally crowded,” says the 92-year-old, derby-wearing living legend seated with his legs crossed. “Along with the entertainment and the information that television is capable of bringing, it wants to have leadership that is good for all people.”
Leadership is a constant on Lear’s mind, a recurring idea the Oscar nominee brings up. The extremely perceptive show creator born in New Haven, periodically taking brief pauses between sipping coffee and making small talk, recalls writing six U.S. Presidents, including President Obama, about working to eradicate ongoing social problems that continue to haunt American society. “A lot of times, I was able to say I’m older than you (chuckles),” jokes a delightful Lear, a recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 1999, “but despite the age difference, America needs a dad. Leadership in America is failing everywhere I see.”
Growing up Jewish during the Great Depression, Lear, a World War II veteran, former press agent and highly sought-after comedy writer, pioneered using television to raise awareness on taboo topics in an era of civil rights, the feminist movement, Vietnam War and Watergate. One particular episode of All in the Family incorporated a story arc about rape and sexual assault. Another episode of one of its spin-offs, Maude, took on abortion. Maude’s spin-off, Good Times, featured network television’s first African-American leading family.
Another All in the Family spin-off, The Jeffersons, featured successful upper middle class African-Americans as lead characters along with an interracial married couple. One Day at a Time was the first show to feature divorcees. a.k.a. Pablo, a very short-lived Lear property, featured the first Latino family on television. “I was raised in a regular household,” remembers Lear, now snacking on a handful of peanuts, “so I knew that these subjects were up for discussion because they existed in every living room that I knew. There was nothing we talked about that we couldn’t hear about in any neighborhood in America.”
Lear credits working with an array of extraordinary talent for helping the shows become classics and to fully execute his vision. “Number Ones are something other people are responsible for,” adds the self-proclaimed “man of reasonable taste.” “I’m responsible for what became Number One. There were hugely talented people preparing the words, the infinitely talented people executing those words and bringing their experiences to the characters. I wrote a character named Archie Bunker, but I never had Carroll O’Connor in mind. It was my impulse and his talent.”
In subsequent years following his glory days on the tube, Lear concentrated heavily on inspiring future generations of creatives and thinkers to express themselves and their concerns prevalent in their communities. Noticing an influx of television evangelism, the accomplished Emmy- and Peabody award winner founded People for the American Way 35 years ago. Lear’s platform worked to advocate against hindering freedom of speech and expression. Other initiatives he spearheaded include Declare Yourself, encouraging youth voter registration, and Born Again American, stressing the importance of informed citizenship. For a decade, the media veteran traveled throughout America to share his original copy of the Declaration of Independence.
An inaugural inductee into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, Lear finally got around to authoring and publishing his memoir, Even This I Get to Experience. The book goes into detail about his success and bouts making bad investments and almost losing his home. Spending four years on writing, the title stems from a late night flight Lear was on from Los Angeles to New York. His “exquisite thought,” he says, was that everywhere he saw a light was symbolic of someone laughing at his work somewhere.
Lear believes that recapping his life chapter-by-chapter is no different than his heyday of running from set to set. “It’s the same individual with the same thrust in life,” confirms an upbeat Lear. “I was working with a great many people who are collaborating with me. In television, I wasn’t doing any of that alone (chuckles).”
In total, Lear has written, developed, produced and created well over 100 programs. All in the Family still reigns as the leading sitcom that generated the most spin-offs, totaling five, in television history. Lear is the subject of a documentary, Just Another Version of You, which premiered at Sundance this year and will air as part of PBS’ American Masters series.
In no way does Lear feel like he’ll slow down. He insists that he’s just as spirited as he was at the peak of his career. “I’ve failed a lot of times, but I knew what was good,” proclaims a denim-clad Lear. “People ask why I didn’t write this book sooner. I wanted to wait until my life was half over. I want to do this for another 50 years.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.