Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson in Sanford and Son
Rob Reiner in All in the Family
Norman Lear with his bust at the Television Academy
Bea Arthur and Bill Macy in Maude
Sherman Hemsley, Norman Lear and Isabel Sanford celebrate 200 episodes of The Jeffersons.
Esther Rolle and Jimmie Walker in Good Times
Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton in All in the Family
Joe Santos, Paul Rodriguez (front), Hector Elizondo and Katy Jurado in a.k.a. Pablo
Fifty-one years ago, Norman Lear proved that people would watch shows that make them think as well as laugh. Today, the prolific writer-producer celebrates his 100th birthday.
Norman Milton Lear was born on July 27, 1922, in New Haven, Connecticut, and was raised in nearby Hartford. He attended Emerson College in Boston, before leaving in 1942 to enlist in the Air Force. After fighting in World War II, he worked briefly as a publicist before making the transition to television.
All in the Family, arguably the crown jewel of his extensive roster of television shows, premiered on CBS on January 12, 1971. The multi-camera sitcom ran for nine seasons and paved the way for a new kind of series: one that explored the American family without its shiny veneer. Lear tackled issues on TV like no one else: racism, sexism, abortion, politics, gay rights and rape.
He also championed series featuring diverse casts, including Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons and the short-lived A.K.A. Pablo.
Today, he's still prodding the public to think, with a rebooted take on One Day at a Time — this time with a Cuban-American family — and Live in Front of a Studio Audience specials, which feature new casts performing old episodes of his shows Good Times, The Facts of Life and Diff'rent Strokes, to name a few.
In 1984, Lear became one of the first seven inductees into the Television Academy's Hall of Fame. He is also the recipient of six Emmy Awards and has been nominated eleven additional times. He received a Peabody Award in 1978 for All in the Family, and in 1999 he received the National Medal of the Arts from former President Bill Clinton, who said, "Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it."
In celebration of Lear's centennial birthday, revisit this 2006 interview with the über-producer as he reflects on his decades-long career.
You won't find many traces of All in the Family in Norman Lear's private office. Archie Bunker's chair is in the Smithsonian, and Lear sold the sitcom long ago. "When something is over, it's over, and then it's, 'Next!'" he says.
But you will find plenty of family photos, especially of his son and five daughters. Ask him about his children, who range from eleven to fifty-six, and the laugh lines from a lifetime of story meetings dance across his face. "I have never heard the word dad without thinking, 'I like this,'" says Lear, eighty-four, eyes sparkling beneath the familiar porkpie hat.
Family — dysfunctional, perhaps, but loving — has always been at the heart of his work. In the groundbreaking 1970s sitcoms he created, wrote and produced, Lear introduced American audiences to an astonishing array of families: the Bunkers of All in the Family, the Sanfords of Sanford and Son, the Findlays of Maude, the Evanses of Good Times and the Jeffersons, to name a few. In so doing, he compelled viewers to examine their views on race, sex, religion, politics and other hot-button topics, all the while making them laugh out loud.
"The complexity of the American family — and the society it was so much a part of — were never explored on sitcoms until Lear came along," says Donald Bogle, New York University film historian and author of Prime-Time Blues: African Americans on Network Television. "In All in the Family the generational conflict flew all over the household."
That landmark show was born when Lear saw a British family comedy created by Johnny Speight, Till Death Us Do Part. The father and son-in-law who fought about everything made him think of his conflicts with his own father. "He called me the dumbest white kid he ever met," Lear remembers, "and we'd fight over that."
Lear used a version of that line in "Meet the Bunkers," the first episode of All in the Family, which aired January 12, 1971. Archie (Carroll O'Connor) tells his daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) that she "married the laziest white man I've ever seen." But as the story develops, Archie's son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner), shows some initiative: anticipating that Archie will forget his wedding anniversary, he buys a card. That, too, was based on real life: when Lear's father forgot his fifteenth wedding anniversary, he asked young Norman to ghost-write a poem for him. "The poem hung for years in the vestibule of our little house at 68 Woodstock Street in Hartford," Lear says. "[My mother] never knew I wrote it."
Norman Milton Lear was born on July 27, 1922, in New Haven, Connecticut, and raised in Hartford, the son of a salesman and a mother who "waited for him to come home."
"He sold anything and everything," Lear says of his dad. "He had 100 jobs."
In the 1967 film Divorce American Style, which Lear wrote and produced, Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds, as an unhappy married couple, squabble in the kitchen while their kid, in an upstairs bedroom, keeps score. "I used to do that at the kitchen table," Lear says. "My family lived at the top of their lungs and the edge of their nerves."
At the beginning of the Depression, Lear was shunted to his Yiddish-speaking grandparents. By high school he was writing a humor column, and he'd already chosen a career: press agent, like his Uncle Jack Lear. "I wanted to be an uncle who could flip a kid a quarter," he says.
In 1942 he left Boston's Emerson College to enlist in the air force of the U.S. Army. As an on-board radio operator based in Italy, he flew thirty-three bombing sorties over Berlin, Frankfurt and Dresden and left the military with honors, including a bronze star. "That was the one war we cared to fight," he says.
After the war, Lear asked an Italian printer to typeset a letter, which he mailed to Uncle Jack, then working for MCA. "Norman Lear has spent the greater part of his twenty-four years dreaming of, and preparing himself for, a career in the field of PUBLICITY!" he wrote. "It took a global war to uproot him from his plans, but never from the ambitions that motivated him.... Ideas are his forte. They wash across his mind as waves on a shore, but never recede."
He landed a p.r. job, pitching stories to gossip writers like Walter Winchell, but soon made the transition to TV. With his buddy Ed Simmons, Lear wrote a parody called "The Sheik of Araby," which they sold for $40. A series of writing jobs ensued at the variety shows so popular in the 1950s: Ford Star Revue, Colgate Comedy Hour (where he and Simmons wrote sketches for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis), The Martha Raye Show.
In the 1960s, under the Tandem Productions banner he'd formed with producer-director Bud Yorkin in 1959, he turned to feature films. Their slate included Divorce American Style (for which Lear received a best screenplay Oscar nomination), Come Blow Your Horn, Never Too Late, Start the Revolution Without Me and Cold Turkey. Lear had a three-picture deal with United Artists when All in the Family made him famous.
But that fame did not occur overnight. Lear and Yorkin bought the American rights to Till Death Us Do Part and began pitching the show in the late '60s. They made two pilots for ABC, but ultimately the network backed away. CBS stepped in and ordered thirteen episodes. The premiere ranked only fifty-fourth for the week, but by summer it was number one. CBS moved the show to Saturday at 8 p.m., where it stayed for four seasons.
Each episode opened with Archie and wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) at the piano, singing "Those Were the Days," but before long Archie and Meathead (son-in-law Mike, played by Rob Reiner) would be going at it. When Mike said minorities were denied the American Dream, Archie fired back: "If your spics and your spades want their rightful share of the American Dream, let them get out there and hustle for it, just like I did!"
Archie didn't use the n-word, but the words he did use had never been heard on network television. "It showed both black and white America that these attitudes that Archie Bunker had were a part of American households," Bogle says. Those attitudes revealed equal-opportunity prejudice. In the pilot alone, Archie displayed his disdain for blacks, Jews, Poles, atheists and women.
Lear credits the success of the show to the cast — and the casting. "That was not good casting — that was miracle casting," he says. "That was the fates, the gods. In every direction the chemistry was impeccable."
Lear had been in New York editing The Night They Raided Minsky's, but flew to L.A. to audition potential Archies. As he tells it, Carroll O'Connor walked into his office, borrowed the dialect of a cabbie, and "this Irish intellectual suddenly became the living, breathing Archie Bunker."
Stapleton, a veteran stage actor, says the cast brought an energy usually reserved for the theater. Lear "thought it was just swell," she says. "He went with us and we with him. It was a wonderful blending."
As Edith, Stapleton played the peacemaker and sage who loved Archie, despite his flaws. "She saw good points in him and celebrated it," the actress says. "She was free of all of his prejudice."
But Archie's bigotry had the network worried even before the debut. John Rich, who directed the first four years of the show, recalls that CBS wanted to start with the milder second episode, in which Archie and Mike write letters to President Nixon (just as Lear's grandfather had written to FDR). Rich urged Lear to remain strong. "If they put the second one on first, they own the series and you'll never do it well again," he said.
"It went up to the last second," Rich recalls. "We finished the dress rehearsal, and everybody crowded into my control room because I could see the New York feed. We're all sitting there, and finally up came Archie and Edith singing. They finished the song and episode one came up. CBS had blinked and put on the proper show. They only made about $20 billion because of that blink."
Until 1976 All in the Family remained television's number-one show, at its peak, reaching some 60 million viewers. It stayed on the air until 1983, evolving in 1979 into Archie Bunker's Place. Lear remembers taking a night flight from New York to L.A. in the early '70s. "I was looking down and thinking, 'Wherever I see a light, it's likely I've helped to make somebody laugh.'"
Lear's favorite episode is "Cousin Liz": when Edith's cousin dies, she and Archie learn she was a lesbian. Archie believes Edith should inherit Liz's silver tea service, but Edith knows it belongs to her lover. Lear loves "that moment of realization for Edith and Archie." He also loves "The Draft Dodger," the episode in which Mike invites a friend to Christmas dinner who has fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Meanwhile, Archie's guest is a friend whose son has been killed in Vietnam. Lear calls it "an extraordinary show."
In 1972 Lear followed with Sanford and Son, starring Redd Foxx. The show was also based on a British sitcom, Steptoe and Son, about a Cockney junk dealer and his son. Lear made it an African-American father and son in an L.A. junkyard. "Funny is funny, it was ever thus," Lear says of how whites responded. "There are a couple of clowns every century, and Redd Foxx was one of those. He could walk into a room and tell you your mother was dying and make you laugh."
Maude, which also began in 1972, was the first of several spinoffs. Played by Bea Arthur, Maude Findlay made the transition from All in the Family (she was Edith's cousin) to her own show. One of Lear's favorite moments was when Maude and Florida Evans, the African-American maid played by Esther Rolle, sang "Me and My Shadow." Maude urged Florida to stand next to her, not behind her; she refused.
"That was Maude," Lear says of the character said to be based on his second wife, feminist Frances Lear. "She was trying to make the Esther Rolle character white. Florida knew who she was. Maude was the half-assed liberal that equated to Archie's half-assed conservative. Neither of them took responsibility for what the hell they were talking about."
The most controversial episodes involved Maude's abortion. The reaction was muted at first, but by spring, when the show went into reruns, anti-abortionists threatened to block the cars of Lear and CBS Chairman William Paley. "They scared the shit out of the networks," Lear says of the episodes, which reaired on TV Land a few years ago without incident.
In another episode, Maude suspects her husband, Walter (Bill Macy), of cheating; the script called for her to say, "You son of a bitch!" Despite objections from censors, Lear got the epithet on the air. "She said son of a bitch, and not a single state seceded from the union."
In 1974 Rolle's character spun off into Good Times, about a black family living in the projects. "It was exciting to be working with an African-American family," Lear says. The following year The Jeffersons spun off from All in the Family, as the Bunkers' black neighbors, played by Sherman Helmsley and Isabel Sanford, moved from Queens to the East Side. In this show, supporting players Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker, as the Willises, became the first racially mixed married couple to be seen in a prime-time series.
Lear, who warmed up the viewers at the tapings, loved the black audiences. "There was life in those audiences as they recognized themselves [in the shows]," he says. "Those audiences taught a generation of TV viewers how to behave — to let it out and let it go."
Sanford, Good Times and The Jeffersons also revealed aspects of African-American life to a mainstream audience. As Bogle points out, Fred Sanford's dream girl was Lena Horne, not Marilyn Monroe. But blacks were not universally happy with the shows. In Good Times, Rolle and John Amos, who played her husband, James, objected to the stereotyping of jive-talking son J.J., played by Jimmie Walker. Amos left the series over the dispute. "As popular as those series were, people still had concerns," Bogle says.
Lear's attempt to depict a Latino family on TV, A.K.A. Pablo starring Paul Rodriguez, was short-lived. Lear asked the network to be patient, but the show was dropped in April 1984 after only one month.
He continued producing TV series (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; Fernwood 2-Night) while also expanding his movie credits, producing Fried Green Tomatoes, This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand by Me and The Princess Bride, the last four directed by protégé Rob Reiner. But Lear tackled issues on TV like no one else: racism, sexism, abortion, politics, gay rights and rape. The writers mined the news for trends: hypertension in black males, rape among middle-aged women. Two All in the Family episodes in 1977 centered on the attempted rape of Edith.
"We were in business to make people laugh, but I'm a serious person," Lear explains. "And the people gravitating to [work on] the shows were serious writers."
Viewers are still gravitating. Some 40 million regularly watch Good Times, Sanford and Son and All in the Family on TV Land. "The shows were done in a way that was funny and entertaining and still made you think," says Larry W. Jones, president of TV Land and Nick at Nite. "The ability to do that in a half hour is a talent that you just don't see in TV today."
Larry Gelbart, the creator of M*A*S*H, calls Lear's impact on TV "incomparable. He helped television grow up, or delayed it by a number of years from what it's become. Certainly All in the Family was the jewel in his crown, but the others were all ratings champions. They'll be played until the screen disappears into one little white dot."
The '70s and '80s were a whirlwind, Lear acknowledges. But his three grown daughters tell him, "When I needed you, you were there, Dad." He admits it's hard to be objective about such things.
As his creative activities flourished, so did his businesses. In 1974 Lear formed T.A.T. Communications with Yorkin and talent agent Jerry Perenchio. The initials stood for Tuchus Affen Tisch, Yiddish for "putting your butt on the line."
In 1982 T.A.T. acquired Avco Embassy Pictures, which the partners sold as Embassy Pictures in 1985 to Coca-Cola, then parent of Columbia Pictures, for $485 million. (By this time, Yorkin had sold his interests in the company.) In 1985 Lear formed Act III Communications. He subsequently sold the theater, broadcasting and publishing divisions, but still has his jazz record label, Concord Records, and a partnership with Village Roadshow, an Australian cinema chain.
Following his much-publicized divorce from Frances, Lear married psychologist Lyn Davis, with whom he raised son Benjamin and twin daughters Madeline and Brianna. Lear wakes up at 6:15 a.m. to make the kids breakfast. He works out for forty minutes on the treadmill, lifts weights and stretches before heading to the office in Beverly Hills. When he sits down with the family to watch TV, they tune in to South Park, 24 and Family Guy. "TiVo saves our lives," he says. "Life is very full."
But he wonders what life will be like for future families, with the nation and the Supreme Court tilting rightward. Since 1980 he has been one of the nation's most powerful activists and fundraisers for liberal causes. "He's kind of like Madonna," Jones says. "He's reinventing himself all the time."
Says Gelbart: "He's done incredibly good works with the not inconsiderable fortune he's made. He's a patriot who served his country bravely and still serves it. I can't tell you how different he is. He's a guy who had his cake and then shared it with everybody before he ate it. He's lovable — unless you're Jerry Falwell."
His public-service activities have been as varied as they are passionate:
• In 1981, as a response to televangelists and the religious right, Lear created People for the American Way, a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending constitutional liberties and increasing civic participation. It now has 700,000 members. The group has its roots in Lear's boyhood memories of listening to anti-Semitic rants on the radio. "People for the American Way exists because I had a nose for anti-Semitism," he says. "I wasn't prescient enough to think that [the country] would be utterly owned by the values of the fundamentalists."
• In 1982 he produced a patriotic special for ABC, I Love Liberty. Lear remains as proud of it, he says, as anything he's ever done. The big names involved came from across the political spectrum: Christopher Reeve, Barbra Streisand, Robin Williams, Barry Goldwater, John Wayne, Jane Fonda and many more.
• In 2000 he established the Norman Lear Center at USC's Annenberg School for Communication to examine the convergence of entertainment, commerce and society. A multidisciplinary research and public policy center, it promotes studies of creativity, technology and ethics, bringing together the entertainment industry and academia.
• In 2001 Lear and his wife bought one of the twenty-five surviving originals of the Declaration of Independence for $8.1 million and created an educational traveling show, the Declaration of Independence Road Trip. At the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where 100,000 visitors viewed the document, Lear crossed paths with President George W. Bush. Lear relishes the memory. "He felt he had to refer to it," he says.
"We don't agree, Norman and I, about a number of things," Lear recalls Bush saying, "but we certainly agree about the importance of that document."
With the Iraq War, terrorist threats, government eavesdropping and unprecedented media concentration, Lear says, "this country needs its citizens and their participation more than ever. To the extent we don't have it, we're in terrible trouble."
And yet, like the shows he produced, he remains optimistic. "I don't want to wake up any morning feeling hopeless. We can't give up hope."
His shows opened doors of exploration, but he says he was not consciously trying to change TV. "I would be some kind of fool to think my little half-hour comedy changed things. Truly the impact of [All in the Family] was like the ripple on the lake."
But Lear has no doubt about one thing: it was fun. "I spent my career laughing. How great is that?"
Like Father, Like Son
Rob Reiner will always be known as Meathead, but he doesn't mind. "I could win the Nobel Prize, and the headline would read, 'Meathead wins Nobel,'" he says. "I wear it as a badge of honor."
The nickname, attached to Reiner's character, Mike Stivic, in All in the Family, comes from Norman Lear's childhood.
"Norman and his father used to get in these screaming matches," Reiner says. "His father would say, 'You're a meathead — dead from the neck up.' Because his dad called him that, the rest of my life people call me that."
Reiner, of course, looks up to his own dad, Carl Reiner, creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show. But he also looks up to Lear. "He's like a second father to me."
Reiner has known Lear since he was a boy, when the two families vacationed on New York's Fire Island. There, Lear displayed what Reiner calls his "wacky side.
"He's a very intelligent guy, but on the spur of the moment he would do something physically goofy. He works behind the scenes, but there's definitely a performer in him. He is always trying to do something a little bit beyond what people are doing at the time."
Reiner would not have become Meathead if All in the Family had been picked up by ABC, which originally held the option for the show. The network ordered two pilots, with two sets of Mikes and Glorias — Reiner auditioned but didn't get the part. When All in the Family moved to CBS, Lear gave him the role.
During season two, the writers decided that the pressure of final exams would make Meathead impotent. CBS didn't want to air the episode, "Mike's Problem," but Lear threatened to quit.
"He stood up for what he believed," Reiner says. "I have such respect for him. It takes that kind of leader and that kind of courage and integrity to make anything of value."
He calls Lear a kochleffel, Yiddish for a cooking spoon — figuratively, one who stirs things up. "He always pushed the writers and actors to make it better. At times it was maddening because we thought we had something good. He would squeeze something better out of us."
All in the Family "changed the way people looked at TV in the '70s," Reiner says.
"There was nothing quite like it before and nothing quite like it since."
When Reiner left the show, Lear was instrumental in launching his film career, financing This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand by Me and Princess Bride. But when Lear sold Embassy Pictures to Coca-Cola two days before Reiner was to start shooting Stand by Me, the financing dropped out.
"Norman stepped in and financed Stand By Me with his own money [$7.5 million]. He put his tuchus affen tisch," Reiner says, using the Yiddish phrase for "putting one's butt on the line." (The phrase also inspired the name of Lear's former company, T.A.T. Communications.)
Reiner says he's also been inspired by Lear's work outside entertainment. "When he started People for the American Way, I thought, 'This is what I want to do.' I want to do good work but also be a contributing person in the community."
The men support each other's causes and speak often. When Reiner's California ballot initiative for public funding of preschools failed in June, Lear phoned the next day. "He told me he loves me and that he admires what I'm trying to do."
For his part, Reiner is amazed at what Lear can do. Four years ago, when Reiner was at the Four Seasons hotel in Maui, he came across Lear taking a scuba lesson. "At age eighty he's scuba diving! This guy has unbelievable energy. I have nothing but the greatest love and respect for him." —L.S.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #4, 2006, under the title, "The Man with the Open Mind."
To read more about the significance of Sanford and Son, click here.