You don’t make it to 93— and a productive 93, at that— without a winning philosophy on life, the world and your place in it. For Norman Lear, perhaps the most prolific and almost certainly the most influential television producer in the medium’s history, every fresh moment is a blessing, and every new event is one that his 34,000-plus days here on earth have uniquely prepared him for.
Through this philosophy, even a relatively uneventful interview with a reporter is elevated to never-before, blockbuster status. “It took me 93 f---ing years to get to it!” Lear says of the moment. “You gotta respect anything that took you 93 years to get to!”
Still funny, creative, profane and subversive, Norman Lear—creator of iconoclastic shows including All in the Family and The Jeffersons and passionate social activist—will continue to amuse, and provoke, until his final breath. And then we’ll finally get the full measure of Norman Lear.
“He’ll be remembered for being the most influential creator of television in its history,” says Phil Rosenthal, creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. “But he also used his power for good in the country. Norman is not just a great industry figure— he’s an important American figure too.”
Spinning Sadness Into Humor
As a child in Connecticut, Lear was shaped by the Great Depression and the absence of his father, a big-plan, smalltown hustler who spent three years in prison. He recalls an uncle who, upon seeing Lear, would flick the boy a quarter. “I wanted to grow up to be someone who could flick a quarter to a kid,” says Lear.
Uncle Jack was a press agent, so that’s what Lear set out to do after serving in World War II. (His cover letter, written in the third person, fittingly boasted, “On his ocean of ideas it is always high tide.”) He served up juicy scoops, truthful or other, to the insatiable New York tabloids, but lost his job after a dubious tip involving a vaudeville star, a midget and a St. Bernard.
After heading out West in his 20s and meeting up with a cousin’s husband, the two penned humorous ditties and ended up selling a bit to star entertainer Danny Thomas. Lear and Ed Simmons landed on the staff for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, making the Rat Pack laugh. Film work followed; Lear picked up an Oscar nomination for his Divorce American Style screenplay. He next crafted a TV project about a family with a dyspeptic patriarch, based in equal parts on the British series Till Death Us Do Part and Lear’s own childhood, where his father would bellow “Stifle!” at his wife from his easy chair.
The pilot was, at different times, called And Justice for All and Those Were the Days. It bounced from ABC to CBS and endured endless network meddling before All in the Family debuted in January 1971.
The program’s treatment of social issues was unlike anything seen on TV before. So controversial was All in the Family that President Richard Nixon groused about it in secretly recorded tapes.
More subversive series followed: The Jeffersons, about an upwardly mobile African-American family. Good Times and Sanford and Son, which found humor in the inner city. Maude, about a politically outspoken woman. The concepts seem tame in this age of edgy TV, but they were nothing less than revolutionary at the time. (Depicting the state of network TV in 1971, All in the Family led out of lowbrow trio Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Hee Haw.) One could argue we wouldn’t have anti-heroes such as Tony Soprano and Don Draper without Archie Bunker showing that a certified a-hole could carry a popular show.
“Lear helped America deal with its differences at a time when there seemed no reconciliation for them,” says Evan Shapiro, executive VP, NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises and head of digital comedy channel Seeso. “His legacy is immeasurable, and his presence on modern television is sorely missed.”
A True Independent
After working on more than 100 shows, Lear pursued a different calling. He formed People for the American Way, a nonprofit dedicated to defend the Bill of Rights and Constitution. He founded the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, charting the convergence of entertainment, commerce and society. In 2001, Lear and his wife, Lyn, purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and shared it with the public on a 50-state tour.
In 2014, Lear published the memoir Even This I Get to Experience. “That Norman Lear can find humor in life’s darkest moments is no surprise,” wrote former President Bill Clinton. “It’s the reason why he’s been so successful throughout his more than nine decades on earth, and why Americans have relied on his wit and wisdom for more than six.”
Lear’s influence on TV is impossible to quantify. When Rosenthal was pitching Raymond to CBS, he simply pointed to a framed picture of All in the Family on the conference room wall. “I don’t know the politics and social issues of the day like Norman Lear does,” Rosenthal remembers telling the network execs. “But the relationships and the characters—those values are my values.”
Lear’s series are held up as teaching material on college campuses. Deborah Jaramillo, assistant professor of Film & Television at Boston University, has a master’s student currently toiling on her thesis about Lear’s shows. “The fact that a 20-something grad student is doing original research on Lear speaks precisely to his legacy,” Jaramillo says.
The famed producer continues to produce—he’s got a remake of his own One Day at a Time, recast with a Hispanic family, for Netflix, and a series called Guess Who Died, set in a retirement village. Writing, yoga, college-age children and boundless curiosity keep Lear active and alert.
“A day does not go by where I don’t learn something—something about myself, about the world, about life,” the famed funnyman says. “That’s the most exciting thing. It doesn’t stop.”