A Convertible, Nicki Minaj and Lunch in Beverly Hills: A Day With Norman Lear at 90
With a memoir in the works, the "All in the Family" creator reflects on his favorite series ("Maude"), his most difficult star (Carroll O'Connor) and why his continued fear of the Christian right overcame his disappointment in the president: "There's nothing I wouldn't do for Obama. ... Nothing."
"It was funny and heartwarming, and it broke ground," says Daly, then in business affairs at CBS (and who later would become president of the network). Silverman, then working to revive the network's schedule, says quite simply, "All in the Family really saved my ass."
Of all of his shows, Lear is most fond of Maude. His choice seems to reflect his connection with the actors. "Bea Arthur made me laugh in corners of my being I didn't even know existed," he says. "I can't tell you how she touched me." Lear remembers Carroll O'Connor, on the other hand, as the most difficult talent with whom he ever worked. The All in the Family patriarch balked at every script. "We would have meetings, and he would have his agent and his manager, and there was a lot of carrying on," says Lear. "But then he slipped into that chair -- and he was flabbergasting."
Lear may be on his third marriage, but he has a gift for very productive partnerships. (He's celebrating 25 years with wife Lyn Davis Lear, who is on the board of the Sundance Institute.) Together, he and Yorkin built an empire studded with such hits as The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, Sanford and Son and Good Times, but that partnership dissolved in 1975. By then, talent agent Jerry Perenchio was working with Lear, and the empire-building continued. Perenchio made a series of deals that included the purchase of Avco Embassy Pictures, which had produced The Graduate and The Producers. (Lear arranged financing for Reiner's 1984 directorial debut, This Is Spinal Tap, through that company and later paid for Stand by Me out of his own pocket, which Reiner describes as "the ultimate leap of faith.") In 1985, Lear and Perenchio sold their entertainment interests to Coca-Cola for a $485 million stake in the company, which owned Columbia Pictures at the time.
Lear went on to found Act III Communications and expanded into trade publications including Media Decisions magazine. "Act III got into trouble," says Lear. "We were in businesses we didn't understand." Lear brought in an associate from Embassy, Hal Gaba, to help turn the company around. After adding a theater chain as well as a broadcasting unit, Lear and Gaba sold their assets in 1997. The TV stations alone sold for more than $500 million.
"We looked at each other and said, 'We want to stay together,' " says Lear. "I said, 'We were following my bliss -- let's follow your bliss.' " For Gaba, that was music. He and Gaba bought Concord Records, a small jazz label, and expanded it to include artists from classical to rock. Gaba died in 2009 at 63, leaving Lear at the helm. Lear concedes that Concord doesn't make a lot of business sense. "I don't want to talk about money," he replies with slight irritation when asked about its finances. "There can't be anybody who doesn't know the music business is between a rock and a hard place at the moment, but … we'll climb out of it. Music isn't going away."
There's no question that Lear has every interest in succeeding in music and in television, too, if he can sell a project; last year he wrote a sitcom pilot about life in a retirement community, called Guess Who Died? but didn't find a buyer. Lear also is involved in a panoply of political, civic and philanthropic activities: He's the founder of the Norman Lear Center, based at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, which studies the impact of entertainment on society, and the Lear Family Foundation, which makes grants supporting progressive causes. To Daly -- a relative youth in his mid-70s -- Lear is an inspiration. "He is so with it," he says. "And he has so much interest in what's going on in the world."
With a rich past in every sense of the word, Lear clearly is a here-and-now type of guy. "If I'm enjoying something, it's the best thing I ever watched," he says. "If this meal is good, I don't compare it to any other meal I've ever eaten in my life."
And he doesn't mind playing the role of 90-year-old marvel. "I think it can be helpful for people to see somebody alive and well and eager," he says. "For a lot of years, I've thought waking up in the morning is really swell."
SETH MACFARLANE ON LEAR: The Family Guy creator remembers a call from the king.
I picked up the phone one day at Family Guy, and it was Norman Lear calling to say he was a fan of the show. Obviously, for me, as a comedy writer and television producer, that's the greatest possible call you can get. I had always assumed that somebody from that stratosphere either wasn't aware of us or wasn't a fan. It was the most validating thing in the world to know that Norman Lear watched our show. It made every bad review I'd ever received meaningless. He is proof that you can have a decades-long career and still be in your prime. ... All in the Family still stands to me as the crowning achievement of sitcoms. It's still invoked by networks and studios as what one wants to achieve. It was fearless. It showed a ballsiness that was much more edgy and much more open-minded than anything we're seeing on television now. You watch All in the Family today -- it's rich, textured writing, and it just doesn't get any better than that. Every comedy writer hopes that they have it in them to reach that level.
NORMAN LEAR'S GREATEST HITS: His socially progressive, immensely popular comedies defined the 1970s.
All in the Family 1971-79
- Cast: Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, Sally Struthers, Rob Reiner
- Ratings high: 34.0 (1st place) in its first season
- Cast: Bea Arthur, Conrad Bain, Rue McClanahan, Bill Macy, Adrienne Barbeau
- Ratings high: 25.0 (4th place) in its fourth season
Sanford and Son 1972-77
- Cast: Redd Foxx, Demond Wilson, LaWanda Page, Don Bexley, Whitman Mayo
- Ratings high: 29.6 (2nd place) in its fourth season
Good Times 1974-79
- Cast: Esther Rolle, John Amos, Jimmie Walker, Ja'net Dubois, Ralph Carter, Janet Jackson
- Ratings high: 25.8 (7th place) in its second season
One Day at a Time 1975-84
- Cast: Valerie Bertinelli, Bonnie Franklin, Pat Harrington Jr., Mackenzie Phillips
- Ratings High: 23.4 (8th place) in its second season
The Jeffersons 1975-85
- Cast: Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, Marla Gibbs, Roxie Roker, Franklin Cover
- Ratings High: 27.6 (4th place) in its first season