“I used to speak of having three doors to knock on to sell something, and now there are 4,000 doors,” says the legendary television producer Norman Lear as we sit down in his office on the Sony lot to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast and discuss how the TV business has changed over the course of his 70-year career.
Now 96, Lear led a TV revolution in the 1970s by employing the sitcom format to tackle matters of social import on a host of unforgettable shows including All in the Family (1971-1979), Sanford and Son (1972-1977), Maude (1972-1978), Good Times (1974-1979), The Jeffersons (1975-1985), One Day at a Time (1975-1984) and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977). And he’s still doing it — via his reboot of One Day at a Time, the third season of which dropped Feb. 8 on Netflix (it has since been canceled), and Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons, an ABC special organized by Jimmy Kimmel and Lear that drew massive ratings on May 22.
Lear, a winner of four Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, the National Medal of the Arts and a Kennedy Centers Honor, and one of the original seven inductees into the Television Academy Hall of Fame back in 1984 (alongside Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Paddy Chayefsky, Edward R. Murrow, William Paley and David Sarnoff, all of whom have passed away), explains, “I just couldn’t find a way to believe that that reflecting human life as we were living wasn’t going to work and wasn’t going to delight an audience — and it does. When they see reflected in a performance what they have been living in fear with or denial of, it helps us talk about these issues and understand ourselves better.”
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Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and raised in nearby Hartford. He remembers his childhood as “difficult years,” not only because he grew up amidst the backdrop of the Great Depression and rising anti-Semitism — two things that shaped his social conscience — but also because, when he was just 9, his father, a traveling salesman, was sent to prison for three years for swindling clients. As a result, Lear was sent by his mother to live with other relatives and, he says all these years later, “It scared the hell out of me,” adding, “It certainly forces growing up.”
A turning point in young Lear’s life was winning an oratorical contest that came with a scholarship to Emerson College. However, shortly after he began at the Boston-based university, America became involved in World War II and he dropped out to serve his country; he was based in Italy with the 15th Air Force Division, flew 52 missions and dropped bombs 35 times. After V-E Day, he returned stateside, got married, had his first kids, moved to New York and pursued work as a press agent, just like a beloved uncle of his.
Lear eventually left the PR profession to peddle various products door-to-door with his brother-in-law Ed Simmons — but not before realizing that the witticisms required by flackery were similar to those in comedy writing, which he and Simmons began doing during their spare time. They managed to get a piece of their work to Danny Thomas, who bought it, performed it and was well-reviewed for it, which led to greater demand for their work. Before long, they had graduated to writing for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on NBC’s The Colgate Comedy Hour.
As the 1950s progressed, Lear parted ways with Simmons, created his first TV series (the Western The Deputy, which starred Henry Fonda and was on the air from 1959 through 1961) and then began working with Bud Yorkin, who would be his partner until 1975. In the mid-’60s, the duo became aware of a British TV series called Till Death Us Do Part, and, says Lear, “What I’d learned about it represented a lot of what I lived with my father,” who he describes as a bigoted guy with whom he often clashed; who had a living room chair he was possessive over; who would tell Lear’s mother to ‘stifle’; and who called Lear a ‘meathead.’ Lear and Yorkin decided to adapt it for American TV — but they had to make three pilots for two networks before they secured a green light “because it was sensitive material.”
All in the Family, which centered on the Bunker family of Queens, ran on CBS for 205 episodes over nine seasons, changing TV forever. Shot in multicamera format in front of a live audience, it quickly made a name for itself by tackling tough topics like racism, sexism, homophobia and violence against women. Its central protagonist was Carol O’Connor‘s Archie Bunker, and the title of its theme song reflected Archie’s yearning for the past: “Those Were the Days.” In other words, Archie wanted to make America great again — which begs the question, would he have been a Trump supporter? “You know, I don’t know if he would be a Trump guy,” Lear says. “I haven’t thought hard enough about it. But he certainly wouldn’t be a Trump denier. He would find a lot of good things about the way the country is.” He adds, “But, as I said earlier, Archie was not a hater. I think there’s a little hate in the belly of our president currently. Archie was not that. He was fearful. Ninety percent of his reaction was the fear of what change brings.”
All in the Family made Lear the hottest TV producer in town, and led to a host of other Lear-produced shows in quick succession, including stand-alones like Sanford & Son, spinoffs like Maude and The Jeffersons and even spinoffs of spinoffs, namely, the Maude spinoff Good Times. By 1976, Lear had eight shows simultaneously on the air, six in the top 10 of the ratings, all about subjects “in our American lives that the writers and directors who preceded me decided not to touch,” he explains. “They left the dictionary of problems that American families either faced themselves or saw up the street, down the street or across the street from them. We never touched a subject that was that foreign to everybody who was watching.”
In the 1980s, Lear walked away from TV to focus on film producing and philanthropy. But he was lured back in the 21st century after someone suggested to his business partner Brent Miller that One Day at a Time could be rebooted, only now with the single mom at its center turned into a Cuban-American veteran. “I said, ‘That’s a great idea,'” Lear recalls, noting that he was also pleased to be able to represent fellow senior citizens on the show, in the form of EGOT-winner Rita Moreno. “That was important, too.” While he says he was “totally surprised” and disappointed when Netflix canceled the show a few months ago, he also “could not believe the press we got,” reflecting both journalists’ and fans’ desire for the show to be allowed to continue. (Lear says efforts are now underway to revive the show, though he will not say where.)
In the meantime, Lear had plenty else to keep him busy, including the ABC special, which featured a word-for-word reenactment of episodes of All in the Family and The Jeffersons, filmed live in front of a studio audience. He explains, “Jimmy Kimmel is the guy who called and said, ‘Would you like to do this?’ ‘Yeah, I’d love to do it!’ It was his idea. He got the time on ABC.” Lear insists that, even with that special now in the books, you haven’t seen the last of his work on TV — but even if you had, he is content: “I’m a 96-year-old guy who has had a perfectly terrific life, done everything he has wished to do, I have a glorious wife and marriage and six wonderful kids who range in age from 24 to 72. What the fuck have I got to complain about?”