The Man Who Changed Television
His hits included shows about a white racist patriarch, a black family in the Chicago projects and an outspoken liberal wife who got an abortion. And they were funny to boot. Now 90, he remains the startlingly spry conscience of Hollywood -- and a reminder of when entertainment "was about something."
Norman Lear guides his white Lexus convertible out of the driveway and down the winding curves of L.A.'s Mandeville Canyon with Nicki Minaj booming profanely from the speakers. Jaunty in his trademark white hat, Lear is heading to a lunch at Bouchon in Beverly Hills, and as he goes, he's checking out Grammy nominees.
Lear would like you to know that this is part of a very busy day. This morning, at his sprawling, traditional house -- the walls bedecked with De Kooning, Rothko, Rauschenberg -- he consulted on the phone with Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, a nonprofit progressive organization Lear founded in 1981 out of concern about the rise of the Christian right. (Today's subject is a column for The Huffington Post in which Lear thwacks GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan for laying claim to "a divine mandate for the Tea Party's radically restricted view of the role of government.")
Naturally, Lear is supporting Obama despite some disappointment with the administration and the Democrats in Congress who lack the "passionate intensity" of the other side. "What I saw happening 30 years ago with the religious right is now in full force," he says. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for Obama to defeat what I see coming from the right. Nothing."
After lunch, Lear drives to his nearby office at the Concord Music Group, where he is chairman of the board. Concord, one of the world's largest independent record and music publishing companies, boasts a roster of 125 artists including Paul McCartney and Esperanza Spalding, the 2011 Grammy winner for best new artist. But today, Lear is getting a briefing on another Concord initiative that involves an app that will use music (and neuroscience) to promote sleep and stress relief. Then, after a haircut, Lear will head to former Warner Bros. co-chairman Bob Daly's house for dinner.
If all this activity seems atypical for a 90-year-old, Lear hardly is typical, though he would argue that he is. He created a bumper sticker for his car that reads, "Just Another Version of You." His message is that we are all alike. But really, there's no one like Lear, creator of such groundbreaking sitcoms as All in the Family, Maude, One Day at a Time, Good Times, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood Tonight.
"He's a giant," says Fred Silverman, who ran programming at CBS from 1970 to 1976. "He really showed 'em how it could be done." He singles out Good Times, set in the Chicago housing projects, as the type of show that no one had done before. "It was about something," says Silverman. "It wasn't just trying to be funny."
Unlike the frothy sitcoms of the day -- CBS was airing Petticoat Junction, Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies in the years leading up to All in the Family -- Lear's shows dealt with gritty issues: abortion, rape and murder and even impotence. Rob Reiner played Archie Bunker's son-in-law coping with that last affliction in an early episode, and he recalls that the CBS standards department balked at airing it. "Norman said, 'This is what I'm going to do, and if you don't want it, I quit,' " says Reiner. "He was serious. … He's got balls the size of Montana."
Lear has been tested by enemies tougher than standards and practices: He's a decorated war veteran -- as a radio operator and gunner, he flew 52 combat missions in World War II. He's an Emmy winner (15 nominations and three wins) and a relentless political activist. He also is the father of six, ranging from a 65-year-old daughter to 17-year-old twins (part of his second or, as he calls it, "young" family).
Still very engaged with the TV industry, Lear has befriended its brightest lights: Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy; Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the duo behind South Park; and Mad Men creator Matt Weiner. In 2006, Lear officiated at Parker's wedding -- and their friendship has outlasted the marriage.
Weiner says he gets calls from Lear, who has helped him to reckon with the challenges of running Mad Men. "I get pleasure out of him talking about 'people like us,' " says Weiner. "It's my fantasy that I am like him." Stone says he and Parker feel the same way. "He's one of the coolest people I've ever met," he says, adding that Lear is not only current on the industry but far more informed about politics at 90 than he is at 41. "It's one of the fun treats of this ride of ours that we've gotten to know Norman Lear," says Stone. "I can't even believe I'm saying that." But when they meet for dinner, adds Stone, Lear is a straight-up good time. "Just sitting down with him, the dude is fun," he says. "His status as an icon I think about after the fact."
Among his other activities, Lear is writing his memoir -- a massive undertaking that doesn't have a publisher yet. "Four hundred pages," he says, "and I am only at 56 years old." The headquarters for this effort is his home office, with a sweeping view of his expansive, gated property. The room is redolent of books: desk, shelves and chairs are stacked with them.
As part of his research, Lear watches an interview that Mike Wallace did with him in 1976 for 60 Minutes. Lear was in his heyday -- six of the top 20 series on television were his. As he listens to Wallace estimate gross revenue from Lear's shows at $30 million a year and describe his personal salary as "immense," present-day Lear barks at the screen. "That's bullshit!" he says.
So what was it really? "I couldn't tell you," says Lear. "Of course I did very goddamn well. But when we're talking in 2012 -- and people buy $82 million apartments for their 22-year-old daughters -- it was pigeon shit compared to what is going on today." (The reference is to a Russian billionaire's purchase of former Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill's Central Park West apartment.)
Lear is less offended when Wallace declares that no producer ever has paid more attention to detail. ("You can write that down," he instructs.) And he is very pleased as the newsman turns to Lear's successful legal battle against the networks over the government's policy, adopted in 1975, requiring networks to air "family friendly" content from 8 to 9 p.m. These rules naturally were a burden to Lear, whose shows often dealt with then-taboo topics, like when Edith Bunker nearly was raped. As a consequence, All in the Family, then the number-one show on television, was moved back an hour to 9 p.m. Recruiting the guilds to support his argument that this was government-imposed censorship, Lear got a federal court to reject the policy.
This man who has dedicated himself to changing the world acknowledges, with some hesitation, that his motive in launching his first sitcom, All in the Family, was money -- which he never had growing up. Born in 1922 in New Haven, Conn., Lear had a childhood marked by the Depression. When he was 9 years old, his father went to prison for a phony bond scheme, and for the next three years, Lear scarcely saw his mother as he was farmed out to various relatives.
Lear got into Boston's Emerson College by winning a scholarship in an American Legion oratorical contest. His education was disrupted, though, by World War II. As the war wound down, he found a printer in the Italian town where he was stationed and created a clever résumé that netted him a public relations job on Broadway. He was later fired for planting fanciful news items that failed to amuse his clients.
Next, Lear and a friend patented a clip-on ashtray, but that business went belly up, and Lear relocated to Los Angeles in 1950. He and his cousin Eddie Simmons went door-to-door, taking turns posing as baby photographers. One night on impulse, the two wrote a song parody and sold it to a nightclub singer for $40. "Twenty dollars in an evening was exactly what I was making in a week selling door-to-door -- because I was lousy at it," says Lear. When he came up with an idea for Danny Thomas, Lear called the comedian's office and, posing as a reporter from The New York Times, wheedled Thomas' phone number out of an assistant. Thomas was amused by that audacity and put Lear to work.
For several years, Lear had a successful career in variety, teaming with producer Bud Yorkin in 1958. The two made variety shows and a few movies, like 1963's Come Blow Your Horn, but it was a friend's divorce that sparked Lear to create a sitcom. "All his wife wanted was the [lucrative syndication rights] to certain shows he had created," says Lear. That led him to the realization that "the only way you could own something was situation comedy. I was determined to do it."
In the trades, he read about a British show, Til Death Us Do Part, which featured a right-wing father with a goodhearted wife and a slacker lefty son-in-law. Lear and Yorkin bought the rights. Lear says he wrote 80 pages before he even watched the British version. ABC bought the idea and made the pilot -- twice. "The exact same script because I wouldn't change a word," says Lear. "But they were afraid of it." Lear and Yorkin then took the project to CBS, and All in the Family debuted in 1971.
"It was funny and heartwarming, and it broke ground," says Bob 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 star 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, such as 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 at 63 in 2009, 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
Good Times 1974-1979
- Cast: Esther Rolle, John Amos, Jimmie Walker, Ja'net Dubois, Ralph Carter, Janet Jackson
- Ratings High: 25.8 (7th place) in its second 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
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
- Cast: Bea Arthur, Conrad Bain, Rue McClanahan, Bill Macy, Adrienne Barbeau
- Ratings High: 25.0 (4th place) in its fourth 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