Exclusive Norman Lear Memoir Excerpt: Throwdowns With Carroll O'Connor, Race Battles on 'Good Times'
At 92, the legendary show creator opens up in his first memoir about his fantastical, boundary-changing life and creative struggles with some of his castmembers
This story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Norman Lear wryly titled his memoir Even This I Get to Experience (out Oct. 14, Penguin) as a wink to his belief that even the bad times in his life were worthwhile because they made the living interesting. And over the course of 92 years, Lear has led as interesting a life as anyone in Hollywood. Born in 1922 in Connecticut, Lear lived with relatives for a time while his father spent three years in jail from 1931 to 1934 for a dodgy get-rich-quick scheme. After flying 52 combat missions during World War II and failing as a Broadway publicist, Lear moved to Los Angeles in 1950, where he launched his writing career with a song parody he sold for $40. In 1963, he teamed with Bud Yorkin to produce variety shows and movies. The pair bought the rights to a British comedy that debuted on CBS in 1971 as All in the Family, starting the greatest run any sitcom producer has had in the history of TV, which included Good Times, Sanford & Son, Maude, The Jeffersons and many other hits. At one point, he had nine different shows running simultaneously. Lear single-handedly pivoted network television away from the saccharine comedies of the '60s and toward his brand of biting social and political humor. His groundbreaking shows included the first to star a black family, the first to talk about abortion, the first to deal with menopause, the first to tackle opposition to Vietnam and — Lear notes proudly — the first to feature the sound of a toilet flushing. Lear became a liberal darling and a feminist icon. Jerry Falwell accused him of bringing "filth and sexual perversion" into American living rooms. With Lear's pioneering creativity often came great conflict: In these two excerpts, Lear recounts the artistic and political clashes that occurred backstage on All in the Family and Good Times. — ANDY LEWIS
All in the Family: Season 2
Carroll O'Connor's insecurities and fears drove him to great heights as an actor, but they almost brought an early end to the show
Carroll sat down to every reading worried and unhappy. It seemed to make little difference whether his problems with the script turned out to be few or many, small or large. Most of the time we'd hear, "It just doesn't work." He wasn't always wrong, of course. But much of the time we were facing fear, a fear that could render Carroll impossible to deal with. It was understandable to a degree. He was, after all, at the beginning of a process where he was to shed the gentle Irish intellectual Carroll O'Connor to become the poorly educated, full-of-himself blowhard Archie Bunker, spewing a kind of rancid, lights-out conservatism for a television audience that grew quickly to more than 50 million people.
The best example happened early in our nine-season run with "The Elevator Story." Circumstances find Archie on the 78th floor of an office building. He gets in the elevator reading the hysterical front page of a tabloid. In the car, too, reading his New York Times, is a tall, very elegant black man and a white woman prone to hysteria. Some floors below, the elevator stops and a working-class couple, clearly Latin, get on. They speak both Spanish and English. She is extremely pregnant and nervous. Between the embarrassing (to Archie) soon-to-give-birth talk, the black man's scorn of his tabloid and the nervous wreck, Archie can't wait to get out of there. And suddenly the elevator jerks to a stop between floors, the emergency sends the pregnant woman into labor, and the first act ends with this question: Who will arrive first, the baby or the maintenance team that can get them out of there?
Immediately after the first table reading, which seemed an agony for Carroll, he announced there was no way in the world he would do this show. First of all, five people in an elevator for the whole half hour was impossible to shoot. Director John Rich said he could make it work. Carroll, as agitated as any of us had ever seen him, disagreed. "It would feel cramped on camera," he said, and the ending would be weak as hell. "The elevator gets down, the woman's carried off, and we've taken the audience through all that cramped hell — for what?" I pointed out that that wasn't what he'd read. Maintenance does not arrive on time, the woman is not carted off, and the baby is born in the elevator.
"But that's a joke! You know you can't do that! A baby born on the floor of a goddamn elevator! What's that all about? I don't want to talk about this anymore!"
I tried to explain that the camera wasn't going to be trained on the birth itself; it was going to be on Archie's face. After all the anguish and irritation between the principals — at one point the Latin father needs some newspaper to lay down and both Archie and the black man offer theirs; the father reaches for the tabloid Archie has thrust in his face, pauses, then chooses the Times instead — the birth of this baby, I repeated, would take place on Archie's face.
As much as Carroll would have no part of it, I was convinced that when the camera witnessed the miracle of the baby's birth on a close-up of Archie, it would be an altogether exquisite and touching moment, and one that only the rarest of actors could pull off. I had to have it.
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Carroll walked out of the reading and the rest of the cast was sent home. Several hours later, all hands were gathered in [CBS president] Bob Wood's office at CBS in an emergency session. Carroll, who called us together, was there with his agent and his attorney. And with me, in one of the first of many such meetings we were to have, was my attorney. Carroll said flat out that he thought this week's script was repulsive and unplayable and that in no way was he going to do it. When all the faces turned to me, I said I disagreed with him about the script, and on top of that, it was the only one we had ready to shoot.
In what became a heated argument, every alternative was discussed. There had to be another script we could get ready. Maybe even one without Archie? Would the network let the show take a week off? Not a chance. Carroll fell to pieces and began to cry. He couldn't go on, hated the show, couldn't bear me, and cried to a point that made me realize that this behavior, this degree of testing, had to end here. If he won this battle, the creative team would be throttled and the show I believed in would die anyway.
Our schedule called for us to work Monday through Friday, do a dress rehearsal without cameras late Friday, take the weekend off, start to put the show on camera the following Monday morning, do an on-camera dress rehearsal Tuesday afternoon, and then shoot two shows before a live audience later, one at 5 p.m. and the other at 8 p.m. It was close to six o'clock on Monday when everything seemed to have been said. The network's position was that they had contracted for a show a week, and that's what they expected. I said that we were keeping to our schedule with the current script and would gather again to rehearse in the morning. And Carroll left, saying it was "good-bye."
The next day, Tuesday, the cast gathered on time, but for Mr. O'Connor. CBS had formally advised Tandem Productions, me personally, and Mr. O'Connor and his advisers that All in the Family would be canceled and appropriate legal action taken if they did not have a new episode to air on the expected date. Carroll never showed up that Wednesday, but we learned that he and his team were together all day and that they'd been in touch with Bob Wood and our attorney several times. Sometime that evening, I got word that Mr. O'Connor would be at rehearsal on Thursday. I said that would be OK if we could make up for the lost time by working over the weekend.
We worked on Saturday, and when the episode was taped the following Tuesday we got a phenomenal reaction. The audience cheered. Some cried. Everyone agreed it was our best work to date and simply had to win an Emmy. It did. Carroll O'Connor's Archie was stunning, the scene even better than I imagined. The camera in tight, we see that face reacting to the sounds of the birth taking place below, the mother pushing, grunting, yelping in pain; the father telling her in Spanish to push harder; more grunts, more pushing, more Spanish; Archie's expressions mirroring everything going on — and then, cutting through the commotion, from the center of all life, comes that first cry and Archie melts, simply melts at the wonder, the mystery and beauty of it all. It was a watershed performance.
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For the next eight years, Carroll would continue to dislike every script at the start. It was nothing but fear, and blind anger was his only defense. Certainly he bettered many a scene with it, but it needn't have taken his belligerence to get there. The marvel of Carroll's performance as Archie Bunker was that at some point each week, deep into the rehearsal process, he seemed to pass through a membrane, on one side of which was the actor Carroll O'Connor, and on the other side the character Archie Bunker. He was easily the best writer of dialogue we had for the character. If Carroll O'Connor hadn't played Archie Bunker, jails wouldn't be a "detergent" to crime, New York would not be a "smelting pot," living wouldn't be a question of either "feast or salmon," and there would not be a medical specialty known as "groinocology."
After making history with TV's first black family, Lear and stars John Amos and Esther Rolle fought over whether the show put African-Americans in a bad light
When Esther Rolle was a featured player on Maude, I thought of her as performing in the bush leagues while being groomed for the majors. Acting on that, we gave her more to do and her character more background, revealing that she was married and had children. And then, on one episode, we introduced her husband, James, and cast John Amos to play him. Florida and James clicked loudly together, and CBS saw as quickly as we did that — add children and stir slowly — we had the potential for another very funny family show.
Mike Evans, the actor who played Lionel, the son of George Jefferson on All in the Family, wanted to write as well as act, and I suggested he take a crack at the Good Times pilot script. He brought in Eric Monte, a black writer he wished to team up with. Eric (who later sued me, Jerry Perenchio, Tandem and CBS for something like $185 million) came from the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago, so we settled the James and Florida Evans family there. [Editor's note: The suit was settled for $1 million.] I was charmed by Eric Monte and, having worked for years with Mike, liked him a lot, too. A number of black writers worked with us through the years, but thus far none had created a show. Mike and Eric now had the opportunity to be the first.
They blew it creatively with a poor copycat of a script. But even though what they wrote was a far cry from what we shot, we did not seek to change their credit as the sole co-creators. I could be confessing to a bit of inverse racism here when I admit that it even pleased me to see them credited and paid. That would not have happened, at least not gratuitously, if they were white.
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Allan Manings, a respected comedy writer, went to work writing a new story. The Evanses would have an older teenage son, J.J.; a younger teenage daughter, Thelma; and a second son, Michael, age 11; plus a neighbor and close friend to Florida named Willona. We had a good time casting, as indicated, I think, by the actors we wound up with — Jimmie Walker as J.J., Ja'net DuBois as Willona, Bern Nadette Stanis as Thelma and Ralph Carter as Michael.
The Evans family still lived, as marginally as possible, where Mike and Eric placed them, in the Cabrini-Green project. James held down three jobs if he had to. Still, we were determined that: (A) the family would never go on welfare; (B) they would deal with the reality of their world — gangs, drugs, crime, poverty, etc.; and (C) despite that, the kids would not fail to get an education.
By the time we were to go into rehearsal for the pilot episode, CBS had upped their order to 13 on the air. When we taped that first episode, the cast and audience were aware that history was being made, and the sense of discovery and exhilaration on that stage could not have been higher. The actors all scored in their roles, and when the show aired, it was an immediate hit. And not with blacks only, as some predicted would be the case. The viewership was 60 percent white. It was heralded as a breakthrough by the press generally and the black press especially, the actors were proud and excited, and it was a kick sitting down each week to a reading of the new script.
That lasted for about eight weeks. What followed taught me a great deal about a lot of things, including myself. With all the attention being paid, Esther and John began to feel a personal responsibility for every aspect of TV's first black family's behavior. That was quite understandable. After reading and hearing from all the world about the show — their pastors, their families, their friends, the press and, soon, their egos — the weight of believing themselves to be the public image of their race became a bit too much for them, especially when they themselves held different views. The Evans family they thought they should be presenting to the world was becoming too good to be true. Allan and I, their white producers and writers, would often hear from Esther or John, "No, we wouldn't do that." Or, "Uh-uh, I wouldn't say that," or "She would never feel that way."
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Some of the cast's input was invaluable, and I learned a thousand lessons from John and Esther, not just about black people but about our joint humanity. Still, their hypersensitivity to how they were perceived — by social forces that were not of one mind — cost us all dearly. We were losing some unique subject matter and a degree of reality that made for our show's freshness. One storyline Esther was refusing to consider resulted in a turnaround.
Thelma, the Evanses' mature and beautiful 16-year-old, had a boyfriend she cared about who started to hit on her quite seriously. Physically, she had every desire to sleep with him, and a girlfriend was advising her that she should, but Thelma was fighting it and wanted to talk it over with her mom. When Esther heard about it, she refused the script.
"No point in even reading it," she said. "The last thing we want this family to deal with on our show is teenage sex." The fact that Thelma ultimately came to the same conclusion as her mom made no difference. "It is morally wrong, let's not even discuss it," Esther said. "There is enough that's morally wrong on TV. Not on my show!"
Maybe it was the "my show" syndrome setting in that did it, but I knew I had to do something. At the next rehearsal, I asked all the castmembers, the writers and the director to pull up a chair. I told them that I couldn't be prouder of them and what we'd brought to TV. I spoke of how much I'd learned in the process about the black culture, for which I held such a deep affection and appreciation. I understood and respected why each of them felt entitled to their feelings about how their race should be represented on TV, reminded them of how many times even they disagreed, and then asked them to consider the problems these mind-sets were presenting to the creative staff, particularly me. Worst of all, I pointed out, this problem had started to affect our work, and we had to put an end to it.
The buck was going to stop with me, I told them. On the matter of "Thelma's Problem," I told Esther, the discussion was over and we were going ahead with that script. But lest they think me arbitrary and dictatorial, I reminded them that we were doing a family show and that I, too, grew up in a family and had made families of my own. I, too, was a father, a son, a husband, an uncle and a grandson. In the way they all interact and relate, I haven't detected that much difference from one race to another. The difference lies in the patina, the way we may express the same feelings, the way we arrive at similar conclusions. I would continue to defer to them in those matters, but even then, as their executive producer, I'd continue to provide the guideposts.
That didn't go down as well with Esther and John as I would have liked, but it did give them considerable pause. "Thelma's Problem" went well and we got a lot of mail from individuals, schools and institutions that found the episode helpful in opening up a normally difficult subject for discussion. I shared it all with Esther, but she'd received some mail, too, from her church, her pastor and a couple of fundamentalist institutions I knew well because I would hear from them all the time. Going forward, I empathized with both John and Esther. Good people and fine actors, their egos were nonetheless bruised from both directions. They couldn't win unless they were sufficiently flexible to open up to another point of view occasionally in the service of the show, maintaining their convictions even when performing something counter to those convictions. Sadly to say, they weren't.
Jimmie Walker, as the older son, J.J., was a big problem to them. It started early in the series when he ad-libbed, "Dy-no-mite!" about something that pleased him. It was funny, the audience howled, and he repeated it to the same reaction. A sure laugh, at the next reading the cast found it in the script. John winced, and it was clear trouble was brewing.
Let me say that I loved J.J. the character and Jimmie the actor. In reality, they were not that far apart. The actor seemed to have shrugged off what was known as "the black man's burden." I believed that was the way he chose to deal with it. Physically, he could have been a cartoonist's vision of Ichabod Crane, a funnyman to the eye, to which he deliberately added the ear. The man, the boy, was just plain funny. "Dy-no-mite!" became a running joke, and the character of J.J., John and Esther began to believe, was running away with the show.
Had John and Esther thrown their arms around this wild but tender talent and been grateful for what he brought to the show, so hungry for their respect and kindness was Jimmie that they could have owned the lad and helped him to mature, to become more an actor and less a type. The only other adult in the cast, Ja'net DuBois, a comedienne who delivered on everything that was handed her, understood what was going on. Her friendship and respect helped Jimmie keep his sanity.
By the end of the third season, John Amos was so glum and dispirited that it seemed impossible to go on, and we decided to write him out of the show. Talk to John and you might as well be dealing with the Sphinx — 2,500 years of silent certainty. I was sure he felt that the work he was doing was beneath him, and that another character, not his, was why the show was on the air. Without that family, especially the sturdy, steadfast parents that John Amos and Esther Rolle represented to a fare-thee-well, Jimmie would have been just another loose cannon stand-up comic. It was the family that gave J.J. weight, "Dy-no-mite!" or not. The fourth season opened with the Evanses preparing to move to Mississippi, where James has gotten a good job, but before that can happen, they receive the tragic news that he's been killed in a car crash.