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Norman Lear had taken up plenty of causes during his life, but now, as he faces his 94th birthday on July 27, he’s turned his attention to challenging the common media stereotypes of what it means to be old.
“The culture dictates how you behave, and maybe the elderly buy into it, the way they grow old,” he says. “My role here now is to say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not all there is. There’s a good time to be had at this age.'”
Lear stakes out that position in a new, 7 1/2-minute video from directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who also directed the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, which Music Box Films begins rolling out in theaters July 8. The new short, titled Not Dead Yet, debuted today as an “Op-Doc” posted by The New York Times.
In recounting how the short film came about, Ewing explained that in the documentary, which debuted earlier this year as the opening night film at the Sundance Film Festival, “We didn’t have the opportunity to talk about his take on age. When we were doing the movie, to be honest, he didn’t love talking about age and mortality. He does care about the portrayal of elderly people, but it was hard to get a persuasive conversation about it with him when we were making the movie.”
Since then, though, Ewing and Grady — whose credits include the Oscar-nominated 2006 doc Jesus Camp — have become much friendlier with Lear as they all traveled together to various film festival appearances. “Really, our friendship began once the film was finished,” she says, “because during the make of a film you can’t be friends with your subject.”
During one of their conversations, Lear told them of how frustrated he was that he couldn’t find any buyers for a script he’d written called Guess Who Died?, set in a senior living facility. Ewing and Grady suggested they film him auditioning actors for a reading and that becomes the heart of the new short film as Lear meets with such veteran performers as Paul Sorvino, Barbara Bain and Allan Mandell. “I wrote it because we are so under-represented,” Lear explains of the script.
As for the documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, it takes a broader view of Lear’s life and career— from his teen years working at Coney Island to his groundbreaking sitcoms such as All in the Family and Maude to his founding of the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way in 1981. And also digs into family secrets — like his father’s incarceration for selling fake bonds — that haunted him into adulthood.
A production of PBS’ American Masters series came about after Ewing interviewed Lear for a documentary she was filming on women comedians for the PBS series Makers: Women Who Make America. “We just hit it off. I found him so wry and soulful,” recalls Ewing, who was struck by all the archival material, home videos and DVDs sitting on the shelves in his offices. She asked him why’d they’d never been a documentary about, but Lear said while there had been requests, he’d never been interested.
But after he wrote his own autobiography, 2014’s Even This I Get to Experience, Lear became more receptive to the request from the two filmmakers, who wanted to tell his story. Says Ewing of Lear, “He’s like a Forrest Gump kind of character. He intersected with every major moment in the last 50 years in our culture and in American history, so we knew there was a good story there.” Adds Grady of Lear’s decision to finally turn his life over to someone else to tell, “Probably writing the memoir, putting all that stuff out into the world, prepared him to surrender [control] in some way.”
One of the creative challenge, the documentary faced was finding ways to illustrate Lear’s early experiences as a boy and young teen. “It was really important creatively and intellectually to include those stories. But what do you do, when you don’t have material? You have to invent it,” Grady says. And so, for the portions of the film dealing with his youth, they cast a young actor, Keaton Nigel Cooke, to play a young version of Lear, wandering through his life.
They also filmed Lear as he watched clips from his work — one of Carroll O’Connor’s dramatic monologs from All in the Family, behind-the-scenes footage from Good Times — to catch his spontaneous and often very emotional reactions. What surprised the two filmmakers, says Grady, is “how someone of his success and power and influence was willing to be seen as human and vulnerable. He understands that vulnerability is what makes you interesting. And he puts his money where his mouth is. He’s the real deal.”
Watch the video below.
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