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Norman Lear is 99 years old, but the legendary TV producer says he feels 14 watching rehearsals for Tuesday night’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience. Airing on ABC and produced by Sony Pictures Television, the third installment of the franchise will feature live reenactments of The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes with a cast that includes Jennifer Aniston, Jon Stewart, Kevin Hart, Damon Wayans, Kathryn Hahn, Gabrielle Union, John Lithgow, Ann Dowd and Allison Tolman.
They’re the reason Lear shaved off a few years. “It couldn’t be more exciting to be revisiting, after all these years, these precious characters with these wonderful actors in the roles,” Lear tells The Hollywood Reporter during a joint interview via Zoom alongside producing partner Brent Miller, with whom he shares executive producer credit alongside Jimmy Kimmel, Kerry Washington, Will Ferrell, Justin Theroux and Jim Burrows. Lear and Miller open up about landing Stewart for his first acting role in two decades, how COVID-19 impacted production and what they’ve learned from one another.
What are the final days like before a live show?
LEAR It couldn’t be more exciting to be revisiting, after all these years, these precious characters with these wonderful actors in the roles. I feel like I’m 14 years old at rehearsal because it always feels like a first for me to see these actors for the first time in these roles.
MILLER From a production standpoint, I can tell you it’s intense right now because, as you know, it’s a live show so there’s no postproduction. There are a lot of moving parts so it’s a lot of preproduction, a lot of foreshadowing of what could go wrong, if anything, and trying to solve that before it does. There’s a lot of energy on the Sony lot [right now].
How many run-throughs will there be?
MILLER [Friday] was our first. Saturday everybody was off and then we do a show on Sunday for an audience. That one is primarily for the cameras and for the guys in the truck to be able to see what shots they want and to gauge how an audience responds to our actors. Monday night is an actual dress rehearsal as if we’re doing it live just in case something with the feed goes wrong on Tuesday. And then we’re live on Tuesday.
This is your third Live in Front of a Studio Audience. What did you learn from the other two that helped here?
LEAR From an excitement standpoint, [we learned] that people loved it. You’re in business to please an audience and I mean, my God, has that been recognized by the audiences in the first go-rounds.
How are COVID-19 protocols impacting the set and the budget?
MILLER It’s not easy. We’re tested every single day. Everyone’s wearing masks and separated by zones. We’re sticking to the rules. There’s a COVID officer on set who also works at Sony. He’s in charge of a lot of different things. There’s a significant increase in our budget because of it and because it’s a unique situation in that it’s only seven days that we’re together. It requires an intense amount of testing because if something happens and they shut us down, what are we going to do? I mean, the show is supposed to be Tuesday and it’s live.
Jon Stewart is joining for this one, marking his first on-camera acting role in almost 20 years which is a coup. I know you’re not saying who is playing but can you say how you got him?
MILLER A lot of the casting conversations are between Jimmy Kimmel, Kerry Washington, Norman and me, and we think a lot about the parts and who might be great in them. We’re all on a text chain and we go back and forth texting one another. When someone has a great idea, it’s all hands on deck to go for that person. Jon happens to be represented by the same [agent] who represents Jimmy and Stephen Colbert, so it was an easy ask. Now, as for his decision on whether to do it, you can ask him about that but he seems excited.
What about the rest of the cast?
LEAR They’re eager to play the roles. They recognize the history of these roles and the audiences that cared for them so they are almost romantically attached to playing the role so many years later.
Brent, Jimmy Kimmel says you’re the one who digs into the archives to watch the shows and identify what episodes may work best. Can you tell me a little bit more about what your process is like?
MILLER It is an embarrassment of riches because there is so much great content to mine through. On the first two specials, it was a little different because those shows had a lot of weight. On these two shows, we wanted to lighten things up a bit. We’ve all had a tough two years, so we thought, let’s just have a good time. This is a little bit of a hint: We steered clear of any episode that was a little heavy or dealt with anything too serious. We wanted to have a good time and we wanted episodes that gave our cast, the ensemble, an opportunity to do that.
In terms of the process, I present a top five list to the team, so it’s not just me. We all decide together. As I was saying, it was two rough years of isolation during the pandemic and all the changes around the world. We also came out of the Trump presidency, so it felt like there’s so much that we don’t need to have this time around. Let’s have a great time, celebrate the end of the year and be excited about bringing appointment television and hope that families come together for a one-night special that is live.
Norman, Brent mentioned the rough stretch of these past two years. What has the pandemic been like for you?
LEAR It feels like a brand-new experience that I don’t recall ever going through before. I was born in 1922, and I remember hearing about [the 1918 influenza pandemic] but that’s it. Other than hearing about that and trying to remember what I might have known about it from the time, this is all a new experience for me as it is for everyone.
You turned 99 this year. What have the first six months of your 100th year on the planet been like?
LEAR It amazes me! I go out every day looking for somebody else who is 99 and I haven’t found anybody yet that’s already 99 years old.
Brent, what have you learned working alongside Norman?
MILLER Oh God, that’s hard! We’ve been together almost 16 years now so it’s been a new life for me. I feel like I was born 16 years ago and I’m only 16 as opposed to 46. God, what have I learned from you?
LEAR That’s how little!!
MILLER I can’t even look at him, I get emotional. One of my favorite phrases is something that he coined by saying that the most underused words in the English language are over and next. When something is over, it’s over and you’re on to the next. And he says, “If there was a hammock that connected those two words that’s the best description of living in the moment.” For me, I try and lay in that hammock and live in the moment. That’s one of my favorite lessons I’ve learned from him from the beginning.
Norman, can ask you to return the favor? What have you learned from Brent?
LEAR I’ve learned that there is a 46-year-old and a 30-year-old when all this began still alive in me. I relate to that. I understand how much older I am than this guy, but I very much relate to the 46 that he is now and the 30 he was when we met.
Speaking of what’s next, what will you do for the holidays once this special is over?
LEAR We have what I call my Yiddish Hyannis Port. Hyannis Port is where the Kennedys always gathered and I, along with the rest of the country, marveled at it and the idea of an entire family coming together. A great many years ago, 35 or so years ago, the Robert Frost farm in Vermont became available. It was owned by the painter Ken Noland and I heard about it. It’s a long story as to how it happened, but for 35 years, we have owned this glorious farm. It’s not a working farm anymore but a family farm in Vermont. We will all be there over the holiday, all of my kids and grandkids.
MILLER I’ll be spending time with my dog, Sushi, in Palm Desert.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Live in Front of a Studio Audience: The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes airs Dec. 7 from 8:-9:30 p.m. EST on ABC.
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