Veteran writer-producer Norman Lear says the “military-industrial-congressional complex” is responsible for many of America’s woes.
The multiple Emmy Award winner and executive producer of such classic series as The Jeffersons and All in the Family was using a variation of one of President Eisenhower’s most famous lines. He said he would be addressing these issues in a new Netflix series he’s co-hosting with Common and America Ferrara, among others.
“I talk a lot about Dwight David Eisenhower,” he said, “’cause it is the wonder of wonders to me that nobody mentions his name. And the reason for it is the societal disease of this time. He warned us about the military-industrial complex. He, the five-star general leaving office, told his fellow Americans, ‘Beware,’ because he could see it coming. In his first draft [of a celebrated speech], he called it the ‘military-industrial-congressional complex.’ And that’s what’s got us by the throat now. It’s not the interest of the American people, or ‘How do we help the middle class?'”
Lear said he was working on confronting one aspect of social problems in particular, homelessness, in the upcoming series.
“I’m doing one part of a six-part series called America Divided, and my part has to do with housing and homelessness in New York City. Shonda Rhimes and I, and Common and America Ferrera, we’re hosting. We are the correspondents on the individual episode. [We’re looking at] all the ways America is divided, and mine happens to be: The fact of life in New York City today is that a doctor or a lawyer with an ordinary, average practice, making a good living, and three kids, cannot afford to live in New York City. You can’t send kids to school and maintain a good practice in New York City any more as a lawyer or a doctor or a thousand other occupations.”
Lear, the founder of the liberal activist group People for the American Way, was speaking March 30 at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV, where he took part in THR‘s ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters.
The onetime owner of a copy of the Declaration of Independence (which he sold to Bill Gates, after it toured around the country) said he did not think of himself as a liberal, despite his reputation.
“I consider myself a bleeding-heart conservative,” he said. “I take my First Amendment very seriously, and the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights — but, I mean, seriously. Does my heart bleed for the people that need help that can be given to them and isn’t [being given]? Yes.”
Asked if he had ever met Donald Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner, whom he described as the “middle finger” of American society, he said no.
Does he ever watch Trump’s TV show?
“He is a show,” he said.
A full transcript follows.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I want to go back a few years, to a famous day in American history: Dec. 7, 1941, a day of infamy, the attack on Pearl Harbor. Where were you at the time and how did that change your life?
NORMAN LEAR: I was at Emerson College, 130 Beacon Street. It was very tiny then. There were only about eight guys in the school and several hundred young women. It had been a girls’ school till about 10 to 12 years before I was there. We were rehearsing a play called Two Orphans, [with a professor who] was a glorious drama woman who talked like this (Laughs.) and had a name to go with it, Gertrude Bentley. And somebody came running down a fire escape saying that [on the] radio [they] said they just bombed Pearl Harbor. And after a little while, we understood what had happened. Gertrude Bentley wanted to go down to Boylston Street and throw rocks through a window of a Japanese store. Unforgettable. From day one, I wished to enlist. My mother went crazy begging me not to, [saying] it would kill her if I did. And there was a draft, but if you were in college you were free to remain in college. But after some months I enlisted and I just had to be in.
GALLOWAY: You were on bomber flights?
LEAR: I was on a B-17, flying fortress, they called it, and I flew 53 missions. I just had to lift out of my chair a little to look down, and I could see the bombs flowing out of the bay. I was the one that told the pilot on the radio that all the bombs had left the bay and he was free to close the doors. I did that once over Germany. I did that 52 other times, other targets. I’d [be] looking over and seeing our bombs drop out of our bay and then [watching them] gather with all of the other bombs from all the other planes around us. I’d be watching hundreds of bombs before I told the pilot he could close the bomb bay doors. And I remember looking and seeing hundreds of bombs drop and thinking, they’re not all going to hit the exact target. I said, “What if one were to hit a farmhouse?” And I remember so clearly thinking, “Screw ’em, the hell with it, I don’t care.” And then wondering, if somebody came to me with a piece of paper and a pencil and said, “Mr. Lear, if you sign this, you will forever mean that you didn’t care if it hit a family.” And I remember so clearly praying that I would never sign such a paper. But the fact of my life is: Thank God I wasn’t tested, it didn’t happen, nobody came to me with it. I want to believe with all my heart that I would never sign that paper, but again, I have never been tested.
GALLOWAY: You were shot at in the plane?
GALLOWAY: What’s that experience like?
LEAR: Hard to explain. You know, I believe that the human of the species doesn’t really believe they’re ever going to die, not totally. Because it’s hard for me to believe that I could get into a plane and go up there with nine other guys and get shot at and have planes come after me, bombs bursting and all of that craziness going on, watching a good friend in his plane go down, lots of times, and then get up the next morning and go again. I had to believe to the last split-second, not me. Because nothing else could explain my getting in that plane. It’s not me. Although I did enlist and I did not wish to stay home. I wanted to go, I wanted to fight, I wanted to kill.
GALLOWAY: Your father fought in World War I. Tell us about him.
LEAR: Well, I learned that my father fought — I knew that he was in the Army, but I didn’t know he was overseas until I did this ancestry thing with Skip Gates at Harvard. And I learned my father was in a major battle in World War I. I knew he was in the Navy also, because I have a postcard from him, from Mexico somewhere, he and two guys in naval outfits, and on the other side was a note to his folks with a postmark and everything. I did not know that he’d been in a major battle; that really shocked me. It doesn’t fit the guy I knew, so I don’t know what to make of that. But my father — I owe a great deal to my dad, but I spent my life making excuses for him. He went to prison when I was none years old and he was gone for three years. And this says who he is in a nutshell: He got out, he was at a prison off of Boston Harbor, Deer Island Prison. My mother, my sister and I were in the railroad station. We were going to go to New York and move in with another couple and their two kids in an apartment that was small for them, eight of us in this little apartment. That’s what we were heading to when my father sat with me on the train. And on the way to New York, sitting alone with him, he said, “Well, Norman,” he says, “You’re 12 years old. You’re going to be Bar mitzvah’d in a year.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “For you Bar mitzvah I’m going to take you and your mother and your sister for a trip around the world. We’ll be gone a year.” And he meant it! That’s who he was. He was going to have $1 million in 10 days to two weeks. Always. This is while he was borrowing money from my friends and not paying them back.
LEAR: He borrowed money from my friend Herman, and [my dad’s] name was Herman, too. He borrowed money from my friend Herman, and when he was due to give it back he didn’t give it back. Months went by and Herman was starting a law practice. He needed it and my father called him one day and said, “I’m bringing you the cash.” Herman said, “You can send it to me, you don’t have to bring it to me.” “I want to bring you the cash because I want to tell you something.” He had my father send him a check and the check bounced, bounced a couple of times. So he came with the cash and he gave it to him and he said: “Here’s what I want to tell you. When you get a check, you cash it the first day, because you don’t know whether the fella or the girl or whoever has the money in the bank. You cash it right away.” That was the best advice he ever gave me.
GALLOWAY: Where did you get the humor from? Your father?
LEAR: When my father was arrested, he was arrested after he got off a plane from Oklahoma. Everything we saw was all a big deal, you know. When I was a kid, if you got your dad flying to Oklahoma, it was really a big deal because it was only six or seven years since Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. There were no planes in the sky to speak of. And when there were, we kids in the street would be yelling, “Lindy, Lindy.”
LEAR: So my father flying to Oklahoma was a big deal. The night when he came back, he was arrested. The night he was arrested, my mother decided she couldn’t live in shame where we were; she was leaving and she was selling the furniture. So the house was filled with people buying, negotiating with her for furniture. And my father’s red leather chair, which was the throne from which we listened to Jack Benny and Fred Allen and the Friday Night Fights from Madison Square Garden — some joker is negotiating for my father’s red leather chair, and my heart’s breaking. And somebody else, a grown individual, put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “Well, you’re the man of the house now.” “You’re the man of the house!” — to a 9-year-old in that situation, struck me as the foolishness of the human condition times 10. And I never forgot it, and I never lived through a situation that didn’t have some humor somewhere. Watching a casket lowered into the ground once at a friend’s mother’s funeral, somebody had to scratch their ass. Watching somebody scratching their ass was just, it was, it’s everywhere.
GALLOWAY: What kind of life did you imagine for yourself, because you certainly didn’t imagine being a legendary television producer?
LEAR: You know, I was also a kid in the Depression. And, rarely, I heard the elders in my family speak of somebody as a good provider. [Imitates their New York Jewish accent.] “Oh, he’s a good provider,” that was the sound. (Laughter.) And the words “good provider” were magic to me. So I had one uncle, he used to flick me a quarter when he saw me; he was my role model. He was the only person that ever did anything good like that, flicked me a quarter. He was a press agent. I didn’t know what a press agent was, but that’s all I wanted to be, a press agent. And I wanted to be an uncle who could flip a quarter to a nephew.
GALLOWAY: If you flipped a quarter to your nieces and nephews now, they might not be so thrilled.
GALLOWAY: You did become a press agent. Did you enjoy it?
LEAR: I did become a press agent, yeah. I stood over an Italian printer in Foggia and picked out letter by letter and sent a page back to my uncle Jack, announcing that this brilliant young guy was getting out of the service and sought a job as a press agent and how fertile his mind was. It’s funny to look at it now. And I had one job offer — “You got a job, son” — and another, and an interview, those were the two responses. And I took the job, but I worked for a better part of a year and I got fired. I was making $40 a week, a kid publicist. This was in the years when there were eight New York newspapers and every newspaper had a columnist, an entertainment columnist. Whether it was names like Walter Winchell or a Dorothy Kilgallen, there were eight or more of ’em. And we kids, in these shops we’re writing witticisms for our clients, anything that would get in the paper. So there was a famous director named —
GALLOWAY: Moss Hart.
LEAR: Yes, Moss Hart. Oh, you read the book? Moss Hart.
GALLOWAY: His book is extraordinary.
LEAR: Yeah, it’s a great book.
GALLOWAY: He directed My Fair Lady.
LEAR: So Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle were two clients of the people I worked for. And she was a well-known television performer and singer, and he the famous playwright. They might have met, but they didn’t know each other. Well, anyway, I wrote — and Dorothy Kilgallen printed — that Moss Hart for his birthday received a pocket flask measured to his hip, while napping, by Kitty Carlisle. Somebody must have said to Miss Kitty, “What the hell is that? How would you print a thing like that?” She called and wanted me fired. He didn’t fire me, but he took me down to $35. And then, six to eight weeks later, we had another client who was in a Broadway revue — Broadway revues, I miss them so much. We don’t see any revues; Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett. So we had a revue called Are You With It? and one of the acts in Are You With It? was Buster Shaver and his midgets. And the lead midget was named Olive. So I wrote and Dorothy Kilgallen printed, “Buster Shaver seen shopping Fifth Avenue, he on foot, she on a Saint Bernard.”
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow.
LEAR: They kicked my ass out of there right away.
GALLOWAY: You earned $40 a week, you moved to L.A. and —
LEAR: $35 now.
GALLOWAY: You and your cousin’s husband sold your first joke for $40.
LEAR: That was in Hartford.
GALLOWAY: Do you remember what the joke was?
LEAR: I lived in Hartford and then we drove out to California. It was for Danny Thomas, and — did I talk about Danny Thomas? I learned that Danny Thomas’ agent was William Morris. I called the William Morris office at lunchtime, and speaking as fast as I could, I did it at lunchtime hoping he would be out to lunch and I’d get his secretary, which is what happened. As fast as I could, I said I was in town for a few days, I was working with Danny Thomas — “I’m going to write a story. I’m with The New York Times. I’m at the airport. They’re calling my plane. I have two questions before I’m going to write this story on the plane. I’m going to file it … ” [The secretary] gave me his number and I called him. And he got a kick out of how I got his number, because his first question was, “How the hell did you find me?” I told him how I found him. He got a kick out of that. When I said that this was a short piece of material, he was looking for something. He was working with his accompanist and he was going to perform the next night at Ciro’s, which everybody knew. But it was a Friars Frolic and they all were members of the media community, so they knew his material. Anyway, I had something that was short, he could learn quickly. “Get over here right away.” I said, “Well” — it’s like noon or one or something — I said, “Well, I’ll be over there by four.” He said, “You’re calling me from Hollywood. I’m in Beverly Hills. What do you mean? You’ll be here in 20 minutes.” But I hadn’t written this thing yet.
GALLOWAY: Oh my God.
LEAR: So it was just an idea. I had no idea I was even going to get him on the phone in the same ring. So I’m apologizing to him. So we got there and he paid us $1,000 or something for it, and did it the next night. And at 2 or 3 the following morning, I got a call from an agent — and we were in New York three days later, writing the Jack Haley Ford Star Revue. That was our first job. Three weeks later, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were starting the Colgate Comedy Hour. They had seen a sketch that we did for Jack Haley. “I want those writers!” And they got those writers.
GALLOWAY: Jerry Lewis, you worked for him for a while.
GALLOWAY: And he fired you, too.
LEAR: Well, after three years, yeah.
LEAR: I don’t remember. I never knew why, but I can tell you it was only a few weeks after they took out a full-page ad, a copy of which I have, in Variety raving about their writers. And a few weeks later he summarily fired us.
GALLOWAY: Did you like him?
LEAR: I loved the Jerry Lewis I started to work for, loved him. We had a playhouse in back of his house, and [co-writer] Ed Simmons and I — of an afternoon, we’d say, “You know, one leg is shorter than the other. You’re from Ireland. And you’re begging on the streets.” We’d throw things at him and he’d get 11 of them and he’d be doing it and we’d be laughing till we hurt.
LEAR: He was so great. But if one were to watch the shows he did for muscular dystrophy — he did a special for muscular dystrophy every year — you could see him slowly making the journey from comedian to pope. And he was no Francis.
GALLOWAY: You then got another partner, Bud Yorkin, and you both became very successful in film. I want to take a look at a clip from the film for which you received an Oscar nomination.
LEAR: Nobody’s ever done this.
GALLOWAY: Done what?
LEAR: Shown a clip from that movie.
GALLOWAY: Really? Why?
LEAR: I don’t know. Ask them.
GALLOWAY: OK, all right.
LEAR: But I love that it’s from a film and not a television show. Thank you.
GALLOWAY: I wanted a little variety. I wish I’d shown a clip from — you can get on YouTube — the Henry Louis Gates ancestry show, which is so fascinating.
LEAR: But what you didn’t see is: Some weeks after my show was on the air, I’m walking someplace in Beverly Hills and I hear a voice. “Hey, cousin, cousin.” And I look and it’s uh … It’s Hogan’s Goat. And then he did The Graduate.
GALLOWAY: Dustin Hoffman?
LEAR: Yes. (Laughs.)
GALLOWAY: You’re related to Dustin Hoffman?
LEAR: Yes. We’re cousins.
GALLOWAY: Which perfectly brings us to the clip. Because if I remember right, you wanted Anne Bancroft, who starred in The Graduate, to play the Debbie Reynolds role in Divorce American Style.
LEAR: Crazy. Crazy. You know, that was very real. I’m talking about the hypnotist. This happened in clubs until they legally banned it. This performance I took from a club from what I had seen.
GALLOWAY: Were you ever hypnotized?
LEAR: I couldn’t be, no. I wanted to be hypnotized. I tried and I couldn’t get hypnotized, but I have stories about it.
GALLOWAY: Yes? (Laughs.)
LEAR: Tony Curtis and Hugh Hefner came to me. They wanted to do a picture called Playboy, where Tony was going to play Hugh Hefner, and they asked me to write the screenplay and I agreed, and I went to Chicago to spend two weeks with Hefner at the mansion, at the Playboy Mansion. I spent one night there and couldn’t handle it.
LEAR: Moved to a hotel.
LEAR: I didn’t like it, the atmosphere. But that didn’t keep me from this story. They had a hypnotist at the Playboy Club, and I saw her work. It’s a long story.
GALLOWAY: No, no, no, tell us.
LEAR: And one evening this lovely girl was hypnotized, and I saw the way that hypnotists did it, and afterward she came and she sat with me and Hef, and then Hef left, and then I did what I saw the hypnotist did. I said [makes sounds] and she went like that.
GALLOWAY: You hypnotized the hypnotist?
LEAR: Yeah. And I said to her, “Tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock, this is my hotel room. I want you there.”
LEAR: I woke her up and she came to breakfast. And I had 19 kinds of breakfast and I had flowers everywhere. And she wanted no part of it. That’s the truth. (Laughter.)
GALLOWAY: You were not happy with the casting in the film. You wanted someone like Marlon Brando. You wanted Anne Bancroft.
LEAR: I sent the script to Anne Bancroft, who was a good friend, and she called me, having read half of it, and begged me not to make her read the rest of it. Because she found it so upsetting. That was the Anne Bancroft part of it. Then I wanted …
GALLOWAY: Joan Hackett.
LEAR: Joan Hackett. Thank you for remembering Joan. It was Joan Hackett. And she wasn’t well known. Like this audience, I’m sure, doesn’t remember her. But I thought, one picture and she would be a cinema queen, and I desperately wanted her, and fought for her for a long time. And Yorkin and I were broke, and we just had to get the picture going. We had one last drag-out with Mike Frankovich. He ran Columbia Pictures at that time. And I would never forget that two guys flew out from New York — executives — to be a part of this meeting. I poured my heart about why her. I had nothing against Debbie Reynolds, but I wanted Joan Hackett to play the part, and Mike Frankovich was behind a big desk, and he got up, and he said, “You gotta explain to me. You said a lot of things about what you’ll need in this picture, but there’s some other reason that you have for insisting this woman be in that [movie].” And I walked to the desk and hunched over the other side, and I said, “And you, Mike Frankovich, have some other reason why you don’t want that woman in the picture.” (Laughter.) And he stood up all the way. He said, “Yes. Because if you were ever to take your wife on an ocean cruise with Joan Hackett, watch out for your wife.”
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow. Gosh.
LEAR: That was a piece of insanity. He was trying to tell me that Joan Hackett was gay. Of course, watch out for your wife. I love that line. Don’t you?
GALLOWAY: Yeah. (Laughs.) You moved into television, and television then was the B-medium. Not like today, where you think, this is better than film. Why did you make that move?
LEAR: It was the birth of television. When I landed in New York, I was able to call my father. He happened to pick up the phone. “What are you doing? You sound close.” I said, “Yeah, I’m at LaGuardia.” This was before JFK. And I said, “I’m at LaGuardia.” “What are you doing there?” “Eddie and I are here to do the Jack Haley Ford Star Revue. Dad, we’re making $700 a week. I’m getting $350.” My father said, “When you make $1,000, that’s a lot of money.” He had never made $100.
LEAR: He was still [hoping] to crack that number.
GALLOWAY: And then you made the show that changed America and certainly changed your life, based on a British television program called Till Death Us Do Part.
LEAR: My partner Bud Yorkin was making a film abroad. He called my attention. He saw it or knew about it. Anyway, he called my attention to it.
GALLOWAY: So this is a great American classic that you originally called Justice for All. You spent two years fighting to get this off the ground. There are three different pilots that exist. I’m going to show one minute from one of them, and then a couple of minutes from the one we all know. So let’s take a look at two versions.
LEAR: This is wonderful.
GALLOWAY: It is.
LEAR: I love you. (Laughter.) That’s sweet. How great of you to do this.
GALLOWAY: Thank you very much.
LEAR: Nobody ever.
GALLOWAY: Oh, I’m so pleased to hear that. Thank you. It’s fun too. So let’s watch these two versions.
LEAR: What? You found the first one?
GALLOWAY: I don’t know if it’s the first one or the second done. Let’s take a look at these.
LEAR: That’s interesting from a direction standpoint. You know, for students of film, what a big difference between the way that first one [was directed] — I directed it — the next one, better directed because Bud was there. When they came in, they weren’t up the stairs. They were in the kitchen. There was just a lot more movement and so forth. So you can see the difference in it. But now here’s the interesting thing. Archie says, “11:10 on a Sunday morning.” The network wanted the line out. We made it twice, and the second time the line was too much. You heard it, but there was a beat and he said, “11:10 on a Sunday morning.” That way. They wanted it out. They wanted it out because it would send the audience’s mind to what was going to happen upstairs. Well, what was wrong with that? (Laughs.) They were going to cut that line in New York, when it went on three hours earlier than here. And I didn’t know until the show was on the air and running, that that that line was [going to be cut before the L.A. broadcast] – and my threat was, “I’m out of here. I won’t be back if you cut that line.”
GALLOWAY: Would you really have gone?
LEAR: Yeah. I had a picture called Cold Turkey I had made in between. I had a three-picture deal offered to me. I wasn’t so brave! But the reason for not going along with it now [cutting the line from the TV show] — the loss wouldn’t have been meaningful — but I knew that if I cut that line, I’d be dominated by silly forever. It wasn’t the one line. It was, “Oh, I sure don’t want this to go forward on this basis.”
GALLOWAY: You had a lot of problems with Carroll O’Connor on that series. Why?
LEAR: We didn’t agree about the script. I worshipped the ground he walked on. He was Archie Bunker. When I wrote the role, I can’t tell you what I had in mind for that character. All I can tell you is Carroll O’Connor, because the minute he read those lines, that’s who Archie Bunker was. I only had the lines and the feeling. He inhabited the character. We had a lot of interesting fights and so forth, but I never lost the gift of what I had and of him in that role.
GALLOWAY: But you had really serious fights. At one point you even had to go through the network executives. There were things he didn’t want to do.
GALLOWAY: There’s the famous elevator episode.
LEAR: He was in an elevator on a tall building, and he was with a black dude who was reading The New York Times while he was reading The Daily News. The audience got a kick out of that. And then it stops on the way down, and a Latino couple get in and she’s pregnant. We learn that she has just learned that she’s going to have her baby in about three weeks, and then the elevator proceeds to go down further and gets stuck. So here you have those four people in the elevator, four and a half people.
GALLOWAY: Soon to be five.
LEAR: And she gets frightened, and the frightening causes her to have her baby. Carroll just couldn’t understand spending the whole half-hour in an elevator, and then a baby born in the elevator. I don’t know where he thought we were going to have a camera, you know? But we got all the way to a meeting at NBC where they were going to pull the show. Carroll wasn’t going to do it. I was going to do it. Anyway, we went all the way to the end. The reason I wanted to do the show was, I just was mesmerized by imagining the camera on his face, which I adored, with the sound of that baby being born on the floor. I just had to have that. And it was nominated for an Emmy. It might have even won that year I don’t remember. But his performance was so good. It was glorious.
GALLOWAY: In real life, he was a fairly intellectual person. What was Jean Stapleton like?
LEAR: When I was first asked, “What’s she like?” I remember clearly what I said, because I dwelled on it for years after. I said, “You know, she’s always where she is.” And it took me some time to realize how stunning that was. If she was talking to you, that’s where she was. She wasn’t with anybody else. Her mind wasn’t anywhere else. She lived in the moment like nobody I ever knew before or since. That’s who Jean Stapleton was. And as to who Edith Bunker was, her reaction to any craziness going on [should be], “What would Jesus do?” (Laughter.) There was a writer who wrote a wonderful book called Edith the Good, and he understood that’s how she was. That’s how he wrote that character.
GALLOWAY: When I was choosing clips, there were a lot where I thought: I don’t know if I dare show that. Have we become more puritanical or just more aware?
LEAR: I don’t think we know who the hell we are. America does not look itself in the mirror and see. I mean, certainly establishment America. We wouldn’t be in the kind of trouble we’re in. If they looked themselves in the mirror and sought leadership. That’s why I have thought, who is Donald Trump, from the beginning of his emergence. I’ve thought he’s the middle finger of the American viewer, saying, this is the kind of leadership you give us everywhere, whether it’s pharmaceuticals or automobile companies. This is the business and political leadership. Take this.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever met him?
LEAR: No. No.
GALLOWAY: Do you ever watch his show on television?
LEAR: He is a show.
GALLOWAY: What a great answer.
LEAR: I’ve seen that show too much.
GALLOWAY: You were a ground breaker in the 1970’s for African-Americans. You were the first person, I think, to make a black family the staple of a series.
GALLOWAY: And then The Jeffersons became, even before Cosby, a way of breaking segregation. Let’s take a look at a clip.
GALLOWAY: So, you’d already done a show with an all-black cast, Good Times, and you’d run into problems with Esther Rolle and John Amos, who did not want to do anything that seemed offensive. Was it easier this time?
LEAR: I’m not sure of the question.
GALLOWAY: They didn’t want to do an episode where they discussed with their teenage daughter whether she should have sex with her boyfriend.
LEAR: That was the first of the two shows to be on air, and they were representing African-Americans, black Americans, in this country for the first time as parents and mature citizens and working people. It just hadn’t been before. And so they felt a great responsibility, I thought too much so. The one you mentioned is a good example. Thelma, the daughter, was as pretty as any woman on television, black, white, of any ethnicity. She was gorgeous, and it was reasonable that boys were going to be hitting on her, and reasonable that the conversation would take place. Esther was afraid of it, because if we got it wrong, or somebody misbehaved, she’s carrying that weight of representing her people to her people, so she was a little more sensitive than she needed to be. We reached a place where I said, “You know, the patina that you, as African-Americans, deal with, I know nothing about. I didn’t grow up in your homes, but I did grow up a son, I did grow up a father, I did grow up a brother. You know, all those other roles I understand, and the interaction with others in the family, and when we disagree, the buck has to stop someplace. You know, it’ll stop with you when I agree, and if I don’t, it has to stop here.” So, we did that show, that particular show, about Thelma and the possibility of sex and so forth, and it was fine, but it took that meeting to get it done.
GALLOWAY: Why do you think The Jeffersons succeeded, and that show didn’t?
LEAR: Oh, it did succeed. It succeeded very well. It didn’t last as long because John Amos became impossible. I made another show after this [with him], so I hasten to say, I have no problem with John Amos. The other show I made was 704 Hauser — the address of the Bunkers — so this was a black family moving into the Bunkers’. That’s what it was about. He was raising his son in the image of Thurgood Marshall: liberal, black Supreme Court justice. And the kid was growing up much more like Clarence Thomas.
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow.
LEAR: And he had a Jewish girlfriend.
GALLOWAY: Did audiences accept that then?
LEAR: I didn’t think we got it. I think they would have, had we done it right.
GALLOWAY: You’re both a writer and a producer, and they’re incredibly different jobs. Which one comes more naturally?
LEAR: It was easier to produce than to write. It’s just easier to relate to other people and to go through the day making decisions with other people, and borrowing from their talents. It’s a collaboration. Writing alone is writing alone. It’s harder.
GALLOWAY: There’s a lot more diversity today on television, but there isn’t in film. How can that be changed?
LEAR: I’m watching, as we all are, the Academy dealing with it, the changes they’re making. Everybody’s trying. The hard part is the unconscious part: the part that, whatever it is, nobody wants to talk about. Have we, as Americans, dealt with it? Are we through with the race problem? We’re all created equal under the law. Do we really live with that? I think we have a lot to learn about who we are, and face that, before we can make the changes necessary.
GALLOWAY: Do you like television today?
LEAR: I think it’s a golden age. Not because I’m seeing that much of it. Three times a week, somebody will say, “You mean, you’re not watching Empire?” Or “You’re not watching The Path?” which only now just started. There are so many shows.
GALLOWAY: What do you watch?
LEAR: I can’t keep up with them. I watch a show, and then I watch another show, because somebody tells me, and then I watch another. The only show I had a date with was when Jon Stewart was on the air at 11 o’clock at night. When there was nobody else but Jon Stewart on the air, my wife and I were kidding about going to bed with him every night.
GALLOWAY: You had another career outside television as a producer of some incredibly good films. Your company released Fanny and Alexander, A Chorus Line. You gave Rob Reiner his first break as a director on This Is Spinal Tap.
GALLOWAY: You also made what’s become a modern classic. So, our final clip is a look at The Princess Bride.
LEAR: You’ve done such an amazing job.
GALLOWAY: Oh, thank you. I so appreciate that, thank you.
LEAR: Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I had nothing to do with this film, creatively. It wouldn’t have gotten made had Rob and I not been friends. He told me about it, but he couldn’t get a studio to make this one. And I helped them get it made, but creatively, this is 100 percent Rob.
GALLOWAY: It’s got a William Goldman script, it’s beautiful, it’s funny. I don’t understand why somebody wouldn’t make it.
LEAR: I’ll never understand it either, but I’ll never understand why “at 11:10 on a Sunday morning” had to come out.
GALLOWAY: You knew him from a very early age.
LEAR: Yeah. I’m having lunch with his dad tomorrow.
GALLOWAY: You both became very active liberals. Why?
LEAR: You know, I have to say, “liberal” is a word applied to me, but I consider myself a bleeding heart conservative. I take my First Amendment very seriously, and the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights — but, I mean, seriously. Does my heart bleed for the people that need help that can be given to them and isn’t [being given]? Yes. So I consider myself — my conservative friends laugh at that — but I feel the Constitution — and I would die for it — is conservative.
GALLOWAY: Where is your Declaration of Independence now?
LEAR: I think it’s Bill Gates who owns it now.
GALLOWAY: Oh, you sold it?
LEAR: Well, I promised myself we would tour all 50 states. We did most of the states multiple times, but when we cleared the last state, the foundation that funded this needed help, and so we sold it.
GALLOWAY: You’re not a Donald Trump fan. Among different presidents and politicians, who have you been a fan of?
LEAR: I’m a fan of Bernie Sanders. And I’m a fan of the America that allowed this to happen, that he could become so prominent. Am I looking forward to him as president? I can’t go there all the way. You know, I’m not a happy citizen.
GALLOWAY: Is there an American president you particularly admire?
LEAR: Yes, sure, a ton of them. But we always learn things later about heroes. I talk a lot about Dwight David Eisenhower, because it is the wonder of wonders, to me, that 17 people were running for the presidency of the United States at one time on the Republican ticket. And Dwight David Eisenhower, two-term Republican president, the leader — my leader — in World War II, the man who was the commanding general winning World War II — nobody mentions his name. And the reason for it is the societal disease of this time. He warned us about the military-industrial complex. He, the five-star general leaving office, told his fellow Americans, “Beware,” cause he could see it coming. In his first draft, he called it the “military-industrial-congressional complex.” And that’s what’s got us by the throat now. It’s not the interest of the American people, or “How do we help the middle class?” I’m also doing one part of a six-part series called America Divided, and my part has to do with housing and homelessness, and so forth, in New York City.
GALLOWAY: What about L.A.?
LEAR: Well, I’m working with people who are doing this. I’m not doing it. Shonda Rhimes, and I, and Common, and America Ferrera, we’re hosting. We are the correspondents on the individual episode. [We’re looking at] all the ways America is divided, and mine happens to be: the fact of life in New York City today is that a doctor or a lawyer with an ordinary, average practice, making a good living, and three kids, cannot afford to live in New York City. You can’t send kids to school and maintain a good practice in New York City anymore as a lawyer, or a doctor, or a thousand other occupations
GALLOWAY: Let’s take some questions.
LEAR: We got very heavy there at the end.
GALLOWAY: Why not?
QUESTION: My question was about television in general. I was wondering, a lot of people think that television is just television, and you are one of the most prolific people in television history, especially with what you did in terms of race and what you’re doing now with Netflix. I was wondering: Do you think television has an effect on society, and how does it affect society?
GALLOWAY: Very good question.
LEAR: I think television has an enormous effect on society. I learned this — perhaps I might have learned it earlier — but it registered when we were doing in the first year, an episode of Good Times. And the way the episode started was: One of the writers came into a meeting with a newspaper clipping about hypertension in black males being way up and far above Caucasian males. So we did an episode about high blood pressure, and the family’s concern about it. When the show went on the air, there were tens of thousands of calls across the country to the network looking for more information. By the time the show went into reruns, the network had either taken some of our content out, or left a little commercial time, but they had an advisory: This is where you can find information about hypertension.
LEAR: I learned it again and again. The Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center is one of the greatest organizations here and in the country. It is a stand-alone model for rape treatment across the country and it has been for the 40 years since we did an episode in which Edith was almost raped. And the woman who runs the center to this day, was our consultant. But it was the show that made her effort to handle rape victims.
GALLOWAY: If you look at television as a whole, do you say, “This is one of the great inventions” or “This is one of the worst”? Isn’t it just a short step from reality television to talking about your private parts, tweeting photos of your wife against somebody else’s wife?
LEAR: Television is good. The media’s another business. We produce excess. Excess is our biggest [export]. We sell it across the globe. Everything is excess. Excess is our biggest commodity. We sell excess, and there with great stress, and the degree to which we sell excess. But there is not excess in helping us understand the media. There’s no context in the news, in media. People are yelling at each other, they got opinions, they’re screaming, they’re carrying on. Everybody has a personality selling, and the information that is the obligation of the broadcaster to supply — I don’t think they get the context at all. I’m a little more sophisticated than the average American because I am not as emotionally crowded in my life as somebody who is struggling to make a living with kids that he has to send to school, and so forth. So I think a lot about those people and their emotionally crowded lives. And they need help. They need leadership. You know, I’ve written to maybe four presidents, and I have said pretty much the same letter: “I am older than you. You’re a younger man than I, but I need leadership as a citizen in this country. I need somebody who understands more than I understand about how the world, politically, how it works politically. Be my father, be a leader.”
GALLOWAY: Did they all see your letter?
GALLOWAY: All of them?
LEAR: Yes, but it was “Thank you for your nice letter.”
LEAR: The only one I have had a really good relationship with, letter-wise, was Ronald Reagan. And some of that has been published.
GALLOWAY: Next question, please.
QUESTION: What would you say are some of the core differences between development in the 1970s versus now? And what part of that process brings you most satisfaction?
LEAR: I’m doing a show now. If you remember a show I did years ago called One Day at a Time, Netflix ordered 13 episodes of a Latino version of One Day at a Time, so I’m very excited about it. We’re doing three generations of Latino women this time, and Rita Moreno is the grandmother, Justina Machado is the mother. They ordered 13, so we have to make 13 before we get the feedback from you, as to how much you like what we’re doing, and what you feel we should be doing. I haven’t been in that situation before; it’s very different. We’ll make the 13 before you get to see one of them.
GALLOWAY: Is that good or bad?
LEAR: Well, in terms of the way I like to do it, it’s not good. It’s wonderful for me and the actors and the writers and everything else. They know they got 13 episodes to do, but in terms of learning from an audience, what the audience informs you, and how much they let you know what they like, and how you work with that going forward, I’ll miss that.
QUESTION: What’s your reaction to the creators of shows like Family Guy, which is so often considered tasteless, when those creators come out and say they draw inspiration from you, directly from All in the Family?
GALLOWAY: Oh, these are great questions.
LEAR: Well, you’re talking about Seth MacFarlane, and I adore him. I love his work, and I’m very close to the guys who do South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker.
GALLOWAY: You officiated at one of their weddings, right?
LEAR: I married Trey. No, I didn’t marry him. (Laughter.) He’s divorced and married again, but I did officiate at the first marriage.
GALLOWAY: So what do you think of Family Guy?
LEAR: I’m much more embarrassed by what we were talking about a minute ago. You know, there’s a Lear Center at USC, and they have studied the amount of time local broadcast stations and affiliates, but in the local sense, and their local news, how much time, in a national election, is devoted to the news. And, in a half-hour, I forget the figures, but it’s so amazing. If I told you it was under a minute. … They did a national research paper on it. That embarrasses me far more than anything Family Guy might be doing.
QUESTION: My question is about Edith, and if you guys made her a feminist character on purpose, or if that just came out?
LEAR: No, on purpose. I have five daughters.
LEAR: The oldest ones were quite young then, and the youngest ones not born. But I’ve grown up, it seems, all my life with daughters. My daughters range from 21 to 68, by the way.
LEAR: 21-year-old twins. One is at Vassar right now, the other’s at Harvard. Talked to the Harvard one this morning about the politics of the moment.
GALLOWAY: Does she agree with you?
LEAR: I have the best time with her. She is Republican-light.
GALLOWAY: How interesting.
LEAR: It’s great. It’s great. I don’t know how it happened. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: In the 1970s with the success of All in the Family and all of those shows, how much of it was a result of the culture at the time? Those shows really were hitting a nerve, and I’m also curious how you pitched those shows to the networks.
LEAR: The first part of your question, it’s really an interesting question. Were we mirroring life, which is what I certainly thought, when working on the first show and the early shows? We were mirroring. We were writing from our experience as fathers and citizens, you know? And then, I’ve already answered a couple of questions indicating that we changed things, or we reminded people, or we gave them some reason to understand something that they didn’t understand before. It’s a vicious circle. I think we were doing both. I know the instinct was to mirror what we were living through, as writers. And then, because we showed activity and life in our culture in ways that hadn’t been seen before on television, we were doing the opposite, too. So that went back and forth. What was the second part?
GALLOWAY: About pitching. How on earth do you pitch a show about a bigot. I know at one point you called Mickey Rooney to offer him the part, and he wanted you to tell him on the phone, “What is it?” And, you said, “Well, it’s about this guy, he’s a bigot.” Silence, you know? How do you pitch that?
LEAR: I don’t rightly remember, but there was an antecedent, a British show. I hadn’t seen it. I don’t know who might have seen it, but it was successful over there, so that might have been a help. But the fact is that, despite all the pitching, it took three years to put it on the air. And with all the struggle that we talked about earlier, on one episode of All in the Family I wanted Archie to catch hell from somebody who had an ancient grudge. Growing up in the family I grew up in, I knew there was nobody that could do it better than an old relative who had an old grudge, so we introduced Edith’s cousin, Maude. I brought Bea Arthur out here to play it, and she beat the shit out of it. (Laughs.) I laugh because I remember a fight in my family, because Gert wasn’t invited to a wedding that had taken place 23 years before. Ugh. Anyway, Maude was on the show, she was fabulous, and before the show was off the air, three hours earlier, in New York, Fred Silverman, who was one of the muck-a-mucks at CBS, was on the phone with me saying, “You know there’s a show in that woman.” And, of course, we knew there was a show in that woman; we’d been rehearsing all week.