Celebrating Living Legend Norman Lear on His 98th Birthday

Norman Lear receives the Ebert Humanitarian Award from Chaz Ebert at Ebertfest 2017. Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images for Ebertfest.

"Where can I go out and dig a mine deep enough for the gratitude that I feel? How high can I fly to reach a place that meets the depth of gratitude that I feel? [...] My morning thought is that each man is my superior, each woman also my superior, in that I may learn from him and her."—Norman Lear on his 98th birthday

To celebrate the 98th birthday of television icon Norman Lear, we are sharing this wonderful Instagram video that he filmed in Vermont. We are also reprinting the first installment of our Living Legends series, which is a tribute to Lear and includes an introduction from yours truly. 

Even though the Living Legends article was published recently, Norman was only 97 years old at the time. Since then he had a birthday, and my thought is, If you can't celebrate a person again on their 98th birthday, why bother with anything! —Chaz Ebert

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Carl Reiner famously said, "If you're not in the obit, eat breakfast," a statement that was so resonant, it became the title of Danny Gold's 2017 documentary about nonagenarians. They included Reiner's longtime friends Mel Brooks and Norman Lear, both of whom have continued to entertain and enlighten the world well into their nineties. In light of Reiner's recent passing at age 98, I've decided that I'd like to start celebrating some of these icons while they're still here to read our appreciations over breakfast. There are so many other living legends I'd like to honor: Cicely Tyson, Betty White, Sidney Poitier, Norman Jewison and Harry Belafonte, to name a few. I wrote a private letter to Norman, but I wanted to do more because he is such a bright light in the world. 
The following table of contents is a tribute to Norman Lear, the 98-year-old creator of "All in the Family," whom I had the great honor of inviting to Ebertfest in 2017 and awarding the very first Ebert Humanitarian award given to an individual. I have admired him for his career-long efforts at bringing diversity and enlightenment into the entertainment sphere. He continues to honor us with his compassion and moral compass on equality and the human condition, not as a response to outside forces, but as a response to his inner decency and sense of right and wrong. He has done so much in his career that it was difficult to distill the tributes down to a few, but this is a start.

1.  

Filmmaker Ben Lear joins his father Norman Lear at Ebertfest. Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images for Ebertfest.

"Ebertfest 2017: 'Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You' and 'They Call Us Monsters'": This dispatch features reviews of two selections from Ebertfest 2017, where we welcomed Norman Lear, subject of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's documentary "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You" (reviewed by Matt Zoller Seitz) and Norman's son, Ben Lear, who directed the documentary "They Call Us Monsters" (reviewed by Matt Fagerholm).

Their camera moves in close on Lear as he talks about his successes and controversies in American television, his collaborations with writers and actors, and his battles with network executives and censors over the political content of his shows, which resembled political debates as often as they did farcical family spats. The moviemakers shoot some of Lear’s friends and collaborators, including ‘All in the Family’ co-star and future feature director Rob Reiner and ‘Good Times’ star John Amos, with just as much affection. All the images of deeply lined faces would be powerful on their own, but when they’re juxtaposed with shots of their younger selves—often being projected on a large screen while the older versions watch—the effect is magical: cinema as time machine. At various points they are all watching what amounts to the movie of their lives. The longest one is about Lear, who trips back through his own past with the filmmakers’ guidance, riffing on memories, telling stories and tearing up at the sight of old friends who died a long time ago. The most touching sequences feature ‘All in the Family’ star Carroll O’Connor, who played the bigoted working-class Irish-American Archie Bunker. Lear acknowledges that Archie is a version of his own father, and weeps while viewing the memorable episode where Archie describes his dad, a bigot who beat his values into his son, as a great man and a loving parent.

2. 

"Living with Our Common Humanity: A Few Words with Norman Lear": In conversation with Susan Wloszczyna.

“[Wloszczyna:] ‘You say you can see comedy in everything in the documentary. Can you see it now given recent events such as the mass killings and what is going on with the presidential campaign? Many people I know got depressed after the Orlando nightclub shooting.’ [Lear: ] ‘I did, too. Isn’t it interesting that the fellow commenting on that who has the loudest words at the moment is the biggest fool of the century?  And is running for the presidency now. Don’t think for a second I don’t appreciate how serious it is. I can’t look at a small child and not think, ‘My God.’ Just take climate change. It’s not hard to imagine there have been 500 or 5,000 other civilizations like ours that disappeared.’ [Wloszczyna: ] ‘But how do we laugh? How do we keep our sense of humor?’ [Lear:] ‘I find the foolishness of the human condition continually amusing no matter what’s going on. Think of the fucking joke of jokes. He is a terrible joke but he is a joke. As I say this, it’s unimaginable that this fool, this asshole—I have to go to that language because there are no other words. Imagine he steps off the plane in Scotland and says the things he has been saying. The sad thing is, he represents all the Paul Ryan people and they allow it. George Will left the party today. I have so much respect for him.’”

3.

"Cold Turkey": Back in 1971, Roger awarded four stars to Lear's scathing satire of the tobacco industry starring Dick Van Dyke and Bob Newhart.

What we need are mean comedies, filled with mean and petty people who hate and envy each other, and exhibit the basest of human motives. Comedies like that canonized W. C. Fields, and it was Groucho Marx's fundamental hatefulness that made his stuff so much more than slapstick. Lately, though, the movie comedy has fallen on hard times in America. Until the last couple of weeks. Now there are two new comedies that I can recommend to cynics and malcontents with little fear they'll be disappointed: ‘A New Leaf,’ reviewed last week, and Norman Lear's ‘Cold Turkey.’ Both of them assume as a matter of course that the human being is powered with unworthy motives, especially greed. ‘A New Leaf’ gets a little sentimental at the end, but not too much, and ‘Cold Turkey’ ends with the scoundrels being shot by their own cigarette lighter. The movie, as everybody knows by now, concerns an attempt by a small town in Iowa to qualify for a $25 million award by signing all its citizens to a 30-day no smoking pledge. That somehow doesn't sound like the world's greatest idea for a comedy, but Lear makes it work by a brilliant masterstroke: He gets the comedy, not out of people trying to stop smoking, but out of the people themselves. So instead of lots of scenes of characters sneaking puffs, you have them preening their vanity as national television crews descend upon the town. For, of course, Eagle Rock, Iowa, has become famous overnight.

4. 

"'One Day at a Time' Moves to Pop": This past March, Allison Shoemaker reviewed the fourth season of Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce’s acclaimed remake of Norman Lear’s classic sitcom (Lear serves as executive producer of the new show).

That’s the most wonderful thing about the Alvarez family. Watching them is a warm and wonderful experience, the epitome of comfort food TV, and yet the world they inhabit is recognizably our own. (Now operating on a network schedule, the show closed up production this month along with the rest of Hollywood; when it returns, it’s difficult to imagine Lydia won’t have some things to say about the Coronavirus from behind those curtains.) Neither they nor their writers ignore the darkness; it is always there in some form or other. The only thing about them that’s idealized is the sense at the end of each episode that everything will be okay, but it’s not because it’s overly sunny or blindly optimistic. It’s because what matters is what they have each other, and another day to look forward to—another breakfast Lydia makes while dancing, another group therapy session with a room full of smart and quick-witted women for Penelope, another e-sports tournament for Elena or sneaker run for Alex, and some more beautiful, affectionate pathos from Schneider and Dr. B. They muddle through, as the theme song once said, one day at a time—and, you can still hear the song on YouTube, so even that loss is survivable.

5. 

"Norman Lear: Even This I Get to Experience": At Norman's official site, you can order a copy of his beloved 2014 excerpted below. 

In my ninety-plus years I’ve lived a multitude of lives. In the course of all these lives, I had a front- row seat at the birth of television; wrote, produced, created or developed more than a hundred shows; had nine on the air at the same time; founded the 300,000-member liberal advocacy group People for the American Way; was labeled the ‘No. 1 enemy of the American family’ by Jerry Falwell; made it onto Richard Nixon’s ‘Enemies List’; was presented with the National Medal of the Arts by President Clinton; purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and toured it for ten years in all fifty states; blew a fortune in a series of bad investments in failing businesses; and reached a point where I was informed we might even have to sell our home. Having heard that we’d fallen into such dire straits, my son-in-law phoned me and asked how I was feeling. My answer was, ‘Terrible, of course,’ but then I added, ‘but I must be crazy, because despite all that’s happened, I keep hearing this inner voice saying, ‘Even this I get to experience.’

6.

Norman Lear on the Declaration of Independence road trip. Courtesy of The Norman Lear Center.

"The Norman Lear Center": The nonpartisan research and public policy center (named in 2000) that studies the social, political, economic and cultural impact of entertainment on the world. 

As we approach the Fourth of July, I am reminded of the Declaration of Independence road trip launched by Mr. Lear in 2001 to exhibit the document across the United States on a three-and-a-half year cross country tour. His aim was to inspire Americans, especially young people, to see citizenship an an opportunity to participate in civic life, exercise their rights, and above all, to vote. In 1981, Lear joined Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and a group of business, civic, religious, and civil rights leaders who were disturbed by the divisive rhetoric of newly politicized televangelists. Together, they founded the advocacy affiliate People For the American Way.

Image of the Day

Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images for Ebertfest.

This snapshot captures the joy of my onstage conversation with Norman Lear, Rachel Grady, Brent Miller, and Simon Kilmurry  on day 3 of Ebertfest 2017 on April 22nd, 2017 in Champaign, Illinois.

Tweet of the Day

On September 27th, 2017, Norman Lear took a knee in solidarity with those "fighting for equality and justice," continuing the movement that was started by San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick to protest police misconduct and racial injustice.

Video of the Day

And here is the video of the full conversation following our Ebertfest screening of "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You." It is chockfull of priceless insights that further illuminate the genius of this trailblazing icon.

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 18th year.

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