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Living with Our Common Humanity: A Few Words with Norman Lear

This piece was originally published on July 4, 2016 and is being republished for Women Writers Week.

On the cusp of turning 94, after spending decades building a TV dynasty whose legacy continues to influence the still-evolving medium today, showbiz titan Norman Lear remains very much part of our present. The man whose taboo-busting output includes “All in the Family,” “The Jefferson,” “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” “Maude” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” published his acclaimed memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience,” in 2014.That book, in part, inspired Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, makers of the 2007 Oscar-nominated documentary “Jesus Camp,” to direct “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” which opens Friday.

“Heidi and I both grew up on reruns of Norman’s shows,” Grady says. “Heidi was a big ‘Jeffersons’ fan and I loved ‘Good Times.’ We both met him briefly prior to this project because his organization, People for the American Way (which supports liberal causes), had honored ‘Jesus Camp.’ The timing of the documentary worked out because he was just finishing up his memoir and he felt ready to have a film rendered.” 

Lear is also ready to join the streaming generation by producing a 13-episode series for Netflix. It’s an updated version of his single-mom ‘80s sitcom “One Day at a Time,” this time focused on a Latino family. Says Grady, “He saw a need for good programming for this huge and growing demo and he is filling it. Norman’s still ahead of the curve.”

Having spent considerable time with Lear, how would she describe him? “The word I would use is in Yiddish—“Hamish.” It means family or a warm human being. He is eternally open and willing to be taught by others—and is a wonderful teacher in that he also loves to be the student.”

Wearing his trademark white canvas hat, Lear sat down with over a healthy breakfast of yogurt, skim milk, granola and what appeared to be a bushel of blueberries (he admitted he initially wanted to order the Lobster Benedict) while promoting the documentary with his directors at the recent AFI Docs film festival in Washington, D.C. He touched upon topics ranging from the backlash that his shows often drew, the age of binge TV, how the thrice-married father of six views parenthood and the controversial GOP presidential candidate that he refused to mention by name during our conversation. 

I saw “Cold Turkey,” the only film you have directed, in a theater when I was 16. I knew Tom Poston from game shows like “To Tell the Truth” and I had never seen him act. So it was a treat to laugh at him as the town drunk who had to leave because he wouldn’t give up smoking like the rest of the residents because, as he said, “The booze bone is connected to the smoke bone.” Then you never directed again. You wrote “Divorce American Style” and were nominated for an Oscar, but that was it save for producing. Why?

I get tired of explaining myself to actors but, with that, I had a great group. I remember thinking the joy of film was you could make love to it. You could finish it and then edit it for three months. The joy of television was you could have an idea on Oct. 1 and share it with 30-40 or more millions of people before and after in three weeks. That was a kick.

You assisted with getting “All in the Family” star Rob Reiner’s directorial debut “Spinal Tap” off the ground by financing it, so we can thank you for that.

I did. I helped with “Spinal Tap,” the one with boys with the body (“Stand by Me”) and “The Princess Bride”—several of Rob Reiner’s first films. They would not have been made otherwise. He had been to all the studios and how they could have turned down “The Princess Bride,” I don’t know.

My Dad is also 93, and like you, continues to enjoy a rather full life. He still lives in the house I grew up in outside of Buffalo.

I was married once in Buffalo. You know what happened to me in Buffalo? I was stationed there when I was 21 years old at the University of Buffalo at the Air Force’s College Training Department. I was learning to be a pilot. That was what I wanted. I met one of my best friends in college training, Jimmy Gorman. He was black haired blue eyed Irish. When I was with Jimmy Gorman, I was Irish. Everybody said I was Irish. He hooked me up with Helen O’Leary one evening. We were on the top of the Statler Hilton Hotel. There was a Circus Bar that turned ever so slowly. We were drinking. Suddenly, I got up from the table and walked 20 feet to a phone booth. And I called Charlotte Rosen in West Hartford, Conn., who I dated in my senior year in high school. She picked up the phone and I said, “Hello.” She said, ”Norman!” I was so thrilled that she recognized my voice, that within 20 seconds I was saying, “I’m in Buffalo. Do you want to come up and get married?” She said, “Oh, yes.” Two weeks, later, we were married. That was the circumstances of my first marriage.

This is your first time at AFI Docs. And your son, Ben, who is 27, is also here with his directorial debut, “They Call Us Monsters,” about juvenile offenders who are serving time in jail for violent crimes.

I’ve seen it. It’s glorious. It’s screening this afternoon.  He is working on a screenplay now that is a fictional piece.

You first became a father of three when you were in your 20s and 30s and then had three more in your 60s and 70s. How did your parenting style change over the years?

I was working hard in both situations. My favorite way of putting it is, I had five families on CBS and one on Mooncrest Drive (in Los Angeles). My five daughters range from 21 to 68. The five families on the air needed me to live. The one on Mooncrest Drive, the kids got up, they dressed themselves, they went to school. But I was more involved with the five fictional families than with the real one. Because the fictional families day to day didn’t know what they were doing without me. 

Where did they come up with the documentary’s title, “Just Another Version of You?”

My bumper sticker. It says, “Just Another Version of You.” Because that’s who I believe we are. Versions of one another. I’m a big seeker of trying to understand and live with our common humanity. And we don’t do that enough.

How does it feel to be the subject of a film and not to be in charge for once?

The miracle to me is I had nothing to do with the making of it. As a matter of fact, I knew they, including PBS, would hear me if I had a problem and I knew they were all responsible people. And they had total control.

What did you think of Heidi and Rachel’s approach, putting you on a stage with TV monitors showing clips of your series and using a young actor to represent your nine-year-old self? Obviously that year in your life was a turning point, since it was when your father went to jail for selling fake bonds and your mother—whom you have described in the past as a “world-class narcissist”—sent you away to live with relatives.

When they told me they were going to do that, I thought, ”This could be weird.” But they did it so artfully and I think it aided my story. I was concerned about it, it could have gone over the top. But it was perfect.

They also invited a lot of great friends and admirers of yours to get involved on camera as well, such as Rob Reiner, Amy Poehler, Jon Stewart, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. When did you meet Amy?

I met Amy a few years back. I haven’t known her a long time but I’ve loved her a long time. We met at a social occasion and we knew within 20 minutes we were in love.

Did she really name her son Archie because of Archie Bunker?

She tells me she did.

Well, if you believe her, I believe her.

And Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park,” I saw them on “60 Minutes” one day and learned that foul-mouthed Cartman was fashioned after Archie Bunker

Even George Clooney showed up to sing your praises.

I don’t think it’s in the film, but his first TV job was on a show I did.

I thought he started on “The Facts of Life”?

No one remembers this but first he was on “E/R.” I did a half-hour comedy with Elliott Gould and Clooney played a small role.

Wait. He did another show called “ER”?

That was the big “ER.” Mine was on for six episodes [actually 22 episodes].

When you create a show that is the first of its kind and it reflects a point of view that has been missing in entertainment, such as with “All in the Family,” a lot people will be critical when it doesn’t fulfill all of their expectations. Such as the criticism that Archie was perceived as a “lovable bigot,”and therefore made it OK to use racial epithets. It was interesting that Heidi and Rachel show “Good Times” stars John Amos and Esther Rolle criticizing their series since it was one of the first shows to revolve around a black family. They really disliked that Jimmie Walker’s son character J.J. was portrayed as a buffoon with his catchphrase “Dy-no-mite!” and that not more pressing and serious topics were tackled. Your face in the archival footage filmed on the set reveals your discomfort and hurt.

What I was thinking, it was consternation. It certainly wasn’t anger. I understood that they were the first black parents, major figures. The first people to represent their race in regular roles on television. The thing of that, the sense of responsibility that you find in an intelligent woman, created a sensitivity beyond Esther’s ability to think straight. For good reason. So when I wanted to do something with Thelma, Florida’s daughter, one of the most attractive young women on television of any ethnicity, it was logical that, at 16 or so, boys were going to hit on her and it was going to be a problem in her life and we wanted to deal with it. She was afraid as the woman who represented black mothers, and we had that out. I said “Look, you know the patina and you know the daily living as a black woman. But I’m a father, too, and I’m a son and I am a human. I am all the male things that all black males are. So let the decision rest there. The buck has to stop with me.” So we did the show.

“The Jeffersons” was an attempt to address some of those concerns by showing a well-off black family with Sherman Helmsley’s George running his own dry-cleaning business.

Stokely Carmichael came to my office and explosively asked why the only black family on TV lived in the Cabrini-Green tenements and held down two and sometimes three jobs. And, you know, we got people doing better than that. And at the same time, I was thinking about the people living next door to the Bunkers on “All in the Family.” So it just seemed natural.

Have you ever seen “Black-ish”? It seems to continue that progression with a well-off black family living in a predominantly white area while trying to hold onto their cultural identity. The season two finale ended with an homage to “Good Times.”

Kenya Barris, who created the show, and I have become good friends. Great guy.

TV now is so different now. Back when you were at your peak in the ‘70s, up to 50 million viewers nationwide would watch each episode of “All in the Family,” and you had six of the top-10 show on the air with a total weekly viewership of 120 million. Now, with the flood of series available on cable and streaming outlets, only the Super Bowl attracts such massive numbers. A series like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” can be considered a huge hit when its recent season finale gets about 9 million viewers—a record high for the fantasy series. Do you find it overwhelming? I tried to get into “Game of Thrones” but wasn’t hooked.

You and I are exactly in the same boat. My twin daughters, who are home, and my wife are addicted to it. I saw the first one with my wife. Maybe the first two. And then there was “Empire.” And tried and I lost it.

I do miss the days when the country would gather around the TV and watch the same show at the same time. That communal thing.

It’s what they used to call water-cooler talk. 

Just the experience of watching shows is so different. You view TV on your computer, your tablet, your phone and not just when it airs but when it is convenient. Now we are able to consume a whole season all at once instead of living with these characters on a weekly basis.

What is America about in one word? It would be excess. Every bloody thing in excess. My biggest complaint is about the excess is it becomes too much about one thing and not enough of all, of everything. Americans are missing a culture that depends on an informed citizenry and it is instead informed by the Bill O’Reillys who yell at each other in bumper-sticker fashion.

What do you think of binging?

I think often I didn’t really didn’t see “The Wire” the way I wanted to. I was too busy making shows then. Remember  “The Wire”?

That was the first show I ever binged. A co-worker gave me all five seasons on DVD and I sat on the couch for a week eating it up. The one good thing about having options beyond the networks is that there isn’t a problem with censorship, which you used to face all the time.

I am doing a show now and it’s Netflix. We just made the fourth episode. A new version of “One Day at a Time.” Rita Moreno is fabulous as the grandmother.

Do the characters get to swear and stuff now?

It’s a family with two small children. If the kid swears, he hears about it. I didn’t think about pushing envelopes. They are living a life as real as it can be. The family is Cuban-American and one of our show runners, Gloria Calderon-Kellett, is Cuban. Rita Moreno is Puerto Rican but the flavor is really Latino and it’s very different. I think it’s going to be treated very well. It’s original because we haven’t seen the inner life of these people. And the mother is a veteran, she served in Afghanistan and she is separated from her husband, who is still there.

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.

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.

But how do we laugh? How do we keep our sense of humor?

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.

Do your know Hillary Clinton?

I know her well.

Do you think she has the stamina to deflect what keeps coming at her?

I do think she has the stamina. Remember, before they became the Clintons, the word always was—Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, who went to school with them, said this—the word was always she was the smart one. I have no reason not to believe that.

How many white canvas boating hats have you been going through in your life?

[He takes off his hat and reveals the label, “Gelot,” a Parisian hat company.] As I say in the documentary, I used to pick my head when I was writing. My wife threw a hat on my head one day and said, “That’s enough.” A little boating hat. The next week, we were riding horseback near the beach and the hat was under my saddle. When we came back, the hat was gone. So we were in Paris a week later on holiday.  And there was a hat shop and my wife drew what we wanted and they made it. We ordered three of them. And then five years later, I lost one or two and they made six of them.

And you still have them? How old are they?

This one has to be 25 years old. I get them dry cleaned.

If your new show takes off on Netflix, will you do more?

We are working on a couple things now. I think I prefer doing a show every week but people do want to binge. I wish we were doing it the way it was, but I’m not in the habit of fighting progress. I had the experience. My wife, Lyn, and I watched “The Night Manager.” We said, “Let’s see what it is.” By the time it was over, we said, “Let’s see what’s next.” We watched three in one evening.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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