Norman Lear hosts a book party in 2009. At almost 90, Lear is still an active member of People for the American Way, the progressive advocacy group he helped found in 1981.
“As a kid, when I learned I was different, I was also learning other people were considered far more different, like black people in America. When Esther [Rolle] and John [Amos] became very well known as their characters in Good Times, they felt they were representing black people to America, as indeed they were. But they became extremely sensitive to that. So when I wanted to do an episode about Thelma who was 16 and very beautiful, the daughter, having to think about boys that wanted to go to bed with her — just to talk about the subject, we had terrible fights. At one point, I found myself saying around the table, ‘Look, we can’t argue about these things anymore. The patina of black life I’ll never know like you people. But I’m a father, I’m an uncle, I’m a brother, I’m a cousin, I’m all the things you are as a human being.’ And what we got out of that was some better understanding that we’re really all the same people.”
“I’ve received a lot of death threats. I never intended to be a lightning rod. Somebody asked me in an interview, if I had a bumper sticker, what would my bumper sticker be? And I said, ‘Just another version of you.’ And that’s what I think we all are — versions of each other because we have to come to the understanding that we are one.”
Norman Lear (center) created, developed and produced the hit show All in the Family, which ran from 1971 to 1979. The politically charged sitcom starred Jean Stapleton, Carroll O’Connor, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers and Mike Evans.
“I was a kid of the Depression. I saw my father’s brothers go belly up. My father was always belly up. It’s very difficult for me to call my father what he was, so I use ‘rascal.’ He served time. He was in trouble a lot with the law. He sold some bonds that were fake bonds and went to prison for three years when I was 9 years old. But I can’t overstate how much I loved him. You hear me talk about him lightly because I cannot make him a villain. I loved him.”
Bea Arthur (center) starred with Adrienne Barbeau (left) and Rue McClanahan in the socially controversial ’70s TV show Maude, a spin-off of All in the Family that Lear also created, developed and produced.
Lear says his political interest and sensitivities started there. He grew up and produced some of the 1970s’ most iconic TV sitcoms, including All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Good Times. In those shows, he helped Americans laugh and see the similarities they all share — regardless of race or religion.
Redd Foxx (left) and Demond Wilson played the titular father-son duo in the TV show Sanford and Son, a Lear production that ran from 1972 to 1977.
Lear also founded a civil liberties advocacy group, People for the American Way. He turns 90 next month.
Louise Lasser starred in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a short-lived ’70s TV show that Lear conceived of as a soap opera parody.
“It scared the hell out of me,” Lear, who is Jewish, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. “It was the first time that I learned that I was, quote, ‘different.’ I started to pay a lot more attention to people who were even more different.”
When legendary TV producer Norman Lear was young, his father gave him a do-it-yourself radio kit. Lear built it, turned it on and remembers one day hearing a fiery broadcast that spoke kindly of the Nazi movement and ranted against Jews.