Even at 94, Norman Lear is still looking out for what’s next
Norman Lear bright side.
“I don’t want to get up any morning that I’m not optimistic about everything,” Lear says.
At 94, the legendary television producer and writer jokes that these days he gets applause for just walking across stage, but he is continuing to move forward. He recently produced a documentary series for EPIX and is rebooting his ‘70s sitcom “One Day At A Time,” which will stream on Netflix still sees the next year and revolve around a Cuban-American family.
On Tuesday, PBS’s “American Masters” airs the documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” which examines the life and legacy of the creator of some revolutionary 1970s TV series, including “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” “Sanford and Son,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and “Good Times.”
What is amazing about all those shows is how trenchant they remain on topics such as racism,
abortion, politics, patriotism and protest.
Lear, however, isn’t surprised we are still grappling with many of the same issues he addressed in his shows four decades ago.
“Human nature doesn’t change,” shrugs Lear, whose memoir “Even This I Get to Experience” was published in 2014. “We’ve only recently begun to focus on topics like homosexuality and gay and lesbian issues. We are getting there politically, but I’m not sure as far advanced mentally and emotionally. It takes a
lot of time for us to grow.”
Earlier this year, Lear helped produce “America Divided,” a docuseries for EPIX, and even went undercover for it. In an episode that looks at gentrification, displacement and racial discrimination in New York City’s housing system, he posed as an elderly man looking for an apartment
in a senior complex. He was offered two. The day before a black man with the same credentials tried to do the same thing and was told there was nothing available.
“There are so many things that you hear about but that you never witness. So this was stunning,” says Lear about the experience.
Lear grew up in Connecticut, and when he was 9, his father, a traveling salesman, went to prison for bond fraud. His strained relationship with his dad would play out in episodes he wrote for his shows.
“I have never been in a situation in my life, however tragic, where I didn’t see some comedy,” he says in the documentary by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, but you see him tearing up as he watches a scene from “All in the Family” where Archie and Mike talk about their less-thanperfect fathers.
After serving in the Mediterranean in World War II and working in public relations, Lear began his television career writing for live shows like “Martin and Lewis.” He didn’t try to create a sitcom until he got a tip about a British show called “Until Death Us Do Part,” which centered on a working-class man and his socialist son-in-law.
Lear says he wondered why he never thought of it himself, but it took him three years to get “All in the Family” on the air, rejected twice at ABC before landing at CBS. After that he had hit after hit, at one point having six of the top 10 shows.
As for his ambition to reboot “One Day at a Time,” which centers on a divorced mother and her teen daughters, Lear says, “We will be dealing with current problems which these women are facing today and which really haven’t changed much in the last 30 some years.”
Throughout his life, Lear has remained politically active, jokingly referring to himself as “a bleedingheart conservative.”
“You will not (mess) with my Bill of Rights, my Constitution, my guarantees of political justice for all,” he says. “But does my heart bleed for those who need help and aren’t getting the justice that the country promises them and the equal opportunity the country promises?”
So much does he revere these documents that Lear bought a rare, original copy of the Declaration of Independence and arranged for it to go on tour around the country for all to see.
He founded the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way. As well, Lear was on Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List” and the politically conservative Rev. Jerry Falwell once called him the “No. 1 enemy of the American family” because of his shows.
Lear has also been awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Clinton, won a Peabody awards and has three Emmys. His influence on television is immeasurable.
Of course, when you make it into your 90s and are still active, people want to know your secret.
“The crazy thing is that there is no secret,” says Lear, wearing his signature fedora. “You wake up in the morning enjoying life. You find something to like about a meal while at the same time you’re waiting for the next one.
“I think what I’m saying – and it’s something I’ve come to over a number of years – is I do enjoy the moment,” he continues. “There are two little words that couldn’t be more true – ‘over’ and ‘next.’
“When something is over, you gotta get used to knowing that it is over. Nothing is going to bring it back. It is just a memory. What about ‘next’? If there’s a hammock in the middle, then that’s what they mean about living in the moment.
“So this interview is over, and I’m on to the ‘next’ and so are you. And it took us every (expletive) second of our lives to get to meet.”