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Those Were the Days – BPR Interviews: Norman Lear

Image credit: Bret Hartman | TED

Norman Lear is a writer, producer, and political activist best known for sitcoms All in the Family, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, and Maude, among many others. In 1942 Lear dropped out of Emerson College to serve with the United States Army Air Forces in WWII, during which he flew 52 combat missions and was awarded the Air Medal with Four Oak Leaf Clusters. Lear began comedy writing in the 1950s and was soon a regular contributor to a number of variety shows, most notably one of two main writers on The Martin and Lewis Show. He is also known for films such as Academy Award-nominated Divorce American Style starring Dick Van Dyke and Come Blow Your Horn starring Frank Sinatra.

In 1980, Lear founded the political organization People for the American Way in hopes of offsetting the Moral Majority movement launched the year before. In 2001, he purchased one of the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence and toured it around the country so that all Americans could experience the document for themselves. In 2004 he established Declare Yourself, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign to encourage newly eligible young people to vote, which has helped over four million voters become registered. He was named on President Nixon’s enemies list.

Lear was among the first seven people inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. He has received five Emmys, with his 2019 win making him the oldest recipient in the award’s history. He holds two Peabody awards and a GLAAD Pioneer in Media Award, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Lear was the first recipient of the Producers Guild of America’s Norman Lear Achievement in Television Award in 1990. He has been awarded a National Medal of Arts and is a Kennedy Center Honoree, among many, many other accolades. In 2014, Lear published a New York Times bestselling autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience. In 2016, he was the subject of a biographical documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. Lear is currently partnered with Lin-Manuel Miranda to produce a documentary about the life of Rita Moreno. He is a guest star in the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Benefit tonight at 9:00pm EDT, the latest in a series of charitable activities related to the pandemic. He lives with his wife Lyn Lear and will celebrate his 98th birthday this summer.  

Amelia Spalter: Looking back over the dozens of shows you have been involved with, what were the most important lessons you learned on the very first one you created, The Deputy?

Norman Lear: Writing with another fellow on that show named Roland Kibbee. He was the senior guy, because I was still a kid writer. If I had to pick out the person that mattered most to me in my career, in terms of helping me understand what it was all about, it would be Roland Kibbee. He was like a father. He endorsed me for who I was and helped me to understand that the direction that I was on was ok, that I didn’t have to become anybody different.

AS: You were notorious for arguments with standards and practices that ended with you essentially saying, “Drop this or I quit.” Back before you were in a position to end conversations that way, how did you incorporate creative notes from not-so-creative departments?

NL: The reason I was having arguments with program practices was because I believed what I put in the character’s mouth was the right thing for him or her to say, or the subject matter we wished to deal with in the story was appropriate. Any argument I had was because I believed in something. I wasn’t to be deterred from continuing to believe in it and fighting to do it.

But along with going with your own gut, it couldn’t be more important to listen. If you get lost in your own gut, and as a result you’re failing to listen, then you’re going to miss what could be a better way to do the same thing that you’re fighting to get done. The conversation that ensues is not necessarily that program practices has a better idea than yours, but that the rubbing together of ideas resulted in something you could agree on that was even better than the idea you were initially fighting about. Go with your gut, stay with what you believe, but be open to change. Being open to other ideas often results in the creation of new, better ideas.

AS: I’ve heard that once when discussing a difficult scene involving your All in the Family character Edith Bunker, the actress who played her said, “She’s only fiction,” and you responded, “To me, she isn’t.” Was that true of all your characters, or only longstanding ones like Edith?

NL: When I was writing my characters, they were real. When I was working with [the actress who played Edith] Jean Stapleton to fashion what Edith Bunker would say, Edith Bunker and Jean Stapleton were separate people. We were working on a character, but that character was her own person. We believed for the time we were working on her, she existed. For example, when Edith Bunker did her little hip-hop coming out of the kitchen, that wasn’t Jean Stapleton. That was a real, separate person named Edith, and I felt that way about all the characters.

AS: When people read your autobiography, they’ll realize you’ve incorporated many intimately personal experiences from your own life into your movies and shows. How did you manage to integrate such specific elements unique to you without overshadowing the characters’ individual identities?

NL: Do it the way you want to do it going in. But, understand the way you want to do it is open to change every minute you’re at work. There is always a possibility of something additional that would make the story better, or something you need to lose to make it better. Be listening throughout the process, watch your actors work and be open to input. So often I was utterly knocked out by the quality of their performances. Things never reached a point that I or somebody else couldn’t say, “What if…?” because even a little change in a performance or a line could make it just that much better.

AS: You were one of the first sitcom writers to put social issues into the spotlight using a medium that had previously served only to entertain. Did you go into each episode with a socially relevant statement in mind, or was this just your way of entertaining?

NL: I don’t think about having to make a statement; I just happen to be a serious individual who sees, or thinks he sees, where the pulse of the human condition exists. I gravitate to what has meaning for me. If I’m dealing with a family, “The roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner” isn’t as interesting to me as a problem the kids might be having in school that has to be dealt with. Or any one of the thousand difficult problems we’ve dealt with. If a show’s situation was not happening in your family, then it’s happening across the street, or up the street, or down it. We never dealt with anything that wasn’t happening in our lives or the lives of people we knew.

AS: As someone who has wanted nothing as much or for as long than to be like you, what advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters?

NL: Not having an idea at any given moment is not unreasonable. Every moment can’t be as productive as every other moment. But often the writer needs to have more belief in his or her own thinking. I encourage people to believe in what their gut is telling them. If you feel it’s right, fight to the end of your being to do it. But understand that whatever you’re fighting for could always be better.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.