While much of television's history is filled with banality, writer/producer Norman Lear (born 1922) is credited with enlarging the scope of the medium. With such groundbreaking television series as All in the Family, Maude, and Sanford and Son to his credit, Lear helped usher in an age of enlightenment in American entertainment, where sensitive social and political issues could be discussed without awkwardness.
Norman Milton Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut on July 27, 1922. His father Herman was a securities broker; mother Jeanette was a homemaker. Lear attended Boston's Emerson College, but dropped out in September 1942 to join the U.S. Air Force during World War II. Writing a war memoir for People magazine in 1995, Lear, an avowed pacifist, admitted he "just had to get into it. I was Jewish and I wanted to kill Germans." Lear received a Decorated Air Medal for his wartime accomplishments. Upon leaving the Air Force in 1945, Lear married and got a public relations job in New York City with George and Dorothy Ross, making $40 a week.
In 1949, Lear moved his family to Los Angeles, California where he entered the world of television, working as a writer for shows such as The Colgate Comedy Hour, and for such comedians as Martha Raye and George Gobel. Several years after arriving in Los Angeles, he divorced his first wife and, in 1956, married Frances Loeb. In 1959, Lear and partner Bud Yorkin created Tandem Productions, which produced motion pictures such as Come Blow Your Horn (1963), Divorce American Style (1967), The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968) and Start the Revolution Without Me (1969).
Broke the TV Mold
In the early 1970s, Lear created a popular situation comedy series that would have a major impact upon television programming. Tandem Productions' new comedy was based on a British series called Until Death do Us Part. Lear and Yorkin secured the American rights to the show and, on January 12, 1971, All in the Family aired on CBS, breaking the taboos of television comedy with hilarious aplomb. Carroll O'Connor was cast as Archie Bunker, a cranky, self-assured working class bigot; Jean Stapleton played Edith Bunker, Archie's dim-witted, doting, and big-hearted wife; Sally Struthers was cast in the role of daughter Gloria; and Rob Reiner took the role of Mike Stivic, Gloria's liberal husband who was in constant conflict with Archie.
In a March 1999 interview on the news program Dateline NBC, Lear addressed the blandness permeating television at the time. "The biggest problem in comedy was Mom's dented the car, and how do we keep Dad from finding out, or the boss is coming to dinner and the lamb roast is ruined. We paid attention to our children. We paid attention to our marriages. We paid attention to the newspapers we read and the culture. And we chose our subjects from all these things that were influencing us." Lear received many professional and humanitarian awards, ranging from the William O. Douglas Award and a Man of the Year Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Both critics and television historians agree that All in the Family had the most impact of any of Lear's productions. After living through the socially and politically charged climates of the 1960s, Lear pulled his stories out of the nation's newspapers and news broadcasts and made them relevant to viewers from all walks of life. The episodes caused controversy, but not at the expense of entertaining the nation. The show explored such charged issues as prejudice, rape, sexual dysfunction, menopause, homosexuality, and religion. As a result, it became a bastion of popular culture, spawning such consumer goods as soundtrack records, T-shirts, and board games. Carroll O'Connor's portrayal of Archie, the working-class bigot, struck a chord with viewers, who made his colorful vocabulary, "Meathead" (referring to his son-in-law) and "Dingbat" (his wife), part of the national lexicon. But while the Archie character was an icon for working class Americans, the show also raised the public consciousness about women's issues through Stapleton and Struthers' characters. Although often overshadowed by her boorish husband, many of the show's strongest episodes revolved around the Edith Bunker character. The role of daughter Gloria closely paralleled the views of the women's movement in the United States at the time.
Despite the accolades and attention given to him in the wake of the show's success, Lear stressed that he did not intend to remedy societal ills. In a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he explained that the purpose of his show was to "lift up the apparent. They were saying far worse things than this in the schools and on the playgrounds. If I had any sense that this little half-hour situation comedy was going to reverse or change or even seriously affect 2000 or 2500 years of bigotry, I would have to be some kind of fool."
Launched Spin-Off Shows
Lear and Yorkin created several successful spin-off shows based upon characters that originally debuted on All in the Family. Maude featured Bea Arthur as a thoroughly liberated modern woman. Lear's wife, Frances, took credit for the character. In a 1975 People magazine interview she explained that "a great deal of 'Maude' comes from my consciousness being raised by the women's movement; and from Norman's being raised by me." The Jeffersons dealt with African-American bigot, George Jefferson, (played by Sherman Helmsley) and his travails as a successful businessman in white America. Lear created other shows with varying degrees of success, including the Afro-centric comedy Sanford and Son, and its spin-off, Grady; the suburban, surrealist dark comedy Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; Good Times; and Hot L Baltimore.
Formed Political and Business Ventures
In addition to his television programs, Lear found other ways to express his political convictions. In 1981, he formed People for the American Way, a liberal coalition that promoted pluralism and raised public awareness about issues related to the First Amendment. Lear raised the ire of conservatives by creating a commercial featuring movie star Gregory Peck decrying the 1987 nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lear scripted a 1982 TV special, I Love Liberty, which promoted liberal politics while acting as a salute to the Bill of Rights.
While Lear has creatively expressed his political viewpoints, his business acumen has made him a wealthy man. Residuals from his various shows have allowed him to amass a $225 million empire. When he dissolved his partnership with Yorkin, Lear started TAT Communications, which was later developed into Embassy Communications. In 1986, Lear and then-partner Jerry Perenchio sold Embassy to the Coca-Cola Company for $485 million. With the proceeds from his share of the sale, Lear financed a new company, Act III, which acquired trade magazines, television stations, and multiplex movie theater chains in secondary markets, in addition to bankrolling motion pictures. Two of the features that the company funded, Stand By Me and The Princess Bride, were directed by All in the Family star, Rob Reiner. When Lear divorced his wife of 29 years in 1986, she walked away with $112 million.
Despite a self-imposed retirement from the world of television in 1977, Lear returned in 1984 with ideas that tried to recapture the thought-provoking climate that made All in the Family and Maude such commercial successes. A situation comedy, a.k.a. Pablo, starring Hispanic comedian Paul Rodriguez stalled. Other Lear shows such as 1991's Sunday Dinner and 1994's 704 Hauser Street failed to capture the success of his previous ventures. In a 1984 interview with the Washington Post, Lear decried the business trends prevalent in the television industry. "God forbid anything be an acquired taste. There's no chance for the public to acquire a taste because they yank it so quickly. As a result of America's fixation and obsession with short-term thinking, everything suffers. In every business, we innovate less and experiment less because of the need not to diminish a current profit statement but to have one that exceeds the last. Wherever we look."
Lear is still active in political and social groups such as People for the American Way and Common Cause. He married his third wife, psychologist Lyn Davis Lear, in 1987, and readily acknowledges that she is a conduit for his inner spiritual growth. In 1989, he founded the Business Enterprise Trust to promote social consciousness and vision in business. The following year, Lear showed support for the NAMES Project's AIDS memorial quilt by making a donation towards its maintenance. He has three daughters; Ellen, Kate and Maggie (from his first two marriages), and a stepson, Benjamin Davis (from Lyn Davis Lear's previous marriage). Lear resides in Mandeville Canyon, California. In late 1998, Lear told reporters he was working on a new show similar to Sunday Dinner that would explore human spirituality. "Every member of the species from the beginning of time has been seeking some understanding of why we're here and what [life is] all about," he told National Public Radio in 1994. "The varieties of religious experience are infinite."
When a reporter from the Washington Post asked Lear if he was worried that his reputation would diminish if each new project wasn't as successful as All in the Family, Lear gave a lucid response. "Of course it crosses my mind. But if you're sufficiently busy, you don't think about it. And I am sufficiently busy. I wake up every morning of my life hopeful, and I believe in the possible."
Further Reading on Norman Lear
McNeil, Alex., Total Television: The Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present, 1996.
Chicago Tribune, May 31, 1991.
Forbes, January 25, 1988.
Globe and Mail, February 8, 1984.
Los Angeles Times, September 20, 1987; December 2, 1990.
Newsday, June 2, 1991
People Weekly, August 7, 1995; October 14, 1996.
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 23, 1995.
Star-Tribune Newspaper of the Twin Cities Minneapolis.-St. Paul, July 2, 1989.
Toronto Star, May 24, 1992.
Wall Street Journal, April 8, 1988.
Washington Post, March 4, 1984
Weekend Edition January 8, 1994.
"Norman Lear Helps Pave the Road to DC," http://www.aidsquilt.org/newsletter/archive/winter95/lear.html