Groundbreaking Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer, producer and social activist Norman Lear stopped by SFTV for what turned out to be a delightfully candid Hollywood Masters appearance. The 93-year-old creator of All in the Family and The Jeffersons sat down with Stephen Galloway, executive features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, to talk about his exceptional life and career, and how television mirrors life – all with a Lear-esque sense of humor, of course.
“Well, you’re the man of the house now,” Lear recalled a grown man patting him on the shoulder and saying, as he watched his family’s possessions being liquidated after his father was arrested and taken to prison for selling fake bonds.
“‘You’re the man of the house,’ to a 9-year-old in that situation struck me as the foolishness of the human condition times 10,” said Lear. “And I never forgot it and I never lived through a situation that didn’t have some humor somewhere.”
Lear’s sense of humor proved controversial in the 1960s and 70s, as he created iconic character-driven sitcoms depicting issues previously untouched by television, including racism, homosexuality, women’s liberation and more. Widely considered one of the best TV shows of all time, All in the Family’s working-class bigot protagonist Archie Bunker and his family spurred a spin-off, The Jeffersons, about the Bunker’s former neighbors, an affluent African American family who recently moved into a Manhattan high-rise. The latter was one of the longest-running sitcoms in the history of American television.
But Lear was met with opposition along the way. He spent two years fighting to get All in the Family off the ground, making three pilot episodes in the process. After Galloway presented clips from two of the three pilots side-by-side, Lear commented that the network wanted to censor Archie’s line, “11:10 on a Sunday morning?!” an innuendo directed at his canoodling on-screen son-in-law and daughter, up to hours before it aired.
“They wanted it out because it would send the audience’s mind to what was going to happen upstairs. Well, what was wrong with that?” quipped Lear, met with laughter from the audience.
Activism and “Mirroring Life”
“I think television has an enormous affect on society,” said Lear in response to an audience question.
“One of the writers [on Good Times] came into a meeting with a newspaper clipping about hypertension in Black males being way up and far above Caucasian males … So, we did an episode about high blood pressure, and his concern, the family’s concern, about it,” said Lear.
After the show had aired, tens of thousands of calls came into the network from across the country looking for more information about hypertension. By the time the show went into re-runs, the network had included an advisory at the end of the episode for those seeking more information.
“We were mirroring life,” explained Lear. “We were writing from our experience as fathers and citizens, you know? … We changed things, or we reminded people, or we gave them some reason to understand something that they didn’t understand before … [but] we showed activity and life in our culture in ways that hadn’t been seen before on television, we were doing the opposite, too.”
When asked if the character of Edith Bunker was purposely written as a feminist figure, Lear responded yes, adding, “I have five daughters.”
Lear became passionate while discussing the current presidential election, saying, “I’m not a happy citizen.”
“You know, I’ve written to maybe four presidents,” said Lear. “Pretty much the same letter: ‘I am older than you. You’re a younger man than I, but I need leadership as a citizen in this country. I need somebody who understands more than I understand about how the world works politically. Be my father, be a leader.’” He then shared that he held a correspondence with President Ronald Reagan, some of which has been published.
When asked if he had ever seen Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s show, Lear responded, “He is a show.”
“I’m a fan of Bernie Sanders,” said Lear. “And I’m a fan of the American that allowed this to happen. That he could become so preeminent.”
Lear went on to express his admiration for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, commenting on the disturbing milieu of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against. “I think that’s what’s got us by the throat now. It’s not the interest of the American people, or how do we help the middle class?” said Lear, who is producing and hosting a six-part docu-series with Shonda Rimes called America Divided, that deals head-on with hot-button topics that affect our society.
Check out a clip from the interview:
The Hollywood Masters interview series examines the careers of Oscar-winning filmmakers, major artists and successful executives, moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway and presented by the LMU School of Film and Television.