Lear stays tuned to “the messiness of real life”
By Geoff Boucher
LOS ANGELES - Norman Lear had lived for years in a Mediterranean mansion here, but on a recent afternoon he jammed his hands in his pockets and gave a half-hearted tour that suggests he’s still not entirely comfortable with the opulence. But then the television mogul grinned when a visitor pointed to a framed photograph of Charlie Chaplin tucked away in a corner like Charles Foster Kane’s childhood sled.
“That’s the last frame from ‘City Lights,’ ’’ the 86-year-old producer and writer said. After a beat, the man who brought the world “All in the Family’’ pulled his hands out of his pockets. “You want to hear a funny story?’’
It turns out that back in 1950, Lear arrived in Los Angeles with a young wife, a small child, and aspirations of becoming a press agent. He checked into a motel and started looking for a place to live. “I went down El Centro and I passed the Circle Theatre. There was a marquee that said ‘Major Barbara,’ my favorite play by George Bernard Shaw. There was a guy sweeping the walk, and he told me to come back for the show and he’d get me in.’’
That night he was seated in the second row and, as the lights went down, in came Chaplin, whose son was an actor in the modest production. The night got even better: The megastar took the stage himself at the end of the show, according to Lear. “He said, ‘The only way I can repay you for the enjoyment of this evening is to do something for you myself.’ He did a pantomime of a drunken man trying to mail a letter in a high wind.’’
Serendipity and celebrity, pratfalls and turbulence - it was a perfect opening scene for Lear’s Hollywood adventure, which covered decades but was defined by 1970’s television shows that crackled with social subplots and rewired the network sitcom. A lavish new home video compilation, The Norman Lear Collection, pulls together the first seasons of seven shows he produced and created: “All in the Family,’’ “Maude,’’ “Good Times,’’ “The Jeffersons,’’ “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,’’ “One Day at a Time,’’ and “Sanford & Son.’’
The collection also has some rarities, notably two “lost’’ pilots for “All in the Family.’’
On the same day he got his advance copy of the 19-disc, $160 box set, Lear sat down for a long conversation, though he didn’t seem quite at ease lingering in the past.
“I’m so caught up in the sense of the country today that my concerns back then about bigotry, anti-Semitism, narrow-mindedness, and so forth, they all seem slight compared to my concerns of the moment,’’ he said, sharing a peppery blog post he had just written for the Huffington Post about cowardly elected Democrats who let down the progressive spirit of the party.
In addition to his political causes, Lear is a partner in Village Roadshow Pictures, the Australian film production company, and he owns Concord Music Group, which scored its signature success with the Ray Charles album Genius Loves Company. His touch in business was highlighted by the $485 million 1985 sale to Coca-Cola of two production companies he owned with partner Jerry Perenchio.
Still, for most of America, his is a brand name for audacious sitcoms that blew up the notion that TV families should be wholesome, whole, and idealized.
“We wanted shows that had the loudness of an overcrowded room, the messiness of real life,’’ he said, sitting near four sparkling Emmys above a door in his study. “The question I’m always asked is, did television and what you were doing with it in those years, did it mirror what was happening in the country or did it lead what was happening? You can look at television news today and ask the same question. It picks up on a molehill and makes it a mountain. Did it lead or did it follow?’’
Lear was born in New Haven and dropped out of college to serve in the Air Force, where he flew 52 combat missions on a B-17 Flying Fortress. Less than a year after his arrival in Los Angeles, he got a big break when he and a partner, Ed Simmons, sold a five-minute comedy bit to Danny Thomas. Soon, they were working for Jerry Lewis.
Lear started to tell several anecdotes but stopped himself. Over at his computer, he pulled up a sparkling Old Hollywood heirloom: a video snippet from 1959’s The Five Pennies, with Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong bending “When the Saints Go Marching In’’ into a dizzying comedy routine. “Who works this hard anymore?’’ he asked.
By the end of the 1960’s, variety shows were winding down and Lear had a different vision that consumed him. He wanted a comedy that turned the old “Father Knows Best’’ model on its head by summoning all the social rancor of the day and dropping it at the feet of a lunch-pail patriarch who was confused by flower power, black pride, and women’s lib.
The result was “All in the Family,’’ which premiered in January 1971. Carroll O’Connor played Archie Bunker; Jean Stapleton was his wife, Edith; Sally Struthers was his daughter, Gloria, whose new husband was Mike, played by Rob Reiner.
At first, Lear, the father of six, was too close to the epicenter to feel the tremors the show set off.
“We were working so damn hard, barely two weeks ahead, script-wise, of the next show,’’ he said. “There wasn’t a lot of time to think about such things. After the first show aired, I was prompted to think hard about it because there was an extremely negative article in The New York Times by Laura Z. Hobson, who wrote Gentleman’s Agreement, who thought ‘All in the Family’ was the worst thing that could happen in regards to racism. The paper allowed me to answer her two weeks later and with that I began to understand that people were listening.’’
Lear is especially proud of the series “Good Times,’’ which was based in the Cabrini-Green housing projects of Chicago and presented a black family struggling to get by. If television creators in past decades looked to Madison Avenue ads and women’s magazines for imagery, Lear’s team looked at newspapers.
“The Jeffersons’’ was a response to critics of “Good Times’’ who wondered where the upwardly mobile members of black America were on prime time, and “One Day at a Time’’ explored the widening divorce culture of the day. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,’’ his most jolting deconstruction of comedy, was about the madness that was pulsing right under the shiny surfaces of the housewife nation.
Today, Lear is a fan of “Bill Moyers Journal’’ and “South Park,’’ and sees his legacy more in “The Daily Show’’ than in sitcoms.
“I can’t honestly say I can see anywhere where we changed anything,’’ he said. “But what I have are thousands of memories of people relating to me that we made them talk. And you know, the funny thing is, people are still talking.’’