As he came bounding into the room, wearing his trademark white hat, it became instantly clear that should I be lucky enough to reach 92, I want to be Norman Lear. I was tempted to demand his license to prove he was actually a nonagenarian.
All I could think of was that memorable scene from When Harry Met Sally, Estelle Reiner in a different context saying: "I'll have what she's having."
It wasn't only Lear's physical appearance that impressed me. It was also the way he embraced modern technology. When I mentioned that we had a mutual friend, he grabbed his smartphone, found our friend's number in his long list of contacts, punched it and quickly handed me the phone so the friend, thinking it was Lear calling, would be surprised to hear my voice.
Though his odometer has clicked past 92, why has the march of time been so much slower and kinder for Lear than for many of his ninetysomething contemporaries?
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"Good genes and a positive attitude," he explained. This was a few days after he had stood for the better part of 45 minutes at Washington, D.C.'s Sixth & I Synagogue and at events in several other cities greeting long lines of people — many of them boomers — clutching copies of Lear's first book, his just-released memoir, Even This I Get to Experience.
Fans gladly waited to have their picture taken with a legend who had regaled them with stories from the culture he helped shape, one that made it OK to talk openly about issues that had been largely kept under wraps.
A Groundbreaking Change Agent
"Call me an early baby boomer," Lear says. Early indeed. Born in 1922, nearly a quarter-century before the first actual boomers, Lear has a unique place among this generation. He was responsible for many of the groundbreaking television sitcoms from the 1970s and '80s (All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2 Night). And he is the personification of columnist Ellen Goodman's description of boomers: change agents who pushed for civil and women's rights and laid the groundwork for the gay rights movement.
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Lear was the pioneer of what should have been an impossible art form: the fusion of comedy and dead-serious topics — racism, poverty, abortion, gun control — a mix that had never found its way onto prime-time TV until his unique alchemy.
An example: Up to 30 minutes before the east coast premiere of All in the Family in 1971, Lear was still fighting to keep what today might seem like an innocuous line in the show. Edith and Archie (Jean Stapleton and Carroll O'Connor) come home early from church one Sunday to find their daughter Gloria and son-in-law Mike (Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner) in a passionate embrace. Archie takes one look and says, "11:10 on a Sunday morning!" CBS insisted Lear drop the line because it was deemed too suggestive of what they would do next. Lear shot back: "They're married!" But CBS worried the line wouldn't fly in Des Moines.
Lear concedes the line wasn't essential. "But I knew if I lost this, I would lose dozens of other battles ahead," he says. It would have been non-stop trench warfare with the network standards and practices folks as he tried to inject political relevance into the sitcom. CBS finally blinked.
But the first All in the Family broadcast began with an advisory: The program you are about to see…seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter we hope to show — in a mature fashion — just how absurd they are."
As Lear recalls in his book, with Archie’s utterance of that line, America had been "introduced to the subversive mind of Norman Lear and not a single state seceded from the Union."
From His Life To Popular Culture
All in the Family, a show ahead of its time on many levels, ran eight seasons. Not all the critics gushed early on, but it didn't take long to create audience buzz (long before social media was even a glint in anyone's eye) or for the show to become appointment viewing. It was the first show to reach the top of the Nielsen ratings in five consecutive years.
Borrowed from a British comedy about a bigoted father and liberal son that reminded Lear of his difficult relationship with his own father, All in the Family featured dialogue we still remember 40 years later (Archie telling Edith to "Stifle yourself!" or calling his son-in-law "meathead"). Lear drew much of it from the words spoken by his father and the verbal sparring between his parents over the kitchen table.
Even the set was patterned after Lear’s home. Center stage was Archie's upholstered chair, a throne really, where he presided over his house like a king, not unlike Lear's dad, H.K., who wanted to be known as "King Lear" and who listened to the Lone Ranger radio show every night in his red leather chair, fingers on the dial of his Atwater Kent.
Recently, Edith and Archie's chairs were reunited in the shrine of American culture, the Smithsonian Museum of American History, in Washington, D.C. —along with Judy Garland's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
It's still hard for Lear to acknowledge the impact he and his team (Lear is quick to remind that television is a collaborative medium) had on millions of viewers. He's willing to go this far: "What I can be certain of is that the shows caused families to talk. That's the ripple we got."
Edith and Archie Chairs at Smithsonian
A 'Multitude of Lives'
Lear says he has spent his life alternating between alter egos: the observer and the participant. As an observer, he laments the dearth of political leadership, all the way up to President Obama (though he's "crazy about the fact that he's there" and believes "he doesn't get a fair break because of his race").
He's frustrated that issues of race continue to permeate our society — with Ferguson, Mo., just the latest example — and worries that the media isn't doing its job to inform the citizenry: "We get bumper stickers and no context."
But he takes some comfort in hearing that "we have generations of young people that in Paddy [Network] Chayefsky's words 'aren't going to take it any longer.' I pray that's true," he says.
At 92, Lear says he has participated in a "multitude of lives." When Lear was nine, his dad was sent to prison; he left college after Pearl Harbor and flew 50 bombing runs over Europe; he had a front-row seat for the birth of television; he broke barriers by weaving hot-button issues into prime-time TV; he earned a place on Nixon's "Enemies List" and he founded People for the American Way, to help protect civil rights and civil liberties.
Lear doesn't spend time on what-ifs and regrets, but neither does he gloss over his three marriages or his struggle with work/life balance. "For some years, I had five TV families who needed me every minute. I was there for my own kids, but not present," he confesses.
A Future And A Legacy
What's next for Lear? He hopes to find a home for a TV script he wrote a few years ago, a series about a retirement home. The working title: Guess Who Died? So far, no takers. Even though the country is aging, advertisers and programmers have largely shunned the older demographic. But given Lear's track record of shaking up the status quo in television, don't count him out.
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Grateful to open his eyes each morning, Lear does take time to smell the roses, finding special joy in a wonderful omelette, even the necessities of life, such as going to the john. But he doesn't dwell on his age, instead using humor in his book to wonder "as I peck away on my computer what my father's hand is doing hanging out of my sleeve." And Lear says he "doesn't give a s@#t" what they write in his obituary. But if he could pen the first line, he would start with two words: "He mattered."
And lest you get the wrong idea, Lear keeps his feet planted firmly on the ground.
"Mike Wallace once introduced a 60 Minutes profile of me by saying I was someone who reached 120 million people a year," Lear says. But he rarely indulged in thinking about all the lives he touched, except perhaps once. "I was doing all these TV shows simultaneously, flying cross-country, looking down and seeing lights everywhere. At that moment, I was able to wonder if everywhere I saw a light, I didn't help make somebody laugh."
As one person in one house with one of the lights he may have seen from that plane, I can attest that Norman Lear made me laugh and think.