The fifth installment of The Odd Interview features an expanded, lightly edited version of an interview that originally appeared in the Late Fall 2015 issue of Austin Way magazine. I’ll assume Norman Lear doesn’t need much of an introduction to you (otherwise, why would you be reading this?). I talked with the legendary writer/producer (who immediately told me, “Call me Norman”) over the phone on July 8, 2015, less than three weeks before his 93rd birthday.
But before we get to the Q&A itself, let’s jump ahead to October, when Lear came to Austin to receive an award for Outstanding Television Writer at the Austin Film Festival, which was the reason I got to talk with him in the first place.
From all accounts, because of thunderstorms in Texas, Lear and several family members traveling with him from the West Coast had to spend about 12 hours in the Chicago airport before getting in to town, but he wouldn’t hear of turning back. This is a determined guy. Instead of being deep in retirement, he published his autobiography, Even This I Get To Experience, last year (read it: you’ll be glad you did) and since then has been on a sort of victory-lap tour around the US, going from interview to interview, award to award, recounting his life, dispensing political advice, and regaling audience after audience with engaging anecdotes about everything from participating in over 50 bombing raids during World War II to discussing the first interracial marriage in sitcom land with Roxie Roker when casting “The Jeffersons.”
Sitting onstage in a director’s chair at the Austin Film Festival with the moderator, Phil Rosenthal, the ebullient creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and a pal of his, Norman (go ahead, call him Norman) comes across like a twinkly, elfin wise man, an elderly kid, casually dressed in jeans, a sweater and, of course, that hat. When he momentarily loses the thread of a story, Phil interjects, “This is 93 showing!”
If there’s an elephant that’s housed in this room, filled with appreciative people who grew up watching his shows, it’s that Lear hasn’t had a sitcom on the air in over 20 years (the short-lived “704 Hauser” in 2004) and it’s been 30 — a whole generation, plus some — since his last real hit, “The Jeffersons,” went off the air. Seven years short of a century, he still roams the land (Lear out on the blasted heath of film festivals?), pitching a pilot for a sitcom set in a retirement village, titled “Guess Who Died.” There will be a live staged version of it later that afternoon at a local theater. The script has made all the rounds; the lords of TV, network, cable and otherwise, still wedded to the 18-to-49 demographic, don’t want to touch it. Back in 1994, he tells the crowd, he did a TV pilot starring Peter O’Toole (who was in his early 60s at the time) and nobody was interested in picking it up.
Lear explains: ” ‘Well,’ they say, ‘we already have Betty White. I love Betty White, but she does not a demographic make. It must be that the people in charge don’t want to be seen as old.”
I can’t help thinking of Orson Welles, who couldn’t get a major movie deal greenlighted for decades before he died — although unlike Welles, Lear not only has a much better sense of humor, including the oft-underrated virtue of laughing at oneself, and also unlike Welles, Lear has a track record of much success and profitability in his past work.
Of course, you might ask, isn’t having created “All in the Family”, “Maude”, “Sanford and Son”, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”, “One Day At A Time” and all the rest enough? Of course it is, but if even Norman Lear, for all the well-deserved accolades and awards he collects these days, as he goes from podium to podium, interview to interview, talking about how he changed the face of television forever, acknowledging his influence and keeping in contact with great numbers of entertainment-industry movers and shakers, can’t get a series on the air anymore, what does that say?
With that, on to our interview.
Q: The title of your book, ‘Even This I Get To Experience,’ I take this to mean that even when you go through experiences that most people think of as bad, like business failures or political defeats, you find some value in them in that you at least get to have firsthand knowledge of something you hadn’t previously. Or in other words, everything is raw material – which to me is a way of thinking that seems to be specific to writers.
Norman Lear: That’s interesting. I’ve always felt that way. Even if, you know, the surprise of the amount of…the surprise of the amount of surprises (laughs). I didn’t expect this. But, even this I get to experience. This phone call is a good example, y’know. Even this; I’m talking to Austin, I’m going to be in Austin, I’m looking forward to Austin.
You’re being honored with the Outstanding Television Writer Award at the Austin Film Festival –
Yeah, I love that! Even this I get to experience.
Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as you know, television was generally considered an inferior art form compared to movies – now, not so much. I know you’ve produced and/or written over a dozen movies, but do you have any regrets about not making more of them, and focusing on television?
You know, that’s a subject in itself, regret. I don’t do too well with regrets. This is the moment, and I have no regrets, no. The way I feel, I remember saying – we [Lear and his wife Lyn] have our anniversary, 27 years, coming up – no, 28 years, and I remember saying at that anniversary, we had three daughters sitting there from an earlier marriage.
I bless everything that led to this moment. Every split second, every brawl and every boo-hoo, because it took them all to get me here. Then I look at my daughters, who are thinking, ‘Wait a minute, he’s marrying somebody…about the same age as my oldest daughter, and we had never met before,’ they were thinking, because it was all new. But that’s exactly the way I felt: that I had to go through everything I went through to get to that moment, and so, bless ‘em all, every one of them, for those moments.
It seems to be an attitude that celebrates diversity.
I have to connect that with your TV shows, which really focused on diversity before it was cool – blue-collar working-class families, African-Americans, single mothers, gay people – why was it important to you, at a time when that was not really done, to portray characters who were something other than the typical white suburban Brady Bunch and Cleaver-type families you saw on TV in the ‘50s and ‘60s?
Well, my experience growing up suggested that everything we ever did on television, all of those topics, whether arguing politics, or the Vietnam War, or menopause, or – there wasn’t anything that I didn’t hear growing up, so, y’know, I thought we were reflecting what everybody lives through.
Right. Although it wasn’t on television until you set about changing that.
Yeah, I can’t truly say I knew that at the time. It wasn’t like – I was working in television, it was very new, and – I’m talking about 1950, it was very new. By 1970 it was still new, but it was out of its infancy.
If there’s a thread that runs through all those shows, ‘All in the Family,’ ‘Good Times,’ ‘The Jeffersons,’ ‘One Day At a Time,’ it’s that they all tried to address various social issues while also being entertaining. I’m guessing you don’t subscribe to that old quote, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.”
God knows, I had my share of that.
What do you think is the right balance of comedy to seriousness in a sitcom, or, to put it another way, how do you wrap messages in a candy shell for easier viewer digestion?
I didn’t think we were sending messages. I realized some years in, when I heard for the umpteenth time ‘There’s Western Union,’ that, wait a minute, I’m fifty-whatever I was years old I was at that time; I have a point of view; we are dealing with social problems, I am expressing a point of view about it, I’m trying to express all the points of view, because that’s where the comedy comes from, the conflict. But I’m favoring what I think is the way things want to be, so I finally accepted, ‘Well, wait a minute, isn’t that what they were doing before me, when the largest problem a family (on a sitcom) might have faced is the roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner.’ Twenty-four, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling of that would suggest well, no problems in America, no Vietnam, no menopause, no abortion, no economic problems, life is just sweet.
I’ve looked at a few right-wing blogs to get their opinion of you, and their main criticism seems to be that you set up characters like Archie Bunker, and Conrad Bain’s character, Arthur on ‘Maude,’ as straw men to be knocked down by the liberal arguments of Mike Stivic, or Maude, or whoever. Their point being that in real life, they think that those characters would have had more compelling arguments for their point of view.
Well, I’d like to know what they are! I’m not hearing them now (laughs). I don’t hear strong points of view. I hear strong points of view against; I don’t hear strong points of view pro: ‘This is what I’m going to do, this is the map.’ I just hear ‘Everything is wrong on the other side.’
Of course, it’s been an interesting couple of months in America. You’re credited with introducing the first sympathetic gay character on TV, Archie Bunker’s friend Steve, early on in the show’s run, and only 44 years later, here we are with nationwide marriage equality. Barack Obama is president, Hillary Clinton might be next, Bernie Sanders is drawing crowds, there’s more of an appreciation for diversity and women’s rights – these are all triumphs for liberal values –
While there are triumphs, as you put it, for liberal values, I think they were significantly aided by the mistakes George (W.) Bush made. We’ve only recently come to terms [that] it was not only a serious mistake to go into Iraq, it followed a series of other lies. We don’t accept that, we Americans, easily; we don’t swallow that and say ‘he lied.’ But we’re getting the idea that we were lied into this. We’re accepting it without spelling it out, like swallowing a bitter pill, you know. So while it’s a triumph of liberal values, it’s as a result of serious mistakes in the other direction.
And of course we’re also still dealing with massive amounts of racial tension, riots, gun violence, a totally polarized political system – with all the change you’ve seen in your lifetime, what do you make of what’s going on now, and do you get discouraged by all the one-step-forward, two-steps-back craziness? Is it better or worse than it was in the ‘70s?
Because it’s now, and we’re living in the moment, it seems worse. I can’t be certain that I’m correct about that, but we’re living with it now. We’re not reading about it historically, we’re living it, and it’s worse.
Because we don’t have the benefit of rose-colored glasses, of looking back through a filter at the past.
Right. I’m not the least (bit) apocalyptic, by the way. I don’t want to wake up in the morning without hope. We’re going to save our asses somehow, but it’s going to require saving our asses.
I wanted to talk about “Mary Hartman” a bit because I was in high school when it premiered and I remember vividly how much it affected me; I watched it every night –
Oh, I love that…
I guess I was a good age to start watching it, because it immediately seemed to me that something had shifted in the cultural wind, and that it was a new animal. It was the first instance I know of postmodern satire in the mass media; it was kind of a view of the world that I later saw in David Letterman, Jon Stewart, “Saturday Night Live,” God knows how many later sitcoms. Would you agree with that, or do you think I’m totally off-base?
No, I don’t think you’re totally off-base at all. The single idea behind Mary Hartman was, what is this amount of media doing to an average American woman? In those years there was a lot of talk about women saw more television because it was on during the day and they were home during the day, it was before feminism, y’know, and women were more or less content to be at home. It began in those years. And so, from the very first show, when she was looking at some waxy yellow buildup on the floor and Loretta came running in to talk about “around the corner from them, a family of five and their eight goats and several chickens were slaughtered.” And Mary, “Who would want to kill goats and chickens,’ she said, as her mind is on the can she has that guarantees there will be no waxy yellow buildup. She was already a product of the media: ‘Wait a minute, it can’t be, the can says…” She believed it. She believed the advertising. Well, in the last episode, or near to the last episode, she went crazy on the David Susskind Show, literally. Lost her mind on the David Susskind Show under the questioning of a handful (of) talking heads, who were psychologists, and they drove her out of her fuckin’ mind. And it was one of the best pieces of acting I can remember.
I remember that to this day; I thought it was one of the greatest single episodes of television I’ve ever seen.
Yeah, I thought so too, by the way, and it was one take. That whole thing was a single take.
I know there’s been some noise about doing a reboot or remake of “All in the Family.” I wonder how a remake of “Mary Hartman” would do today in the age of social media and political correctness.
It’s funny, you don’t have to remake it, you can rerun it (laughs). I don’t know why it hasn’t been rerun. It looks great. It seems to me the problems we dealt with are the problems we have today. I guess, well, and the timing is altogether the same. She was unusual then, she’d be unusual today.
It must be very gratifying to know you’ve had a lot to do with nurturing along the maturity of television as a medium. What do you think of the state of TV today, in the age of Netflix and cable, “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Orange is the New Black,” the last of which (which I’m a big fan of) seems close, in some ways, to your vision of TV as a little engine for social commentary and showing diversity and minority cultures that don’t often get represented. What current shows are you watching?
I think it’s the Golden Age. I can’t keep up with the amount of shows that people tell me (to watch): “Norman, you’re not watching — you must watch…” and then I watch it and it’s everything they said it was, but I don’t know where everybody is finding the time to see it all. Streaming, the way Netflix and Amazon and so forth are doing it, I’ll take it – let me have 13 – because they believe in the idea and in the creative individual they’re dealing with. It’s the golden age. I just can’t see enough. I watched all the early episodes of “Transparent,” for example. And “Orange is the New Black,” I saw the first season. By the time the second season came around, a dozen friends had said, “What, you’re not watching ‘Empire’? You’re not watching ‘Boardwalk’? You’re not watching..” Titles I can’t even think of, that I never got to see any of, but I respect so much the people who said ‘Are you kidding, you gotta be watching.’ It’s just, here’s what – think about this. I think our most important product is excess. We export excess in everything we’re doing, whether it’s the pharmaceutical industry promising everything in the world, product after product, or lying ourselves into Iraq, or lying to ourselves with flag pins about how well we care for our men and women in the service and then treat them so badly when they come home; so poorly, I should say. We are a nation of glorious excess.
It’s like, going back to “Mary Hartman,” it’s the public relations, promotions vs. the reality or the dream vs. the reality, I guess, that produces all the conflict.
Right. I realized as you just said that, I made a film a lot of years ago called “Cold Turkey.” And that was also about the same thing, what happens when a town is threatening to catch all the attention in the country because the smokers have stopped smoking for 30 days, and the media, winding up with Nixon coming at the very end, and winding up the movie with the little town is so saved that it’s got smokestacks that are choking it to death.
Right. And that’s what they wind up with as the prize.
Yeah, they wind up being a real city with real companies (laughs). Emitting foul…
That’s satire. That’s one of your lesser-known movies, but I’d like to watch it again now.
I watched it about four or five months ago. “American Masters” is doing a documentary about me, and I looked at it so that I could talk about it, and I couldn’t believe how prescient it was in that sense.
To switch gears, you’re a card-carrying member of what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation,” along with millions of people, but you don’t worship the military and you don’t view everything with rose-colored glasses. How did serving in the Army Air Corps, quite actively, change your view of the military and soldiers in general?
One of my great heroes is Dwight David Eisenhower. He was the general that won, led the troops, led us, I was among the troops, led the direction we took that won the war. Then he became a two-term president, from whom we begot the National Highway System. And he did not listen to a lot of his military advice that would have put us into a half dozen foreign situations, sending troops and so forth. Then he leaves the presidency and in his farewell address, warns us about what is choking us to death right now, which was the military-industrial complex. In his first draft – he cut the word before he went on the air, but in his first draft it was the “military-industrial-Congressional complex.” And as I view the country today, that complex has got us by the throat right now, the military-industrial complex.
Some people might be surprised, who call you a Hollywood liberal, to hear that Eisenhower is a hero of yours, but of course he’s never referred to at all by today’s Republicans, is he?
He’s not referred to, period. You do not hear his name ever mentioned. And by the way, I’m the “Hollywood liberal” who did a show called “I Love Liberty” that was co-chaired by Gerald Ford and Lady Bird Johnson. On the air you saw Barry Goldwater and Jane Fonda in that show, and John Wayne. You know, I had a relationship, I had a long correspondence with President Reagan; the Wall Street Journal printed pieces of a dozen letters we exchanged. I don’t know if I was the only liberal, but Mrs. Reagan invited me to the funeral, I flew up there with her; so, that’s my America.
It’s sort of a civility that’s gone missing from a lot of political discourse these days.
Oh, totally, totally, totally.
I read your remarks at the Take Back America conference in 2008 about being a “born again American” and refusing to cede talk about God and religion to the religious right, which was very eloquent. Do you think that things have gotten better or worse in that department since then?
Well, I think, in a subtle but important way, worse, because the Tea Party reflects a great deal of that. They don’t talk about it as openly as they used to, and money pours into those places, y’know, and money in politics is just one of the great problems of our time, as a result of Citizens United.
But, as you said, you’re not apocalyptic and there is some hope.
Oh, yes. I think when we save the world, then we will. The door will have been kicked open by the arts, by all the things, music and theater and laughter. All the arts that bring us together. And the politicians and the politics and so forth will follow.
That’s very eloquent. I wanted to ask you maybe one or two more questions. As a kid, I remember watching “All in the Family” with my family in my living room and my father – he was not Archie Bunker, but identified with him to some extent, they were working men in Queens – he was sort of confused by why Archie always seemed to get the short end of the stick and ended up getting ridiculed for his beliefs. I was just fascinated. It seemed to me like a TV show as a social studies class, designed to provoke arguments among the viewers at home. I’m certainly not the first guy to note that TV viewers like to root for an antihero, whether it’s Archie Bunker or Tony Soprano. Did the widespread sympathy for Archie surprise you at the time?
Did it surprise me at the time? I don’t remember – I don’t think so. I mean, what was interesting about that was that all the letters that came, after a while I really watched it to see if this would be true – every letter that ever said “right on, Archie,” and there were a ton of those, never failed to say something about “but you’re making a fool of a good (man)” – that was Nixon who said we were “making a fool of a good man.” The White House tapes revealed him talking about “All in the Family” – he didn’t know the title, but he knew that guy, and he knew the one you referred to, when the gay guy makes his point when they’re arm wrestling, and he (Nixon) talks about that to Haldeman. That tape is a true badge of honor (laughs).
Along with being named to his enemies list, I imagine.
Yes. That might have been what got me there.
I admire you for sticking with the concept of “All in the Family” for several years and making a couple of pilots first, until everything seemed to gel. I think it’s that way in any kind of new thing that’s really never been done before; I guess it has to be actually done before people realize that this could be a success, and watch it.
Always. So true, so true.
After the panel, Norman Lear graciously sticks around for photos and handshakes with the fans even as the festival staff do their best to shoo everyone out of the room so the next event can get underway. In person he looks his age, and his eyes are milky blue, and you sense he’s probably tired from the hour and a quarter conversational performance. Accompanied by family members, he descends to the hotel lobby. Wherever he goes, it seems, he is accompanied by a great deal of hugs and affection.
“You made my life better, Norman Lear!” Phil Rosenthal exclaimed at the end of the interview, and the crowd rises as one to applaud him. Even this, he gets to experience.