Ebertfest: Up close and personal with Norman Lear

Ebertfest: Up close and personal with Norman Lear

Norman Lear might be one of the most famous "liberals" in the United States.

However, the television legend, who eschews labels in general, thinks of himself as "a bleeding-heart conservative."

"In that you will not mess with my Constitution, my Bill of Rights, my First Amendment," he said. "But does my heart bleed for those brought into lives who can't have an equal education and equal breaks under the law? Yes. Do I want to make it right for them? Yes. I'll do anything I can.

"To me, that's the most conservative. I will fight to the death for my constitutional duties toward my liberties and yours."

Toward that end, Lear, who will be a guest at Roger Ebert's Film Festival on Saturday at the Virginia Theatre, founded several national cause-oriented organizations over his long life, most famously People for the American Way. In his autobiography, he calls it a liberal advocacy group.

Now 94, Lear said his sense of justice was honed as a youngster when he "fell in love with America" in his civics classes.

"They don't teach civics in American classrooms anymore, which I think is one of the great disgraces," he said during a telephone interview with The News-Gazette.

He said his political awakening certainly wasn't due to his father, who when Lear was 9 went to prison for three years for petty financial schemes.

One influence came around the time his father was in the joint. While listening to the radio, Lear "came across" Father Charles Coughlin, whom Lear described as a vicious anti-Semite and fascist.

"He said he heard good things about what was going on in Germany," Lear said. "He scared me. I didn't have my father to turn to. But I was learning every day about my America, where somebody hated me because I was Jewish, or a black guy because he was black, or someone else because of their religion.

"That's not American. We're all equal under the law. We're maybe not as pretty as each other but we're equally innocent. We are all the same. That stayed with me all my life."

Lear so loved the country's founding principles that in 2000 he bought an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.

It had been recently discovered and was the only copy in private hands. It would be sold in auction at Sotheby's in L.A.

Bidding started at $4.8 million. Lear won it at $8.1 million.

Nixon's 'enemies list'

In his 2014 autobiography, "Even This I Get to Experience," Lear wrote that he's lived a "multitude of lives" and had a front-row seat for the birth of television.

He wrote, produced, created or developed more than 100 shows and once had nine on the air at the same time.

One of his best-known series, "All in the Family," introduced America to Archie Bunker, the bigot who tries to hide his soft heart; his sweet, put-upon wife, Edith; and their daughter, Gloria, and son-in-law, "Meathead."

Lear also wrote or produced other hit sit-coms — "Sanford and Son," "One Day at a Time," "The Jeffersons," "Good Times" and "Maude," which starred Bea Arthur as an outspoken liberal on her fourth husband.

In one episode, she becomes pregnant while in her late 40s. The character decides to have an abortion.

Two CBS affiliates refused to air the episode. Those were in Peoria and Champaign, Lear wrote in his autobiography.

Lear's work led to Jerry Falwell labeling him "the No. 1 enemy of the American family." Richard Nixon put Lear on his "Enemies List."

President Bill Clinton, though, presented him with the National Medal of the Arts in 1999, saying he'd "held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it."

In the beginning

Before he started working in TV and movies, Lear went to Emerson College, having won a scholarship based on a rhetorical contest. His speech was about the Constitution.

During World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces as a radio operator/gunner on B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. He flew 52 combat missions.

"It was one war that we were totally 100 percent no doubt about it the good guys," he said. "We haven't known ourselves to be so much the good guys all the years since."

While based in Italy, he wrote his Uncle Jack to ask him to help him find a job when he returned home. That led to a job for a short time as a press agent in New York, feeding columnists anecdotes.

"I did like it," he said. "But I was fired."

After columnist Dorothy Kilgallen became upset over a couple of stories Lear had fed her, she called his boss and demanded Lear be canned.

He moved to Connecticut with his first wife and worked for his father's company, which was turning out two-burner electric hot plates and electric tea kettles. That business later was dissolved by the state because it operated for two years without filing annual reports.

While working for his father, Lear and a friend came up with the idea to manufacture and sell a "Demi-Tray," a small ashtray that would clip onto the rim of a saucer holding a beverage.

It did well, but then the two put their money into making a bed of four small sterling silver ashtrays and a sterling silver-plated silent butler, a larger ashtray with a lid into which smaller ashtrays could be emptied.

Those items didn't sell so well, and the business failed.

Go West, young man

So in the late '40s, Lear and his family moved to California, where he hoped to revive his career in publicity. While looking for work, he joined his cousin's husband, Ed Simmons, who was looking for work as a comedy writer.

The two eventually sold some of their jokes to Danny Thomas, who "killed" with them at a Friars' Frolic show. That led to more work for Simmons and Lear, who began writing sketches for TV variety and comedy shows.

The two eventually went different directions. Lear continued to write for other shows as well as movies before he began to create his own.

He's now writing a new sitcom — "Guess Who Died?" — set in a senior living community. He said it's about his and the baby-boomer generation and that Sony Pictures Television will make the pilot. He also is producing a reboot for Netflix of the sitcom "One Day at a Time." He had developed the original, which aired in the '70s and '80s.

It told of a divorced single mom, who's white, raising two teen daughters. This time around, the comedy centers on a recently divorced Cuban-American military veteran and her two children.

"What happened was Sony and (producer) Brent (Miller) were talking one day about doing a Latino version because Latino families don't exist on television much," Lear said. "Brent remembered 'a.k.a. Pablo,'" which ran for a season, about a Latino family. While they were talking 'One Day at a Time' about a Latino family, Brent asked me what I thought. I said I thought it was a great idea."

As for the documentary "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," to be shown at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Ebertfest, Lear said he had nothing to do with it.

It was directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who along with Lear and Miller will be on the Virginia stage afterward.

"I think it's so good," he said.

Breakfast of champions

At 94, Lear says he's in good health and vigorous.

"I just love getting up in the morning," he said. "I do eat a salad for breakfast. That didn't happen as a result of me going on a diet or thinking anything in particular."

Instead, for many years, Lear loved starting his day with "a very thin slice of toast and bagel with smoked salmon." One morning, he ate that with leftover salad.

"I just loved the combination," he said. "... My kids made a big thing of it."

He said he lives in the moment and doesn't believe in regrets.

"It's not that I don't have regrets but I don't live there. The fact of my life is it took me 90 years and some months, days and hours to be talking to you at this minute. It took me every split second of my life to say these words. I like living in the moment."

Four score
In 2013, the staff of Entertainment Weekly ranked the top 100 TV shows of all time. No surprise: Four of Norman Lear’s efforts made the list.
1. The Wire
2. The Simpsons
3. Seinfeld
4. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
5. The Sopranos
7. The Andy Griffith Show
8. Buffy The Vampire Slayer
9. Mad Men
10. Your Show of Shows
11. I Love Lucy
12. Saturday Night Live
13. The Twilight Zone
14. The Office (UK version)
15. Cheers
16. The Cosby Show
17. Roseanne
18. Breaking Bad
19. Arrested Development
20. The Honeymooners
21. Friends
22. My So-Called Life
23. Law & Order
24. Lost
25. Alfred Hitchcock Presents
26. Prime Suspect
27. Monty Python’s Flying Circus
28. The Abbott and Costello Show
29. The X-Files
30. ER
31. M*A*S*H
32. The Golden Girls
33. The Carol Burnett Show
34. The Larry Sanders Show
35. Hill Street Blues
37. Columbo
38. The Bob Newhart Show
39. The Fugitive
40. The Real World
41. Twin Peaks
42. Taxi
43. St. Elsewhere
44. Frasier
45. Gilmore Girls
46. The Rifleman
47. The Rockford Files
48. Friday Night Lights
49. The Muppet Show
50. Survivor
51. The West Wing
52. Soap
53. American Idol
54. NYPD Blue
55. thirtysomething
56. 30 Rock
57. The Shield
58. Sex and the City
59. Freaks and Geeks
60. Deadwood
61. Dallas
62. Homicide: Life on the Street
63. Absolutely Fabulous
64. Modern Family
65. Doctor Who
66. Chappelle’s Show
67. The Prisoner
68. Family
69. Star Trek: The Next Generation
70. Will & Grace
71. Beavis and Butt-Head
72. Battlestar Galactica
73. Six Feet Under
74. Homeland
75. Beverly Hills, 90210
76. Game of Thrones
77. Ally McBeal
78. Dawson’s Creek
79. Everybody Loves Raymond
80. The Office (U.S. version)
81. In Living Color
83. Oz
84. Family Ties
85. Little House on the Prairie
86. 24
87. South Park
88. Perry Mason
89. Mystery Science Theatre 3000
90. Felicity
91. Star Trek
93. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
94. Project Runway
95. Grey’s Anatomy
96. Malcolm in the Middle
97. The Comeback
98. Bewitched
99. Alias
100. The Brady Bunch