Ebertfest: Television titan Norman Lear wows audience


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CHAMPAIGN — Shortly after television legend Norman Lear took the Virginia Theatre stage at Ebertfest on Saturday, his cellphone rang.

As he fished it out of his pocket, he informed the audience that he had told his six children that he would never turn off his phone, adding that a year ago, while making a public appearance, his sister had died.

This time, the call was from Heidi Ewing, who with Rachel Grady directed "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," the documentary about the 94-year-old Lear that had just been shown at Ebertfest 19.

"Heidi, for crying out loud," Lear said. He then placed his microphone to the phone.

"Did they like the movie or what?" Ewing asked.

The audience applauded enthusiastically.

"That was the answer to 'what,'" Lear said.

He then asked Ewing, who was to have been at Ebertfest but couldn't make it, how she was feeling.

"You know what?" he then said. "It would be funny if we talked for 20 minutes about stuff that wouldn't interest anyone."

Festival emcee/producer Chaz Ebert then interjected, "Tell her the movie played like gangbusters."

The 91-minute documentary, released in 2016, did. It covers Lear from childhood on, using in some artsy scenes a 9-year-old boy, wearing a white hat similar to the one Lear wears, as Lear's young alter ego.

Lear was 9 years old when his father was sent to prison; it was a defining part of his life. He said in the documentary that his father lied, cheated and stole, and said he had never forgiven or forgot him.

The documentary also features scenes from Lear's politically charged hit TV series, among them "All in the Family," "Good Times," "The Jeffersons" and "Maude," and footage of Lear on the sets, working with the actors.

"My God, I thought it was so good," Lear said of the doc, adding that his only comment after he saw the final cut was, "Did you include a shot of my grandchildren?"

Grady said making a documentary about anyone, let alone Lear, is a vulnerable process.

"We kept it pretty professional," she said. "We didn't show him anything."

"I told them not to show me anything," Lear said.

Ebert said she thought it was important that the two directors had included in the documentary an interview with John Amos, the actor who on the Lear sitcom "Good Times" portrayed James Evans.

In that series, his character and that of his wife, Florida (Esther Rolle), were raising three children in a housing project in Chicago.

Their son J.J., played by Jimmie Walker, and his frequently spoken catchphrase "Dy-no-mite!" became popular with viewers. But Amos said in the interview that the character of J.J. veered from comedy to buffoonery. Many other African-Americans felt the same.

"Do you want to hear the other side of the story?" Lear asked.

He said "Good Times" came about because Rolle was so fabulous as the maid, Florida, on "Maude," starring Bea Arthur.

Rolle didn't want to play a single mother of two, so Lear at one point wrote into the series a husband for Florida. He was played by Amos.

"The network saw the two of them and said, 'Let's develop a show around them,'" Lear said. So he came up with "Good Times."

Ebert said to Lear, "At one time you had more African-American characers on prime-time TV than anyone else."

"I believe what I said about our common humanity," Lear responded. "We're all human beings."

Before the discussion, Ebert gave Lear, who as he came on stage received from the packed theater a standing ovation, the Ebert Humanitarian Award "for a lifetime of empathy." He is the first person to receive the honor.

At the 2016 Ebertfest, Chaz Ebert made the first presentation of the award, a recognition for films that exemplify humanity and empathy, to the documentary "Disturbing the Peace." It focuses on Combatants for Peace, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who advocate against violence.

Scene and heard

A few things that caught the attention of arts-and-entertainment writer Melissa Merli, who has covered all 19 Ebertfests:

-- Director Rick Goldsmith referred to another big C-U event this weekend, the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon, by jogging onto the Virginia Theatre stage and quipping, "The last half-mile was tough."

-- Like other guests, "Pleasantville" director Gary Ross commented on the beauty of the Virginia Theatre. Screening his movie there, he told the audience, "it is a much bigger thrill for me than it is for you."

-- Told on the Virginia stage that he blended in his TV sitcoms timely issues with humor and entertainment, Norman Lear replied, "It has a lot to do with the foolishness of the human condition."