Legendary TV producer Norman Lear on resurrecting One Day at a Time, the lasting resonance of Archie Bunker, and staying relevant at 94.
In last fall’s Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, an episode of the PBS docu-series American Masters, the longtime TV producer sauntered on screen like a showbiz swami in a white boating hat. Fielding questions and watching clips from his unmatched run of hit sitcoms, the comic sage wore his status as lightly as he did his 94 years. The number, Lear confided to an interviewer, “has got everybody believing I’m some kind of special intelligence.” History says he’s a bit more than that.
Consider item no. 1978.2146.01 in the Smithsonian collection, listed alongside Thomas Edison’s first lightbulb and the desk where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. “Materials” are “wood and fabric.” “Object type” is “chair.” That is, the upholstered wingback throne of Lear’s blue-collar bigot, Archie Bunker, whose operatic scraps with a liberal son-in-law forever known as “Meathead” brought Vietnam era realities into TV’s sanitized realm of entertainment—drafting pop culture as we know it today.
With the debut of All in the Family in 1971, Lear explored racism, sexism, the sexual revolution, and other no-fly-zones so hilariously that the show was No.1 for its first five years on air. The ’70s also saw Lear launch Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, and so many other hits that, for a time, he had nine shows that were entertaining an aggregated audience of 120 million—more than last year’s Super Bowl—and doing it every week.
If such metrics belong to a different TV era, Lear himself does not. In 2014, he published the unsparing memoir Even This I Get to Experience, and this month, Netflix releases a savvy Latin remake of his ’70s hit One Day at a Time (Lear is executive producing), in which the single mom is a Cuban-American ex–military servicewoman (Justina Machado) struggling with two kids and a mother (Rita Moreno). Forty-five years may have passed since Lear introduced Archie Bunker to the world, but TV’s onetime conscience is still razor sharp.
You know you’re an interviewer’s worst nightmare, right? You’ve lived an insanely prolific 94 years and seem to remember all of it.
Norman Lear: [Laughs] Well, I remember all of it because it’s all been good.
I just watched the new One Day at a Time. I was wondering about the process, because it feels so much like one of your scripts—the timing, the wit, the mordant, character-revealing jibes. What was your exact role in it?
NL: Well, I was at the helm, as they say. So I … [chuckle] steered it. Steering it is a good way to put it. But others clearly wrote it, the two people who are the—what’s the expression?—the “showrunners.” Gloria Calderón Kellett is herself Cuban, and Mike Royce is a brilliant writer and producer who did Everybody Loves Raymond.
You must have a sense of déjà vu when you look at today’s culture. How are you so upbeat seeing some of your TV farces return as reality on a national scale?
NL: I don’t care to wake up in the morning without hope. Hope is a survival mechanism—along with living in the moment. There are two small
words we don’t pay enough attention to: over and next. When something is over, it’s [expletive] over—and we’re on to the next. I think there’s a hammock between those two words. That’s what they mean by living in the moment. It has taken me every split second of my life to be uttering this sentence. This conversation represents every split second of my life. So is the moment important or what?
That’s the worldview I got from the beautiful readings older actors gave you in a short film on The New York Times Op-Docs page. They read pages of a TV script you wrote about seniors that you couldn’t get made. NL: You might note that that bit on the Times site sold the show. I wrote the script for Guess Who Died six years ago. This New York Times Op-Doc sold the show. Television was a central fixture when you used it to shape the national conversation. It was in every living room, uniting families, yet in its entertainment, reality seemed exotic.
NL: Well, the topics that we dealt with were things that were happening. If they weren’t happening in our families—those of us who were writing and producing the show—we knew of them happening across the street or up the street. It was all local and neighborhood, nothing exotic about the subjects. What made them exotic was that mainline television never allowed them before. The biggest problem the American family faced before All in the Family was that the roast was ruined, and the boss was coming to dinner.
How does it feel looking at your old shows now?
NL: I love great performance. I’m one of these people who, ever since he was a kid, plops into a chair and says, “Take me.” Everything about me is, “Take me.” I’m not sitting there to judge, I’m not deciding anything. I’m sitting there to be had.
Can you describe the genesis of the original One Day at a Time in 1975?
NL: This was a first: a mother, unmarried, on television. That was a big deal. When Mary Tyler Moore was conceived by [Allan Burns and James L.] Brooks, she was conceived as a divorcée, and the network didn’t want that, so a divorced woman became a single woman. So we did a divorced woman with two children. That was difficult getting on the air.
Did you come to television with this commitment to show the truth?
NL: I had it from the time my father went to prison [for three years for selling fake bonds] when I was 9 years old. I was pretty much on my own, and I understood my own course. I grew up quickly. When I was a kid in public schools, we were taught civics, so I learned what my First Amendment was, my Bill of Rights, my Constitution, my Declaration of Independence, and what these documents mean. And because I lost my father, I guess I adopted the Founding Fathers, which has stayed with me all the way through buying a copy of the Declaration of Independence [in 2000] and filming a reading of it at Independence Hall.
It says something about your personality and presence that I’ve yet to see anyone riff on you as “King Lear.” The title fits. The aging despot losing his marbles? Not so much.
NL: Well, my father was called H.K. He insisted that he was named Herman King Lear. But his birth certificate, which I have found, did not suggest that he was named King Lear. He … adopted it. So by the time I might have thought of it, it had been used.
Doesn’t sound like he read the play.
NL: [Grim chuckle] Probably not.
You’ve been remarkably candid and open in your self-analysis—like how you’ve been motivated to win the approval of gentiles. Is this courage, or lack of concern for what others think, or something else?
NL: I don’t know, I think it reflects some understanding of the foolishness of the human condition. I had to begin understanding that when I was 9 years old. Somebody is telling me I’m the man of the house. When you go through that, you begin to understand a little bit of the foolishness of the human condition.
Given your passion for performance and the Founding Fathers, I assume you’ve found Hamilton.
NL: The last time I saw it was the fourth time, and I saw it with a granddaughter who knew every single syllable. She’s 12 years old, and she sat there mouthing every single word. I loved it. Lin-Manuel Miranda and I had a drink afterward. The Book of Mormon and Hamilton are two of the projects that are gifts of sanity in an insane world.
As a mail-order minister, you officiated The Book of Mormon co-creator Trey Parker’s wedding. Have you married anyone else?
NL: I married three couples, but the others aren’t people you would know.
I imagine that taking on some of the topics you brought to TV must have taken a lot of courage.
NL: Well, they were so ordinary, it didn’t take any courage.
As a public figure, you were still open to criticism. People were writing nasty opinion pieces about Archie Bunker, clearly misunderstanding the intent. Did it ever get to you?
NL: There was enough on the other side to offset that. And every bit of criticism recognized that they were criticizing something that most Americans were approving of. The audiences were huge, and the complaints were small compared to the size of the audience.
How did such a quintessentially American thing like All in the Family migrate from a British TV show, ’Till Death Us Do Part?
NL: Our biggest product in America is excess. ’Till Death Us Do Part did about six or eight episodes for a few years—that was the whole run [in the U.K.]. Our first season, we did 24 shows. And I had grown up with
an element of my father in Archie. He used to call me the laziest white kid he ever met. And when I would tell him he was putting down a whole race of people just to call me lazy, [he’d say] “Oh, that’s not what I’m doing, you’re the dumbest white kid I ever met.” So I was very comfortable in the world that became All in the Family.
How do you live and work in Hollywood without feeling removed from normal people?
NL: I never felt that I was living at a remove from other people. I understood that I was absolutely sheltered from the lives some people led. Recently, I contributed to a series called America Divided. I spent time with people who were being threatened with losing their apartments. These were all African-Americans in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and I couldn’t believe what they were going through, at the hands of landlords who were far removed from the area, doing everything in the world to get them out of there. In the name of gentrification, they were absolutely abusive to these people. It was horrible to watch. So I have lived a life at a remove from all of that. I like to think that we could put a spotlight on these things. That’s what we did with this show: have people open up to the fact that they exist.
On to a lighter topic: What’s up with your iconic hat?
NL: Must be 50 years ago, I was writing 10, 12 hours a day, and I was picking my scalp. My wife at the time tossed a hat on my head one day and said, “Don’t take that off, it’ll keep you from picking.” I fell in love with the hat, and I’ve been wearing a version of it ever since.
In World War II, you flew 52 missions as a B-17 radio operator and gunner, a job with a 50 percent survival rate. You’re not just lucky to be 94—you’re lucky you made it to 22!
NL: I think that one of the secrets of our common humanity is that, at the very core of everything, we don’t believe that it will be us. That they could talk me into a flak suit to go 30,000 feet in the air and get shot at? The thing is, I just didn’t believe it would be me.
You think we all have this self-preserving belief that our number won’t be the one that comes up?
NL: Yes, absolutely. It’s part of our common humanity.
Well, you’re producing a new TV show at age 94. Maybe in your case it’s true. Your number actually won’t come up.
NL: [Laughs] Right, right. Just me.
You don’t seem to let age distance you from others.
NL: I feel like the peer of whoever it is that I’m talking to.
I read you saying that before, and it really struck me. Not just coeval but peer, which implies more equality than just age or life experience.
NL: Well, it’s a fact. I mean it in every way it can be interpreted.