The Smartest Guy in the Writers’ Room: Norman Lear at 94

He’s as acerbic as Maude, as hilarious as George Jefferson, and as opinionated as Archie Bunker

Norman Lear was born during the presidency of Warren G. Harding and made his bones as a TV producer in the days of Richard Nixon’s White House. It is now morning in Donald Trump’s America. In the foyer of the television producer’s Beverly Hills offices, CNN is blaring the latest on the faux post-election scandal involving the Clintons, a child sex-trafficking ring, and a pizza place. My eyes move to the Declaration of Independence, hanging on an adjacent wall. In 2000, Lear and his wife, Lyn, paid more than $8 million for a rare original copy of the 1776 document and promptly sent it on a tour of the United States. Next to the burbling heads of CNN, the framed facsimile seems like a before-and-after exhibit on the consequences of a free society. Down the hall, Lear, arriving in his trademark porkpie hat, sits down to a lunch of bincho-grilled salmon brought in from Spago around the corner.

Portraits by Shayan Asgharnia

It’s good to be 94 and the guy responsible for Archie Bunker. The decor in his spacious office is a chronicle of both his biological family (Lear has six children, ages 22 to 70, from three marriages) and the landmark programming he created. Maude Findlay’s abortion, the attempted rape of Edith Bunker, George Jefferson’s use of the N-word: Lear made his characters messengers of the verboten and put the dangerous sitcom on the map. In 1974, five of the top ten shows on television were spun from the worlds he created. Just this morning he awoke wanting to update an old idea about a news broadcast for today, reconfigured with a Trump booster in the anchor chair. It’s a script, Lear said, that began as a collaboration with former Los Angeles news anchor Marcia Brandwynne. He would call the show Good Evening, He Lied.

Lear on the set of the new One Day at a Time

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You’re back doing series television as a nona-genarian. Not only with a reimagined One Day at a Time, which debuted on Netflix in January, but with other projects in the pipeline.

I like getting up in the morning. And there’s always a good idea around the corner. There are 30,000 doors to knock on now. My young associate, Brent Miller, was in a meeting with somebody, and they came up with the idea [to redo One Day at a Time]. It’s that simple. And Sony loved the idea—as did Netflix—to do a Latino version. I haven’t been a writer on the scripts, but I’ve been involved in them, and will be. I’m involved in the staging. But I don’t try to run the show. I’ve also got a writer, Peter Tolan [The Larry Sanders Show, Rescue Me], who will be finishing the pilot we’re working on together called Guess Who Died. Years ago I worked with Ben Stiller. Before he became the actor Ben Stiller, the comic Ben Stiller, he was writing a [screenplay] based on an article I bought called The History of Celebrity in America—in Nine Days. It was about somebody who accidentally gets a lot of attention, becomes a big star, fucks a big star, starts to drink, goes to the Betty Ford Clinic, comes out, becomes a star again, and it all takes place in two weeks.

The original cast of One Day at a Time

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In your 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, you recall how ABC canceled a 1978 sitcom of yours, Apple Pie, after two episodes because it averaged only 22 million viewers. Those ratings would be huge today. Given the explosion of choice, I wonder what you make room for.

The last show that I saw was Mad Men. I came into it in the third season. That’s the last time I was serious—I hate saying that because I’m serious about wishing to see a lot of things. It’s been mentioned to me 19 times before, but this morning somebody just nailed me with The Crown. Now I want to see The Crown. I don’t know where my wife and I are going to find ten hours to see The Crown.

The cast of All in the Family (aired 1971-1979)

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All in the Family debuted on CBS on January 12, 1971. Archie Bunker is a white working-class bigot railing against a rapidly changing America while disguising a big heart. Why doesn’t CBS just re-air the series? Who knows, it might be a hit.

They would have to deal with us to do it, but it amazes me that they don’t think about it. What they’re talking about doing now is kind of a “Norman Lear Theater”: six or ten episodes of All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, Sanford and Son.

You mean as specials on CBS? Reshooting the old scripts?

Yeah. Louis C.K. would be playing Archie. Did you see his recent series Horace and Pete? It’s fabulous.

Who would be the new Maude Findlay?

We haven’t thought about Maude. Jane Lynch?

Lear with Bea Arthur, the star of Maude (1972-1978)

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I find stories of your painful working relationship with Carroll O’Connor fascinating. The time, for instance, that he refused to report to work to shoot the episode in which Archie is stuck in an elevator with, among others, a black businessman and a pregnant Puerto Rican woman.

That was the latest he ever came to work. It was the Irish, Dublin-trained intellectual actor who disagreed on an intellectual basis. Those five people cramped in an elevator wasn’t funny to him. The minute the audience saw it, they laughed. The episode with the swastika on the front door and the Jewish Defense League—God, he couldn’t see doing comedy with that. We were fighting every week—much more about the nature of the show and the story than the specific lines. Because he was the best writer we had. Not to write the initial line but to tweak it Archie’s way.

Less is recalled about how brilliant Jean Stapleton was as Edith. You were a successful screenwriter—for films that included the Oscar-nominated Divorce American Style—who chose to make All in the Family instead of taking a three-picture deal at United Artists. And ABC ended up passing on it before it wound up on CBS three years and two pilots later.

I had to know there was something special—dangerously special—about All in the Family. When I think about it, Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton—you don’t give that up, those two performers in those two roles. I’ll take the credit for casting them, but I can’t take the credit for what developed in terms of their internal chemistry—in every direction, not just the two leads but in every direction. Sally Struthers with each of the other three, Rob Reiner with each of the other three. That is from the gods.

Archie’s pet insult to Edith, “Stifle yourself,” came from your father, Herman. When you were nine years old and growing up in Chelsea, Massachusetts, he went to prison for fraud. What did you know about the situation at the time?

I knew that he had flown to Oklahoma with men who—my mother said, “Herman, I don’t like those men.” And he got arrested for selling some phony bonds. I’m sure we didn’t talk about it because he didn’t want to talk about it. Probably with him, it never happened. He wasn’t sorry about anything. He was always involved in something else, some scheme. There was the time he was dealing with a slipper that had a little light in the toe, a pair of slippers that some guy had invented. He was going to have a million dollars in ten days to two weeks, tops.

Lear warming up a crowd at a taping of The Jeffersons

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After serving as a bombardier in World War II, you came to California with your first wife and child in 1949. What was the plan?

My father told me that if I bought a late-model convertible in Connecticut and sold it in California, I’d make my expenses. So that’s why we drove out. I was going to be a press agent. I got an appointment at Columbia Pictures in the publicity department. Halfway through the meeting, I thought I didn’t have a fucking job. I tried to sell myself as an actor.

Instead you teamed up with your cousin’s husband, Ed Simmons, and started sell-ing routines to comedians, eventually becoming variety-show sketch writers for
the likes of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

Ed wanted to be a comedy writer. We had time on our hands. The minute he told me he wanted to be a comedy writer, we wrote something and sold it that same evening.

Did you have any sense then of the battles to come in terms of comedic subject matter?

I had some sense of the foolishness of the human condition. The country doesn’t run on oil; it runs on horseshit. I remember saying this as a really young guy. When I was doing live television, shows were owned by the advertising agencies. They used to have three-martini lunches with me and Simmons, and, I mean, I knew who they were. They were not smarter than me. They didn’t know any more than me.

The stars of Sanford and Son (1972-1977)

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Cut to 25 years later. Norman Lear owns network television, with some 120 million viewers watching your shows every week. How could you be at all those table reads and run-throughs?

I had to have missed some, but I never missed a table reading of All in the Family or Maude or The Jeffersons, as I remember. I didn’t have as much to do with Sanford and Son. Some of that was just as simple as geography. That’s the only show that was in the Valley.

What? You couldn’t get there?

I couldn’t—fucking both sides of the hill?

Lear on the set of The Jeffersons (1975 to 1985)

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Good Times presented one of the first black families on TV. In the recent PBS American Masters documentary about you, series stars John Amos and Esther Rolle indicate they had various concerns about racial stereotypes, particularly as Jimmie Walker’s J.J. “Dy-no-mite” Evans character grew in popularity. Is it true that you conceived The Jeffersons after representatives from the Black Panthers came to your office and accused you of trotting out a white man’s concept of a black family?

They said Good Times was garbage for two reasons. One, why did the only black family on TV have to work three jobs to make a living? There were black families doing a lot better than that. That made sense. The other reason was probably Jimmie Walker: They got tired of “Dy-no-mite!” I never got tired of it. By the way, I sat at a dinner with Jimmie Walker and Ann Coulter. It was an evening honoring me at Barker Hangar. My wife, as we were driving in, said, “I cannot sit at that table.” Ann Coulter could not have been sweeter or nicer. You would never guess she was Ann Coulter, except that she looked like Ann Coulter.

The cast of Good Times (1974-1979)

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As a legendary progressive activist in Hollywood and cofounder of People for the American Way, you have spent the night in Bill Clinton’s White House and befriended Ronald and Nancy Reagan. What happened to “know thy enemy”?

So much of this presidential election was about demonizing the Other, from both sides of the political spectrum. I think there is a kind of desperation that people are experiencing, and they’re not necessarily attaching it to what I’m about to say, but it gets to them. And that is, they have no parents, they have no leadership. I’ve written maybe half a dozen letters to presidents. In recent times I’ve been able to write, “I’m older than you, but I need a father in the White House.” I need somebody who knows a great deal more than I, who has some understanding of where he wants to take the country, and I need people in the Congress—we call it “the Hill.” We send them to the Hill. Well, I don’t want them coming back to me in polls asking me where to go. They’re on the Hill; they have the view. Lead us, take us. If you look at leadership in corporate America—are you Jewish? The sound that comes to me—because it’s the only one I think best expresses it—is af tsu lokhes. It means “Something is dreadful; it’s awful.” And things are af-fucking-tsu lokhes. I have no reason to hate Donald Trump, but do I fear for my grandchildren and my America? Yes. You know, I think he’s a liar and a cheat—I mean, all the things you could prove about him. I saw [House Speaker] Paul Ryan being interviewed last night, and it shames me that this good-looking top Republican should be in the business of dealing in the dreck of defending Donald Trump, trying to make sense of him. I understand that less well than I understand Donald Trump.

Photo by Shayan Asgharnia

When CBS tested the All in the Family pilot, you watched as people howled with laughter but rated the show poorly. As you write in your book: “Who wants to be seen as having no problem with words such as ‘spic,’ ‘kike,’ ‘spade,’ and the like spewing from a bigot’s mouth?” It reminded me of how the polls in this presidential election failed to reflect Trump’s popularity.

Absolutely. What’s the difference? It’s exactly the same point.

It’s easy to forget how innovative an idea like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was when it debuted in 1976. Social commentary in the guise of a soap opera, five nights a week. How did you get it on the air?

Syndication didn’t want it, I couldn’t sell the show, so we made two episodes at our own expense. Station managers from around the country were out here, and I invited them to a dinner at my home. I had my wife and daughters hostessing. I wanted them to see I had two feet on the ground, or I wasn’t a lunatic.

Lear with actors Louise Lasser and Greg Mulvin from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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You’ve led such a jam-packed life, raising six kids and, for a decade-plus there, revolutionizing network TV.

I took my kids to school.

You did?

I did. And then I got home after they were in bed sometimes. But I do remember dinners and arguments around the table. I remember being asked about stress, and I identified for me what I thought was joyful stress—what I call joyful stress. Yeah, we were under a lot of stress, but every fucking bit of that stress wound up with an audience laughing. What a high that is.