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Norman Lear: 'Just Another Version Of You'
Originally published on Sat June 23, 2012 5:42 pm
When legendary TV producer Norman Lear was young, his father gave him a do-it-yourself radio kit. Lear built it, turned it on and remembers one day hearing a fiery broadcast that spoke kindly of the Nazi movement and ranted against Jews.
"It scared the hell out of me," Lear, who is Jewish, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "It was the first time that I learned that I was, quote, 'different.' I started to pay a lot more attention to people who were even more different."
Lear says his political interest and sensitivities started there. He grew up and produced some of the 1970s' most iconic TV sitcoms, including All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Good Times. In those shows, he helped Americans laugh and see the similarities they all share — regardless of race or religion.
Lear also founded a civil liberties advocacy group, People for the American Way. He turns 90 next month.
On his relationship with his father
"I was a kid of the Depression. I saw my father's brothers go belly up. My father was always belly up. It's very difficult for me to call my father what he was, so I use 'rascal.' He served time. He was in trouble a lot with the law. He sold some bonds that were fake bonds and went to prison for three years when I was 9 years old. But I can't overstate how much I loved him. You hear me talk about him lightly because I cannot make him a villain. I loved him."
On how his iconic sitcoms represented African-Americans
"As a kid, when I learned I was different, I was also learning other people were considered far more different, like black people in America. When Esther [Rolle] and John [Amos] became very well known as their characters in Good Times, they felt they were representing black people to America, as indeed they were. But they became extremely sensitive to that. So when I wanted to do an episode about Thelma who was 16 and very beautiful, the daughter, having to think about boys that wanted to go to bed with her — just to talk about the subject, we had terrible fights. At one point, I found myself saying around the table, 'Look, we can't argue about these things anymore. The patina of black life I'll never know like you people. But I'm a father, I'm an uncle, I'm a brother, I'm a cousin, I'm all the things you are as a human being.' And what we got out of that was some better understanding that we're really all the same people."
On being a lightning rod because of his political activism
"I've received a lot of death threats. I never intended to be a lightning rod. Somebody asked me in an interview, if I had a bumper sticker, what would my bumper sticker be? And I said, 'Just another version of you.' And that's what I think we all are — versions of each other because we have to come to the understanding that we are one."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")
CARROLL O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) (singing) Boy, the way Glenn Miller played.
JEAN STAPLETON: (as Edith Bunker) (singing) Songs that made the hit parade.
O'CONNOR: (Singing) Guys like me, we had it made.
CARROLL O'CONNOR AND JEAN STAPLETON: (as Archie and Edith Bunker) (singing) Those were the days.
RAZ: What a great show. And it wasn't just "All in the Family" that producer Norman Lear brought into our living rooms, but also classics like "Maude," "The Jeffersons," "Good Times" and "Sanford and Son." In the early 1980s, Norman Lear decided to take a break from television, and he started a civil liberties group called People for the American Way. Lear was here in Washington, D.C., this past week to celebrate his upcoming 90th birthday at the Kennedy Center.
You look terrific. I cannot believe you're almost 90.
NORMAN LEAR: For crying out loud. Anybody wants a picture, just call.
RAZ: Norman Lear stopped by NPR to talk about his incredible career, his political activism and his rough childhood in Hartford, Connecticut.
LEAR: I was a kid of the Depression. I saw my father's brothers go belly up. My father was always belly up because he was - it's very difficult for me to call my father what he was, so I use rascal. But he served time. He was in trouble a lot with the law.
RAZ: What did he do?
LEAR: He sold some bonds that, you know, were fake bonds or something. Went to prison for three years when I was 9 years old. But I can't overstate how much I loved him. You hear me talk about him lightly because I cannot make him a villain, you know? I loved him.
RAZ: You were a Jewish kid at a time when...
LEAR: Still a Jewish kid.
RAZ: ...and still are - forgive me - at a time where that was not so easy. I remember reading or hearing an interview you gave where you talked about hearing Father Coughlin on the radio, the infamous sort of Jew-baiter.
LEAR: My father gave me a crystal set...
RAZ: One of those radios that you can make, right?
LEAR: Radio, yeah, yeah. You make yourself, and it's a little cat whisker wire that circles a crystal. And I discovered Father Coughlin in bed one afternoon or evening. And suddenly, I'm listening to a man condemning one of our great heroes, FDR, you know, in my family, and speaking kindly of the Nazi movement, about which we were just learning in Germany and his dislike of Jews.
RAZ: Did it scare you?
LEAR: It scared the hell out of me because it was the first time I learned that I was, quote, "different." And I started to pay a lot more attention to people who were even more different in the eyes of people like Father Coughlin. And I think my political interest and sensitivities started there.
RAZ: You have mentioned that you modeled probably the most famous character you ever created - one of the most famous characters in American television history, of course, Archie Bunker from "All in the Family" - that you modeled him after your father.
RAZ: What was...
LEAR: In some ways.
RAZ: In some ways.
LEAR: In some ways. Yeah. My father used to call me the laziest white kid he ever met.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")
O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) Gloria, you married the laziest white man I ever seen.
ROB REINER: (as Michael 'Meathead' Stivic) All right. All right. It's bad enough you got to make fun of me. You don't have to make it worse by attacking a whole race.
O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) Who's attacking a whole race?
LEAR: I used to scream at him: How can you put down a whole race of people just to call me lazy? And he would scream louder back at me: That's not what I'm doing, and you are also the dumbest white kid I ever met.
RAZ: He also called you meathead, I understand.
LEAR: Yeah, yeah, meathead, dead from the neck up.
RAZ: Which - which, of course, is what Rob Reiner's character was called by Carroll O'Connor who played Archie Bunker.
LEAR: Yeah. He also told my mother to stifle.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")
O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) Will you stifle yourself? Will you stifle yourself? Will you stifle...
LEAR: So there was an awful lot of that in all the shows.
RAZ: What did you want to do? What did you set out to do with that program?
LEAR: I set out to make people laugh, truly to make people laugh. But we approached it seriously. Our writers read two, three newspapers a day, paid a lot of attention to their kids and families, came in to talk about everything that was affecting us in our daily lives. And that's where we got our material.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")
O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) What is it with your generation anyway? You give us 10 years of misery with all the long hair and the dope and the guitars and spoiling the Vietnam War.
REINER: (as Michael 'Meathead' Stivic) Spoil the Vietnam War?
O'CONNOR: Yes, yes. You made it stop it there before we had a chance to smash them over there. Now, we got to run over there and buy what we could have had for nothing.
RAZ: I'm speaking with the legendary television producer Norman Lear. He is just about to turn 90 years old. He's also celebrating the 30th anniversary of People for the American Way, which is a group that he founded. I want to get to that in a moment. But I want to talk about some of the other programs that you created. One of the really significant programs you created was "Good Times," which portrayed a working-class African-American family in the 1970s centered around Florida and James Evans and their three kids. They lived in a housing project in Chicago, but they were a stable family, a loving family.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD TIMES")
JOHN AMOS: (as James Evans Sr.) You know, I thought if I had got that job that we're going to be OK. Instead, we're broke.
ESTHER ROLLE: (as Florida Evans) What was we yesterday?
AMOS: (as James Evans Sr.) Broke.
ROLLE: (as Florida Evans) And probably will be again tomorrow. But, James, you always see this family through. You can do it.
AMOS: (as James Evans Sr.) Aw, that's my baby.
RAZ: Did you set out to create an impression of black America that you felt was not being presented to the public at the time?
LEAR: You know, I don't recall thinking about it with that specificity. As I said earlier, as a kid, when I learned I was different, I was also learning other people were considered far more different, like black people in America. When Esther and John became very well-known as their characters on "Good Times," they felt they were representing black people to America, as indeed they were, but they became extremely sensitive to that. And so when I wanted to do an episode about Thelma, who was 16 and a very beautiful daughter having to think about boys that wanted to go to bed with her, just to talk about the subject, we had terrible fights.
And at one point, I found myself saying around the table: Look, we can't argue this way about these things anymore. The patina of black life, I'll never know it like you people. But I'm a father. I'm an uncle. I'm a brother. I'm a cousin. I'm all the things you are as a human being. And what we got out of that was some better understanding that we're really all the same people.
RAZ: You left television - full-time production - in the early 1980s, and you started People for the American Way, which is, of course, a liberal organization that represents liberal values and positions. What did you envision it becoming when you started it?
LEAR: I woke up one morning, and I heard - I think it was Jimmy Swaggart - ask his television congregation to pray for the "removal" - I'd put that word in quotes - of a Supreme Court justice. That was like praying for the illness or the death of a Supreme Court justice. And I had no patience to write a film - take a couple years to do it - so I did a television spot.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi. I have a problem. I'm religious. We're a religious family, but that don't mean we see things the same way politically.
LEAR: A working stiff wound up saying...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And my problem is I know my boy is as good a Christian as me. My wife, she's better. So maybe there's something wrong when people - even preachers - suggest that other people are good Christians or bad Christians depending on their political views. That's not the American way.
LEAR: I paid for that to run on a single station in D.C. There were only three networks at the time. And the three networks ran it on their 7 o'clock news, and People for the American Way was an act of spontaneous combustion. It just grew up around that spot.
RAZ: You received death threats?
LEAR: I received a lot of death threats, yes. I don't want that to encourage anybody.
RAZ: Okay. But I guess it's all been worth it for you, to be a lightning rod in some ways. I mean, you have been a lightning rod, right?
LEAR: I never intended to be a lightning rod. Somebody asked me in an interview just the other day: if I had a bumper sticker, what would my bumper sticker be? And I said "Just another version of you." And that's what I think we all are - versions of each other, because we've got to come to the understanding that we are one.
RAZ: That's Norman Lear. He is, of course, the legendary television writer and producer of such programs as "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons," "Good Times" and "Maude." He's also the founder of People for the American Way, a civil liberties advocacy group, which is celebrating 30 years. And Norman Lear is about to celebrate his 90th birthday. Norman Lear, thank you so much for coming in. And, of course, happy birthday to you.
LEAR: Thank you. I couldn't have enjoyed this more. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.