At 94, Norman Lear savors a victory lap through the TV world he changed

Norman Lear's impact on TV has been enormous. He turned a timid medium into a place for big emotions and strong ideas. And now, at 9, he's enjoying it. A PBS special Tuesday is -- like his autobiography -- smart, entertaining and well-crafted. Here's the story I sent to papers: 

By Mike Hughes

Norman Lear grew up
in a world of big dreams and broken promises.

“My father ... was
going to make and have a million dollars in 10 days to two weeks, all
his life,” he recalled. “And, of course, he didn't come close.”

His father kept
chasing dreams that were impossible ... except that Lear surpassed
them. He's “a television hero,” said Michael Kantor, whose
“American Masters” profiles him Tuesday. He had:

-- Business success.
For the 1974-75 season, the Nielsen ratings put Lear shows at No. 1
(“All in the Family), 2 (“Sanford and Sons”), 4 (“Jeffersons”),
7 (“Good Times”) and 9 (“Maude”).

-- Social and
industry impact. The timid TV world was suddenly talking about
bigotry, war, abortion, drugs, religion and the widening generation

All of this comes
from someone who didn't have a successful role model.

His father, he said,
kept spinning grand promises. He “believed it and he leaned into
life that way. He lied. He cheated ... But he was alive and I loved
that lust for life.”

Lear was 9 when his
dad went to prison for selling phony stocks, 12 when his dad got out,
instantly promised the boy a year-long vacation for his bar mitzvah.

Instead, Lear often
supported himself, holding three jobs on Coney Island. He left
college to fight in World War II, then did became a press-agent in
New York. Ed Simmons, a family friend, wanted to try writing and
asked Lear to join him; they clicked quickly.

“I was doing live
televison,” Lear, 94, recalled. They “were there from Day One of
the Martin-and-Lewis 'Colgate Comedy Hour.' We did Jack Haley .... a
Bobby Darin special, Danny Kaye special, Jack Benny special .... We
did an Andy Williams variety show. Everything we were doing was

Those didn't bring
big money, though. Then a friend told him about profits from “I
Married Joan” reruns. Lear's response: “I said, I gotta do a
situation comedy.'”

That's when someone
showed him a British show about a right-wing guy whose left-wing
son-in-law was living with him. The characters were funny ... but
nasty. “I wouldn't wish to work with totally unlikable characters,”
Lear said.

So his Archie and
Edith Bunker – as played by Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton –
had warmth.

Still, there was
hesitance. “ABC made the pilot .... They owned it for two years
(and) asked me to make it again. I made the same script, ... the same
leads, but the two young people were different.”

That remake – now
with Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers – was still rejected by ABC.
CBS took over ... hesitated about which episode to air first ... and
then did it Lear's way.

“All in the
Family” would spend its first five years at No. 1 and three more in
the top 12. He kept adding more shows ... which complicated things
for Rachel Grady, as she crafted the “Masters” film.

“I think he did
over 1,000 hours in the '70s,” she said. It's “an embarrassment
of riches.”

And then Lear walked
away from it. With six shows on the air – and working constantly --
he put someone else in charge. He spent time with his family and on
social issues. He created People For the American; he bought and
toured one of the first copies of the Declaration of Independence. “I
think of myself as a bleeding-heart conservative,” he said. “As
early as I can remember, ... I was in love with those things that
guaranteed freedom.”

Lear did return to
TV, with mixed success. But now comes his victory tour –
celebrations of the man who changed television. “Norman is
incredibly busy,” Kantor said. At 94, “he's done more events in
the last year than I think I've attended my whole life.”

And he savors it. As
the title of his book (Penguin Press, 2014) says: “Even This I Get
to Experience.”

Masters: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” 9-10:30 p.m.
Tuesday, PBS

After 20 years, a judicial nightmare is ending

Every now and then, it's important to be reminded of a vital fact: Prosecutions can go wrong; overzealousness can put good people in prison. Back in 2005, Court TV had "Exonerated" -- a superb film, based on a play about real-life cases. That network no longer exists, but now its executive (Henry Schleiff) is at Investigation Discovery; on Saturday, it has a chilling documentary about a 1994 case. Here's the story I sent to papers: 


By Mike Hughes

For Anna Vasquez,
this was a sudden blur of interrogations.

“I was 19 years
old,” she recalled. 'I was right out of high school, working and on
my way to college. And just like any child is taught, you believe in
the judicial system.”

And then things spun
out of control. She and her friends became the “San Antonio Four”;
they were lesbians, people noted ... and maybe rapists and Satanists.
They were “convicted of a crime they did not commit,” said Henry
Schleiff, the head of cable's Investigation Discovery channel, “a
heinous and unspeakable crime of child rape.”

It would take almost
20 years for two key people – an alleged victim and a doctor – to
reverse their testimony and help free them. Now ID's “Southwest of
Salem” tells the story in painful detail.

“They were poor,
Latina, Texas, lesbians,” said Deborah Esquenazi, the “Southwest”
filmmaker.. “It was during the 'Satanic panic' era.”

In the 1980s, there
had been a wave of cases – many of them later overturned -- against
child-care workers accused of abuse and sometimes Satanism. Then came
1994, when Liz Ramierez was asked to do a favor: Her sister's
ex-husband wanted her to watch his daughter, ages 9 and 7, for a

Afterward, Ramirez
and her friends were questioned by police. “I did not have any
background of any kind of trouble,” Vasquez said. “Neither did my
family. So the right thing to do was to cooperate with the police. (I
believed) if you tell the truth, everything will be fine.”

It wasn't. Public
rage was growing; the lesbianism was emphasized in the sexual-abuse
trial. Ramirez was sentenced to 37 years in prison; Vasquez,
Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh to 15 apiece.

All four continued
to profess their innocence ... which was costly. They had rejected a
plea bargain that would have involved 10 years of probation without
jail sentence. Later, Vasquez refused a shot at an early parole,
because it would have required participating in a sex-offender
treatment program.

When she did get out
after a dozen years, she had to register as a sex offender. “I felt
in my heart that this was my chance to ... help the other three who
were still in prison .... I became their voice.”

Other voices
arrived, including the Innocence Project of Texas. The women “had
fundamentally false trials,” said Michael Ware, its executive

The girls' father
had lusted for Ramirez, he said, writing her passionate love letters.
When she rejected him, he called the police. His younger daughter –
now a mother of two, in her late 20s – has recanted her testimony;
the older one won't talk about it. Amid complaints of “junk
science” in the 1980s and '90s cases, a doctor has reversed her
testimony and says there were no signs of abuse.

Now the women are
free, still fighting for legasl exoneration ... and showing little

“We weren't awful,
bitter people,” Rivera said. “We grew up in really good families.
We have families that love us.... We believed that the truth would
eventually set us free .... It's happening now.”

-- “Southwest of
Salem,” 8 p.m. Saturday, Investigation Discovery; rerunning at 11

Hurt is the "Goliath" now, but he's been on the other side

"Goliath," which arrives Friday (Oct. 14), is one of the year's best new shows, extraordinary in its depth and emotion. Much of the credit goes to David Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro, two lawyers who have given TV some of its best writing, including "The Practice" and "Boston Law." But part of that goes to the perfect performances by Billy Bob Thornton and William Hurt. Here's the story I sent to papers, on Hurt and "Goliath":

By Mike Hughes

These days, William
Hurt is playing a big-time, big-money guy.

In the “Goliath”
mini-series, he's not the star, but he has the title role. His
character heads a law firm that tries to stomp any opposition.

'”Our legal system
often feels like it's up for grabs to the highest bidder,” said
Morgan Wandell, who heads drama shows at Amazon. So “Goliath” has
a ragged guy (Billy Bob Thornton) facing the giant.

That's Hurt, 66,
who's familiar with wealth. His step-father was the son of Time
magazine magnate Henry Luce. Hurt went to prep school and then to
Tufts and Juilliard. As an actor, he's made plenty of money; he's had
a home in France and his own plane and pilot's license.

But he also knows
how the non-wealthy live. Theater is a good way to learn that.

As a Tufts student,
Hurt spent summers at BoarsHead Theater in Grand Ledge, Mich. “I
was making $35 a week,” he recalled. “It was $26.80 in the
paycheck. I actually thought I could live on that.”

And he did. He
returned another summer, married to actress Mary Beth Hurt.

The theater regimen
seems to have served them well. Mary Beth, now his ex-wife, has done
15 Broadway shows, receiving three Tony nominations; Hurt started in
theater – doing the acclaimed off-Broadway “Fifth of July” --
but then diverted.

“I didn't want to
do movies,” he said, but “Altered States” was too good to pass
up. Soon after came another key one: “'Body Heat' is the
best-structured script I've ever seen.”

That was from
Lawrence Kasdan. “Larry and I had a great relationship; we did four
films together.”

Hurt mastered film,
with a camera grabbing everything. “Minimal reactions can tell so

He won an Academy
Award (“Kiss of the Spiderwoman”) and had three more nominations,
in quietly understated roles. And “Goliath” is one of the

Hurt plays Donald
Cooper, who sits in a dark office, unseen by most of his employees.
He's “based on a real person,” said Jonathan Shapiro, who wrote
the show with David Kelley. “Also, the famous attorney Clark
Clifford, who was the man to see in Washington, lived in that kind of
a dark place.”

The fictional firm
was founded by Billy McBride, “whose sense of justice is not
exactly what's legal; it's more what's fair,” said Thornton, who
plays him.

Now McBride is
alcoholoic and broke; Cooper is determined to squash him. “We had
these two actors ... who are so subtle and are able to be so
complicated in their performances,” Kelley said. Hurt “delivers a
tremendous pathology to his performance, and it's as sympathetic as
it is repulsive.”

In a way, it's the
opposite of Ned Racine, the “Body Heat” guy from a bottom-tier
law school. “Ned Racine against Cooper – that would be good,”
Hurt said.

It would also splice
together 35 years of his movie career.

-- “Goliath,”
eight-part mini-series on Amazon Prime.

-- Available any
time, starting Friday (Oct. 14); see


In distant African villages -- passion, perseverence and a Janet Jackson solo

"We Will Rise" -- the documentary scheduled for Wednesday (Oct. 12) on CNN -- is filled with idealism, as Michelle Obama and others meet girls who beat the odds to get an education in African villages. Here's the story I sent to papers:

(This fixes one
thing in the TV feature about a documentary Wednesday that deals with
girls' education globally; the only change is to shorten the
third-to-last paragraph, starting with “Sesay went on,” deleting
the marriage.)

By Mike Hughes

Even for a global TV
reporter, this was a special moment: In an African village, Isha
Sesay was talking to Janet Jackson ... who broke into song.

No, it wasn't the
famous Janet Jackson. It was a Liberian teen-ager with the same name.

“She's this tiny
little being” who mentioned she could sing, Sesay said. With some
urging, she did, “And she had the voice of an angel.”

Moments like this
brightened a trip that will be featured Wednesday in a CNN
documentary. At the core, is the fact that 62 million girls worldwide
aren't in school.

Talking to Michelle
Obama and actresses Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto, African girls
discussed their schooling. “I was really struck by their tenacity,
their insistence on an education,” Sesay sad.

Some walked eight
miles to middle school. Some left home to work near school. “I
support myself,” a girl named Rafina says in the film. She stays
with an aunt and uncle and does household work for them when she gets
home from school. “From 9 p.m. to 11, I can do my schoolwork.”

Others showed
similar drive. One said she went on a hunger strike, until her
parents let her go to school; now she speaks five languages.

If this were simply
a governmental issue, it could be solved at the top. It's not ... as
people were reminded when they met Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson

“It's a great
achievement on her part, to be a woman at the top of government,”
Sesay said.

Still, it doesn't
end the problem. In many of the countries, including Liberia,
education requires a fee. Some families decide they can only afford
to educate the boys; the girls will do housework.

This is far from the
academic world Ishay knew. Her grandparents in Sierra Leone -- “one
of the poorest countries in the world” -- were uneducated, but her
parents grew up in a post-colonial era. “After independence, the
British were giving out a lot of scholarships.”

Her mother received
some, supplementing that by selling ginger beer ... and got all the
way to a doctorate in England. That's where Sesay spent her early
years, before moving to Sierra Leone at 7.

“For me, as a
child, it was an incredible shock,” she said of the move. “I
remember thinking it was so dark; there was no power.”

Another surprise was
“the lack of personal space. All of the people wanted to touch me
and see me.”

Eventually, she
decided that was a good thing. This was a personal world, with
friends and family who cared. She thrived in Sierra Leone, where her
father was a lawyer and her mother was an educator. “My mother pays
the school fees for dozens of children.” she said.

Sesay went on to
study at Cambridge and then became a TV journalist in Scotland, in
England and then for CNN International. Now she co-anchors the Los
Angeles-based “CNN Newsroom,” from midnight to 3 a.m. ET weekdays
and has a project (W.E. Can Lead) to help Sierra Leone schoolgirls.

The CNN film gave
her a chance to visit students in Morocco -- where, she says, 40
percent of women are illiterate -- and Liberia. The girls seemed
impressed by Streep, Pinto and Sirleaf ... and, perhaps, awed by
Michelle Obama, the great-great-grandaughter of African-American

“It was
impressive, just how powerful her presence is and her story is,”
Sesay said. “I walked out of the session feeling I could walk on

-- “We Will Rise,”
9 p.m. ET Wednesday (Oct. 12), CNN, barring breaking news; reruns at

-- Also, noon ET
Saturday on HLN (formerly Headline News)

TV movie savors llamas and llove and good wine

Even on our most serious days, TV has room for light-hearted (and, sometimes, light-headed) fun. On Sunday, when most people are watching the presidential debate (or football, or HBO), the Hallmark Channel has alternatives. On the East Coast, where the debate starts at 9 p.m., it's the season-finale of "Chesapeake Shores"; on the West Coast (6 p.m.), it's the second half of a light movie called "Autumn in the Vineyard."

That one also airs at 9 p.m. Saturday, complete with romance, anger and a llama. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

Starring in a TV
movie can be a mixed blessing, Rachael Leigh Cook found.

On one hand, you're
in the beauty of wine country.On the other, one of your co-stars is a

“The phrase
'trained llama' is really misleading,” she said.

In “Autumn in the
Vineyard” -- which the Hallmark Channel debuts Saturday and reruns
Sunday – she buys a friend's vineyard. It comes with great grapes
and an errant llama.

Yes, that was her
first time acting with a llama; “I hope it's not my last,” Cook
said. She found the critter to be friendly and charming ... but
disinterested in doing what the script said. Some scenes required her
to improvise -- “it really forces you be be alert” -- and some
had to be thrown out.

“Vineyard” is
the sort of confection Hallmark prefers: Cook, 37, plays someone who
has devoted her life to wine country. Now she and her nemesis (and
ex-boyfriend) both claim they own the farm.

Yes, that fits a lot
of the standard romantic-comedy rules. Then again, that's a form Cook
has mastered. In this week's episode of “Superstore” (8 p.m. Oct
6, NBC), its heroine says she just wants to see old movies: “I'm
thinking mid-90s rom-coms, like Freddy Prinze Jr. takes the nerd to
the prom, because underneith her glasses, she's really beautiful.
She's beautiful!”

That's a reference
to “She's All That” (1999), with Cook as the bespectacled beauty.
Nowadays, she seemed delighted to hear it's become a pop-culture
reference. “I had no idea that it would be as popular as it was,
(but) it was one of my favorite characters to play.”

As a kid, she had
some things in common with the nerdy character. “I wanted to be
popular and I was not,” Cook said. “I felt I was different than
everyone else.”

Her plan was to
“sort of skip over childhood” and become a performer.
Fortunately, she was in the right place (Minneapolis, which has a
vibrant entertainment scene), with the right parents. Her dad (a
social worker and former comedian) and mom (a cooking instructor and
weaver) went along with her plan.

Cook modeled at 10
for Minneapolis-based Target and others and auditioned for acting
roles at 14. The next year, in Disney's “Huck and Finn,” she
played the classic character Becky Thatcher ... a distinction she's
shared with Jodie Foster, Melissa Benoit (the current Supergirl) and
Kirsten Dunst.

Four years later
came “She's All That” and then the title role in “Josie and the
Pussycats.” Her TV roles ranged from “Perception,” which ran
three seasons, to “Fearless,” which was yanked before it aired.

Recently, Cook
starred in “Summer Love” for Hallmark and was impressed.”The
speed with which they can make a movie is unparalleled,” she said.

So she wanted to
make another one, this time through her production company. Adapting
a series of “Vineyard” books seemed to fit her tastes. “My
husband and I actually got married in Napa Valley.”

The movie was filmed
in a British Colombia area that looks like Napa. Soon, she was
traveling again.

As she was talking
by phone, Cook was in Atlanta, where her husband (Daniel Gillies) is
in “The Originals,” playing good-guy vampire Elijah. They had
just finished their daughter's 3rd birthday party, an
intimate one that included their 1-year-old son.

All of this is fine
for now, she said. But when the kids reach school age, “our nomadic
lifestyle will have to change.” She'll want to find something
that's steady and, perhaps, llama-free.

-- “Autumn in the
Vineyard,” 9-11 p.m. Saturday, Hallmark

-- Repeats at 5 p.m.
Sunday, 7 p.m. Oct. 15, 1 p.m. Oct. 16