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 94, he's enjoying it. PBS' "American Masters" special 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. 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 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. He was "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
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,”
So his Archie and
Edith Bunker – as played by Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton –
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. Lear 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
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 Way; he bought and
toured with 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
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
Masters: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” 9-10:30 p.m.
Tuesday (Oct. 25), PBS