“Just Another Version of You”: The Life, Art and Activism of Legendary TV Producer Norman Lear

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Ninety-four-year-old legendary TV producer and longtime political activist Norman Lear has led a remarkable life. He helped revolutionize sitcom television with a string of hit shows including “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times” and “Maude.” In 1999, President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts, saying, “Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.” Norman Lear is also a longtime activist, earning him a place on Richard Nixon’s enemies list and the scorn of the Christian right. His life, art and social activism is the subject of the new “American Masters” documentary, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” which premieres tonight on PBS. We spoke with Norman Lear in studio last week.

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AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the legendary TV producer and longtime political activist Norman Lear. At 94 years young, Norman Lear has led a remarkable life. He helped revolutionize sitcom television with a string of hit shows, including All in the Family, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times and Maude. In 1984, he became one of the first seven television pioneers to be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. In 1999, President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts, saying, quote, “Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.”

Yes, Norman Lear is also a longtime activist, earning him a place on Richard Nixon’s enemies list and the scorn of the Christian right. In 1981, he created the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way, in part to monitor the religious right. The late Jerry Falwell once described Lear as the “No. 1 enemy of the American family.”

Well, Norman Lear is the subject of the new American Masters documentary on PBS called Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. It premieres tonight on PBS. This is a trailer.

PHIL ROSENTHAL: Television can be broken into two parts: before Norman and after Norman.

GEORGE CLOONEY: This is a period of time where we were at our—probably our greatest change socially. Mainstream television was one of the last things to jump, and the first person to force it over that hill was Norman.

JON STEWART: All in the Family was the greatest.

DICK CAVETT: Do you have a quick answer for the people who say the show reinforces bigotry?

NORMAN LEAR: Yes. My quick answer is no.

ARCHIE BUNKER: [played by Carroll O’Connor] I never said a guy who wears glasses is a queer. A guy who wears glasses is a four-eyes. A guy who is a fag is a queer.

ROB REINER: We used to say it’s too hip for the room.

JOHN AMOS: There weren’t any African Americans on TV at that time. And I didn’t want to disparage a black family.

J.J. EVANS JR.: [played by Jimmie Walker] She’s the fuse that sets off Kid Dyn-o-mite!

ESTHER ROLLE: There are lines that were meant for you to say because you were black.

JIMMY SWAGGART: It’s time for God’s people to come out of the churches and change America!

NORMAN LEAR: I was concerned about what I was seeing on television, mixing politics and religion. So I thought, I want to take the flag back for all of us.

BILL MOYERS: He called me and said, “Guess what! I own the Declaration of Independence.”

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. It premieres tonight on PBS. Well, last week, Norman Lear joined us in our New York studio for a conversation about his work, his politics and his activism. I began by asking him what the title Just Another Version of You means to him.

NORMAN LEAR: Well, that’s been my bumper sticker for a number of years. And when Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who produced and directed the film—and, I think, did a brilliant job—they happened to see my bumper sticker one day, and they were studying my life and so forth, and they said, “That’s going to be the title, if you don’t mind, of the documentary.” And that’s the way I feel about it, you know? We are versions of one another in our common humanity, whatever our color, whatever our ethnicity, whatever, you know, on the surface makes us individuals. In terms of our common humanity, we are copies of one another.

AMY GOODMAN: Your father, Herman, had a huge influence on your life. Talk about him.

NORMAN LEAR: Well, his absence certainly did. He was sent to prison when I was nine years old. And that has, in a sense, haunted me and inspired me.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was he in prison?

NORMAN LEAR: He was selling some fake bonds or something. My mother—I remember my mother saying, “Herman, I don’t like those men. I don’t like those men.” And “Stifle,” my father said, as Archie said all those years later, and went off to Oklahoma. He was going to bring me back a 10-gallon hat. He was arrested when he got off the plane. Two nights later, my mother was selling all the furniture, and we were moving. We couldn’t afford to live in Chelsea. She was too ashamed to live in Chelsea.

AMY GOODMAN: Here, in New York.

NORMAN LEAR: Massachusetts, Massachusetts.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh.

NORMAN LEAR: Yeah, in Chelsea. And at that moment in time, my mother—my dad away, my mother selling the furniture, I’m going to live with an uncle. I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do next. Some big, mature fellow puts his hands on my shoulder and says, “Well, Norman, you’re the man of the house now,” at which point I think I began to understand the foolishness of the human condition.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about how you got into television.

NORMAN LEAR: Well, I had one—I was a kid of the Depression. I had one uncle, Jack, who used to flick me a quarter. That was something. You know, it just knocked me out that an uncle flicked me a quarter. He was, he said, a press agent. I didn’t know what a press agent was, but that was my role model. I wanted to be a press agent. I went to California to do that. And our wives—my wife and my cousin became great friends. Her husband wanted to be a comedy writer. They were going to the movie one night. We wrote something together. They came home about 10:15. We went out to a night club and sold it. And my half of $40 was, you know, half of what I made in a week. So, we started to write comedy.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.

NORMAN LEAR: American Masters, Just Another Version of You, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: American Masters, yes. This is Rob Reiner, who played Mike Stivic, Archie Bunker’s son-in-law, on the iconic show All in the Family, talking about the reaction to this series. And it’s followed by a clip of All in the Family.

ROB REINER: The headline is ”All in the Family Introduces the World to Foul-Mouthed Archie Bunker.” ”CBS rolled the dice last night with a new situation comedy, All in the Family which will either be the biggest hit of the season or the biggest bomb.” So, there you go. That’s what it says. Eight. We did eight seasons.

MICHAEL STIVIC: [played by Rob Reiner] You know, you’re right, Archie? You’re right: The British are a bunch of pansies—pansies, fairies and sissies. And the Japanese are a race of midgets. The Irish are boozers. The Mexicans are bandits.

ARCHIE BUNKER: And you Pollocks are meatheads.

AMY GOODMAN: Reinforcing stereotypes or challenging them?

NORMAN LEAR: Well, I think for people who understood—and most people did—challenging them. That’s why they laughed at them.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about All in the Family.

NORMAN LEAR: And, you know, those people who thought Archie had it right, and wrote letters—and we received, you know, thousands of them—I can’t recall a single letter that said, “Right on, Archie,” that didn’t—wasn’t followed by “But you sons of [bleep]” or “you (worse than that)” or “Why don’t you go back where you came from, Jew commie?” or whatever the hell that, you know, they could find. And my point being that nobody misunderstood that Archie was, you know, the fool of the piece.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how you came up with All in the Family and when it went on the air.

NORMAN LEAR: Well, I didn’t come up with—well, I did come up with it. I was doing The Martha Raye Show in New York, and a fellow by the name of Phil Sharp, who did—who did—I’m trying to remember the situation comedy at the time with Joan Davis, The Joan Davis Show. And he was being divorced, with four kids. I was being divorced, with one kid. I was having a terrible time in my divorce. I asked him how it was going with his. He said, “I’m fine. All she wanted was my reruns, my Joan Davis reruns,” at which point I said, “Well, I’m only doing live”—to myself, “I’m doing live television. I’ve got to do something that I own.” So I decided to do a situation comedy, which I had never considered doing before.

And at that moment, my partner Bud Yorkin was in London and wrote me about this show called—I forget. Johnny Speight was the—was the producer-writer. And I heard about that and decided I would do an American version of that. And that was—this was about a bigoted father and a son-in-law and so forth. And I grew up with that. My father used to call me the laziest white kid he ever met. And I would say, “You’re putting down a whole race of people to call me lazy?” “That’s not what I’m doing. You’re the dumbest white kid I ever met.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that actually goes well with this next clip from the documentary. You’re appearing on a CBS talk show, and you’re questioned about the use of stereotypes and racial epithets in All in the Family.

ANNOUNCER: CBS News presents Look Up and Live. Today, “Laughter: Hurt or Heal?”

RABBI MEYER HELLER: I have to say I have to feel that the laughter hurts, that the repetition of these stereotype terms that we thought had died tends to be hurtful and harmful to the public good.

GEORGE CROTHERS: Well, Mr. Lear?

NORMAN LEAR: I’ve heard all these epithets. If they had died, where had they gone to? I don’t—do you really believe that All in the Family resurrected them from death? I saw—my mission is to entertain. I chose to entertain with what I consider real people.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Lear, what about that?

NORMAN LEAR: I’m a serious man. I was a serious boy. But I did have a sense of humor. I think I mentioned earlier I learned the foolishness of the human condition very early in life. I chose to deal with it, but in a serious way. Before All in the Family came along, I guess the—you know, the kind of a problem they were dealing with on Petticoat Junction and Beverly Hillbillies and so forth: The roast was ruined, and the boss is coming to dinner. Oh, my goodness, does the family have a problem! We dealt with the things that were going on in our family, extended families, the neighbors across the street, up the street, whether it’s menopause or economic problems or, you know, health problems, hypertension in black males. The things that crowded our newspapers and our imaginations, we dealt with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Archie Bunker would have voted for Donald Trump?

NORMAN LEAR: I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of the American right hand. The American people, you know, we are—in a democracy, the democracy depends on an informed citizenry, which would be a well-led and informed citizenry. I don’t think we have a media, generally, that informs. It yells. It screams. It does bumper sticker. It doesn’t do anything in context. We don’t get the news in context. And the American people, aching for leadership, are tossed a Donald Trump, and I think they say, “OK, take this.” And they’re saying, with that middle finger, “Take this,” to the rest of us.

AMY GOODMAN: let’s go to another clip from Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. This is American Masters. This is CBS’s Mike Wallace speaking to Norman about his sometimes tense relationship with the networks.

MIKE WALLACE: What’s your beef against the networks?

NORMAN LEAR: I spend hour upon hour arguing with the censors about the tiniest things. The network often takes the position that Norman Lear and the others in the creative community, I mean, how can they do this? How can they bite the hand that feeds them? I consider that the creative community are the hands that feed.

MIKE WALLACE: And they’re biting your hand.

NORMAN LEAR: And they’re biting our hands.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you are, talking to the late Mike Wallace. What about your relationship with the networks?

NORMAN LEAR: My relationship with the individuals, one on one, was pretty good. We understood each other. We were in different—you know, it was—I think it was H.L. Mencken who once said, “Nobody ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” To some degree, the establishment lives with that and makes its decisions on behalf of of the American people with that in mind. I disagree. I think, you know, we are provably not the best educated, but we’re wise of heart, and we understand a lot more than we’re given credit for. I’m talking about the population generally. So, what we were doing troubled the establishment only because it hadn’t been done before. But we were living it. We didn’t invent any subject we weren’t living with.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you get flack from the networks at the beginning, like “This isn’t going to work”?

NORMAN LEAR: Oh, yes, yes, yes. And I made the show originally for ABC three years before, 1968. And they—I made it twice, each time with Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton in the leads, different young people. They laughed like hell, I heard from everybody. I was in the room a couple of times, and I could see. But they didn’t put it on. They were afraid of it. CBS and the person that was the new leader, Bob Wood, put it on with a—what do you call it?—advisory, warning people that if they watched it, you know, they might not like it, or they’d be frightened by it, or—I can’t remember those—

AMY GOODMAN: Or they might change?

NORMAN LEAR: Or they might change. So, the last argument we had, we had—they wanted to cut something. New York was on the air three hours before California. They were threatening to cut one line from the show. I said, “If you cut it, I’m out of here. I won’t be back.” I wasn’t so brave as that sounds. I had an offer, a three-picture deal at United Artists as a result of a film, Cold Turkey, I had just finished, so I was in good shape. The network, at the last minute, decided they would leave it in.

AMY GOODMAN: OK. What was the line?

NORMAN LEAR: And there wasn’t one state that seceded from the—Archie comes back from church, having been upset by—didn’t like the minister, didn’t like the sermon, left the church early. The kids thought they had the house alone. They were upstairs. They walked in. The kids heard them, come running down the stairs. It was clear what was happening.

AMY GOODMAN: They were married.

NORMAN LEAR: And they were married. And Archie said, “11:00 of a Sunday morning.” They wanted that line out. But why? Of course, I said they’re married. But it will cause the audience to picture what he’s talking about at 11:00 of a Sunday morning. Well, but they knew that when they went upstairs. I mean, they—had to come out. I thought, if I gave in to that, I would be giving in to silly forever. And that’s why I said no. And it was—I was almost on my way out of the office. We were working on the script for the fourth episode when I got a call saying they left it in.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that takes us right into reproductive rights—

NORMAN LEAR: Yes, it does.

AMY GOODMAN: —and Maude. Maude was a spinoff, right, of All in the Family?

NORMAN LEAR: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s turn, in 1972, to an episode of your show Maude which tackled the issue of abortion—a few months before Roe v. Wade became the law the land.

CAROL TRAYNOR: [played by Adrienne Barbeau] Look, there’s only one sensible way out of this. You don’t have to have the baby. It’s legal now.

VIVIAN CAVENDER HARMON: [played by Rue McClanahan] You know, she’s right. It’s legal in New York state. You better give that a thought.

MAUDE FINDLAY: [played by Bea Arthur] I have given it a thought. Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. I just don’t know!

NORMAN LEAR: The euphemism for “censor” was “program practices.” And the Program Practices Department simply didn’t want to deal with abortion.

AMY GOODMAN: “Simply didn’t want to deal with abortion.” What happened? What happened with this episode of Maude?

NORMAN LEAR: Well, there was a wonderful man, William Tankersley, who was the head of Program Practices. And I don’t know. I said we just had to do the episode. As a result of his talking with me, we added—we made it a two-parter. We added a character, a woman, a friend. She didn’t appear in any other show. She was there for the purpose of being a mother of four children she couldn’t afford, pregnant with a fifth. She would no more think of having an abortion. So she represented in real life the other side of that discussion. On Maude’s side, she said to her husband at the closing of the first—of that episode, the second episode, “Walter, do you think I’m doing the right thing?” And he said, “Maude, in the privacy of our own home and our own lives, you’re doing the right thing.” That’s the way the two sides were represented, and that was a result of the conversations with Tankersley.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary television producer Norman Lear, tackling the issue of abortion on network television in 1972, before Roe v. Wade. When we come back, we discuss Norman Lear’s activism with him, his fight against the Moral Majority and how he ended up on Richard Nixon’s enemies list. Stay with us.

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