PBS’s American Masters presents Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You tonight, the first-ever documentary about the screen legend.
Lear, now 92 and still hard at work, is responsible for changing our minds and appetites, showing life in a radical new way and enlightening millions of viewers about topics previously unaddressed on prime time television.
All in the Family, Maude and The Jeffersons dispensed with the sugar-coated artifice of typical fifties and early sixties programming. Lear’s realism mixed with laughter had never been seen on TV.
He gave us a taste of what was going on outside and inside and things we didn’t talk about, delivered with humour and skill, and audiences loved it.
Lear’s series were often extraordinarily controversial but they were hits across the board. Finally the medium acknowledged racism, the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, the generational gap, sexism, classism, family life and taboo subjects like homosexuality, menopause and abortion.
Lear speaks frankly about his life in the new documentary augmented by interviews with George Clooney, John Amos, Bill Moyers, Rob Reiner and Russell Simmons. We also get to see Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Jon Stewart, Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham pay tribute in performance.
We spoke with Lear from his home in Los Angeles ahead of the documentary’s American Masters premiere.
Monsters & Critics: You’ve been a long-time activist since duking it out with the Moral Majority in the 60s. How would you compare things today and then? Did all that passion and work pay off?
Normal Lear: There has been enormous progress made. There is no more Silent Majority and there are no Jimmy Swaggarts or Pat Robertsons.
It’s unbelievable that he ran for president, and got so much media attention. This is the first time I thought about this but Donald Trump is following in their ridiculous ways.
Trump is the middle finger of the right hand of America. People are looking around, and it wasn’t that long ago, and seeing the air bags in our cars exploding and the Epi-Pen scandal and the Wells Fargo and that deliberate insanity and public humiliation.
Leadership everywhere is so disappointing — and we need it, we are a government based on informed citizenry. We are not out of the woods. And then there’s Kim Kardashian.
M&C: The documentary is extremely revealing. You discuss anti-Semitism you encountered as a child, your father, your first wife Frances, bombing missions during the Korean War. It’s pretty naked stuff.
NL: This is what I lived with all my life and has directed so much of my life and career and marriages and it is all very much at the surface.
M&C: At a very young age you were made the man of the house when your father was arrested. You say that’s why that boy still lives inside you.
NL: To learn that your father in prison, and being then the man of the house at nine years of age, when I was being shipped off to live with an uncle, was when I first saw the foolishness of the human condition. But I think you grow more under such circumstances.
M&C: As a young girl watching Maude and a strong mother helped shape my feminism, that women were intrinsically strong and fearless. Thank you for that. What was the genesis of the show?
NL: We had three daughters and I was a feminist. And as my wife (first, Frances) became one I also did.
With three growing young women it grew stronger. Bea Arthur, whom I’d used as a host on The George Gobel Show, was a friend. When I was doing All in the Family, I wanted somebody to beat the shit out of Carroll O’Connor.
There’s nothing like an old-time relative who for 22 years has been pissed that Greg wasn’t invited to the wedding!
So Bea played Maude who was a cousin and childhood friend of Edith’s. She hated Archie when she met him and was against their marriage.
She came to the Bunkers to help Edith out when she was sick for a couple of days and came with all the grudges of the past.
That episode wasn’t off the air before I received a call from NBC in New York, saying: “There’s a show for that woman!”
M&C: The sixties was a period of such rapid change that you pushed mainstream in your sitcoms. Someone created the term BN and AN – Before Norm and After Norm.
NL: Everything we did was mainstream in our lives including the most taboo TV subjects like abortion which if it wasn’t in our own homes it was out there. There was abortion. Same as the rest of the subjects.
When we started, we couldn’t have a husband and wife in the same bed. You couldn’t see them in bed together so it was always twin beds. All in the Family showed them in bed for the first time and we showed the first toilet brush!
And Carroll O’Connor was nothing like the racist, angry man that Archie Bunker was at all. Carroll was an Irish intellectual.
Even if people didn’t like the character he played they loved that he did it. He didn’t take any heat for it.
M&C: Good Times and Movin’ On Up were at opposite ends of the spectrum on the black experience at that time. Did you do one to balance the other?
NL: Good Times came first. The Jeffersons lived next door to Archie Bunker and the network said “There is a show in them”.
That was because Sherman Helmsley’s character was in business for himself and because the black press was writing “Too bad there isn’t a black family on television where a guy is holding down two jobs”.
That gave us the impetus to do it and the theme song (reflected that).
M&C: You’re in your nineties and have been a questioner and iconoclast for a long time. That’s in your work.
NL: At the beginning the idea in Hollywood was, “Hey buddy, if you want to send a message go to Western Union”. I would sincerely deny that we were sending messages.
I thought we were sending stories that were happening all around us and at some point I realised were all people and had points of views.
Then the big awakening took place — that the shows that preceded us like The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction showed that problems were a roast ruined and the boss was coming to dinner.
That was an awakening to me. America has no point of view, the working class had no problems, there were no abortions, no one’s going through menopause. There was nothing threatening in the earlier shows.
I realised that was what the message was before.
M&C: And you’re still working. Is One Day at a Time a remake of the Valerie Bertinelli show?
NL: No, not at all. The idea came from Netflix and Sony. They were interested in doing a Latino version of it, three generations of Cuban Americans living together starring Rita Moreno.
M&C: So you can address the new reality of Cuba and US relations.
NL: Yes we will.
M&C: Do you still get a thrill going on the set?
NL: I love it.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You airs on PBS tonight at 9pm (check local listings). The film is also being released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD with extra features.