“I’m the one in the white hat,” Norman Lear announces as he and his producing partner, Brent Miller, several decades his junior, appear in Zoom boxes in late August.
At 100, the “newly minted centurion,” as he proudly describes himself, still appreciates a laugh. After all, the white hat has been the signature of Lear’s aesthetic for the vast majority of his career — which, at one point, included having seven series on the air and a weekly audience of more than 120 million. A sitcom savant, as Lear has been dubbed over the years, he’s responsible for such barrier-breaking, cultural behemoths as All in the Family, Good Times, Maude and The Jeffersons.
Many of his shows, part of a catalog now largely owned by Sony Pictures Television, have been reimagined, as One Day at a Time was for Netflix and Pop TV, or revisited, as The Facts of Life and Good Times were for Live in Front of a Studio Audience, an Emmy-winning collaboration between Lear and Jimmy Kimmel for ABC. On Sept. 22, the same network will air Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter, a star-studded special commemorating Lear’s latest milestone, which he celebrated in July with family at his farm in Vermont.
The THR Icon, who’s also a World War II combat veteran, a major philanthropist, a father of six (and grandfather of four) and the oldest Emmy winner in history, insisted that Miller join him as he opened up about the “glorious fights” at his childhood dinner table, the battles he waged with network censors and the career renaissance he’s experiencing at age 100.
First and foremost, happy birthday. How does one celebrate 100?
NORMAN LEAR By getting up in the morning. (Laughs.) And getting a call from Brent.
That says, “Let’s get busy, we’ve got a million shows to produce”?
BRENT MILLER Other way around. It’s more that he’s telling me that we have a million shows.
LEAR We do have a lot in the works. (Laughter.)
Norman, I know “over” and “next” are popular words in your lexicon, but I have to believe a milestone like that, which will be celebrated with a TV special, forces some level of reflection …
LEAR I’m interrupting to say that the “over” and “next” leads to the hammock in the middle, which is living in the moment. And the fact of this moment is it has taken me every split second of a hundred years to get to this moment, and it has taken every split second of your life to hear me say that.
Descriptors like “icon” and “legend” now accompany your name. Looking back, do you recall when in your career you first felt successful or, at the very least, secure?
LEAR Absolutely. It was when I first realized that my kids didn’t have to worry about going to college. That was the first time I thought, “I’m comfortable in my life.”
One of your legacies is your willingness or appetite to consistently challenge the gatekeepers when it came to your vision. Where did that courage come from?
LEAR To the degree that I know where it could have come from, I think it’s a love of America. When I was a kid, I think we understood more about who we were and what we meant without thinking we were God’s chosen. And I am a combat veteran, I flew a great many missions in World War II, and I think that love of country has changed. We don’t think of it the same way now — there’s a right and a left and there isn’t sufficient community.
There are a great many stories of you saying some variation on, “You change that in my script and I’ll walk.” How close do you feel you got to that point?
LEAR Early on, there were moments like the network insisting that Archie [Bunker, of All in the Family] couldn’t say whatever it was, and I thought it was simply silly. And not because I wouldn’t or couldn’t give in, but because I thought that if I do, I’m going to be the victim of too many of these. It was easy for me to say, “If that line is deleted, I will not be here tomorrow.” I remember on one show, driving home thinking it was over and learning when I got home that they hadn’t deleted the line.
Were you not nervous in those moments?
LEAR The network was concerned that [viewers] would find such and such evil, and I thought I understood the American people better than I was hearing — from the guy on the second floor at the CBS building in L.A. speaking for the guys on the fifth and the seventh floor, who were speaking for people in New York on other floors.
You are reviving several of your shows. What did you learn from the One Day at a Time experience that you’ll apply to the next ones?
LEAR Want to speak to that, Brent?
MILLER Mike Royce and Gloria Calderón Kellett captured the essence of the original show, but it was 180 degrees different. So, it wasn’t rebooted. It was reimagined, and not just because it was the family of brown people. It ended up being this arranged marriage because we brought Gloria and Mike together and they got along so well and complemented each other so well. I think the experience that we walk away with is maybe we should get into the business of finding husbands and wives together. (Laughs.)
LEAR But life is a collaboration. In partners, I had a Bud Yorkin and a Jerry Perenchio and a Hal Gaba and an Alan Horn. We do nothing alone. We’re talking now because there’s a Brent Miller in my life.
Norman, I’d love to hear more from you about the advice you’d dole out to writers in your rooms. I’ve heard nuggets like, “It isn’t important that the roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner.”
LEAR That’s exactly what I’d say to writers. “No more ‘The roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner.’ No more ‘Mom dented the car, we can’t let Dad know.’ ” My instruction to the writers was to pay attention to what’s happening to your wife, to your kids, to the family. Think about the neighbors up, down and across the street. Reflect on those problems when you come into work every day. That’s what we did. And sometimes those problems included the problems of families that were arguing politically, and sometimes they included the economics of the family or their difficulties in getting along.
You tackled things that, even today, would be seen as edgy or risky. Did you see it as such?
LEAR I grew up in a family that argued about a lot of things, and these were just another group of arguments. I believe in listening hard to everybody’s point of view and accepting when you agree, but also going with your own conviction. Young writers have asked me for a great many years for advice, and that’s my advice each and every time: Listen hard, accept what you might agree with, and then go with your conviction.
You’ve forged relationships with younger showrunners like Seth MacFarlane, Kenya Barris, Matt Stone and Trey Parker.
LEAR Oh, I love those guys. I hear from them, but they don’t require my advice about anything. As friends, we mean something to one another, and we all learn from one another. But I’m so glad we’re talking about collaborations, all of the Schillers and Weiskopfs [Maude writers Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf] and [All in the Family producer] Mort Lachmans in my life and all of the young ones today. As someone who believes that music and laughter, especially laughter, adds time to one’s life, I am convinced that everyone we’ve been talking about added some time to my life.
Marta Kauffman is among those who have acknowledged in recent years that shows like Friends weren’t more diverse because TV as a whole wasn’t diverse back then, but your work seems to defy this in that it was very inclusive. Why was it important to you?
LEAR It came from appreciation of talent. Esther Rolle playing Florida on Maude just knocked me out, so much so that we brought her husband into a show and cast John Amos. Or Marla Gibbs on The Jeffersons. We had these glorious performers who added time to my life through laughter. I couldn’t not be aware that they were the first shows starring African American performers, but the motivation was the talent.
You’re referencing shows with Black casts, but you also had shows featuring gay men or single moms at a time when such things were hardly the norm on TV. What sort of resistance did you face?
LEAR The only resistance was the difficulty getting them on the air. But it was the women’s movement, which was called the women’s movement, that inspired what became Bonnie Franklin’s role on One Day at a Time. There were too few women in starring roles — especially strong performers, talented and able women in professions and in motherhood. It was a gift to be able to respond to that.
There’s a lot of conversation in Hollywood of late about who can tell what story, and I’m curious what you make of that discussion and how you navigated telling stories about different races and cultures in your career.
LEAR I’m reminded of a moment that happened to take place on Good Times. It might have taken place at The Jeffersons in another way, but the cast [of Good Times], the Black cast or a couple of them, had a problem with a line or an attitude or something and then relied on the fact that they were Black and I was not to make their argument. I often agreed, and we worked it out. But when I didn’t, and I remember this one incident when I sat down with several of the African American actors and said, “Look, I’m not Black. I’ve heard you, I’ve made these changes many times. But, in this case, I’m relying on the fact that although I’m not Black, I’m a man, I’m a father, I’m a brother, I’m an uncle, I’m a cousin, I’m a male, and we share far more than the difference of our skin color and I’m making the decision on [behalf] of all these other people [that I represent], and I have to disagree. We’re going to go this way.” And they understood.
In your memoir you wrote, “Of all the characters I’ve created and cast, the one who resembles me most is Maude.” I’m curious why you feel that way, and were you aware of it as you were writing the show?
LEAR I thought of Maude as a horseshit liberal. She was altogether liberal, but she knew far less than she should know to support her point of view. I felt that way about myself. I think about [All in the Family castmember] Rob Reiner, who I obviously adore, who knew everything he was talking about. He was solidly informed on all the things that he was supporting. I can’t tell you how much I admired that because, like Maude, I thought of myself as a horseshit liberal.
Did you bring pieces of you to other characters?
LEAR There were pieces of my knowledge of the foolishness of the human condition in all of them. The foolishness of the human condition has amused me since I was 9. My father went to prison and my mother was selling the furniture. I was going to live with my grandparents, and somebody who was going to buy my father’s red leather chair put his hand on my shoulder at 9 years of age and said, “Norman, you’re the man of the house now.” I understood something from that moment — or maybe later, when I reflected on that moment — about the foolishness of the human condition.
I imagine, in that moment, there were tears.
LEAR Yes. I’m watching this chair that I sat with my dad in so many hundreds of times over my [childhood], and now this horse’s ass is buying it.
I’ve heard you describe yourself around that time as an outsider looking in, and I’m wondering how that feeling informed your work?
LEAR I lived in a family that lived at the end of their nerves and often roared at each other. Thanksgiving parties, when people came in from Boston because we lived in Hartford, often ended in these giant arguments. [There was a] love at the center of the family, but there were these glorious arguments, and they were at the top of their voices and at the end of their nerves. That’s the way I always used to describe them. And I enjoyed it.
LEAR Yeah, that was part of what represented family to me.
You made a decision in the late 1970s that you would step down from day-to-day producing duties on your many, many shows, a job you passed along to Alan Horn. In your memoir, you present the decision as matter-of-fact, but I suspect it wasn’t so easy.
LEAR I was never alone in this. I had great compatriots and partners and collaborators, and it came out of us. I am not denying I was the team leader, but I could not have done it without the team. It wasn’t hard at all [to step down]. It was time to move on.
Have you always known when that time comes?
LEAR Yes. I’m thinking it right now in regard to this interview. (Laughs.)
Fair enough. I did want to ask you about Maude‘s abortion episode, which has been referenced aplenty in the wake of Roe v. Wade‘s reversal. I’m curious if you think, in 2022, you’d be able to air that episode.
LEAR I don’t think there’s anything I would have to do differently. I think everything we talked about then would be relevant now. Maude’s story at that time could be Maude’s today. And it ended with Maude having made up her mind to have the abortion, and the extraordinary Bea Arthur as Maude saying to Walter, her husband, played by the extraordinary Bill Macy, “Am I doing the right thing?” I’ll never forget his last line, and this is exactly the way I feel about it: “Maude, in the privacy of this bedroom and the privacy of our lives, we’re doing the right thing.” In the privacy of one’s life, one makes those decisions. A woman, it’s her body, and I say that as the father of five daughters.
How serious are you about revisiting it for the next installment of Live in Front of a Studio Audience, assuming you get to do more?
MILLER If we end up doing another one, it’s certainly one to explore. It’s not only one of the most influential episodes of television of all time, it’s the 50th anniversary. Based on everything with the Supreme Court, it feels like, why not?
Before we go, is there anything I haven’t asked that you wish I had?
MILLER I would just say one last thing. On Norman’s 100th birthday, we did get a call, right as he was sitting down to dinner, that [Amazon] Freevee was going to greenlight our new series [Clean Slate] with Laverne Cox and George Wallace. And I don’t think that’s ever been done before, a man gets a new series greenlit on his 100th birthday. And in addition to that, it’s the first [sitcom] that has ever had a trans character as the center point, and the fact that it’s once again Norman doing that just excites me.
With good reason. I feel like each one of the past few birthdays has come with a green light or a new deal. Guess you’re going to have to keep having birthdays, Norman.
LEAR Wait until you see 104. (Laughter.)
Can’t wait. I also hope we get to do this again at 101, then 102 and 103 … an annual check-in.
LEAR Oh, I’ll be here.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Outne Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.