TV Giant Norman Lear Shares Gems From 92 Years Of 'Experience'

Oct 11, 2014
Originally published on October 12, 2014 8:35 am

When All In The Family debuted on CBS back in 1971, it was an instant hit. But it took creator Norman Lear three long years of persistence — right up to the final 20 minutes before the premiere — to convince network executives that it would be a hit, as he tells NPR's Arun Rath. When asked where he got the confidence to keep pushing the same pilot, first to ABC and then to CBS, Lear answered simply:

"Can you say 'beats the **** out of me' on NPR?"

Thanks to Lear's persistence, All In The Family would go on to top the ratings for five years straight, spawning spin-off after spin-off that were just as beloved, like Maude and The Jeffersons. Lear was fearless in tackling social issues, and so his sitcoms became among the first to seriously discuss topics as wide-ranging as menopause, racism, swingers, homosexuality and contemporary politics.

It's no secret he drew heavily on his own dysfunctional family upbringing to give a biting — and not an unloving — realism to the show's main character, Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O'Connor).

"Well, that's where it all came from, you know? We all scrape the barrels of our own experience," the 92-year-old says.

Lear's new memoir is called Even This I Get To Experience. And what a life he's had — from his combat experience in WWII to his education in comic timing at the burlesque shows in seedy parts of Boston to his time living with cousins when his father went to jail for white-collar crime.

"I can't get past calling him a rascal," Lear tells Rath. "I mean, he stole, he lied, he cheated, but that is so uncomfortable for me to think about. I'd rather think of him as a rascal."

To hear Lear talk more about his family, his network battles over All In The Family and how his Jewish upbringing led to his efforts to get more black actors on TV, click the audio link above.


Interview Highlights

On CBS trying to pull the All In The Family pilot right up to the last 20 minutes before it aired

There was one line [they were concerned about]. Archie and Edith come in from church when they're not expected, because Archie didn't care for the sermon and they left. And Mike and Gloria [their son-in-law and daughter], in the house alone have decided to go upstairs. ... And Archie comes in, sees what they were — knows, basically, what they were up to. And he says, "11 o'clock on a Sunday morning?"

They wanted that line out. And when I said, "But why?" "Well, because he's putting his finger on what they were doing." ... And I said, "Well, what's the problem with that? They're a married couple, nothing happened, the camera saw nothing." And they were still, "Can't do it, can't do it."

I just had a sense that if they won this battle, which was almost silly, that would dictate the nature of the show and I couldn't do that. So I said, "Well, clearly, that goes on the air or [you can] do the show without me."

And it went on the air, and believe me, no state seceded from the Union. America lived with it.

On why ABC and CBS had so much trepidation

They were listening to an American bigot, they were listening to Archie Bunker. They had not heard those attitudes expressed, though you could hear them on a playground anywhere in America. It was no big deal. I'm saying that now with hindsight, because we went on the air and [during] the first show, because they were so fearful, they had hundreds of telephone operators, literally, ready to go to pick up the phone calls, the complaints. And it wasn't enough to trouble six operators. So America was living what they knew very well, because Archie Bunkers lived next door or right in the house with them.

On his idea for a TV show today

I would wish to get the generations below mine and mine — from 55 or 60 up — on television. I love Betty White, but she does not make a full demographic. Certainly they're the fastest-growing demographic, with the most expendable income. There's every reason in the world for a show to exist. [The show would be called] Guess Who Died?

The script exists if anybody's interested in putting it on.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Every sitcom on TV today lives in the shadow of Norman Lear. Not only did he pretty much create the modern TV sitcom, he showed its potential to do a lot more than just make people laugh. Name a sensitive social issue. Odds are one of the Norman Lear comedies took it on. He also created more roles and opportunities for African-Americans on TV with shows like "Good Times," "The Jeffersons," and "Sanford And Son." Lear credits that to growing up Jewish in America and feeling like an outsider himself.

NORMAN LEAR: What I experienced as kid had a deep, profound and constant influence on me. I saw myself as a member of a minority, had great empathy for myself. And then it flowed into other minorities who had more severe problems than I did.

RATH: Lear's new memoir is called "Even This I Get To Experience." And what a life. On top of the back-story to all that great TV, we learned about his combat experience in World War II and growing up in a family that was more outrageous than anything he put on television. Lear actually spent several years living with cousins when his father went to jail for white-collar crime.

LEAR: I can't get past calling him a rascal. I mean, he stole. He lied. He cheated. But that is so uncomfortable for me to think about. I rather think about him as a rascal.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: And your mother's quite a character as well. It's kind of unbelievable to me how her reactions to your accomplishments are kind of meh.

LEAR: She never saw me as anything past 9 years of age, I think. The best thing she could say about me was I used to like falling down the stairs to make people laugh.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: Obviously, that didn't affect your confidence. Where does that come from?

LEAR: Can you say beats the [bleep] out of me on NPR?

RATH: Sure, we can bleep you. It's fine.

LEAR: OK. But you can bleep it in a way that you know I said it, won't you? (Laughter).

RATH: Absolutely. Let's go right to "All In The Family" because that's a show that's such an important part of American culture. I thought I'd heard all the kind of behind-the-scenes stuff. I had no idea though how difficult it was for you getting that on the air.

LEAR: Well, it took three years or a little more to get it on the air. I made it for one network - there were only three at the time. I made it for ABC originally. They wouldn't put it on and couldn't jettison it. So they used the contract to ask me to make a second show a year later. I didn't change the script. I just simply did it again - same leads - Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton. And they again didn't put it on. But this time they lost it. And a year later, CBS had a new executive. And he wanted a brand that would feel like him. And he picked up "All In The Family."

RATH: And even CBS though - they were nervous and second-guessing right up until seconds before it went on the air.

LEAR: Yes. Yeah. There was one line. Archie and Edith come in from church when they're not expected because Archie didn't care for the sermon. And they left. And Mike and Gloria in the house alone have decided to go upstairs and...

RATH: The young newlyweds.

LEAR: The young newlyweds, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

ANNE STRUTHERS: (As Gloria) But we have to be downstairs to yell surprise.

ROB REINER: (As Mike) They'll be downstairs. Let them yell surprise.

(LAUGHTER)

LEAR: And Archie comes in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

STRUTHERS: (As Gloria) Hi.

REINER: (As Mike) You're early.

LEAR: Archie sees what they were - knows basically what they were up to and says...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

O'CONNOR: (As Archie) 11:10 on a Sunday morning.

LEAR: Eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning. They wanted that line out. And when I said but why? Well, 'cause he's putting his finger on what they would - I mean, 11 o'clock - what else? And I said, well, what's the problem with that? They're a married couple. Nothing happened. The camera saw nothing.

And they were still - can't do it, can't do it. I just had a sense that if they won this battle, which was almost silly, that would dictate the nature of the show. And I couldn't do that. So I said clearly, that goes on the air or do the show without me. And it went on the air. And believe me, no state seceded from the union. America lived with it.

RATH: What about, like, you know, beyond worrying about particular lines, explain the pushback more broadly. What was it that was making ABC at first and then other people uncomfortable about this program?

LEAR: Well, they were listening to an American bigot.

RATH: Archie Bunker.

LEAR: They were listening to Archie Bunker. They had not heard those attitudes expressed, although you could hear them on a playground anywhere in America. I mean, it was no big deal.

I'm saying that now with hindsight because we went on the air. And the first show, because it was so fearful, they had hundreds of telephone operators literally ready to go to pick up the phone calls of complaints. And it wasn't enough to trouble six operators. So America, you know, was living what they knew very well because Archie Bunkers lived next door, right in the house with them.

RATH: If you had to do a TV show today, what would it be? Do you have a pitch?

LEAR: Yeah, I would wish to get the generations below mine - in mine - you know, from 55 or 60 up, on television. I love Betty White. But she does not make a full demographic. Certainly, they're the fastest growing demographic with the most expendable income. There's every reason in the world for a show to exist - ask me the title of what I want to do.

RATH: What's the title of what you want to do?

LEAR: Guess who died?

(LAUGHTER)

LEAR: The script exists if anyone's interested in putting it on.

RATH: Is there a Norman Lear character in there?

LEAR: Is there a Norman Lear character in there? There's a Norman Lear character spread thinly in all of them, I guess. That's what I found in writing the book.

RATH: That's Norman Lear, writer and producer behind "All In The Family" and way too many great shows to name. His new memoir is called "Even This I Get To Experience" and it's out on Tuesday. Norman Lear, it's been really wonderful speaking with you. Thank you.

LEAR: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.