Norman Lear has iron balls.
That’s really the only way to say it. It’s not enough to describe him as a mere TV writer and producer, even if you mention his many, many hits—he created shows like All In the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons, to name just a few.
We tend to forget just how risky All In the Family was when it premiered in the early 1970s. This was a show that lovingly depicted a racist —an actual racist, who used words like spades, spooks, chinks, and coons with impunity. Lear also created the first U.S. television show about an African-American family—Good Times—and tackled social issues that most TV series go out of their way to avoid, like homosexuality, women’s rights, and abortion. (Lear’s fictional Maude had an abortion in late 1972, a full two months before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.)
Lear was so far ahead of his time, he’s still ahead of his time. Think about it: If All In the Family came out today, nobody would say, “This feels like a show from the 70s.” They’d call it daring and subversive and wonder if audiences are ready for such an honest, unflinching satire about the American psyche. Is there anything else from 1970 that feels too dangerous and modern for 2016?
Lear, a U.S. Air Force vet—he flew 52 bombing raids over Germany during World War II—was so dangerous, Richard Nixon hated him. A sitting U.S. president —who, one would hope, had more pressing concerns that a fictional TV show —was caught on tape complaining about All In the Family’s blatant glorifying of homosexuality.
TV evangelist Jerry Falwell once called Lear “The greatest threat to the American family in our generation.” Falwell and Nixon are both gone, but Lear, at 94 years old, is still very much with us. And he’s not running out the clock in a retirement home for aging satirists.
He’s written a book, “Even This I Get To Experience,” stars in a just-released documentary about his life, Just Another Version of You, and is executive producing a remake of One Day at a Time—a show he created in the 70s—this time with an all Latino cast, starring Rita Moreno, that premieres on Netflix in early January.
We called Lear at his home in Los Angeles to talk about fathers, role models, and finding hope in a hopeless world. When we remarked on how happy he seemed, he laughed and said, “If I had a complaint about my life, I’d be an ingrate.”
Men’s Health: Have you ever thought about doing an updated version of All In the Family? Archie Bunker circa 2016?
Norman Lear: I’ve thought about it, because there’s been a lot of interest. But I’m not interested in doing another version of Archie Bunker. When you get a performance like Carroll O’Connor gave us, you don’t fool with that. It was too indelible.
But if there was another Archie Bunker, and it somehow lived up to the original, would modern audiences care? Would they embrace a lovable bigot who throws around racial epithets?
If he was as outrageously funny as Carol O’Connor made Archie Bunker, then yes. Funny is funny, and an audience laughing is an audience laughing.
But sometimes people laugh for the wrong reasons. At least a few racists probably loved all the racial slurs in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Do you think anybody loved Archie Bunker because they agreed with him?
Well of course. But I never got a piece of mail from anybody who shared Archie’s world view who didn’t also say to me “But you’re a fucking fool” or “Jew bastard go back where you came from” or some ugly thing. They always got it. They knew the joke was on them. All In the Family didn’t fool any bigots.
But did it change any minds?
[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Long pause.] I don’t know if it did. That’s for other people to say. I want to think that we did, but I don’t know. That might be asking too much.
It is true Archie Bunker was based on your dad?
Yeah. Well, it was based on a British show, Till Death Us Do Part. But when I heard about this idea, a bigoted father arguing with his son, I immediately identified with it. Not because it was a great idea—although it absolutely was—but because I’d lived it.
Your dad even had a favorite chair like Archie?
That’s right. He had a red leather chair. We didn’t use a red leather chair in the series, because it was too expensive. [Laughs.] Growing up, we were a family in the Depression, and we didn’t have a fucking nickel. But my dad had a red leather chair, somehow. It was his throne.
As a kid, did you want to grow up and be like him?
Quite the opposite. I wanted to be a provider. That was an important idea for me. I wanted to be the provider, or somebody that you could count on. I wanted to use that phrase, to have a family and be able to say to them, “You can count on me.” Because my dad wasn’t anybody I could count on.
So who was your role model?
My Uncle Jack. He was my father’s brother, and he worked as a press agent. I wanted to be a press agent for the longest time, just to follow in his footsteps. I remember whenever he visited, he would flick a quarter at me. That was just incredible to me at the time. It was everything. I wanted to grow up and become a guy who could flip a quarter at his nephew. It was more than I got from my dad. He made these grand promises all the time. “I’m going to take you, your mother and your sister for a trip around the world. We’ll be gone a year.” But of course it never happened.
You managed to be a provider while also managing to piss off both Jerry Falwell and Richard Nixon. That takes some doing!
Is that a feather in your cap?
It’s like a medal of sorts. It feels like they gave me a medal.
Nixon in particular, was that not a little scary? The leader of the free world is pissed off at you.
Did you hear the tapes?
Oh yes, they’re spectacular.
You heard him in his own voice, talking about Archie Bunker, and the show was leaning towards homosexuality, and he said, “We lost Greece that way.”
(Almost a half-minute of laughter.)
That never gets old for me.
Okay, we’re off track. Let’s get back to your dad.
Was he as big a bigot as Archie Bunker?
Maybe not a full-on bigot, but he had his moments. He used to called me the laziest white kid he ever met. That would just set me off. I’d scream at him, “Why would you say that? Why put down a whole race of people just to insult me?” And he’d say, “That’s not what I’m doing at all. You’re also the dumbest white kid I ever met.” [Laughs.]
Was there anything in All In the Family that came straight from your relationship with him?
Bits and pieces. But there was one episode, where Archie and Mike are locked in a cellar.
You’ve seen it?
They’re locked in a storage room all night, and they drink and talk about their fathers?
Yeah, yeah, that’s the one. Everything about that conversation was very truthful.
The way Archie talks about his dad cuts right to the bone, the way we idolize and sometimes mythologize our fathers.
Yeah. What was the line? “How can you doubt any man . . . ?” How does it go?
“How can any man who loves you tell you anything that’s wrong?”
That’s the one.
Is there a guy alive who can’t relate to that?
It still rings so true for me. My dad told a lot of lies. He cheated. He stole. He went to prison for it. He was out of my life for three years because of a really bad decision. But I never stopped loving him.
Was it cathartic to write about him with the fictional distance of Archie Bunker?
You’re not really writing about your dad, you’re writing about this fictional guy named Archie. So you’re dealing with these issues at arm’s length.
Sure, there’s some truth to that. I watched the storage room episode again recently, and I cried. I cried as much as I did when we first shot it. I cried when we did it in rehearsal. But it’s not because I’m relating it to my own life. I cry because it’s such a wonderful scene, with performances that were just glorious.
So you’re not crying about your dad, you’re crying about Archie Bunker?
Who isn’t and has never been real?
Well, he is real. For me, he’s very real. I’ve lived with him for so long, he’s so much a part of who I am. All of these characters, they’re all real to me. They’re my family.
Another family. In addition to your actual family.
Sure. They’re my family, and these TV characters are my family. They’re just at different addresses. The TV families need me to survive. My other family needs me, but the TV family, without me they don’t exist. They need me to breathe.
Were you the Meathead to your father’s Archie? Would you argue with him, trying to change his mind?
Oh yes, oh yes.
Did it ever work?
I don’t think I made any progress. He never changed. I remember this one thing he always used to say. “I’ve been everywhere where the grass grows green and I’ve seen everything.” That was his way of winning any argument. I would say to him, “Dad, that’s not fucking true!”
The world is filled with Archie Bunkers. How do we reach them, change their minds? Or is it hopeless?
It’s not hopeless. I really do think that every person on the planet, every single one, is just another version of you. That’s what we have to understand to make any progress. We are all versions of one another. And then you start listening. You listen to everybody. Nobody ever came into my office that I didn’t care to listen to.
Didn’t the Black Panthers once pay you a surprise visit?
Yes, that’s right. Back in the 70s. They didn’t like what they’d seen on Good Times, so they just showed up. My secretary tells me, “There are some guys in the lobby who say they want to see the garbage man, and that’s you.” I invite them in, and they tell me all their complaints, that they’re pissed that the only black father on television is struggling so hard, has to take three jobs. I listen to everything they say, and tried to really hear it. It gave me the inspiration for The Jeffersons.
So listening paid off?
It did. I wouldn’t know how to be a writer without being a listener. Somebody wiser than me once said, “Each man is my superior in that I may learn from him.”
There’s not a lot of listening happening in the country right now. We feel more divided than ever. Is it hopeless?
It depends what you’re looking at. We’ve made huge leaps forward in the LGBT arena. 30 years ago, it was entirely less hopeful. We’ve still got a long way to go with race relations. But if it happened for LGBT issues, it can happen for other things. Maybe we’ll be looking back someday and thinking, “Wow, how did we get here? Look at what happened with racial harmony, racial healing.” You look at the world, and we have a lot of reasons to complain. But we also have evidence that being hopeful isn’t the same as naiveté. I wouldn’t wish to wake up on the morning if I don’t have hope.
(This story appeared, in a slightly different form, in the November 2016 issue of Men’s Health.)[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]