When he was 9 years old, Norman Lear had a life-defining epiphany. He was at home one evening, fooling around with a crystal radio set he’d gotten as a gift, when he managed to tune into a broadcast by Father Charles Coughlin, the infamous anti-Semitic Roman Catholic priest.
“At 9 I learned that people disliked me because of my Jewishness,” Lear told the Forward. “It was a profound discovery and influenced everything I ever felt about the human species, the human condition. My sympathies, my empathy went out to people who are automatically disliked just because of who they are, whether they’re Jewish or black or gay.”
That compassion learned at so young an age has ruled much of what Lear, now 92, has done since then, whether it is using humor to fight bigotry on his hugely popular televisions shows or founding organizations such as People for the American Way.
“All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” and “Maude” offer just a glimpse of his oeuvre, much of it outlined in his newly published memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience.”
Lear grew up mostly in Connecticut with a father who constantly disappointed him and a mother he always seemed to disappoint. When he told his mom that the Television Academy planned to induct him into its Hall of Fame, she responded, “If that’s what they want to do, who am I to say?”
According to Lear, his upbringing was very Jewish though not religious. “I went to Hebrew school only long enough for the synagogue to accept me [for a bar mitzvah.]” Nevertheless, many of his memories are tinged with Yiddishkeit, his bubbe and zayde, the special dishes unwrapped from their protective covering on a Yiddish newspaper. “I think it was the Forverts,” he says. “That’s the name that sticks in my head.”
Other random memories: He named his show “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” because it echoed melodically of his memories of the opening of “The Goldbergs,” where Molly Goldberg yelled outside her window, “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Bloom, Mrs. Bloom.”
He named one of his production companies T.A.T., short for tuches ahfen tisch, or (roughly) “enough talk, put your rear end on the table.” Which is what he did repeatedly over a long and distinguished career.
There were hints of what was to come early on in his life. “My mother tells me that when I was 20 months old and people asked me how old I was I’d say ‘funny months.’ That was a big joke in the family,” Lear said.
“I was the class prophet, so I wrote the class play in high school. I also wrote a humor column, ‘Notes to You From King Lear,’ in the Weaver High School newspaper. But I never thought of anything other than becoming a press agent. That’s what you did, write amusing things about your clients for [newspaper entertainment columnists] Leonard Lyons and Dorothy Kilgallen to use.”
Lear flew over 50 missions as a tail gunner in Europe, got married, and moved to L.A. One evening, he and a buddy — would-be humor writer Ed Simmons — wrote a song parody, mostly for the fun of it. Their wives loved the song, and Lear suggested they try to sell it. They went out that same night and at the first local club they visited sold the parody to a comedienne/piano player for 40 bucks. That may not sound like a lot, but Lear only earned about 50 bucks a week at the time.
In relatively short order, Lear and his partner were writing for TV shows starring Jack Haley and Martha Raye. Lear then went on to write for the likes of Tennessee Ernie Ford, George Gobel and Henry Fonda before creating “All in the Family.”
Other shows quickly followed, including “Good Times,” “One Day at a Time,” and “Sanford and Son.” Five of the top 10 shows that aired over the 1974-75 season were Norman Lear productions.
I asked Lear if he thought someone could duplicate his feat today. “I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “I’d like to think it’s possible, but not exactly the way I did it because of changes in technology. It is a far more difficult world than the world I faced.
“It’s not as relaxed. It’s a less agreeable time in the culture, generally. You can see that in the way people yell at each other on television when they’re supposed to be giving us the news. It’s a meaner time. The news was a loss leader on three networks and it didn’t have to make money. We were more relaxed. There was room for Eric Sevareid. We were in love with the country and there were civics classes in school that taught what America was all about.”
Love of country seems to be one of the constants in Lear’s life. In 2001 he purchased one of the few existing copies of the Declaration of Independence and toured it in each of the 50 states.
“I think of myself as a bleeding heart conservative,” Lear said. “Don’t f–k with my First Amendment, my Bill of Rights. I care about the other guy and that’s the essence of every religion.”
Although Lear has founded and helped fund organizations to promote good citizenship and business practices, he’ll of course be best remembered for his TV shows. Which is okay with him.
“I remember flying over the country in the middle of the night during my own heyday and looking down,” he said. “Wherever I saw a light, it’s just possible I made somebody laugh.”
Curt Schleier writes about the entertainment industry for the Forward.