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Culture

Norman Lear at 98 — once again an Emmy winner, always a mensch

History was made this week when an Emmy was awarded to 98-year-old Norman Lear, the oldest winner in the history of the Television Academy. A victim of the depression, as a young boy, he’d hoped to one day be able to flip a quarter, as his press agent Uncle Jack did to him whenever he visited. The boychik had no reason to think he would be a comedy icon with some 120 million people watching his shows each week. How his Russian-born Jewish grandparents would have kvelled. Everyone in my parents’ shul surely heard them boast that their daughter knew Norman Lear. Among the handful of women writing for prime-time shows in the 1970s, I was lucky enough to have worked with him.

Like Cher, Sting and Beyoncé, he didn’t need a last name; there was only one Norman. But despite his enormous success, he was endearingly modest and self-deprecating, an unparalleled mensch. The comedies he created half a century ago may be even more relevant now. “All in the Family” dealt with a family divided politically; “Maude” featured an assertive feminist; and “The Jeffersons” showed upwardly mobile African-Americans. He helped television grow up, bringing serious cultural problems into our homes, the arguing and tensions accompanied by love and laughter. Shabbat dinners and seders weren’t ruined by the differences.

Shortly after I started writing, Norman hired me to create a new series. I’d teamed up with a girlfriend to write a spec script, and we were shocked that it led to our getting work. Tall and pretty, she resembled Mary Tyler Moore while I, more like Rhoda, was quicker to flare up when confronted with sexism. Norman treated us like writers, not “women writers.” At the first meeting, he pitched our lead having a live-in housekeeper. I said nothing, but he must have picked up on my lack of enthusiasm. Producers often pulled rank and insisted things be done to their specifications. But, not Norman. He said, “Argue with me.”

“There would be nothing for a full-time housekeeper to do,” I pointed out. “How much schmutz could a single, professional woman create to keep someone busy all day? And I’m guessing she’ll have a social life and go out to dinner, so she wouldn’t need a cook.” Wondering why he’d suggested it, I asked him.

“I just saw an actress who’d be terrific in that role,” he explained. “How about using her on ‘Maude?’” I countered. He did. Our series wasn’t picked up, so this worked out well for Hermione Baddeley, who joined the cast as Maude’s housekeeper.

Norman made more of an impression on me than I did on him, which I realized when I ran into him at an event and said hello. Looking sheepish, he admitted, “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.”

“You paid me more money than I’ve ever gotten in my life,” I laughed, “and you have no idea who I am.”

At the next meeting, Norman said, “A character doesn’t come into a room to hear what someone else has to say.” I kept that in mind whether working on material for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Maude,” “Lily” (a special starring Lily Tomlin) or “Northern Exposure.” A scene was always richer if every participant, however minor, was carefully crafted.

Aging out of television was as unexpected as getting into it had been. I was, after all, only in my late 50’s. My husband and I, then an established scriptwriting team, noticed that job offers were dwindling. It wasn’t just happening to us. The few who continued to work were those who’d been extraordinarily successful. Leaving LA and returning to New York, I went on to do personal essays and a form of mosaic known as pique assiette.

When our son was in high school, he applied for a summer internship at People for the American Way, a progressive organization founded by Norman in 1981. I contacted him to ask for his help and he came through. In a note thanking him, I expressed gratitude for his having treated me with respect and for improving television, acknowledging that what I most admired was his commitment to the country. I ended with, “I’m sure you’re scratching your head and wondering ‘who the hell is this woman’?”

A few days later, I picked up the ringing phone, surprised to hear, “Hi, this is Norman. What makes you think I wouldn’t know who you are?”

“When we were working together,” I reminded him, “I saw you at an event and had to introduce myself.”

Laughing sweetly, he said, “Of course, I remember you. You’re the tall, pretty one.”

The boy who’d wanted to be able to flick a quarter paid $8.2 million to buy a 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence. “Ninety-nine percent of all Americans will never see this document,” he told Bill Moyers in an interview, which is why he took it on the road from the Super Bowl to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. His passion for America traces back to his grandfather, who’d regularly written letters giving advice to the president, each starting, “My Dearest Darling Mr. President.”

Though it’s been decades since I’ve seen Norman, I remember that every experience was meaningful and uplifting. I always walked away with an emotional goody bag. He was unusual in many ways, appreciating everything he’d gotten in life, including the challenges, which explains the title of his memoir, “Even this I get to Experience.”

It’s not awards that make Norman Lear a winner.

Sybil Adelman Sage wrote for the television shows “Northern Exposure,” “Maude” and “The New Dick Van Dyke Show,” among others. You can visit her website at sagemosaicart

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