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An Interview with Norman Lear

May 9, 2009 | by

The famed TV producer talks about the art of making a difference, attaining success, and his heroes.

Norman Lear is a producer, director, comedy writer, screenwriter, social activist, and philanthropist, best known as the pioneer of candid, socially realistic television programming. His television and movie credits include All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Mary Hartman, Fried Green Tomatoes, Stand By Me, The Princes Bride, Divorce American Style, and Cold Turkey. Among countless honors, he is a recipient of four Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, and he is an inductee into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

In 1999 President Clinton bestowed the National Medal of the Arts on Mr. Lear, declaring, "Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American Society and changed the way we look at it."

Mr. Lear's non-profit activities include founding of People for the American Way, The Business Enterprise Trust, the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Southern California, and most recently, of The Lear Center, a multidisciplinary research and public policy center exploring implications of the convergence of entertainment, commerce, and society.

Mr. Lear is married to Lyn Davis Lear and has six children: Maggie, Ellen, Kate, Benjamin, Brianna, and Madeline. interviewed him in his office in Beverly Hills.

Q. Tell us about your roots.

A. I have a passion for people. My father went to jail when I was nine years old and he came out the year before my Bar Mitzvah. Any zest I have for life came from my old man. He had joie, a zest that I didn't find in anyone else -- for strawberries, for ice cream, for a bowl of whatever -- for life. What my dad didn't have was a screw in his head that one could turn a 16th of an inch one way or the other so that he might know right from wrong. He went to prison when I was nine.

My father went to prison when I was nine years old.

When he came out of prison, my sister, my mother, and I were at the railroad station in New Haven, a stop on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. When the train pulled in my father was standing on the platform in the suit he had when they took him away, but it was a size and a half too big; it was swimming on him. On the way to New York where we were to live for a while in a small apartment with another family, he said to me: "Norman, in a year you will be Bar Mitzvahed. For your Bar Mitzvah I'm going to take you, your mother and your sister for a trip around the world. We'll be gone a year."

My dad had a brother, Jack, who flipped me a quarter every time he saw me. He was a press agent so I wanted to be a press agent. That's the only role model I had. So all I wanted was to grow up to be a guy who could flip a quarter to a nephew.

My grandfather, Shya, my mother's father, used to write the president all the time. He taught me an awful lot. Every letter started off, "My Dearest Darling Mr. President, Don't you listen to them when they say this that or the other." I used to run down the three flights of stairs at 74 York Street and pick this little envelope out of the mailbox from The White House. I don't actually remember a presidential signature, but somebody answered my grandfather. I never forgot that -- that a citizen can matter.

Once I was throwing pebbles into a lake and he said, "Every time you throw a pebble in the water, Norman, you raise the level of the lake." So I picked up a rock and threw it in the lake and I didn't see the level of water rise. So he said, "All you see is the ripple, but if I had a scientist here he could prove to you that you raised the level of the lake."

Life is full of the ripples. You have to be satisfied with making ripples.

I think life is full of the ripples. You have to be satisfied with the ripples. Every once in a while somebody comes along and sees far more than a ripple in his lifetime. He stops polio, let's say. But pretty much of the time you get ripples and you have to be happy with them.

Q. Do you think you can make a difference?

A. There's a Talmudic story that I love, that seems to cover everything to me. A man should have a jacket with two pockets. In the first pocket there should be a piece of paper on which is written, "I am but dust and ashes." In the second, a piece of paper on which it is written "For me the world was created." That's mama loshon to me, real common sense. The person who can live between that ying and yang has it made.

My sister, Claire, brings entertainment to hospitals where nobody comes to visit the elderly patients. Now, because she can't pull together professional entertainers, she has people who wouldn't qualify in any reasonable, professional way, but they come with their guitar or their harmonica, or their accordion, or singing. And Claire brings them to these people who don't get any entertainment. And the mitzvah there is so clear and what she's doing for each of these groups is so lovely.

Sometimes she will call me about something that upsets her. I'll say to her, "Well you're upset about this or that, write your congressman. Why don't you just send a letter, pick up the phone and call his office." She feels that compared to me she has no influence. I tell her that if she really accepts the vastness of the Creator's creation -– i.e. this being one small planet in a universe among a billion universes -– the difference between her and me is infinitesimal. She can't bring her fingers close enough to measure the distance between us in relation to our importance. And it's all over in 10 minutes anyway.

Q. Who are your heroes?

A. My generation understood the word "heroes." We had heroes, not because they made more money than anybody else, and not because they got more space in newspapers but because they had values. My dad's great hero was Hubert Humphrey when he was mayor of Minneapolis.

J. Irwin Miller was a hero of mine. I read an article about him when I was a young man and I was just knocked out by his values and by his humility. He ran Cummins Engine, which is a big diesel engine company like John Deere. At the time I read about him he was President of the National Council of Churches and the Chairman of Cummins Engine. But what attracted me to him so much was what he brought to this little town in Indiana where most people worked for Cummins Engine. He thought about the quality of their existence, and that everything they saw and breathed and touched and tasted added to their lives, so he bought land and brought in world-class architects from around the globe. Now when you go to this little town in Indiana, the firehouse, the, public library, the city hall, and 11 or 12 other buildings are the work of world-class architects.

Our culture doesn't nurture heroes.

Two years ago Mark McGwire was a giant hero. There was an event here in town and I took my son Benjamin to meet McGwire and we heard him speak. The press paid no attention to the man's values. If they had paid attention and gave him his due in terms of his values, for his relationship with his son, he'd have been a hero for the right reasons, which included the fact that he was such a magnificent athlete. But even his prowess as an athlete was lost under the money, the contracts, the celebrity factor. So the country doesn't build heroes. The culture doesn't nurture them.

I think that we are most influenced everywhere in the culture by the corporate need for the quarterly profit statement that's larger this quarter than the last, and that causes people to park their values with their cars when they come to work.

When Senator Joe Lieberman comes after Hollywood, Hollywood deserves every bit of the spanking it gets. But to put a spotlight on that and ignore the excess that occurs everywhere else, whether it's the way the news is delivered, the exploitation of women in men's magazines, or the way this last election has been run ... there is excess everywhere. Excess is the endemic disease of our culture.

When I was growing up we had no trouble loving this country and being grateful for it and understanding what made it. I don't think the culture nurtures respect for the values of the Declaration of Independence, the First Amendment, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights -- as values not as objects of study in a history class.

David Hayden and I bought an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, 10 or 12 weeks ago. There are 25 existing in the world. They're all on walls or in dark places. But this one's not going to sit anyplace, it's going to travel to small towns and large around the country. And I hope to develop a show to go with it, a super patriotic, spiritual show to travel with the Declaration of Independence and help people understand what it has meant to us, what it has sparked for freedom lovers across the globe and the promises inherent in it that have not as yet been kept. The show will be full of anger and passion and storytelling to get people to understand that the promises that document makes will never be realized unless they're part of the process. If you want the brass ring you've got to get on the merry go round.

Q. What does success mean to you?

A. I don't ever remember thinking: "I want fame and fortune." Or that my work has helped the race issue. My work has made people laugh, and making people laugh is good. I'd be a fool if I thought that our little half-hour situation comedies could do what the Judeo-Christian ethic has not managed to do in 2,000 years. We did cause talk about issues. That's all we did. Made laughter and caused talk.

It's possible to be successful and not to pay a price.

I think sometimes it's said of some successful people whose lives may have ended poorly, "it was too big a price for success." But I don't know why there has to be such a price. I've met all kinds of wonderful, decent people who've had very successful lives who didn't pay a price for it. They gave, they didn't pay.

Success is the pleasure you get out of the minutes you live. I think if I wake up in the morning and I connect with my kids, or I connect with my wife, if I remember to pat myself on the back and say oh good, that's good – that is success. You know, in the rush of life, we may make that connection but we don't really let it register. But if we think about it and give ourselves the credit for it, to me that's how we build days of mounting success.

My favorite way of saying grace around a secular table is to say, "Let's stop for a moment and appreciate the things for which we're not responsible. Here we are, all of us so successful, so smart, so above the fray, so ‘got it all together,' but, for example, as hard as we may work to take care of our bodies, the fact is that we're not responsible for them. As much as we like each other, we're not responsible for our being born at the same time in the same place. Let's express some gratitude for that to whomever, whatever, and for me God is as good a designation as any."

I think unfortunately the conversation that we're having which is basically a spiritual conversation is owned by the professionals, the Fundamentalists who, proliferate all over TV and radio and so forth. And they have raised a wall of stained glass rhetoric that's virtually impenetrable. Most of us are groping. One doesn't get the sense that Pat Robertson is groping and Jerry Falwell is groping. There's a great prayer, "Lord, help me to spend my life seeking the truth, but spare me the company of those who have found it." And these guys who believe they have found it keep the rest of us away. The groping is the joy of it, so encourage the groping.

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