Award-Winning Television Pioneer Discusses Celebrated (and Critiqued) Life in Entertainment

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November 04, 2015

He may have been in the entertainment business, but he wasn’t in it strictly for the amusement.

Norman Lear, the groundbreaking and statement-making name behind some of the biggest television series of the 20th century, visited campus October 27 and dazzled a packed house at the McCormick Foundation Center Forum with his sincerity, wit, and tales from a life in thought-provoking comedy. 

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Norman Lear was the only writer/director/producer with nine situation comedies running simultaneously on network television. But while his popular sitcoms All in the Family, Good Times, One Day a Time, Sanford and Sons, The Jeffersons, Maude, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman may have racked up awards for laughs, they were also addressing race, class, and social issues while inspiring a national conversation.

In 1972, Lear’s name made it to Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List,” and in the early ‘80s, Jerry Falwell called Lear “the number one enemy of the American family.” In 1999, President Clinton presented Lear with the National Medal of Arts saying, “Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.” These experiences not only contributed to his shows’ content but to his work in advocacy. Over the course of his life, he founded People for the American Way and supported First Amendment rights as well as many other progressive causes.

The date of his visit to the School of Communication also marked that of the paperback release of his memoir, Even This I Get to Experience.

The conversation was moderated by Associate Professor of Radio/Television/Film Thomas Bradshaw, who introduced Lear as a man of passion, courage, and tireless work ethic.
Lear has written, directed, and/or produced more than 100 television shows and motion pictures and was one of the first seven inductees into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. He earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, won four Emmys between 1971 and 1973 for All in the Family, nabbed a Peabody Award in 1977, also for All in the Family, and was nominated for an Academy Award in writing for his film Divorce, American Style (1967).

From the first moment Lear spoke, he made it clear to the audience of students, faculty, and alumni that, even at age 93, the qualities Bradshaw outlined were still front and center.

Responding to Bradshaw’s question about his influences, Lear recalls a key moment early in his life.

“My father went to prison when I was 9 for trying to sell fake bonds,” Lear says. “He was a rascal with good intentions.” His mother had to sell a favorite red leather chair to help make ends meet. An older male relative observed the young Lear getting teary eyed and said to him, “You are the man of the house, and he doesn’t cry.”

Lear says he never forgot that. “I learned the foolishness of the human condition that day. I found it in tragedy. I found it everywhere. I’m always aware of the foolishness around me. Everything I’ve done since then reflects this, I think.”

Bradshaw remarked at how transgressive and edgy Lear’s shows still are today. The Jeffersons (1975-1985) introduced television audiences to the first interracial couple, Tom and Helen Willis, who lived above George and Louise. In Good Times (1974-1979), one of Florida and James Evans’ children says he wants to watch a show “with black people in it.” He’s told “good luck with that.” And in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977), Lear took on television itself, exploring the emotionally damaging effects of media on an American housewife played by Louise Lasser.

Lear not only explored social issues but challenged television networks and the Federal Communications Commission. Reacting to CBS’ attempt to enforce “family viewing hours” by moving All in the Family from its prime Saturday evening timeslot to a later Monday hour, Lear sued CBS and the FCC — and won.

So what does the grandfather of modern television watch today?

“It’s really difficult because there’s so much good stuff out there,” Lear says, adding, “America’s greatest product is its excess.” He continues: “I’ve seen a few episodes of Empire, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and The Carmichael Show. But I hate myself when I miss South Park.”

An audience member asked how he accounts for his youthfulness, vitality, and energy. Lear replies, “It has to do with maintaining and sustaining a sense of wonder about the world.” He then put his thumb into the air, bent it up and down, adding, “If I can believe in this thumb for 93 years —  it was always there for me — then there’s the possibility of anything.”

“It took me 93 years to get to this moment,” Lear says, making note of Northwestern President Morton Shapiro seated in the first row. Lear said he had wanted to attend Northwestern but ended up at Emerson College before joining the Air Force and taking part in 52 flying missions during World War II.

“But now I’m right here with you and you’ve got to say, even this I get to experience.”