Lear receiving the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors
Norman Milton Lear
July 27, 1922
|Occupation||Television producer, screenwriter|
All in the Family
Sanford and Son
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
One Day at a Time
(m. 1943; div. 1956)
(m. 1956; div. 1985)
Norman Milton Lear (born July 27, 1922) is an American television writer and producer who created or developed many 1970s sitcoms such as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time and its 2017 remake, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude.
Lear is a political activist, part of the so-called Malibu Mafia who funded liberal and progressive causes and politicians. Lear was a silent partner of The Nation magazine and founded the advocacy organization People for the American Way in 1980 to counter the Christian right in politics. He has supported First Amendment rights.
Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Jeanette (née Seicol) and Hyman "Herman" Lear, a traveling salesman. He had a younger sister, Claire Lear Brown (1925-2015). Lear grew up in a Jewish household in Connecticut and had a Bar Mitzvah ceremony. His mother was originally from Ukraine, while his father's family was from Russia.
When Lear was nine years old, his father went to prison for selling fake bonds. Lear thought of his father as a "rascal" and said that the character of Archie Bunker (whom Lear depicted as white Protestant on the show) was in part inspired by his father, while the character of Edith Bunker was in part inspired by his mother. However, Lear has claimed the moment which inspired his lifetime of advocacy was another event which he experienced at the age of nine, when he first came across infamous anti-semitic Catholic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin while tinkering with his crystal radio set. Lear has also claimed he would hear more of Coughlin's radio sermons over time, and found out that Coughlin would at times find different ways to promote anti-semitism by also targeting people who Jews considered to be "great heroes," such as US President Franklin Roosevelt.
Lear enlisted in the United States Army in September 1942. He served in the Mediterranean theater as a radio operator/gunner on Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers with the 772nd Bombardment Squadron, 463d Operations Group of the Fifteenth Air Force; he also described bombing Germany in the European theater. Lear flew 52 combat missions, for which he was awarded the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters. Lear was discharged from the Army in 1945, and his fellow World War II crew members are featured in the books Crew Umbriag, by Daniel P. Carroll (tail gunner), and 772nd Bomb Squadron: The Men, The Memories, by Turner Publishing and Co.
After World War II, Lear had a career in public relations. The career choice was inspired by his Uncle Jack: "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." Lear decided to move to California to restart his career in publicity, driving with his toddler daughter across the country.
His first night in Los Angeles, Lear stumbled upon a production of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara at a 90-seat theater in the round Circle Theater off Sunset Boulevard. One of the actors in the play was Sydney Chaplin, who was the son of actors Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey. Chaplin, Alan Mowbray and Dame Gladys Cooper sat in front of him, and after the show was over, Chaplin performed.
Lear had a first cousin in Los Angeles, Elaine, married to Ed Simmons, who wanted to be a comedy writer. Simmons and Lear teamed up to sell home furnishings door-to-door for a company called The Gans Brothers and later sold family photos door-to-door. Throughout the 1950s, Lear and Simmons turned out comedy sketches for television appearances of Martin and Lewis, Rowan and Martin, and others. They frequently wrote for Martin and Lewis when they appeared on the Colgate Comedy Hour and a 1953 article from Billboard magazine stated that Lear and Simmons were guaranteed a record-breaking $52,000 each to write for five additional Martin and Lewis appearances on the Colgate Comedy Hour that year. In a 2015 interview with Vanity Magazine, Lear said that Jerry Lewis had hired him and Simmons to become writers for Martin and Lewis three weeks before the comedy duo made their first appearance on the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1950. Lear also acknowledged in 1986 that he and Simmons were the main writers for The Martin and Lewis Show for three years.
In 1954, Lear was enlisted as a writer hoping to salvage the new Celeste Holm CBS sitcom, Honestly, Celeste!, but the program was canceled after eight episodes. During this time, he became the producer of NBC's short-lived (26 episodes) sitcom The Martha Raye Show, after Nat Hiken left as the series director. Lear also wrote some of the opening monologues for The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, which aired from 1956 to 1961. In 1959, Lear created his first television series, a half-hour western for Revue Studios called The Deputy, starring Henry Fonda.
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Starting out as a comedy writer, then a film director (he wrote and produced the 1967 film Divorce American Style and directed the 1971 film Cold Turkey, both starring Dick Van Dyke), Lear tried to sell a concept for a sitcom about a blue-collar American family to ABC. They rejected the show after two pilots were taped: Justice For All in 1968 and Those Were The Days in 1969. After a third pilot was taped, CBS picked up the show, known as All in the Family. It premiered January 12, 1971, to disappointing ratings, but it took home several Emmy Awards that year, including Outstanding Comedy Series. The show did very well in summer reruns, and it flourished in the 1971-72 season, becoming the top-rated show on TV for the next five years. After falling from the #1 spot, All in the Family still remained in the top ten, well after it transitioned into Archie Bunker's Place. The show was based loosely on the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, about an irascible working-class Tory and his Socialist son-in-law.
Lear's second big TV sitcom was also based on a British sitcom, Steptoe and Son, about a west London junk dealer and his son. Lear changed the setting to the Watts section of Los Angeles and the characters to African-Americans, and the NBC show Sanford and Son was an instant hit. Numerous hit shows followed thereafter, including Maude, The Jeffersons (as with Maude a spin-off of All in the Family), One Day at a Time, and Good Times (which was a spinoff of Maude).
What most of the Lear sitcoms had in common was that they were shot on videotape in place of film, used a live studio audience, and dealt with the social and political issues of the day.Maude, while reputedly based on Lear's wife, was actually the brainchild[vague] of series writer Charlie Hauck; however, Frances herself would acknowledge that the show's title character was based on her.
Lear's longtime producing partner was Bud Yorkin, who also produced All in the Family, Sanford and Son, What's Happening!!, Maude, and The Jeffersons. Yorkin split with Lear in 1975. He started a production company with writer/producers Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein, but they had only two shows that ran more than a year: What's Happening!! and Carter Country. The Lear/Yorkin company was known as Tandem Productions that was founded in 1958. Lear and talent agent Jerry Perenchio founded T.A.T. Communications (T.A.T. stood for "Tuchus Affen Tisch", which is Yiddish for "Putting one's butt on the line") in 1974, which co-existed with Tandem Productions and was often referred to in periodicals as Tandem/T.A.T. The Lear organization was one of the most successful independent TV producers of the 1970s. TAT produced the influential and award-winning 1981 film The Wave about Ron Jones' social experiment.
Lear also developed the cult favorite TV series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (MH MH) which was turned down by the networks as "too controversial" and placed it into first run syndication with 128 stations in January 1976. A year later, Lear added another program into first-run syndication along with MH MH, All That Glitters. He planned in 1977 to offer three hours of prime-time Saturday programming directly, with the stations placing his production company in the position of an occasional network.
In 1980, Lear founded the organization People for the American Way for the purpose of counteracting the Christian right organization Moral Majority, founded in 1979. In the fall of 1981, Lear began a 14-month run as the host of a revival of the classic game show Quiz Kids for the CBS Cable Network. In January 1982, Lear and Jerry Perenchio bought out Avco Embassy Pictures from Avco Financial Corporation, and the Avco part of its name was dropped after merging that with T.A.T. Communications Company to form Embassy Communications, Inc. Embassy Pictures was led by Alan Horn and Martin Schaeffer, later co-founders of Castle Rock Entertainment with Rob Reiner.
In March 1982, Lear produced an ABC television special titled I Love Liberty, which was aimed to counterbalance groups like the Moral Majority. Among the many guests who appeared on the special was conservative icon and the 1964 US presidential election's Republican nominee Barry Goldwater. Even before the special aired, it was revealed that I Love Liberty had obtained even more public hype than the CBS documentary Central American In Revolt, which aired the day before Lear's special and was meant to hype the Reagan Administration's policy surrounding the Central American crisis.
On June 18, 1985, Lear and Perenchio sold Embassy Communications to Columbia Pictures (then owned by the Coca-Cola Company), which acquired Embassy's film and television division (including Embassy's in-house television productions and the television rights to the Embassy theatrical library) for $485 million in shares of The Coca-Cola Company. Lear and Perenchio split the net proceeds (about $250 million). Coke later sold the film division to Dino De Laurentiis and the home video arm to Nelson Holdings (led by Barry Spikings).
In his book Even This I Get To Experience, Lear stated that he was the one who produced the four-day Liberty Weekend special which aired during the 1986 Fourth of July Weekend, describing the event as "my parade" of "tall ships," and that he was also the one who was used the Israeli ship The Galaxy which set sail during the event. Lear also stated that he used The Galaxy to host a private party celebrating his upcoming marriage to his fiancée Lyn and that he in part made the special so it was coincide with this party as well. He also stated that it was his close family, friends and associates who were occupying the ship with him and Lyn and watching the event via closed-circuit TV.
The brand Tandem Productions was abandoned in 1986 with the cancellation of Diff'rent Strokes, and Embassy ceased to exist as a single entity in late 1986, having been split into different components owned by different entities. The Embassy TV division became ELP Communications in 1988, but shows originally produced by Embassy were now under the Columbia Pictures Television banner from 1988 to 1996 and the Columbia TriStar Television banner from 1996 to 2002.
Lear's Act III Communications, founded in 1986 with Tom McGrath as president, produced several notable films, including Rob Reiner's next three films: The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, and The Princess Bride, as well as Fried Green Tomatoes. On February 2, 1989, Norman Lear's Act III Communications formed a joint venture with Columbia Pictures Television called Act III Television to produce television series instead of managing.
Lear attempted to return to TV production in the 1990s with the shows Sunday Dinner, The Powers That Be, and 704 Hauser, the last one putting a different family in the house from All in the Family. None of the series proved successful.
Lear's Act III Communications was founded in 1986 and led initially by Tom McGrath, who met Lear while negotiating on behalf of Coca-Cola the acquisition of Lear's old company, and later by Hal Gaba, a former Embassy Pictures executive. This included: Act III Theatres, sold to KKR in 1997; Act III Broadcasting, sold to Abry Communications; and Act III Publishing, sold to PriMedia. Lear is also the owner of Concord Records, and in 2005 consummated a 50% interest in the film library and production assets of Village Roadshow Productions Pty Ltd.
In 1997, Lear and Jim George produced the Kids' WB series Channel Umptee-3. It premiered on October 25, 1997. The cartoon was the first to meet the Federal Communications Commission's then-new educational/informal programming requirements. It received positive reviews, but ratings were low and it was eventually canceled after one season, with the finale airing September 4, 1998.
In 2003, Lear made an appearance on South Park during the "I'm a Little Bit Country" episode, providing the voice of Benjamin Franklin. He also served as a consultant on the episodes "I'm a Little Bit Country" and "Cancelled". Lear has attended a South Park writers' retreat, and served as the officiant at co-creator Trey Parker's wedding.
Lear is spotlighted in the 2016 documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. In 2017, Lear served as executive producer for One Day at a Time, the reboot of his 1975-1984 show of the same name that premiered on Netflix starring Justina Machado and Rita Moreno as a Cuban-American family. He has hosted a podcast, All of the Above with Norman Lear, since May 1, 2017. On July 29, 2019, it was announced that Lear had teamed with Lin-Manuel Miranda to make an American Masters documentary about Moreno's life, tentatively titled "Rita Moreno: The Girl Who Decided to Go For It". In 2020, it was announced that Lear and Act III Productions would executive produce a revival of Who's The Boss? 
In 1967, Lear was nominated for an Academy Award for writing Divorce American Style. Lear was among the first seven television pioneers inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984. He received five Emmy Awards (two in 1971, one each in 1972 and 1973, and one in 2019) and two Peabody Awards (a personal award in 1977 and an individual award in 2016). He received the Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association in 1977. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6615 Hollywood Boulevard. In 1980, he received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded the National Medal of Arts to Lear, noting, "Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it." Also in 1999, he and Bud Yorkin received the Women in Film Lucy Award in recognition of excellence and innovation in creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television.
On May 12, 2017, Lear was awarded the fourth annual Woody Guthrie Prize presented by the Woody Guthrie Center based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The event took place in the Clive Davis Theater at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. The Woody Guthrie Prize is given annually to an artist who exemplifies the spirit and life work of Guthrie by speaking for the less fortunate through music, literature, film, dance or other art forms and serving as a positive force for social change in America. Previous honorees include Pete Seeger, Mavis Staples and Kris Kristofferson.
On August 3, 2017, it was announced that the Kennedy Center had made Lear, along with Carmen de Lavallade,Lionel Richie,LL Cool J, and Gloria Estefan, one of the recipients of the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump were scheduled to be seated with the honorees during the Kennedy Center ceremony, which took place on December 3, 2017, and they were planning to host a reception with them at the White House earlier in the evening. Variety magazine's senior editor Ted Johnson reacted with statements such as "That in and of itself will be an interesting moment, as Lear and Estefan have been particularly outspoken against Trump and his policies." It was afterwards announced that Lear would boycott the White House reception. In the end, the President and Mrs. Trump did not attend.
In addition to his success as a TV writer and producer, Lear is an outspoken supporter of First Amendment and liberal causes. The only time that he did not support the Democratic candidate for President was in 1980. He supported John Anderson because he considered the Carter administration to be "a complete disaster".
Lear was one of the wealthy Jewish Angelenos known as the Malibu Mafia. In the 1970s and 1980s, the group discussed progressive and liberal political issues, and worked together to fund them. They helped to fund the legal defense of Daniel Ellsberg who had released the Pentagon Papers, and they backed the struggling progressive magazine The Nation to keep it afloat. In 1975, they formed the Energy Action Committee to oppose Big Oil's powerful lobby in Washington.
In 1981, Lear founded People for the American Way (PFAW), a progressive advocacy organization formed to oppose the Christian right. PFAW ran several advertising campaigns opposing the interjection of religion in politics. PFAW succeeded in stopping Reagan's 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Lear has long been a vocal critic of the ideas held by the Conservatives and Christians and has advocated for the advancement of secularism.
Prominent right-wing Christians such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart accused Lear of being an atheist and holding an anti-Christian bias. In the January 21, 1987, issue of The Christian Century, Lear associate Martin E. Marty, a Lutheran professor who taught church history at the University of Chicago Divinity School between 1963 and 1998, rejected the allegations and stated that the television producer had praised the moral values of various religions and had personally praised his interpretation of Christianity. Marty also noted that while Lear and his family were never followers of the Orthodox Judaism that was practiced in his childhood community and questioned the beliefs held by the local religious leaders, the television producer was still a follower of Judaism.
In a 2009 interview with US News journalist Dan Gilgoff, Lear rejected claims by the Conservatives and Christians that he either was an atheist or prejudiced against Christianity and maintained that while he did not believe religion should hold influence in politics or any other form of policymaking, he still held religious beliefs and had also integrated some evangelical Christian language into his Born Again American campaign as well. In a 2014 interview with The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles journalist Rob Eshman, Lear described himself as a "total Jew" but never a practicing one.
In 1989, Lear founded the Business Enterprise Trust, an educational program that used annual awards, business school case studies, and videos to spotlight exemplary social innovations in American business until it ended in 1998. He announced in 1992 that he would reduce his political activism. In 2000, he provided an endowment for a multidisciplinary research and public policy center that explored the convergence of entertainment, commerce, and society at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. It was later named the Norman Lear Center in recognition.
In 2001, Lear and his wife, Lyn, purchased a Dunlap broadside--one of the first published copies of the United States Declaration of Independence--for $8.1 million. Not a document collector, Lear said in a press release and on the Today show that his intent was to tour the document around the United States so that the country could experience its "birth certificate" firsthand. Through the end of 2004, the document traveled throughout the United States in the Declaration of Independence Roadtrip, which Lear organized, visiting several presidential libraries, dozens of museums, as well as the 2002 Olympics, Super Bowl XXXVI, and the Live 8 concert in Philadelphia.
Lear and Rob Reiner produced a filmed, dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence--the last project filmed by famed cinematographer Conrad Hall--on July 4, 2001, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The film, introduced by Morgan Freeman, features Kathy Bates, Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson, Whoopi Goldberg, Graham Greene, Ming-Na, Edward Norton, Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey, and Renée Zellweger as readers. The film was directed by Arvin Brown and scored by John Williams.
In 2004, Lear established Declare Yourself, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign created to empower and encourage eligible 18- to 29-year-olds in America to register and vote. Since then, it has registered almost 4 million young people.
Lear was one of 98 "prominent members of Los Angeles' Jewish community" that signed an open letter supporting the proposed nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers led by the United States. The letter called for the resolution of the bill, warning that the ending of the agreement by Congress would be a "tragic mistake". The letter was also signed by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad; Walt Disney Concert Hall architect Frank Gehry; Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, and many more.
Lear has been married three times:
Lear plays the protagonist in the video to "Happy Birthday to Me", the first single from musician and actor Paul Hipp's 2015 album The Remote Distance.
"The top of my bucket list always included a desire to sing. More than that -- a desire to enchant an audience with my voice. I ached to be Sinatra or Tormé for just a night. You say a night's too much? How about just one song?" My friend, actor, singer-guitarist and composer, Paul Hipp, wrote the happy birthday song when he turned fifty. I loved it and asked if I could perform it as I turn ninety-three. That was the result, and I don't care what you say, I love it."
"CBS News Sunday Morning" interview with Norman Lear on January 10, 2021.