Simply put, Norman Lear is in rarified air within the television world. He began as a comedy writer in the 1950s, writing sketches for both Martin & Lewis and Rowan & Martin. Norman created his first network series in 1959, The Deputy, as starring Henry Fonda. He really hit his stride in the early 1970s, writing, producing and/or creating All In The Family, Sanford & Son, Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. In turn, his accolades include four Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, a National Medal of Arts, and induction into the first class of the Television Academy Hall Of Fame.
Television is not the only area that Norman has excelled in, however. In 1981, he started People For The American Way, a progressive advocacy organization. The Norman Lear Center at USC was founded in 2000 to study the social, political, economic and cultural impact of entertainment on the world. In 2004, he established Declare Yourself, a non-profit campaign that has registered almost four million Americans to vote. He also manages to find the time to be the Chairman Emeritus of the Concord Music Group.
Norman is the subject of an acclaimed documentary, Just Another Version Of You, as released earlier this year. He will be in attendance of a special event at The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space at WNYC on Saturday, Dec. 17 at 6:00 PM. At The Greene Space, Norman will be talking with Icons & Innovators series host Susan Fales-Hill, and the two of them will be joined by Just Another Version Of You filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.
Beyond this Dec. 17 event, Norman has plenty in the hopper professionally. A re-imagining of his series One Day At A Time premieres on Netflix on Jan. 6. He was also one of the executive producers behind America Divided, the Epix documentary series on inequality, alongside Shonda Rimes and Common.
Downtown had the pleasure of speaking with Norman by phone about a variety of topics. More on the 94-year old innovator can be found at www.normanlear.com, while he can be followed on Twitter via @TheNormanLear.
You will be talking about your recent documentary, Just Another Version Of You, at Saturday’s event. Is there anything that you wish was presented differently or done differently in the documentary.
Norman Lear: No, not a thing. I think the two women, Rachel and Heidi, just did a splendid job. I mean, they did a great job…It was wonderful work.
Is there a particular project that you wish they had focused more time on?
NL: You know, life is very slow. I did something called The Business Enterprise Trust. I don’t know what I would move around in order to find room for it, since they had just so much time. But maybe it could be 20 minutes longer and I would have a few more things I cared about in there, given the what the network called for time-wise. They did as good a job as they could…
I recently heard about a project of yours from about 10 years ago called Everybody Hurts. The wrestler Diamond Dallas Page told me that he was possibly going to do some work on that. Whatever happened with that project?
NL: Everybody Hurts?
NL: I have no memory of anything called Everybody Hurts. Who was it that told you about it?
A professional wrestler named Diamond Dallas Page, he said that it was a pilot for HBO…
NL: Oh my god, yes! I’d forgotten all about it. We worked for some time. I can’t remember who I was working with, who knew a bit more about wrestling than I did, but we were…Yes, I forgot about that…
I’m sure that’s one of many projects that you’ve developed or had in a certain state that didn’t go, but is there a particular project of yours that you are really passionate about and just tried a lot of times to get going?
NL: I was very passionate about Nancy Walker. I adored Nancy Walker, nobody made me laugh harder than I laughed one evening on our Broadway show…She added years to my life, I laughed so hard. I did a show with her, The Nancy Walker Show, and it always hurt that I didn’t get it right…They didn’t pick it up and it was not their fault, it was that we didn’t get it right, I didn’t get it right. It hurts when I think about it because I just thought so much of her.
On the opposite end of that, with there being so many start-ups and new networks, it seems like you’re now having no problem at all getting things on the air. There’s the recent Epix mini-series, there’s the reboot of One Day At A Time on Netflix. Do you like the fact that there’s a lot of new channels? Or do you find it more challenging?
NL: I certainly find it more challenging in that several times a week somebody I admire or respect says to me, “You mean you’re not watching insert-in-the-title-of-the-show?” Then I will because that person mentions that, to make sure I see it and it’s great, and I don’t have time to see all the shows I hear about that are wonderful. So in that way it is worse, I’d like to find the time to see them all.
Well, what do you like to do for fun? I would assume being that you’re a television and movie writer, that you associate movies and television with work rather than joy for the most part. So what are your main hobbies?
NL: A lot of years ago I was asked, “Wait a minute, so many shows, what about the stress factor?” I remember saying, “You know there is stress and there is joyful stress.” I have lived through a lot of joyful stress. So I don’t look back at anything as, including right now…One Day At A Time, because we just did 13 episodes and it was stressful, but it was joyful stress.
That’s good to hear. So is there anything that you haven’t yet accomplished professionally that you’re still hoping to?
NL I don’t know about professionally, but I haven’t awakened tomorrow morning yet and I’m looking forward to that.
So the title One Day At A Time actually gets quite literal…
NL: Oh yeah, and so is Just Another Version Of You. That’s my bumper sticker, they got the title from my bumper sticker. It has been my bumper sticker for years.
Something else that I find amazing about you, yet very few people talk about is your work with the Concord Music Group. Have you always been a big music fan?
NL: Yeah…I’m just a fan, I love music. I’m not somebody who knows it well or understands it so well. I can’t sing, I can’t keep a tune, and I don’t know the differences between a lot. I just love music, as a matter of fact, music is like laughter, you know? It holds crowds together, they’re screaming and chanting, it holds them together in total silence.
What was the last concert you went to? Do you recall?
NL: The last concert that I went to was Estelle at the Hollywood Bowl within the last few months.
Well in terms of Concord Music Group, do you advise still? Or is it just more of an honorary title that you have?
NL: I’m the Chairman Emeritus…The guys who are the heart and soul of Concord, they also play instruments, they play guitar, the two guys who run it. Several of the clients will come to my house, we’ll have a great meal. Glen Barros, who runs the company, is also a wine aficionado. I never knew anybody who knows more about wines; he’ll work with the chef for a couple of days on the wines. We’ll sit around, maybe eight to ten of us. They all play instruments but me, and we’ll have a wonderful dinner and some terrific wines and then we have Havana cigars. If there was no other reason to believe in God it would be Havanas, at least. I mean, we all subscribe to that and we glide on the terrace to one-thirty, two o’clock in the morning. They’ll play and we’ll smoke Havanas and play, you know somebody has a keyboard, Dave Koz will come with his saxophone and we’ll play until the hours.
Speaking of cigars, I read that you just put up your Brentwood house for sale and you are no longer allowed to smoke cigars in the house.
NL: I never could smoke cigars in the house.
So that article said that you were selling your home in Brentwood to spend more time in Manhattan. What is it that you like about Manhattan more so than Los Angeles?
NL: My three daughters who live there, and the two daughters who live there for college.
When you are in writing mode, do you always write in Los Angeles? Or do you just write wherever you are?
NL: We have a place in Vermont, we’ll be there at Christmas…I go to New York…Wherever I am and have a pad and a pencil, I can write.
And when was the last time that you wrote or you were part of a writing session?
NL: We just finished 13 episodes of One Day At A Time.
So you actually sat in the writing room of all the sessions and all that?
NL: I didn’t spend eight hours a day doing that, no, but I certainly spent time in the writers’ room.
I’d also like to ask you about is your foundation. What is it working on at the moment? Are there any new initiatives that you’re pushing?
NL: There is a center in my name at USC which does terrific work. The guy who runs this, Marty Kaplan, he started as a speechwriter for Walter Mondale a great many years ago. He was a producer at Disney and he now runs the center and they do great work. I mentioned his name because you might want to talk to him.
Sure. So finally, Norman, any last words for the kids?
NL: Just go with your gut.