My Last Conversation With Norman Lear

My Last Conversation With Norman Lear

He invented modern television. And he still found time to nurture his political causes, from People for the American Way to The Nation.


I never thought of what we did as controversial. They turned out to be controversial topics, but they were the things that were discussed in neighborhoods across the country. If it wasn’t your home, it was up the street, down the street, across the street. These things were going on, and we simply dealt with the truth.
—Norman Lear, to me, January 2018

I loved that he didn’t take crap from anybody. He flew 52 bombing missions over Nazi Germany in World War II, so he had no problem fighting network executives.
—Rob Reiner about Norman Lear, to me,
Wednesday night

I grew up with Norman Lear. If you were a child of the ’60s, whose family life revolved around the prime-time network television schedule, so did you.

Lear, the unrivaled creator of historical and hilarious television and landmark political activism (and a regretful Jewish Nazi bomber), died Tuesday at the age of 101. I first got to know him watching the world that Lear made, with his four unlikely hits, All in the Family (1971), Maude (1972), Good Times (1974), and The Jeffersons (1975). More hits came later.

There was nothing like any of it at the time, even given the cultural explosions of the early ’70s, when those shows premiered. You could pigeonhole the four: They were about race, feminism, race and race, in order, but that would obliterate all that was original and important. And all that was funny.

All in the Family made a special impression on me. Lovable racist—somehow, he was both—Archie Bunker, played by the late, great actor Carroll O’Connor, said words we kids weren’t allowed to say by my liberal Irish Catholic father, even though they were said in our neighborhood, loudly, “up the street, down the street, across the street,” as Lear put it. Watching my father cry with laughter watching the show, we knew there was a different lesson: These words were OK, but only here. I didn’t always get it, until I was older. And some people still don’t: Archie’s racist, sexist and homophobic putdowns can be jarring to hear today, even though Rob Reiner’s character, Mike Stivik, aka “Meathead” and “Polack” to his father-in-law, always had the liberal last word.

As James Poniewozik put it in The New York Times,

Archie was an oaf and a bigot, but a richly human one. Lear’s depiction of him was—like much of his TV work—a critique that came from love. He imagined popular, populist TV as a form of patriotic dissent, embodying a spirit of big-hearted 20th-century liberalism.

Many years later, I was blessed to talk to Norman Lear. Our conversation began when I was doing a piece for The Nation, about the week in 1968 when actor-activist Harry Belafonte hosted Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Lear was a longtime friend of The Nation, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, who had encouraged me on the project even back when I was at Salon, gave me his contact information.

“Norman was a great friend and splendid supporter of The Nation (for more than four decades) and a joyfully ferocious ally in defense of the Constitution and freedom,” vanden Heuvel e-mailed me on Wednesday when we heard the news. “At The Nation’s 150th anniversary event in Los Angeles, Norman at 92 tap danced across the Hammer Museum stage, and announced he was thrilled to mark the birthday of some/one/thing older.”

When I called him about the Belafonte story in 2015, Lear got back to me immediately. He confessed right away: He didn’t remember the week his friend hosted the Tonight Show—but that wasn’t disqualifying to me, because almost nobody did. (That was the point of my story.) Talking about it even without remembering the details, he said only Belafonte could have pulled it off: “He was an ambassador in both directions—to his own people and to the Caucasian community. There wasn’t anyone else like him. It is rare to this day.” Later, talking about the broader entertainment world, he added: “He brought together evenings of whites and Blacks that would otherwise not exist anywhere. All these years later, I still don’t see it that much.”

Roughly three years after we talked, when I found partners to make the documentary The Sit In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show, Lear agreed to talk to us on camera—even as he warned me that at 96, he remembered even less of the week that he didn’t remember at 93. We met in his office on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, where he was supervising a remake of his 1975 TV series One Day at a Time, with a mainly Latina cast, including the legendary Rita Moreno.

And maybe he didn’t remember every detail we asked him about, but he remembered how it felt and what it all meant. Which meant everything to us. “He might forget details, but he always remembered his values,” recalls Svante Myrick, president of People for the American Way, which Lear founded in 1981.

Lear was gracious and funny, and apologetic about what he couldn’t remember, when we showed up on a cold (even in LA) January day in 2018. He lit up talking about All in the Family.

“Everything changed for me with All in the Family and the other shows that followed,” he told us.

Our director, Yoruba Richen, chimed in: “Those shows were quite daring, of course, at the time.” He replied, “I like hearing you say that those shows were daring.”

“Those shows were daring!” Richen shot back, laughing. “In ’68, were we seeing daring television?”

“Well, if you thought The Flying Nun was daring, you were seeing daring television,” replied Lear, quite pleased.

He told us where he got his inspiration: “It wasn’t a matter of what was happening in society so much as a matter of how I grew up. I grew up with a family that lived at the edge of its nerves, and [was] the loudest. My family fought like cats and dogs, over such things as you didn’t invite Gert to the wedding 15 years ago. You’re still holding that grudge 15 years later?”

But he added, “I grew up with a father who had a lot of Archie in him.”

“Probably a lot of Americans had a lot of Archie in them,” Richen said.

He replied: “And continue to. Too many.”

Lear continued to be apologetic about what he didn’t remember from Belafonte’s Tonight Show week, which kind of killed me. I didn’t want to interview him to make him feel bad! But when we talked about the week’s two guest stars, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, both assassinated within four months of their appearances, he glowed. “Kennedy came from something like 180 degrees from where Martin Luther King came from, and yet they were both noblemen.

“My God, the hopes I can remember having for Robert Kennedy and where he would take the country and Martin Luther King in another more interior, spiritual way. We were absent a couple of noblemen when they were lost to us.” And again this year: Belafonte died in late April, at 95, seven months or so before his old friend.

Lear was proud of all he’d done, where he’d been, and where he was going. He was especially proud of founding People for the American Way, the liberal avatar of American freedom he stood up in 1981, the year American politics undeniably became dominated by the religious right. “All these years later, 30 some years later, I don’t wake up many mornings, read the newspaper and not thank God there’s a People for the American Way there,” he told us. Not long after we spoke in Los Angeles, he handed the leadership to Svante Myrick, the former mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., a Black millennial warmed by Lear’s humor, kindness, and political passion.

“I saw him three weeks ago,” Myrick told me. “Just after the elections. He wanted to know: How did we do in Ohio? In Virginia?,” where progressives notched big wins. Oh, he already knew that, the PFAW president told me. “He wanted to know, did we have staff out there? How did they do?

“He never stopped caring about the future. It was a remarkable thing to see a man of 101 care more about the future than the past.” Lear always asked about Myrick’s toddler son, Miles, he recalled. “Norman would say we needed to be thinking about 2124, not just 2024, in case Miles lives as long as he did.”

And Lear was proud of what he, personally, was still going to do. His rebooted One Day at a Time continued into 2020. In the year before he died, he was planning a remake of the historic two-episode story arc when Maude had an abortion, he told CBS Morning’s Ted Koppel. “You’re gonna piss a lotta people off, Norman,” Koppel said. “You know that.”

“Oh, wouldn’t it be interesting? I wouldn’t change a word,” Lear replied “The last moment of that show is something I remember as clearly as anything I ever had anything to do with.”

No word yet on who will take over the Maude remake. I have two words: Lizz Winstead. (The cocreator of The Daily Show, founder of Abortion Access Front, and one of my best friends, told me she loves the idea. “Rewatching the Maude abortion episodes shows how we should be talking about abortion,” she texted Wednesday night.)

As we were leaving we asked Lear: What did it take for Harry Belafonte to speak out the way he did? Was that an act of courage, in his time? “It’s a good question…. You didn’t have to be so brave when you were a Norman Lear that nobody knows. It takes much more of the stuff that makes for bravery when you’re Harry Belafonte, and everybody knows you as that person and then you speak up. He had guts and he has guts all the way. That’s why the Belafontes of our world who were never afraid matter so much.”

But he became the Norman Lear, with a lot to lose, and he had guts all the way.

As we were wrapping on that January day, he left us with one memory about Belafonte: “Harry came out to California for my 80th birthday party [in 2002] and he sang a song. I’ve been trying to think of the song. It made such sense for him: the night of my birthday, a song that he was so well known for. It was the song about aging and age and love.”

Both of our memories failed us. “We’ll look it up,” I promised. “We’ll get back here together and you can ask me again,” he replied graciously. Sadly, we did not.

I e-mailed a longtime assistant to Lear on my flight home and he said, “It was ‘Try to Remember.’”

Of course it was.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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