“Donald Trump Is the Middle Finger of the American Right Hand.”
Lear started his career writing gags and sketches for comics including Danny Thomas, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. In the 1960s he worked as a writer on sitcoms and variety shows, then a film director and producer. He wrote and produced the film Divorce American Style (1967) and directed Cold Turkey (1971), both starring Dick Van Dyke. In 1970, 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. After a third pilot, CBS picked up the show, now titled All In The Family.
It premiered in January 1971, to disappointing ratings, but it still won several Emmy Awards that year, including Outstanding Comedy Series. The show did better in summer reruns. and then America really embraced it in the 1971–72 season, becoming the Number One show on television for the next five years. All In The Family remained in the Top Ten, even became Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983).
The show was loosely based on the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965-1975) about an irascible working-class Tory and his Socialist son-in-law. All In The Family starred Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, Sally Struthers, and Rob Reiner. The show revolves around the life of a working-class bigot and his family in Queens. The show was revolutionary in its depiction of issues previously considered off-limits for a network sitcom: racism, antisemitism, infidelity, gay and trans people, Women’s Lib, rape, religion, miscarriage, abortion, cancer, the Vietnam War, menopause, and impotence. The series became television’s most influential comic program.
Lear’s second sitcom was also based on a British show, Steptoe And Son (1962-65, 1970-74) about a London junk dealer and his son. Lear changed the setting to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and the characters to African-Americans. Lear named it Sanford And Son and it was a huge hit.
In the 1970s, Lear’s shows dominated television, with Maude (1972-78) starring Bea Arthur as an outspoken 1970s-era woman, and The Jeffersons (1975-1985), both spin-offs of All In The Family; One Day At A Time (1975-1984), and Good Times (1974-79).
Lear also developed the cult favorite series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-77) which was turned down by the networks as “too controversial”. Lear’s T.A.T. Communications (T.A.T. stood for “Tuchus Affen Tisch”, Yiddish for “Putting your butt on the line”) placed it into first run syndication with 128 stations in January 1976.
A year later, Lear added another program into first-run syndication, All That Glitters. It consisted of 65 episodes and aired in broadcast syndication. The show, a spoof of soap operas, depicted the trials and tribulations of a group of executives at the “Globatron corporation”, but with a twist. The series was set within a world of complete role-reversal: Women were the “stronger sex,” the executives and breadwinners, while men were the “weaker sex”, secretaries or stay-at-home househusbands. Men were often treated as sex objects.
All That Glitters featured Eileen Brennan, Greg Evigan, Lois Nettleton, Gary Sandy and Jessica Walter. Linda Gray plays a transgender fashion model, the first transgender series regular on American television.
In 1977, Lear planned to offer three hours of prime-time Saturday night programming directly to the stations. Lear sitcoms were shot on videotape instead of film, used a live studio audience, and they took on the social and political issues of the day.
One Day At A Time starred Broadway star Bonnie Franklin as a divorced mother raising two teenaged daughters in Indianapolis. The daughters were played by Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli. The show became the template for all those other shows about single mothers raising kids that followed. In fact, Lear is the architect of the sitcom as we know it. Modern Family, Fresh Off The Boat, Black-ish, they are all, in one way or another, inspired by his work.
Lear opened the eyes of millions of Americans when it came to civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, all by making us laugh so that we can think about them differently. Lear is and will always be, in television, a race relations pioneer.
Besides his long career in television, Lear is also a political activist. He is passionate about protecting the First Amendment and founded People For The American Way, an advocacy organization for progressive causes.
”We have to face our humanity. I think we, each of us, have the capacity for expressing, if not doing, the evil any other human being is capable of doing.
I was fired once because of the things that I caused to be printed. Those issues we dealt with were the issues American families were dealing with. We did what we had to do.”
Lear, who had already shaken up the staid sitcom with shows like All In The Family and Maude, did it again with The Jeffersons. In the episode Once A Friend, George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) learns that his old Army buddy Eddie is now a transgender woman named Edie (Veronica Redd); this was more than 40 years ago! In 1975, Lear introduced one of the first gay couples on network television in his short-lived ABC series Hot L Baltimore.
Lear’s memoir Even This I Get to Experience (2014) tells about his television career and his decades of activism. All the issues that we face today: Race Relations, LGBTQ rights, Women’s Rights, freedom of and from religion, inequality, the right to challenge those power, and the challenges of the American experiment have been brought into American’s home because of Lear.
In 2001, Lear purchased a Dunlap Broadside, one of the first published copies of the United States Declaration of Independence, for $8.1 million. He toured the document around the USA so that the country could experience its “birth certificate” firsthand.
Starting on July 4, 2001, The Declaration Of Independence Road Trip made a three-and-a-half year cross-country tour .
With the help of architect / set designer David Rockwell and Postmaster General John C. Potter, whose USPS became the tour’s official carrier, Lear’s multimedia exhibition presented the document in both historical and contemporary contexts accompanied by photographs, video and music illustrated the lasting values and ideals embodied by The Declaration Of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”
The exhibition also highlighted social and political movements that helped shape the USA and our influence on countries around the world. It traveled to 100 cities in all 50 states plus Washington DC, with special stops at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, the Super Bowl in New Orleans, the Daytona 400 NASCAR race, Mount Rushmore, and the Oklahoma City National Memorial, along with visits to most Presidential Libraries.
In 1967, Lear was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay Divorce American Style. Lear was among the first seven television pioneers inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984. He received four Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6615 Hollywood Boulevard, in front of World of Wonder headquarters.
In 1999, President William Jefferson Clinton awarded the National Medal of Arts to Lear, stating:
“Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.”
Also in 1999, he received the Women in Film Lucy Award in recognition of excellence and innovation in creative works that have enhanced the perception of women on television.
In 2019, Lear was awarded the fourth annual Woody Guthrie Prize, 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.
Lear received a 2017 Kennedy Center Honor. In 2021, he produced Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It along with Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Last year, at 100 years old, he won another Emmy for Live In Front Of A Studio Audience: All In The Family And Diff’rent Strokes
Lear is executive producer for One Day At A Time, a reboot of the same show starring Rita Moreno as head of a Cuban-American family for Netflix. It received great reviews and a strong, loyal audience. Netflix canceled the series in 2019, but a fourth season premiered in March 2020, on Pop, TV Land and Logo TV; production came to an end because of COVID-19, but the virus didn’t get Lear. He’s still here!
“When people ask me how old do I feel, I always say I think of myself as the peer of whoever I’m talking to. If you’re 26, I’m 26; if you’re 96, I’m 96; if you’re 12, I’m 12. I have a hard time being a grownup.”