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An interview with Norman Lear, creator of 'All in the Family'

The Cinema Arts Centre pays tribute to legendary

The Cinema Arts Centre pays tribute to legendary TV producer Norman Lear with a night of conversation and screenings on Oct. 15, 2014 in Huntington. Credit: AP / Alex J. Berliner

Norman Lear, probably the most influential writer and producer in U.S. television history, has -- at age 92 -- finally written the one story he has never written before: His own. “Even This I get to Experience” (Penguin) -- which was published Tuesday -- is an often lyrical, reflective and occasionally moving account of a remarkable life: Raised in Hartford; a crewman on a Flying Fortress with the 772nd Bombardment Squadron, 463rd Bombardment Group that flew 52 missions; after the war, a writer for Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin; finally the writer and creator of “All in the Family,” among so many other series (including “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” “Fernwood Tonight").

He also thrust himself into culture wars, with the creation of the liberal advocacy group, “People for the American Way.” Lear was successful and controversial -- someone who straddled television, entertainment and politics in a way few others ever had. I spoke with him last Thursday about his book and his career. An edited account of our conversation appears in editions of Wednesday’s paper while this is a longer version. (Lear will share stories, sign copies of his book and present episodes of "All in the Family," "Maude" and "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" Wednesday night at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington.)

Why did you finally decide to write this book?

“I told myself I was gonna write this book 21 years ago, and finally sat down to do it six years ago. In the 15 years preceding, I made a lot of notes, had a couple of associates who got the barrel of all the reviews and interviews I've done -- the shows themselves and so forth -- and did a lot of other things in getting stuff ready. Finally, six years ago, I said now is the time. From the very beginning, I knew the title, and I knew I was going to start from scratch -- with how I was born, and all the other major questions about myself.

Some people use books to settle scores -- not a lot of that here. Any reason for that?

“I spoke very clearly about how I felt about the [evangelists with whom Lear sparred] Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells. I’m not an angry guy with angry words. It’s not my nature to shout ... I’m angry politically, I’m angry the way we behave [as a nation] but I don’t think you get your best work done being angry -- but understanding, and empathy -- not severe outsized disagreements.”

You write about living your entire life feeling like an outsider looking in. Did you ever lose that sense of being the outsider?

“We are all on a sense on the outside looking in some way. All of us. I write about sitting on a train coming into 125th street, looking at the lights in the windows of the tenements, just 40 feet away, or now looking out at the giant buildings [in LA.], and in all of those is another family. They’re all leading meaningful lives without me [he laughs]. By the same token, they wouldn’t have been here except for the fact that I opened my eyes this morning and witnessed them.

Did you have any epiphanies about yourself or your life as you wrote the book?

“I think it’s expressed in the title, when it suddenly dawned on me, holy ---. how much have I experienced. This is true for every one of us in our own lives [but] when I looked over how much I got to experience, it seems to me -- as it would to some degree for everyone -- that it struck me what a miracle it is to be alive.

Your father, H.K. - which stood for “Herman King, “ or as you write, the “k” standing for king, a name he insisted he’d been given but would never admit to having appropriated” -- had an enormous influence on you, but you are obviously ambivalent about him as well [he spent time in prison for fraud]. He had an enormous influence on Archie Bunker, too. Care to elaborate?

“He was very different [from Archie] but there was a corner of him, or a stream in him that was Archie -- like when he called me the laziest white kid he had ever seen or the dumbest white kid he was ever met. That went on all the time. To that extent, there was that touch in Archie and that’s why I reacted to this British show [“Til Death do Us Part,” upon which “All in the Family” was a loose adaptation] the way I did. My father? The word ‘rascal’ is alive in my mind. I want to call him a rascal. I saw him steal and heard him lie. I have to live with the fact that he was a thief, as well as a rascal, and it’s very hard, and I settled for the fact that that [feeling] is not going to go away.

"I’ve earned my way toward loving him and I’m not going to let the rest trouble me ... I came to peace with him.”

There’s an evocative line you attribute to someone -- that the impact of “All in the Family” was like a “pebble in the lake” and the “lake” rose only a bit” during and after its nine season run (‘71-'79). That suggests it had a modest impact. Have you changed your views on its influence?

“Did the lake rise? I know it to be true that it caused a lot of talk but did I see a change in the culture? I can’t honestly say. It was an influence on the culture, but people talked and that had to be good. But I can’t attribute my half-hour of television to any substantial change to a couple thousand years of Judeo-Christian history. It didn’t serve to diminish racism, or maybe it has -- if you’re able to look at it from a true distance, as opposed to man’s more limited timeline. We have a shorter term perspective."

You reduce a description of Archie in the book to one indelible phrase: He was “afraid of tomorrow” -- which is to say, afraid of change. Is that why he still resonates after all these years?

"Oh, absolutely he was afraid of tomorrow, afraid of progress. But look what’s happened in our time, in just a few years, the gay and lesbian and transgender movement -- my God, what a series of breakthroughs. That’s progress. But there was a [societal] fear of that and that’s what made it impossible for so long, based on fear."

There was also that other unintended ‘Archie effect’ -- that fans loved him so much that they felt he made their own bigotry more acceptable. Did you recognize that at the time?

“We received a ton of mail, but never a letter against him; they were always letters like ‘how could you let that ------ do that to him?!’ or then at the end of the letter, praising Archie .“

The book contains an anecdote about how [Carroll] O’Connor essentially quit the show at one point (over his refusal to participate in the famous episode when a baby is born in a stuck elevator). It sounds like there it was war on the set with O’Connor on the set every day. True?

“Was it war everyday? There were a number of [newspaper] stories, and a number of talk show appearances where he talked about his problems with me. He centered it around a couple of things [including, as Lear writes, O’Connor’s anger that Lear’s company did not cut him a piece of the back end profits from “Family.’] But that wasn’t all it was about. It was about his fear. There were good reasons for it: He was an Irish-Catholic intellectual, associated with Dublin and the literary and theater world there. In essence, he grew out of that, and spent a lot of time there. He was a major progressive liberal intellectual playing this role and doing for as many as 50 million-plus people.

"That was a lot of responsibility. He’s playing this role in a show which was causing so much conversation and with so much being written about it. He was totally devoted to it but he was delivering what he wanted and he wanted it to be right, and right for himself and thought he was the best judge of that. He wasn’t always right, but it was natural that we should have disagreements and we were both very strong about our disagreements.

"Yes, it was a situation where you had five people in an elevator for a half-hour and the success of that episode didn’t stun anyone else but HIM. I could understand him having great difficulty with that but I could also understand the guy who is in that story had those reactions on his face as that baby was being born ... on that incredible face. I tear up thinking about it now. I worshipped [O’Connor]. The character was something I had written so there would never have been an Archie without both of us, but no one could have ever made him what Carroll made him.”

You worked with so many other classic TV characters -- and stars. What was Bea Arthur like?

“Bea helped me understand -- she mirrored the foolishness of the human condition [in Maude]. But she could make me laugh so hard and with parts of my body I didn’t even know existed. My epitaph for her was: She got it, she got every bit of the sense of all of the foolishness of life.

You thrust yourself into the heart of the culture wars with the 1981 creation of People for the American Way, the liberal political advocacy organization, and have been sharply critical of the right wing. What do you think of political discourse now?

“I’m waiting for the moment when America looks at itself in the mirror and sees itself honestly ... I’ve lived through a time when America had every reason to be proud of itself, as proud as it could be, but pride is one thing and believing we are a chosen people is quite another. We’ve had a lot of years of leaders behaving and speaking like we were chosen whereas if we believe what our Constitution, and Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence and forefathers tell us, we are born equal, in the eyes of the law.

 Are you optimistic about the country’s future?

“I don’t want to wake up in the morning if I’m not optimistic. I do think we are in as serious and difficult a place as I’ve ever seen the country in, but I could exist without hope and the belief that we’ll find our way. It’s very difficult to clear away the problems to reveal that hope because for me, it starts with whether we are looking at ourselves honestly ... [And] yes, there is a will -- there's a giant will that has not been collected yet. It’s like sweeping the grass over a giant law. We haven’t collected that yet, but when that happens ... I don’t know what the word is, but the people of this country are going to find a way to collect their disappointment and disappointment is the word.

 In your running battles with Falwell and Pat Robertson, critics said you were “secular,” or an Atheist-- certainly a loaded criticism when directed at someone who produced so many influential TV shows. So, do you believe in God?

“Certainly we each have to answer that question for ourselves, then hold your belief dear. But in the public space, I don’t think we should be inflicting on each other someone’s God or on some guy someone else’s God. I have [critics] who say they love me and love me so much that they want to save me -- which means I have to accept something exactly as they want me to accept it in order to be saved. That comes out of love [but] I go back to my bumper sticker belief: We have to enjoy our common humanity.”

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