LOS ANGELES — Television legend Norman Lear, 93, is known for producing shows such as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Good Times and Maude. He was the keynote speaker at the 2015 USC Institute on Entertainment Law and Business last Saturday. When Lear speaks, people listen.
He was interviewed by Bruce M. Ramer, a partner at the law firm of Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown, Inc. Ramer is also the chairman of the USC Institute on Entertainment Law and Business.
Lear was first asked about his inspiration for writing.
“I started with All in the Family. We were mirroring what was going on in their lives. We read a few newspapers a day. We’d pay attention to our kids and our mates. We’d come in with the stuff we were dealing with. It was just part of what was going on in our lives and neighborhoods. Finally, I fessed up into maybe there’s a message in what I’m doing. I am who I am. Then, I thought what about what preceded All in the Family. Then, I became comfortable in this skit.”
Then, he recalled a funny story about his mother.
“Mid-career, I got a call from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to tell me they were starting a Television Hall of Fame. the first inductees were going to be Gen. David Sarnoff who started NBC, Bill Paley who did CBS, Edward R. Murrow, Patty the best writer, Milton Berle, Lucille Ball and me. Mom, I just got a call. ‘They are starting a TV hall of fame.’ My mother said, ‘Listen if that’s what they want to do, who am I to say?’”
On collaborations, Lear had this to say, “I think the best collaborations must start with mutual respect. There’s gotta be a lot of respect spread across the table. We sat around a table with a microphone in the center and talked stories. Somebody was typing up what she or he heard from that mic. When a story conference was over on a particular show or episode, they had 20 pages waiting for them about what we had just talked about. Collaboration is about listening to the other person and respecting that person’s views.”
The TV producer mentioned a film that he never had the chance to produce: “I was doing television. There are some ideas i desperately wanted to do that I couldn’t sell. I wanted to do a film which I called “Religion.” It’s about two guys who are mounted policeman in times square who joined the Universal Life church, became ministers. They were able to put away a couple of thousand dollars away. Tell the story about one who finds god. The other finds power and becomes a major star and gets into deep shit and is saved by his buddy. I am a clergyman myself. I’m a real honest to go minister. It cost me $20 bucks. I’ve officiated four or five times.”
He has always been a big fan of Betty White.
“I love Betty White. I thought, why don’t we have more older people on television, 65 and up? So I wrote a script, Guess Who Died.” The audience laughed. “I think it’s funny as well. Nobody would go near the demographic. The demographic is still 18-39. With 400 channels I’m hoping that’s going to change. I think we belong on television–We 65 and up.”
Lear shared his one regret he’s held with him throughout his life. It brought everyone to the edge of their seat.
“Three weeks ago Lyn and I were in Milan where the USC Center was part of the World Expo. We went to visit friends in Berlin. I had never been to Berlin except to bomb it. After we dropped bombs, I was the one who looked over, the last of the bombs had dropped. I had the thought ‘what if one of these bombs misses a target and hits a family.’ I said, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ Hours later and all of my life, I asked myself, if you were given a piece of paper, that you didn’t really give a damn that you would never sign that people of paper. I believe with all of my heart, I would never sign my paper. The fact is, I’ve not been tested. That has led me to understand, as a human being, I’m capable of the worst atrocity any other human being is capable of. We need to be talking about that as a nation as people who behave well and behave badly.”
He continued, “My generation was in love with America. We’re all patriots. To be in love is a different thing. As a kid, you have to take civics lessons. You have to learn what the promises are in the declaration of independence. After that war, I came home and we helped with the martial plan for Europe to get on its feet. We won the war and it went to our heads, I think. We became god’s chosen in a sense. When we make good on our promises, we haven’t done that yet.”
Ramer asked Lear what Archie Bunker would think of President Obama.
“He’s had eight years to think about that. When he came on the air, people are talking a little different. He described black people as jungle bunnies. Because they were running away from lions and tigers and other animals. That was 1971. Its so archaic in addition to being offensive. I think Archie Bunker would sound like a neighborhood version of a couple of clowns running for the Republican presidency. He’d sound like an uneducated Ted Cruz.”
Then, the conversation turned to presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“I think that Trump’s popularity is the American audiences’ version of the middle finger in the right hand. I don’t believe the American people are serious about Donald Trump.”
When asked about streaming services like Netflix, the TV legend responded: “I am hearing a number of times a week from friends and others who I respect a great deal, you mean you’re not watching… I will strive to see one of those shows. I can’t keep up with it all. There are evenings where three are four or five things to watch. I say the heck with it and pickup a book.”
Lear was the creator of The Jeffersons, a show that featured an affluent African-American couple living in New York City. It was a spin-off of All in the Family. So Lear was asked about the state of diversity on television and in movies.
“I don’t know how except to do it. the answer is simple. The way were dealing with Muslims in this country with such lack of understanding. We should be talking more. This conversation is one we should be having with our kids at dinner tables. Talk about this at home. Come back next Sunday and I’ll help you understand.”
The television legend wrapped up his talk with a closing statement: “We are not the most educated people. I think we’re wise-hearted. I have far more faith in the American people than the establishment does.”
Look for Norman Lear’s new memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, in stores everywhere on October 27, 2015.