Norman Lear Seminars at the Museum of Broadcasting The Mark Goodson Seminar Series June 1986
Bill Moyers interview on Creativity
BM: Bill Moyers
NL: Norman Lear
Transcript of Picture Wall Segment
BM: It must be hard saying no to people, young people in particular, who want to make it – who want to be in the… in your work.
NL: I know – it’s never easy.
BM: You get callouses on your heart?
NL: I don’t think so.
BM: There they are.
NL: Yeah, not all, but many.
BM: What is the creative secret of casting, or relating the right actor, connecting the right actor to the right character?
NL: I don’t know if there’s a secret for me. I know I’m kind of a life-long theater buff. I’ve always loved movies, and I’ve always loved film. And I’ve had, for no reason I’ll ever understand, an incredible memory for people who touched me – either made me laugh or made me feel – even in the smallest role. Carroll O’Connor – I remembered him in a picture – he did perhaps seven or eight minutes at the top of a film called “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy.” I’d seen him some years before, and I knew I wanted to read him. I didn’t know that would be Archie Bunker, but I knew I wanted to meet him, to talk to him for the role – and when I did, that was it. Bonnie Franklin – well, Bonnie was in my office, but Sherman Helmsly, Mr. Jefferson, was in “Purlie” [Pearly?], the musical version “Purlie.” He had a small role. He was one of three men – Gitlow was the character, and he did one number and had a few lines in that number that just knocked me out. I couldn’t remember his name some years later when I wanted to remember, but it was easy to find out because I remembered so much of the play, and we brought him out here to do Mr. Jefferson on “All In The Family” at first. And numbers of them – there’s Conrad Bain from Bruce J. Friedman’s “Scuba Scuba” – “Scuba” something – and I never forgot one moment in that performance. Rue McClanahan, if she’s here someplace, the same way. I saw her in a one-act play that the young man — who turned out, in some years later, to be my son-in-law, married my daughter – had produced, but I’d never forgotten. Just like – five minutes in a twenty-minute play of McClanahan’s.
BM: And you’d carried that for years until the right show came along.
NL: Somehow it never left – it was always somewhere in my subconscious.
BM: What about Gary in “Different Strokes?”
NL: Well, Gary – we did a pilot on an attempt to resurrect “Little Rascals.” I didn’t do it – it was done elsewhere in the company. And it didn’t work — but months later I was looking at the pilot, and I saw this little boy, and asked where was that little boy. They said, “Well, he’s with his family in Chicago.” And I said, “But what’s he doing in Chicago? Why isn’t he here?” “Well, ‘Little Rascals’ didn’t sell.” And I said, “Let’s see if we can’t bring him here, and let’s do something with him.” I don’t think that it was three days later, after we had made an arrangement with him that Fred Silverman, who was then at ABC, called and said, ‘How would you like to do a show for ABC with Gary Coleman?” And I said, “Well, Gary Coleman’s under contract to us.” He said, “He can’t be. We’re interested in him.” I said, “No, we have him under contract, and we want to bring him along by appearing in a couple of our other shows until he gets used to cameras and audiences and so forth. And if and when we know he’s ready, we will be happy to do it.” By the time we felt he was ready – we did have him on “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons” and “America Tonight” [? Fernwood?], and he learned the techniques some – by the time we thought he was ready, Fred was over at NBC, and that’s how “Diff’rent Strokes” went to NBC.
BM: Circumstance, chance and creativity. What was your biggest mistake in casting? Did you ever make one?
NL: Well, I’ve made a lot of them, but to mention one of them would be to damage good actors – because very often mistakes are made with terrific actors who are wrong for the role, and it’s the individual who casts them who is really wrong. So we have had run-throughs the night before a taping, with a very big role to learn, and have let an actor go, found another actor, came in at 6:00 in the morning, brought the actor up to speed, and taped that night. Not the fault of the original actor – the fault of the person who cast.
BM: You can just tell that it’s not working, that he or she is wrong for that role?
NL: Right – and sometimes you go too far, hoping that it will come together – believing, for reasons that existed in other performances that actor played, that it’ll come, it’ll come – and then, at some point, you have to decide it just isn’t working.
BM: That must be a tough moment.
NL: Those are the… I would think, I would say those are the toughest moments I’ve known in the business, having to go up to a fine actor and say, “This is not working.” But I’ve always believed the obligation is to deliver the show to the mass audience, and we have to swallow a lot of things to get there.
BM: You never forget the mass audience, do you?
NL: I don’t think so.
BM: You’re not just… You’re commercial, and you have messages you sometimes want to send, and you have made breakthroughs – but it has always been with an eye toward that audience.
NL: I would think so, yeah. It is a… If anyone asked me what the experience has been for the — now, it’s close to 400 people, who made all these shows and continue to make them – I would say we have had a love affair with the American public, two ways – and the mail has always shown it. Our response, their response – I don’t know, it’s just been… The 200th Anniversary of “All In The Family” – it was absolutely preordained, or destined or something, that we would fill up an audience by inviting people from around the country to celebrate that with us, and that’s why that audience was filled with people from almost 50 states. I think there were two people from each of 50 states, because of that feeling that this had been a collaborative action all those years between the audience and the company and cast.
BM: Someone told me that he thought the secret of so much of what you have done has been not in the social issues, the taboos that you have broken, but in the fact that you really understand character is what it is all about – the growth of the character, the development of the character. Any truth to that? That each of…
NL: That’s in the eye of the perceiver. I would hope there’s truth in it. You know, all of this began somewhere in my early thirties – one is pretty much a mature adult at 30. And if you are a writer and not interested in character at 30, something is seriously wrong.
BM: Where do you think your interest in character came from? Some people get interested in airplanes, some people get interested in plots, some people get interested in…
NL: Well, some people are good with their hands, and some people are good with their imaginations…
BM: But character – where did that… Was that an early fascination in your life or did people…?
NL: Yeah, I was surrounded by incredible characters. My father was an amazing character — not, in some respects, unlike Archie Bunker – and my mother was an interesting character, and my uncles, and my whole family. I don’t know how I could grow up in a family, in a neighborhood and with friends, and not be interested in character since there were so many different characters in my life.
BM: So you kept them “All In The Family.”
NL: I tried to.
Norman Lear – Creativity – Reel #4
BM: The experts say the creative process involves challenging assumptions and seeing things in a new light – and you’ve done plenty of that. Did it come naturally?
NL: I think so. I wouldn’t know how to judge how it came. One grows in a climate. I grew in a very active, passionate family, and I listened. I don’t know how they came, or what made me the kind of listener. Maybe it’s because, as a kid, I never had a chance to get a word in any way, so I learned to listen and, through listening, learned to observe.
BM: Listening to your parents, people who came to the house?
NL: Well, largely to my parents because they occupied most of the time, the talking time in the house. Somebody once said – I think it was my good friend, Herb Gardner, who described people as living at the top of their lungs and the ends of their nerves. My family lived that way.
BM: When Edith and Archie were arguing, often those were your parents arguing.
NL: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. In fact, in a film “Divorce, American Style,” a lot of years ago, there was a shot of Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds. They were the parents in the kitchen, and the camera — as they were in this very passionate argument – the camera panned up to a transom and then dissolved to another transom on the second floor, and panned down to a little boy in bed, 11 or 12 years old, and he was scoring the argument. Mother on this side, Father on that side – he was giving them points on how they broke dishes, or how they won one point or the other, and the kinds of articulation. He was giving them points on everything – and that was me, except we didn’t have a two story house. It was not unlike Ralph Cramden’s kitchen – Jackie Gleason in “The Honeymooners” – and I sat at that kitchen table with a chalkboard and I would rate the argument as it went along. I guess it was my way of defending myself.
BM: Did you laugh at it – did you see the humor in it?
NL: Yeah, and that’s why I was able to do it all those years later on “Divorce, American Style.” I knew this would be funny. It was funny for me then, but I have to know as an adult now looking back on it, it was somewhat horrific for an 11-year-old to be in that situation. But one finds ways of dealing with it defensively, and humor was my way.
BM: Tell me about your father, Herman – was that his name?
NL: Herman, yes.
BM: What was he like?
NL: He was – people talk about joie, joie de vivre, joy of life. I never knew anybody who had more joy, took more joy in life than my father. My father did not recognize adversity of any kind. He got up on the worst days – days that I knew were troubled days for him. Looking the same way, smiling the same way, leaning into life the same way, opening the door and foraging into the day – and there might have been 95 bill collectors, or a sheriff on the way, for bills that might not have not been paid, parking tickets that had not been paid, pieces of paper in his hat and his coat – you know, all of which meant something else to do, dealing with some difficulty. And he would go out there on those days, and come back on those days at he did on any other day.
BM: What did he do for a living?
NL: Everything for a living. He – my father – was a salesman, basically a salesman. He always bragged that he could sell refrigerators to Eskimos and something on a stick for popsicles. You remember the expression. And indeed he could. Indeed, he could.
BM: What was the incident when he called you the laziest white kid he’d ever known?
NL: Oh, no – that wasn’t an incident. That was a way of life. He always used to say, “Norman, you are the laziest white kid I ever met.” And I would say, “You have to disparage an entire race of people to call a son lazy?” He just never understood that he was doing that. We had these insane arguments — and that’s why, all these years later, it occurred to me that my father and I were, for America, the American version of “Till Death Do Us Part,” which was the British series that sparked the notion of “All In The Family.”
BM: A couple of your shows came from Britain. What does that say about creativity?
NL: It says creativity can happen in Britain. It can happen anyplace. Oh, no, I didn’t adapt it — I didn’t adapt it. It turns out – I thought I was in the process of adapting a show when it began, but if one were to look at those 23 – there were only 23 in the entire history – we’ve done several hundred altogether, but there were 23 shows that represented all of “Till Death Us Do Part.” It’s an entirely different concept. They didn’t do stories. It was a brilliant writer. He just took one topical subject. They argued Rhodesia for half an hour. They were people who did not care. He didn’t care about character. They were stick figures. Johnny Speight was the writer, and he was brilliant – and what he did was entirely different from what “All In The Family” was.
BM: But in a way, creativity does feed on itself, doesn’t it? I mean, one idea spawns another, that idea spawns several others. The ideas just keep falling out.
NL: Oh, sure, I think the unconscious is the greatest inspiration for creativity. Now what lurks in the unconscious can be anything of one’s own, and anything that one has seen, heard, smelled, tasted – any place through all of one’s life. The psychoanalyst Jung says that the unconscious goes back a million years. We borrow from deeply-planted roots that we’re not even aware of, and then the messages come up. And it’s the greatest collaborator each of us has. You go to bed with your unconscious every night, and I don’t know how many – I would imagine everyone alive has had the experience of going to bed with a problem, and waking up with the answer — whatever the problem might be. And it is comforting, if one thinks about it, that one has a partner in one’s unconscious that’s working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and will forever be there.
BM: But did you ever go to bed and couldn’t go to sleep, so that your subconscious or unconscious couldn’t solve that problem or send you a message – and you lie there at night wrestling and growling with it?
NL: Oh, sure, sure. But it may be that the unconscious… Well, the unconscious, I believe, at such times is working, on an unconscious level. It’s the conscious that is keeping one awake.
BM: How do you listen to it?
NL: I mean, the unconscious is a terrific partner — always silent, just there with answers. I mean, slipping you pieces of paper, whispering in your ear.
BM: But how do you listen?
NL: Opening your eyelids in the morning…
BM: Do you take notes when it speaks? Do you listen to your dreams – do you write down your dreams?
NL: I try to – I keep a tape recorder at my bedside, and I do use it – but very rarely do I remember dreams. I will wake up with some thoughts and use the tape recorder.
BM: Steve Allen, who’s another original, creative man – when we were having dinner at your house the other night – I noticed during the cocktail hour, or during dinner and after dinner, somebody would say something to Steve, he’d whip into his pocket and pull out a little tape recorder, whisper into it, and put it back.
NL: I’ve never seen him without one.
BM: Back to the subject of your father. I’ve been moved many times, as have millions of others, by the way fathers are portrayed in your work. There’s that long soliloquy with Maude talking about her father, and there’s that moving scene – the most moving scene for me – in “All In The Family” when Mike and Archie are trapped together in the basement, and Archie begins to talk for the first time about his father. Deliberate, you think, on your part?
NL: Oh, yes – deliberate. My father had an enormous effect on me – and his brothers, my uncles. I’m never touched more by anything in life than I am by the sadness that a man may be experiencing. Maybe this is true for all men, and it’s true for women vis a vis other women – but I know no sadness as great as the sadness of a man who is having difficulty supporting a family, and we get a lot of that in “All In The Family,” where Archie was facing that difficulty constantly. Because I watched so much of that with my father and his brothers during the Depression. I was a kid during the Depression, and there wasn’t anyone on either side of my father’s family who really made it, you know. On my mother’s side, too, who was really a good provider. That was the expression. I was the eldest in my family. There was nothing that could be said more laudatory of a man in [east Texas(??)] during the Depression, when I was born, than that – he was a good provider. And my dad wanted desperately to be a good provider, so… I was trying to think of something – about my father…
BM: It’ll come back to you. I wonder what he would think about this, about your ability to provide.
NL: Well, every once in awhile, after we have a party at the house or something, the kids are at home, and their cars are here, and friends are leaving and their cars are around, and the lights are on, and the house is nice and bright, and so many people have left it – and we have provided this ambience, Frances and I – the house for all these people. I see the last guest out, and I turn around and I face the house and come back, after midnight or 12:15 – walking towards the windows that are bathed in light — and I hear this chorus of my aunts and uncles and cousins, you know – hundreds of them in the past, in this, my version of the Tabernacle Choir, softly singing – “He’s a good provider.”
BM: Yet you, yourself, had some difficult moments. You lost a job in 1942, I think, or somewhere in there – you lost a job. You came to Hollywood. I don’t think many people realize this. You started a company producing a novelty ash tray. That was…
NL: I forgot about that.
BM: That went under.
NL: I invented something – talk about creativity. Somebody once said that a man is made to be creative, from the poet to the potter, and I believe that. I believe everybody has a touch of that. I invented, and secured a design patent on something called the “demi-tray” – as useless an item as one can imagine. When everybody smoked — before the Surgeon General realized that smoking might be bad for them, and everybody smoked – I invented a little ashtray that clipped onto a coffee saucer this way, this big, and it had two… You could put a cigarette this way, and it clipped on here, and you could bring the coffee to the table with tray, so that nobody would flick into the cup or onto the tablecloth – although they couldn’t miss the tablecloth because the demi-tray was so small. But in Connecticut, I found a manufacturer to go into business with, and we started to make demi-trays. We had one incredible Christmas. I went into New York, and I found a distributor. We were making them in brass instead of ____, and we wound up, at their request, making them in copper and silver-plate, and then eventually in sterling silver. We had an exciting Christmas season, selling a great deal of them, and took the money and put it into tools and dies for the next Christmas, to make a series of other important items – candle snuffers, little silent butler ashtrays – but I didn’t know anything about retailing and manufacturing and so forth. So one great lesson I learned – that is when you make something somebody else is making, you either make it cheaper, or you don’t make it – you try to make something else. But we made this little silent butler ashtray and candle snuffer that was more expensive than what was on the market, thinking people ought to have good ones. And we lost everything that we had made out of the original demi-tray – and two months later, I was in a car with my wife, at that time, and my oldest daughter, who is now 33 – she was about a year and a half – and we were on our way to California.
BM: That was where everybody came who wanted a new start in those days. What did you do when you got out here?
NL: My father told me, by the way – my father told me in Hartford, when my wife and little girl and I were coming out to California, he said… We had $1,100 or something to our name — we had sold a little house – in those days, you could buy a little house for $6200, and we sold it two years later for $6200 – he said, “Norman, buy a new convertible. You buy a new convertible in the cold East, and sell it in the warm West, and you will make your expenses and probably have enough to live on for some months.” So we went and bought an Olds 98 convertible of that year, and had $80.00 in our pockets to get to California, or something like that – with the intention of selling it immediately. I sold it for $50.00 more than we bought it for in Connecticut, and bought an inexpensive car some 10 or 12 years old, and then lived on the difference until we started to sell baby pictures.
BM: Baby pictures? That you took yourself?
NL: Somebody else took the pictures. I made the appointment for the photographer, the photographer took the pictures, and then I would go back and sell the proofs – and did poorly, very poorly.
BM: What happened after that? When did you get your first break in the business?
NL: Not long after I was here. I was living – we were living in a little one-room cottage behind another home in Hollywood, and I had met a fellow by the name of Ed Simmons, who was married to a cousin, and he wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a publisher. I didn’t know then that I wanted to write per se. I had always written, but I thought I would write, as a publicist, about other people. The reason I wanted to be a publicist was that I had one uncle, my Uncle Jack, who every time he saw his nephews and nieces, he would flick them a quarter. He was the one uncle who was reputed to be making more than $100 a week, and that was a big thing on both sides of my family. But he always had a quarter to flick me, and I wanted to be an uncle who could flick a nephew a quarter – so I was going to be a press agent just the way Uncle Jack was – and I came here to do that. Ed Simmons came here to write comedy, and our wives went to a movie one evening – we were babysitting, and we wrote some material together. He was going to write it, so I helped him, and we laughingly had a wonderful time writing it. They came home, and we went out and sold it to – we sold this parody we had written for $25 bucks to… I can’t remember her name – she was at a place called The Bar Music on Beverly Boulevard, here in West Los Angeles.
BM: That was the first money you earned?
NL: That was the first money – but $25.00 like that, you know, and for having fun – for having a good, good time laughing and working – and then we decided we would continue writing. Ask the wives to go to the movies often, and every evening, we wrote, and every evening, we went out – and three out of four times, we sold it for $40 and $50, or something.
BM: Is it true that you told Danny Thomas’ agent that you were a reporter for The New York Times?
NL: I needed to get his – I had an idea for him I thought it would be wonderful for him to do. I didn’t know how to reach him, but learned through the papers that his agent was William Morris, so… I had a good friend when I was a kid in Hartford, Merle Robinson – I’ve always loved the name, so I’ve used the name all my life for different things in writing or what-not – like when the MP stopped me in the War, if I was doing something wrong, I was Merle Robinson. In this case, I picked up the phone, and Thomas answered the phone… I mean, I called the agent first, and I said, quickly – “My name is Merle Robinson. I’m at the Los Angeles Airport – I’ve been out here for two days interviewing Danny Thomas, and I have two last minute questions… Oops, my plane, they’re calling my plane…” And they gave me a phone number quickly. So I called Thomas, and he happened to pick up the phone because he was alone in the house with his pianist, and they were trying to cut down a piece of material, because he needed to do about six minutes for a Friar’s Frolic at Ciro’s just a couple of nights later. The Hollywood community knew all of his material, and he wanted something fresh – and there was one long piece that he hadn’t done – and anyway, he enjoyed the idea of how we had reached him, and he asked me if I had anything for him now. I said, “Oh, yes.” And he said, “Where are you?” I said, “Hollywood.” He said, “Come on over.” I said, “Well, it’s going to take about 2-1/2 hours.” And he said, “You said you were in Hollywood.” I said, “Yes, but I’ve got other things to do.” “You’ve got something more important to do that sell me a piece of material, kid? I’ve never heard your name before.” But, you see, we hadn’t written it yet, it was just an idea. He said he would wait until 7:00, so we wrote it and raced over there, and he paid $500 for it and did it two nights later – and four nights later, we were back in New York writing the “Jack Haley Ford Star Revue,” a television show every week.
BM: And that was it? From then on it was…
NL: From then on. I think by the time we had done the third show, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were coming into television on the “Colgate Comedy Hour” and had seen a sketch on the “Ford Star Revue,” that Haley had done, and said, “That should have been our sketch.” They asked who wrote it, and we did the “Colgate Comedy Hour” for three years, and that was it.
BM: Talk to me about writing. Most people, if they ever realize it, realize it very late – that in television, in comedy, in the theater – it is really the writing that is the origin of the creative process. It’s the writing – yes, the actors are important; yes; the directors are important; yes, the producers are important – but without that writing, good writing, it doesn’t work. What about writing? Where does it come from?
NL: It comes… I talked about listening and observing – and I think it’s just a question of pulling the strands of life that one has experienced, one has listened – the sights and sounds of a lifetime, and just having them available for use.
BM: Yes, but how do you organize those different strands and march them forward in language that moves…
NL: They organize themselves, I think. If I sat down – this has happened to me – if I sit down to write, and I have to have it organized in my head before I can start to write it – the ideas will jam up as if they put 50 people in a room and yell “Fire!” – they all run to the door and nobody gets out. Open the door, and let them out individually, and the chances are they’ll get out. Well, the same thing for me with ideas in my head. The ideas just ram up against – it feels like they’re running up against my eyes. They’re trying to get out through every aperture, you know – and my head explodes with it. Now, if I don’t start writing something, anything, and letting them out… I dictate, so I will start to talk, and I may dictate a scene in the middle – I may dictate something at the end, or I may start from the beginning – but just to let it out, and then little by little, it organizes.
BM: I suppose if you analyze that process too rationally, you might jam it up.
NL: Yeah, I would think – there also, you’re talking about creativity. Creativity is a kind of… There’s a correlation between inspiration and creativity and madness. There’s a degree of madness in it all. At least, I think so – and one has to suffer the madness in others and in oneself in order to get the inspiration and the creativity.
BM: How would you define madness?
NL: In a lot of ways. I mean, there’s something mad about having a head explode with ideas. There’s something mad about – and I’m using “mad” in a very loose way; I don’t mean mad, insane – I mean unusual, you know…
BM: Departing from the normal – marching off into what a mythologist would call the dark forest – something neurotic there about going alone into that dark forest.
NL: And it’s too easy to be unwilling to accept what’s unusual about those around you, and sometimes in the most unusual – mad, if you will – kinds of behavior, is the inspiration and creativity, and one has to suffer that in order to get to it.
BM: Someone said to me that many of the best comic writers have an air of melancholy about them. You might not see that about yourself. I do. It’s in your eyes, it’s in your smile. I mean, I’ve been with you a good while now, and you’re a very jovial and happy man, and yet there is that air of melancholy that hangs somewhat ambivalently about you. Do you see that?
NL: I’ve heard that, and I guess I see it. I see a photograph of myself. I know my eyes turn down, and – well, I’m serious – if that has anything to do with it. I have a good time, and I think I’m mad myself, but I am serious. Melancholy – I don’t know where the melancholy comes from, but you know I can’t be that objective about myself.
BM: The tragic vision of the art is often related to defeat. You know, the unhappier tragic outcome of a larger story. The comic vision is related to the triumph of the good, the happy ending, the fairy tale that has a happy ending — and all of your work that I’ve seen, you write a happy ending. Does that suggest that, at least for you, the comic version of life is the more creative one than the tragic?
NL: Well, for no reason I can explain, or maybe I did explain it by talking about what it was like growing up as a very young kid – I’ve always seen the comic edge in any situation. It seems to me, Bill, that I have never been in a situation in my life, however tragic, where I didn’t see some comedy. And it may be just growing up the way I grew up, but I don’t think that one’s serious observation of life is lost in seeing it through that end of the telescope that finds what’s funny in it. I think somehow it’s even sharper. The focus, as one focuses with a comic look at what is occurring may be even sharper than the serious look. I’m not sure, but it occurs to me that that’s possible.
BM: The tear next to the laughter? Always there. Is there a scene from “All In The Family” that enforces what you’re saying, that comes to mind at the moment?
NL: Oh, there are any number of scenes. I mean, somebody was talking yesterday when we were meeting with “The Jeffersons” about an “All In The Family” script in which Edith thought she had breast cancer, and while she and Betty Garrett, playing the neighbor, were talking about the possibility that she had breast cancer, that she didn’t know the results of the biopsy yet. We didn’t want to make it altogether a heavy scene. It was very easy – a perfect illustration in that heavy situation – it was perfectly normal for Betty Garrett to do this a couple of times talking to Edith. They were this close, and they were talking about the possibility she would have to have a mastectomy if she did this – and all Jean had to say was, “Don’t look – I’m not going to tell you,” because she was obviously wondering which breast. It was so human, so natural that she would wonder that, and her doing that and Edith’s commenting on it – the audience laughed, but laughed with such warmth and identity. You didn’t resent laughing in the middle of that situation, because it was an absolutely humorous moment in the middle of a really serious situation – and that exists, and can exist, in any situation.
BM: Someone said when they heard I was coming out here that they felt part of your success can be traced to the fact that there never has seemed to be an age more desperate for comedy than ours. What do you think about that comment?
NL: It seems to me – maybe this age is more desperate because this is a more desperate age than any I’ve lived through. I mean, in the 58 years I’ve been on this planet, this country has never seen such difficulties. But yet, I tend to believe comedy, as a commodity, would be as much in need, or people would respond to it as much, at any time.
BM: But we’re almost mass-producing it now on television, and comedy comes night and day.
NL: Yeah, that may be a function of the fact that when something works, all television will do is continue to push… I’ve remembered the story about my father.
BM: Tell it.
NL: You had talked about Maude, the episode on “Maude,” where she – where it was a one-woman show, and she talked about her father. She started the half-hour talking about how much she hated him, how brutal he had been to her, and then she remembered an incident in the course of the half-hour and wound up remembering how she loved him — and I had lived that moment. And the story – my father was a grandstand player. I mean, he loved all the time, but he didn’t have the time to show it all the time. He had these wonderful grandstand moments where he would show it. Like, he didn’t love enough when, for my 17th birthday, he told me I could use his car, a Hudson Terraplane to take my best girl to the Westport Theater. Now the Westport Theater that week was playing my favorite play, “Lilliom”, with Tyrone Power and his wife at the time, Annabella. Can you imagine, at 17, to be able to drive to the Westport Playhouse in your father’s new Hudson Terraplane with somebody you loved, to see Tyrone Power and Annabella in “Lilliom” I mean, it was – that moment will stand with many moments in succeeding years, as one of the greatest evenings in contemplation. My father was to be home at 5:00 or so to give me his car. I had a car that was, you know – a 1932 Ford or something. And 5:00 arrived, and 5:10, and 5:15, and 5:30 – and my father wasn’t there. Finally, at ten minutes before 6:00 or something, with the tears pouring down my face, I got into my little Ford and I chugged along West Hartford and picked up Adrienne. We got in the car and I started to Berlin, and Meridian, and Middletown, and Waterbury – there was no freeway or thoroughway at that time – and past New Haven, one got onto the Merritt Parkway on the way to Westbrook. And my father – I got on the Merrick Parkway, having gone all the way through those little towns, within 15 minutes of Westbook – and I hear a “honk, honk, honk” – and my father… He had chased me all the way, found me – and I got into his Terraplane and he took my car home, and we had the car for the evening. Now that was the great grandstand moment. I had forgotten it, totally forgotten it. But I was lying in therapy on somebody’s couch, a great many years later – in my late thirties or early forties, perhaps – and I was talking about the things my father had done to me, the difficulties he presented, the never knowing when somebody was going to come to the door, screaming that he owed money… Life was really… And never knowing where we were going to move next. It was difficult. And with a mother who was constantly crying, “I’m going to leave him, I’m going to leave him.” And he was the man, literally, who would say to my mother, “Jeanette, stifle yourself.” I always wanted Carroll to do it that way, to say to Edith like this: “STIFLE.” Never heard it – but he would scream, “STIFLE, Jeanette!” That man did this wonderful thing, and on somebody’s couch one day, I told that story, after starting off talking about how much difficulty he had presented to me, and how much I didn’t care for him – and in the telling of that story, I just felt at peace, and never ever forgot again for an instant how very much I loved him. And that was kind of what played out when Maude did her one-woman show. That was that story, done for a woman.
BM: And it often plays – anyone can tell by watching “All In The Family” when Archie Bunker, despite his roughness, makes a gesture that is sweet and reconciling. You can see that. You told me yesterday when we were walking around the lot that real clowns only come along every so often. You said we had Foxx as a clown, and I thought after that of something Arthur Koestler had written, a wonderful book, a study on creativity many years ago, and he said the jester is the [brother?] of the stage. A jester’s riddles provide a useful backdoor entry into the inner workshop of creative originality. And that, with your comment on Redd Foxx – what makes a good clown?
NL: I think a good clown can make you scream with laughter and cry with despair – and do one as easily as the next, and do them almost immediately adjacent. I mean, a great clown can make you laugh, and then just by a change of expression, realize some inner sadness, bring you to tears. Bert Lahr could do that, one of the great clowns in my experience. Bert Lahr could do that, Nancy Walker could do that, and Red Skelton, and Foxx. Foxx didn’t have the opportunity, or didn’t give himself the opportunity to really let it all out, but I’ve seen it in a room. I mean, Redd Foxx can walk up to me, even angry, and I know that his earlobe is funny, and his eyelashes are funny, and his kneecaps are funny. I mean, the clowns — their paws and the dirt under their fingernails are funny. Everything is funny about a clown.
BM: What is it that makes their tragedy so laughable? I know I keep beating this horse, but I’m still trying to find why laughter comes from tragedy – and why is it that a clown is able to take tragedy and make you laugh.
NL: Well, maybe a clown understands intuitively – because the people I think about as having been great clowns are not necessarily great understanders, you know, of their art. They perhaps could not talk about it much or write about it much. They may not be, in a conventional sense, intellectual. They are altogether intuitive, and it may be that their genius is that they understand. You know, we have always heard the expression, “I laughed so hard I cried.” Now that’s absolutely [congenital?], biological. One laughs until they cry, and people cry and get hysterical crying, and it turns into laughter. So it may be that the clown is just born understanding – not the closeness, but the oneness of laughter and tears – and the rest of us don’t really understand the oneness. I work with it, and I know that they are at least adjacent, and one can quickly provoke the other – but a clown knows that they’re one.
BM: Are you funny yourself?
NL: Sometimes. Other people would have to answer that question. But I, you know, I’m mad sometimes. Strange for a fellow with my gray hair, bald head and melancholy eyes – but I have my own inner madness. I mean, I can stumble and fall into a cake, and surprise a room full of people – and have done that kind of thing. I’ve hurt myself doing Chevy Chase’s fall at my age – but I don’t stop doing it.
BM: That brings up something we talked about yesterday. There is so much anger in so many of the people whom you have sent into our living rooms. Archie Bunker is an angry man, Fred Sanford is irascible and bullying, Maude was always seething with an undertow of anger and hostility, George Jefferson is always vaguely and ambivalently angry. What about the anger in those people and in you?
NL: Well, I don’t know. Of course, there’s anger in them, but drama is conflict – and I’ve observed so much conflict in life and in interpersonal relationships and all of that. I’ve read, too, about the decibel level of the shows with which I’ve been involved, but for me, it’s always been – and I think I’ve mentioned this before – for me, it’s all a celebration of life, and maybe that’s why so many of them have ended with… Well, a reconciliation in family is not reconciliation. They’re not happy endings to shows for me. They’re life. There never was a doubt in my mind that Archie Bunker and Edith were going to go into the next day, the next week, the next month and the next year together. Nothing was going to stop that. Or the Findlays. Maude and Walter, or the Evanses, or Jeffersons – or any of those families – or the Hartmans. They were not going to separate. They were always going to go into the future together, so those were not reconciliations, those were the ends of moments of conflict – or moments of passion, waiting for the next moment to arrive, and certain that the next moment would arrive.
BM: My wife has often said to me, despite our moments of conflict and turmoil, we just can’t think about getting a divorce because she doesn’t want to start over repeating another history with somebody. We have too much history together — too many of those moments that are both good and bad to wash them out, and I sense that in the ongoing family situation of your work. Is that true in your own life?
NL: Yes. No matter what my parents went through, there was love, and nothing was going to destroy that. Nothing was going to destroy that. But if that weren’t true, it’s my feeling about life. And it’s my feeling about what I would care to present on television, and I understand people’s complaints about the shows. I understand their problem with the yelling. Every home doesn’t have that kind of passion or exercise that kind of emotion. But enough homes do, and I think – I’ve talked to enough people who didn’t happen to grow up in homes where people were so free to exercise their passions, where they didn’t recognize it. They knew it existed. It wasn’t such untoward behavior that they didn’t think it was normal behavior, but…
BM: You think the people you’ve created are normal?
NL: Oh, yeah. Oh, sure. My mind is rummaging through the whole group of characters, and they’re normal. You mustn’t forget – I have worked all these years with a glorious group of people, those actors, and writers, and producers, and directors – in an enormous and wonderful collaboration. And 99% of all the people who contributed to this were normal. And mad. And creative as a result of the madness, and the normality mixing – but normal in the strict sense of the word. And so, the total input into those characters would, I think, make for normal people. Now when I think about their activity through those thousands of episodes and all of the shows – yeah, there’s enough reality in Archie Bunker and normal extension for dramatic license – and Edith, and Mike and Gloria, and Mary and Tom Hartman… I can’t think of a character. unless we intended to make them a character, in a piece of farce, absolutely outlandishly abnormal. If we did it by intention, then one such existed. If anybody else was unreal or abnormal, then we failed. It wasn’t because we wished to do it.
BM: Theodore Rosshack, who is a historian of the ’60’s and ’70’s on _______, told me in a conversation the other day that he felt that the great triumph of “All In The Family” and the related situational comedies were that they stripped people of the identity boxes into which society would like to put them. That Archie Bunker, anytime a transvestite came in, or a handicapped person, or a retarded person, or somebody who was a stereotype – that person refused to get into that identity box that Archie wanted to stuff him in, and that millions of people were able, through those comedies, to get out of the imposed identity boxes that society had built around them, and discover their own characters, and that he attributes the success of your work to much of the liberation movements, the search for self and discovery of self that took place in the ’70’s, but that wasn’t deliberate. That isn’t what you set out to do when you were writing.
NL: No. I think what we’ve always set out to do is first to entertain. I mean, the basic obligation of a good piece of theater, if it’s going to be good, is to catch an audience, hold an audience – and since they’re sitting down to be entertained, you catch and hold them by entertaining them. So that’s first and foremost. Comes next the question of what will entertain them. Well, I believe, and have believed, that they will laugh hardest – I know I’ve said this to you before – they will laugh hardest at what they care about most. So give them a show about something they can relate to that is important to them, and make it funny – and they will laugh much harder than they will if they can’t identify with it. Things of the greatest concern, death – Walter Findlay on “Maude,” was celebrating his 50th birthday, and Maude decided she would bring back his best boyhood friend, whom he hadn’t seen since they were 13 years old, and for his birthday surprise, he was going to come walking through the front door. Well, we were sitting around a writer’s meeting, and I said, “He’ll walk through the front door, and we’ll do something very funny, with them together in their meeting after all these years – and the man will be so overjoyed, his blood pounding so in his body – we’ll know that by what he’s doing – that in the excitement, he drops dead in the first act.” And everybody said, “But the audience will absolutely be frozen – they’ll never laugh again.” But we all agreed that we would try it, and you’d have to look at it – it was as big a laugh as I can ever remember. And when we opened up and went into the second act, Maude was on the phone, now talking about the fact that the body arrived safely as it was sent back, but the luggage was lost – and the audience laughed at that, and they laughed all the way through. I’m answering what question? I forgot. I mentioned this for a reason…
BM: You were making the point about – you didn’t set out to send…
NL: No, the point is that – and the point was that the laugh was so big because they cared. They cared about this man seeing his boyhood friend, and they used to do a little thing together when they were 13 years old. They used to sing a song together. “There’s an Old Spinning Wheel in the Parlor…” They acted out this song. So when they saw each other, one said, “Walter!” And the other said, “Fred!” “Walter!” “Fred!” And then to prove that he was Fred, he said, “There’s an old spinning wheel in the parlor…” And then the two of them started to do that, and then rushed into each other’s arms – and in the middle of that rush, the guy keeled over. You know, he stopped and said, “I’m so happ…” Well, the audience just – you’d have to run that moment to see.
BM: We will – but how does that arrive? You are sitting around the what — Bonnie Franklin said yesterday, the table? You’re sitting around. Was that a single vision somebody had? Did it come out of an interplay…
NL: That is a part of my madness. That’s where my madness comes in. When you say – where is the madness in the melancholy face? That’s my madness. I worked with the best writers — I mean, wonderful men — on that show, who will tell you when you talk to them, that they didn’t think that could work. Now these are men who contributed their own madness in a million ways, you know – but that kind of – the knowledge that that would work, if it was played right – you know, that a man could drown in chicken soup, that a man could literally drown in chicken soup and the audience would believe it – is a part of my own madness. Those are extensions of my desire, or a manifestation of my desire to reach, you know, past what we may have done before, with the belief that we can do it if we just get it right.
BM: Someone asked me the other day – what does Norman Lear do? Is he a writer? Is he a producer — is he a director? Or does he subscribe to the great clockwinder idea of God, who winds it all up and then sits back and lets it go, with other producers and directors and writers carrying forward that vision? What does Norman Lear do?
NL: Well, I’m basically a writer. I started off as a writer, and wrote for, you know, most of those early years in collaboration, as a team – Ed Simmons and I wrote, talked together, wrote separately, put our things together – I was that kind of collaborator. Always have been. I’ve never been able to write with somebody else in the room, and then I started without a collaboration, and wrote “Divorce, American Style” and “Cold Turkey,” which I also had the pleasure of directing – and all of the early television, until I couldn’t handle more. So I consider myself basically a writer, and I became a terrific collaborator. The results – I mean, what you see in “All In The Family” and “Maude” and “Mary Hartman” and the others – are, of course, the results of an enormous collaboration, with a good deal of myself in it, because we would all sit around this round table with dictating equipment in the center of the table, and fellows would come in who were responsible for the writing of an individual show. I’m talking now when I had five, six and seven shows on the air – still do, the company still does. I’m not involved with them any longer, but when I was involved, and we had seven shows on the air, they would come and we’d sit around the table, and the tape recorder would be on, and somebody would be typing what we were saying, so that when the writers left, they had all of their thoughts, my input, my direction, how we were going to go into this particular story – on those pages. And the next group would come in, and we’d get to work on the next story. Then we’d all have the opportunity, after a run-through, the actors show us what they have done on their feet, with the director’s input and the actors’ input – and I would have another opportunity, with everyone in collaboration, to say – I think this, I think that, why don’t we try this, why don’t we try that… So I think what happened was – I turned out to be a really first-rate collaborator.
BM: I don’t know what the word is for what you’ve just described. It isn’t just exactly writing. I mean, that group of people sitting around with the dictating machine in the middle of them is not writing – it’s an act of creation itself. Nobody is sitting down with a pencil and saying…
NL: Each of those people are, in a sense, writing in a different act of creation, you know. Like each one is throwing a rope, and a rope is collecting someplace and making some wonderful knot. Everybody is throwing strands out. But I sit back here at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, when I am writing, and I wrote often with a machine, dictating, because I’ve learned how to do it that way. That allows that door to open that I was talking about earlier – and the ideas start to come pouring out. Much easier than writing and being forced to look at what you wrote and hate. If you’re dictating it, you can’t look at what you wrote and don’t like.
BM: ______ often easy.
NL: Right. So sitting around that table — the chicken soup in “Mary Hartman” came up around that table. One could read – that’s something – I have a transcript of all those meetings, you know, and one can follow that transcript and see how all that arrived. Well, everybody was throwing lines of dialogue, 90% of which we would never use, 10% of which was gold. You know, you’d go back and read those pages, and say, “My goodness, we have 15-20% or more of the piece right out of the meeting – and the arc of the story, and the first act curtain line, and the second act curtain line, and those components that really made the story would grow up in a good hour’s session around that table.
BM: You keep referring to opening that door and letting those ideas run through – and it reminds me… You also said a minute ago about how you were on a psychoanalyst’s couch when you remembered your father’s act on your behalf. You’ve been known to present young screen writers with gift certificates of psychoanalysis, haven’t you?
NL: How did you find that out?
BM: Is it true?
NL: Yeah – not just writers, but friends, generally.
NL: I can’t think of a nicer gift. It seems to me, I’ve known a couple of people in my life who I would consider – seem to have been born – congenitally secure. The rest of us somehow grow up needing some kind of help. Now, some people – in order to find themselves and feel they are one with themselves – some people find it in religion. I love God, and God loves me, and therefore I love myself – you know, if God loves me enough… And some people find sufficient love of self in that. And if that works, terrific – but some don’t. Some people find it in Christian Science. Some people find it in Zen. Because I have not – I didn’t grow up experiencing any of that. Mine was a very spiritual household, but not a religious household – so I had no religious connection, real connection. I was Bar Mitzvahed as a Jewish kid at 13, but I was not really brought up in a religious home. I didn’t know Zen, and I didn’t know Christian Science, although I’ve known some wonderfully peaceful, happy Christian Scientists. If I knew more about it, I’d recommend that – but I don’t know how to buy an hour with a practitioner for a friend, so the discipline of psychotherapy has been important in my life, and the life of my family. We’ve all had a taste of it, and it has helped – so when I know a friend has an emotional problem, and I have that friend’s ear, I have been known to say, “See somebody” – and that first hour is my gift.
BM: Do you do that for writers in particular, because you think it helps open whatever is inside there?
NL: Well, writers often have the opposite feeling – the feeling of – “Oh, if I ever allow myself to get into that, I’m going to destroy the very thing that is making me creative, or making me successful.” But behind that the writer is feeling “Out of my agony comes my creativity.” I don’t believe that for a second. I don’t believe you have to compose, or write, or paint, or anything out of agony. I think you can do it out of happiness and the joy of living, too. So if the writer will drop that defense or that denial long enough to explore that possibility, I think… I don’t know another discipline, and I don’t know how one gets in touch with oneself, if one isn’t already there, without help. I’ve never seen anybody manage it without some kind of help.
BM: Somebody said you put millions of Americans on the couch and helped them see themselves.
NL: On the couch?
BM: When they watch Archie Bunker wrestling with his own prejudice, or when they watch George Jefferson wrestling with his own anger – and that people begin to accept those as normal behaviors and as normal attitudes – and begin to try to deal with them – but you used the word “security” a minute ago – a sense of security and serenity inside. Are you a secure man?
NL: Yeah, I think basically I am. My hesitation is that my mood – that serenity you speak of is not a constant. You know, it dips and fades, and I worry and I wonder – and you know, I sit down with Bill Moyers and — am I going to be articulate, is my mind going to be clear today? There are some days when I have a band – I use a four-letter word – I wake up and I say, “I’ve got a four-letter word in my head, and it feels like a tight band around here – and the image is that I will find myself a little spigot and I will insert it here, and I will turn it on and let this heaviness leak out that is fogging my mind and my head, and making my tongue feel like it weighs six pounds. There are days like that, and I didn’t want this to be one of those days. I don’t even know how it is – it hasn’t felt like one. But – so I dip that way, but my basic state, I think, is secure. I’ll tell you what…
BM: No, we don’t – we have one minute. Let’s just take a break there and we’ll come back in about ten minutes.
NL: I was going to tell you what security means to me.
BM: I’ll put that down and we’ll start there.
END OF REEL 4
BM: Keep it moving some…
BM: So that three cameras do that.
NL: But, boy, if they care about what you’re saying…
BM: Oh, yeah.
BM: It doesn’t make any difference.
NL: Yeah, one of the big arguments with “All In The Family” at the beginning was – with the network, no topical references – you know, don’t do topical references. Because later on — this was for my own good – in syndication, those topical references won’t mean anything ten years later. And I think it fits this – I always think, if the drama’s good – good drama plays, Shakespeare still works.
BM: That’s right.
NL: Why, you know – if the moment is right, why would a reference to Nixon negate the entire relationship…
BM: Lots of characters in Shakespeare I don’t recognize. I still find it fascinating to watch. You’re absolutely right. There must be a small airport around here. When we began, there were a couple of little planes came over.
NL: The Santa Monica airport is not far from here. And we may be in their takeoff pattern.
BM: It stopped after about two planes. What did you like about working on movies? You did several back in the ’60’s, didn’t you? “Cold Turkey.”
NL: “Cold Turkey.” The first movie Bud Yorkin and I did was “Come Blow Your Horn.” I did the screenplay. Neil Simon – it was the only screenplay that Neil Simon did not adapt of his own plays. The play was “Come Blow Your Horn,” called “One Shoe Off,” when we saw it originally. I adapted it, produced it, and Bud directed it. And, well… The question was…?
BM: It was – what did you particularly like about movies?
NL: Well, the big difference between movies and television – there are wonderful things about both. You can lavish a lot of love on a movie. You can spend a long time writing it, you can and do spend weeks and weeks making it, and then in the editing process, you have forever. You know, what amounts to forever. And so you can lavish a lot of love on a movie. Knowing it will never be right, never get – because there’s always something you didn’t do. And in television, you can’t, at all, lavish that kind of love. You can in the preparation of a script. We’ve done some scripts we all worked on for a year and a half. But once you get to making it, you have to get it ready and out and on the air in much less time – but you have the opportunity to reach 30, 40, or 50 million people or more in a moment. And that’s another kind of excitement.
BM: How do you maintain a steady quality on something like “All In The Family” or “The Jeffersons,” which have been on for seven and a half years?
NL: Well, some would tell you we don’t.
BM: But on the whole, I think most critics think you have.
NL: But if we haven’t, it hasn’t been for want of trying. Caring about it, and always understanding that it hasn’t all been said. I guess that’s the question asked most. You know – where do all the new ideas come from, and why don’t you run out of ideas? And it seems to me, we get up every day and live a new story, all of us, and in the littlest details of life, there may be a full… We’re only dealing with 22 minutes and 30 seconds, something like that. You know, we pack a lot into it sometimes, but those are not huge tapestries. They are small stories. And there is, in the give and take and sturm und drang of everyday life, enough incident for endless stories. “All In The Family” – I was pleased to see it conclude, because we had all exercised our abilities those nine or ten years – and Carroll wanted to do something different with the extension, called “Archie Bunker’s Place.” But had we all wished to continue, we could have gone another ten years…
BM: Start over?
NL: We could have gone, if we had wished to continue, we could have gone another ten years in terms of story – because there is enough detail in life for endless stories.
BM: Well, you took on so many subjects in the ’70’s – homosexuality, women’s rights, civil rights, breast cancer, children running away – on and on and on, the list of issues. What would have been left if you’d wanted to keep on? Everything was touched on.
NL: No, let’s go to the L.A. Times or The New York Times this morning and take a look at the front page, the third page, the eighth page. Within three pages, I’ll bet we’ll find three subjects that we could do, as an episode of “One Day At A Time,” or “All In The Family,” or “Good Times” – or any of the shows we’ve done. There will be in today’s newspaper a half dozen ideas.
BM: Give me…
NL: Plus, I have here the best source of material. This is a family. You may recognize the fellow with the hat, but that’s Frances Lear – whose life and personality exudes stories – and there are three daughters, Maggie, Ellen and Kate…
BM: They’re how old?
NL: Ellen is… I can’t find them… Ellen is 33, Maggie… Would they wish my telling this? Maggie is 21, and I’ll chance it – Kate is 23. But they come into my life daily. And all of the men and women who work on all of the shows have sons, daughters, relatives – and they get daily newspapers. And these people, and these factors of existence, bring into our lives as writers and directors and actors, all of the material for stories.
BM: Can you describe briefly a day in the life of a creative process — particularly when you are in the early stages of creating a show? What do you do?
NL: Well, I’m going back a few years to answer this question, because at the moment, I’m not working on these particular shows. I can answer the question relative to something I’m doing right now.
BM: What are you doing right now? What’s next for Norman Lear?
NL: Well, I’m doing a show called – in terms of television, I wish to stretch in other directions, and so I’m working on a show called “Sharing,” which simply deals with a group of people who meet every week to talk about their frustrations and their anxieties and the complexities of their lives, and they share. No confrontation, no psychological jargon – they just share. They bring themselves and each other to tears, and to laughter – and they learn from each other that they are not alone, that this isolated feeling this individual thinks he or she has that nobody else shares, that he or she may be ashamed to have or afraid to harbor – they learn that somebody else has the same feelings…
BM: These are honest-to-God people? They’re not actors?
NL: Yeah, they’re real people. And the intention is – I’ve done it once, with five – the first time with five professional women. The intention is to do it daily, with non-professional women, professional and non-professional men, teenagers and the elderly.
BM: Why? What drives you toward this as a form?
NL: I love the medium. I love the instant communication, and I don’t think everything must be a dramatic situation, a half-hour comedy, a mini-series, a news show in the same old way – I mean, it’s time we broke the forms. And I think there’s a new form. Nothing new in the world, but for television, this would be a new form. I also think that it would give a country full of people who may be interested the chance to relate, to hear other people articulating problems, feelings, anxieties that they themselves have – and it is warming to know that you’re part of the… See, I’m convinced there are people across the country – and I only know this because I have lived it – who feel themselves isolated. Totally isolated, because they have some stray thought, some stray anxiety they have not yet shared; so because they haven’t shared it, because nobody has shared it with them, they think they are unique. And they worry about that uniqueness. I mean, not unique in a good sense, but they think: “Why do I have this thought? Why is it I have this anxiety? It’s a weakness of mine. It’s a shame of mine.” To hear people openly discuss the things we all feel is to unite and comfort all of us, because I believe we all feel basically the same things.
BM: You have a great deal of sympathy for the human condition, as it is called. Is there a condition between that sympathy and your own creative process?
NL: Oh, I think so. You talked about anger in the shows, and for me – and I don’t expect everybody to agree – for me, there’s infinitely more love. I think the shows love people, and love the human condition, and that’s why they deal – they try to, anyway – they try to deal so deeply in the human condition. They wish to go vertically into the human condition, and not just skip along the surface. Whether they succeed or not are other people’s judgments, but that they wish that is part of the love of the human condition.
BM: And yet Hollywood – one of the chief criticisms of Hollywood is that it is an island of privilege, success and neuroticism, totally out of touch with Main Street America.
NL: I think that could be true for individuals who work in this community. But I hear that a lot, too – and I also hear there’s a California mindset, and a Southern California mindset. But as I was saying a little earlier – we who write and direct and perform, in California, for television – we get the same stimulus, and we work from the same stimulus that everybody else does. The ideas – we read a national newspaper. Everybody gets the same national Associated Press, UPI information – everybody watches Channel 2, 4, 7, Ted Turner – everybody’s watching…
NL: 28, I beg your pardon. But everybody’s getting their stimulus from the same source. So to sit in Southern California, and be triggered into an idea, would be the same as sitting in Maine or Vermont.
BM: Everybody had parents. Everybody…
NL: And everybody has parents, and everybody has kids. Is it time to bring out the pictures again?
BM: Yeah, bring out…
NL: Everybody has kids and wives, and…
BM: It’s really not an act with you, is it? I mean, those kids are important to you.
NL: Hell, yes, they’re important to me!
BM: Well, you know, you often get – when you come out here, or you go to Washington, politicians – they say, “Would you like to see a picture of my family?” It’s an act. I noticed last night you…
NL: Well, they’re very important to me, and there’s a Frances Lear, whom you’ve met, but you will, I hope, have a chance to talk to, who’s very important. I get a lot of credit for being, you know, a fine male feminist. And I hope to hell I am, truly, a feminist. But if I am, it’s because I’m married to Frances Lear, and because she and I – but largely she, in this sense – brought up three daughters to understand the importance of being first individuals, and caring for themselves as women with a sense of equality with men, and not subservience. So much of what’s happened in the shows have reflected the growth of women, what I call an evolutionary process. I don’t think the women’s movement is necessarily responsible for what’s happening with women. I think it’s been solely responsible – I’m going to lose some feminist friends saying this, I’m sure – I think the movement is the cutting edge of an evolutionary process that affects Ms. Schlafly (sp?) as much as it affects those who are passionately pro-ERA.
BM: And what is it?
NL: I don’t think Ms. Schlafly herself understands what’s happening inside of her – but she is chasing about the country, exercising her vital abilities to communicate, to passionately proselytize her position — and she is functioning with full equality with men. She doesn’t wish that equality, on an intellectual or mental level, but what she’s feeling in here is that equality, and that’s what women across the country have to feel before they are fully satisfied and fulfilled. And they will. It’s as sure as any other evolutionary process.
BM: You’ve had some failures. “The Duggans,” “All That Glitters” – several. What makes one work and another fail?
NL: Well, most of the time, just poor execution, I would think – or a bad idea to start with. “All That Glitters” is one of my favorite failures. I mean, I loved “All That Glitters.” Not the way it was executed – we goofed that. If “All That Glitters” had stayed – and I’ll never know whether this is true or not — but I believe that if “All That Glitters” had begun with small intimate stories that brought the audience in, as opposed to the grand scale kind of stories we did begin with, I think “All That Glitters” might have made it. But I’ll never know that. “Hot’L Baltimore,” my favorite failure – but it was a failure in the networks. Interestingly, Bill, this show was made at a time when the network allowed a show to run its 13 weeks. They often made up their minds they were not going to go with it after three episodes, depending on how it rated – but they did let it run 13 weeks in case it surprised them. That doesn’t happen – hasn’t happened for some time. But back then, there were 13 episodes. And after it had been on twice, three times – I knew, we all knew, that the show wasn’t going to make it, because the network basically was ashamed of it, because it had to do with two prostitutes in a hotel and other of life’s so-called losers who were kind of a family of man, as we looked at it, instead of a conventional family. It was a family of people who had no family, but they made their own family in this hotel. And it included two prostitutes, and one fairly off-the-wall character, and others – of great interest to certain of the clergy. Great relationships – I found great relationships in members of the clergy, especially the Catholic clergy, who work in such hotels, and with such people – and they just adored that show. But I knew after a few weeks, because the network let me know in no uncertain terms that they had lost all interest and belief in it. And they even felt a little ashamed, I think, because of the kind of people it dealt with. We loved it. To the point that when the People’s Republic of China invited Frances and me to put a group together and visit – this was long before [normalization?] – I just couldn’t tear myself away. As exciting as that trip was, I couldn’t tear myself away from that show, I loved it so. We did the 13, and I’m as proud of them as anything I’ve done. And it was a failure – but a proud failure.
BM: My favorite Norman Lear failure was “Fernwood Tonight.” Wonderful satire, parody of America. I loved it. I couldn’t tear myself away from it. It didn’t make it.
NL: I loved it, too. But that didn’t make it in a different realm. When you don’t make it on a network, it’s clear-cut. When you don’t make it in syndication, there are so many other factors that might have been possible. You know, like maybe “All That Glitters” – I felt we made it right. I had no problem with how we’d made it, it just…
BM: Does that mean if something doesn’t make it on television, that it wasn’t creative?
NL: That it wasn’t creative? No, I think it’s all creative. Poor, in some cases – but it’s all a creative effort.
BM: Why isn’t television more creative? Why isn’t network television more creative?
NL: It depends on – the three networks depend on ratings only. The name of the game for the three networks is, “How do I win Tuesday night at 8:00?” And so long as that is what the name of the game is, then that’s what motivates them to decide on a show – they will decide what they think will beat the opposition, and not what they think is good and will consequently beat the opposition. But you know, I always hate to talk about television out of context with the rest of American business. Television is another business, though it contains within it an art form. But then, designing cars is an art form.
BM: What do you mean, you hate to talk about it? You can’t disconnect it?
NL: I don’t want to disconnect it from the rest of American business, and industry, and government, and what-not – because it seems to me that the central disease of our time is the fact that the name of the game for all of these institutions – government, and business, and education – is winning, today. And we are all caught up in the business of winning or losing. If you’re not a winner, you are a loser. If you’re not in the top five, top ten – too much attention is paid to that. It seems to me — we’ve already raised a couple of generations, and we’re raising more generations of young people who do not understand, I think, a lesson that was our lesson in our generation – which was that life and success had everything to do with succeeding at the level of doing your best. And that was what was expected of you. You would succeed at the level of doing your best, and that’s what life was about. Now, we are so caught up in this business of winning – and if you’re not a winner, you’re a loser. That, for me, is the central disease of our time.
BM: What does it mean to the creative process when the networks insist upon winning every time slot? What happens to the writer, to the creative person?
NL: Well, what happens, from a practical standpoint – “Animal House” was a big success as a movie two or three years ago. And ABC says a show about fraternity brothers – you know, “Let’s do a show about fraternity brothers.” So they do a takeoff on “Animal House.” NBC has the same idea, and CBS has the same. Well, there were three takeoffs on “Animal House.” I forget their titles at the moment. That’s going to a writer, or director, or an independent producer, and saying — “Here is a pattern. Just make another, you know, suit or coat – but make it to this pattern.” You know, not “Design me something that’s special and new and fresh and interesting – something that comes out of your excitement as a creative individual.” Big difference. Now, if you are caught up in numbers, and winning and losing, and “How do I beat NBC and ABC,” if you’re CBS, at 8:00 Tuesday night – then you will say, “Well, wait a second, what’s working? ‘Animal House’ is working? Let’s try that – go to MTM, or go to TAT, or go to Lorimar – and ask them if they’ll turn out an ‘Animal House.’ Give them the cookie cutter and ask them if they’ll cut this cookie for us.” Very little chance for creativity in that.
BM: And the writer only has three doors on which to knock, so if they all want the same thing…
BM: He has to write for that, or not write at all for network television.
NL: And that’s why so many cookies seem to come out of the same cookie cutter.
BM: What would happen to the network that said, “Our only goal is excellence. We’ll only broadcast the best”?
NL: I have to believe that one can succeed, just as well, being motivated along those lines. You know, by asking a company of people, a network, to come to work each day for the joy of coming to work, and for the joy of trying to create the best programming for the biggest audience. I’m not suggesting for a second – I mean, I’m a commercial fellow. I have never done anything that I didn’t wish to communicate to everybody. I’m not a poet. Poets do not mind talking to narrow audiences, and thank God for them. But I just happen to be somebody who wishes to communicate with the broadest amount of people, the most people. And I’ve not lost sight of that. So I understand – networks want to succeed. They want their stockholders to profit better than stockholders in the other two networks. But one can go about that — a network can go about that differently. It can go about that the way we just talked about. This is working here — take that cookie cutter, make another cookie. Or you can say to people, “Come to work every day, listen to your families, watch your children, read your newspapers, exercise your vital abilities in the course of producing and directing and writing and performing for CBS” – if it happens to be CBS – “and we’re going to take your product, because it represents your best — and we think you’re the best, that’s why you’re working here – and we will go with that.”
BM: But can any of those networks stand to be third in the ratings, if they are first in quality?
NL: One of those networks is third all of the time — and is always succeeding. I mean…
BM: Making money.
NL: The worst we ever read is that the profit statement is down. See, Bill, this is why I hate to take it away, and just to talk about television alone – so let me just mention a couple of parallels. It seems to me that America’s macho was very much tied up with the automobile. For all the years I’ve been — I grew up in this country – the image of the American male polishing that car on a Sunday morning — you know, I can’t remember how many motion pictures of the ’40’s, and Life magazine pictures of the ’40’s and what not – the car is in the driveway, and he’s polishing it on a Sunday. And status was growing from the Chevrolet to the Pontiac to the Buick to the Cadillac. I mean, all of that was part of the American myth of success. And it was real for us. Now Detroit has lost its macho. I mean, it is a gimp – it is not what it was. I don’t think that has really seeped down into the national psyche yet. And it’s devastating. Why did Detroit wind up in this fashion? Why is Japan the major automaker in the world today? It seems to me, for the same reason that applies to the networks. All those years ago, when the handwriting was on the wall, and the Volkswagen was coming along, and the Toyota and the Datsun – whichever ones followed, in whatever order – the name of the game for each of those companies was how could the profit statement this quarter be bigger than it was last quarter. To diminish a profit statement by investing in a new form, like a little car, or a fuel-efficient car, or whatever seemed to be lurking out on the horizon – the same thing that applies for television – was not the name of the game. The name of the game was a bigger profit statement. And they blew it. They didn’t think about the future, and they blew it. It seems to me politicians behave the same way…
BM: Everything’s a short-term game.
NL: Short-term game to the exclusion of any long-term interest. What was the name of the game for all of those individuals that were running across the country seeking to be president last year? It was – “What does the Harris poll tell me about myself today?” And “What does the Gallop poll tell me tomorrow?” And every TV journalist – I followed two of the candidates around for weeks. The name of the game at every afternoon press conference was – “What short, sexy question could I ask to elicit a short, sexy response and make the 7:00 news?” That was the name of the game for the TV journalists. It was the name of the game for the candidate, illuminating the issue for Americans, because “It might be good for America’s future if they knew more about the candidate and what the candidate thought” was not the name of the game. So this short-term interest, winning or losing, making it today – is the name of the game.
BM: You know, you come through as Norman Lear, the idealist, on that. A lot of faith in people’s willingness to respond to what is good or better. Yet H.L. Mencken said that no one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people.
NL: I have thought about that – it’s always referred to as a quip. I’ve always hoped it was an idle quip, because it seems to me that Establishment America has really bought that, and they have served America and a broad mass of people so poorly as a result of believing that. I hope I have not underestimated the American public in my efforts. I hope all of us who have worked together have not underestimated the American public. And we have not lost money, not underestimating them.
BM: But do you think that everything would improve, including television, if we reached toward excellence?
NL: I don’t see anything mutually exclusive about being commercial and achieving excellence.
BM: And yet – if you put up something good at 8:00 on a Tuesday night, something that appeals to perhaps a slightly smaller but more quality-minded audience, another network will come along and put up something schlocky, or appealing to a mass taste, and beat that slot.
NL: Well, but it may be necessary not to put up something that is for a narrow audience at 8:00. It may be…
BM: Like “All In The Family.”
NL: It may be necessary to put up something that is more mass-oriented, because it’s 8:00, and because they have to deliver to stockholders, and so forth. But that doesn’t mean it has to be schlock. That doesn’t mean that it has to come from the least inspired instincts of creative people, you know. The suggestion that “Why don’t you take a little bit of this show, because this has pretty girls, and take a little bit of this show because it has good-looking men on motorcycles, and take a little of this show because it has cops, and put cops and girls and motorcycles together, and make us a show” – that’s appealing to the least, lowest instincts in any creative individual.
BM: But it sells. It has sold steadily through the ’70’s. “The Dukes of Hazard”…
NL: It serves chemical companies well not to spend money to detoxify chemicals. It serves them well in the short-term to dump those chemicals across the landscape. But it doesn’t serve the country, doesn’t even serve the families of the people responsible, in terms of the future. What you’re talking about in terms of television that sells is just another toxic waste. I would ask you – name me the institution in America that doesn’t seem to be seeking to succeed in the short term only, to the exclusion of the future.
BM: Well, I can’t. But I’m trying to decide whether it is the people’s expectations, or whether it is what they’re offered that is responsible for the failure of creativity, the absence of creative television…
NL: I think people, in the leadership positions, will either lead or they won’t. And if they don’t, there will be no leadership. And we are seeing a vacuum in leadership. You know, you asked me what I am doing. One of the things I got involved with, as you know, in recent months, as been an organization called People For the American Way, which was established to counter the Moral Majority and other groups that are confusing people and the issues, and so forth. Oh, God – I lost my train of thought directly to what you were…
BM: What people want, do the networks give people what they want, or…
NL: Oh, yes – I had been traipsing across the country, working with mainline church leaders to establish People For the American Way to counter the Moral Majority and other groups like that – they seem to be a tree that is obscuring a whole forest of people with important concerns. I do not minimize those concerns. The fabric of society does seem to be fraying. Our national image isn’t what it was, and certainly our international image. And Americans everywhere are concerned about it. But what is confusing about what these people do, and it does fit what we’ve been discussing, is that they would suggest to America that gay rights, or Playboy magazine and Penthouse magazine, and the ERA, and so forth, are the cause – or the thrust for women’s rights – is the cause of the breakdown of the American family. And going back to what I said about Detroit, I would humbly suggest that Detroit — with all of those hundreds, if not thousands, of people out of work, an industry that was America’s pride, that is now impotent, and second to Japan, and falling still further day by day – that this national disaster was not caused by gay rights or Penthouse magazine. And to suggest to Americans and [importune?] Americans to think and believe that the reason for the failure of our major institutions is the thrust for women’s equality, when every way you look you see public morality, on leadership levels, failing totally. I was distressed to see a candidate who ran for president, arm-in-arm with his wife, insisting that a marriage the country knew was failing was for real. And then the minute the election is over and a new president is elected, the marriage is announced to have failed, as everybody was led to believe… But leadership no place will discuss that. And youngsters grow up believing that these important public lies and pieces of fakery and so forth are okay. Now that’s leadership failing, and public morality failing, at the highest levels. And it has to affect this country a great deal more than the ERA, which Mr. Falwell and Ms. Schlafly and others would suggest to us, is what’s destroying us.
BM: I like your public concerns, as you know. Let me close with a few very specific and unrelated questions – unrelated to each other. There is a story of Mary Kay Place, who was one of the actors, wasn’t she, on “All That Glitters?”
NL: No – on “Mary Hartman.”
BM: “Mary Hartman,” oh, yes.
NL: She played Loretta Haggers.
BM: That’s right. And “Mary Hartman” didn’t work with the networks, but one of the networks was impressed with her, and came to ask her if she’d like to be in one of their prime-time situations. And what was it she said to you? Remember? She said, “Are you kidding, Norman? After this experience, I would never sink to prime time.” Is that a true story?
NL: It’s a very true story. It’s a mark of that woman that she felt that way. But “Mary Hartman” was just an extraordinary tapestry. We were five days across the week, and could cover anything because it was late night, and so forth – and I’m not talking about getting away with… I mean, we could dig deep into human problems, and we could fail, and experiment and succeed in everything – you know, everything was okay, and it was terrifically exciting. Talk about creative! It gave everybody the opportunity to expand, and reach, and stretch – including Mary Kay Place. So that’s why, when the network came to her and said, “We want to take you” — the Haggers, she and Graham Jarvis – and make a series for them, she was quick to say, “I wouldn’t stoop to prime time television.”
BM: That says something about whether or not you can be creative when you’re trying to reach a mass audience. And you’re one of the few exceptions that have been able to do that, and the most creative shows are the best written shows – “M.A.S.H.,” “Lou Grant” – all of those. It troubles me that the models held up in prime time are not models of real creative thought, ideas, writing and direction. Is television what somebody called it, “chewing gum for the eyes?”
NL: Too much of it. Too much of it is. Need it be? You know what they don’t talk about that seems to me to be the biggest problem of all? The PTA, the AMA, this new Coalition for Better TV – they’re all talking about permissiveness, sex, violence, T&A and what not – what about the six hours people are supposed to be watching each day? If people are watching six hours of television a day, it’s terrible. If it were all great, if they had the privilege of watching six hours that all of America could agree are good for the soul and the mind – that much passivity cannot be good. That much sitting and watching anything cannot be good. That much time away from the interaction of life and people and so forth – why does no one address that? Why don’t we talk about perhaps television should not be on 24 hours? Perhaps we should find a way, collectively, to deal with it so that we can help people not become addicted to it. That addiction and that amount of passivity has got to be bad.
BM: But it’s all because it makes money. In the short-run, it creates profits for everybody.
NL: Yeah. And there are highways built, for the same reason, that are not needed – and gas stations that are not necessary, and cereals on supermarket shelves that scientists tell us should be labeled “candy” because they are so full of sugar – and we are back to the name of the game is profits.
BM: It does seem to me that if one doesn’t want to spend a whole week watching television, and wants to be selective, there is plenty on that is good, creative, informative, enjoyable – if you just pick and choose. Is that your impression?
NL: Yes – “M.A.S.H.,” all those years; “Mary Tyler Moore,” all the years that show was on – and “Lou Grant,” you mentioned – and “White Shadow,” and so much of what happens on PBS – Bill Moyers, not because you’re sitting here — but my Lord, what’s-his-name on CBS on Sunday mornings?
BM: Charles Kuralt?
NL: Yeah, Kuralt. You know, so marvelous. And the new late night news shows that will devote a half-hour to one thing, as opposed to four minutes to the biggest problems in the world. Yeah, there’s a lot. But people must be encouraged. That’s where leadership, it seems to me, is so essential. People must be encouraged to pick and choose, and not to watch for the sake of watching.
BM: Last few questions. What gives you the most pleasure in being Norman Lear?
NL: Well, these people. These people.
BM: “All In The Family.”
NL: Yeah – no, these people for sure – that wife and those daughters. And I’ve been thinking recently. I remember when everything began after that first piece of material for Danny Thomas, and Ed Simmons and I went East and did the “Ford Star Revue.” We did the first “Colgate Comedy Hour” a couple of months later. And then we had to fly back with Dean and Jerry on a late night flight. We were flying back and we were looking down. Martin and Lewis had been on one show, and it was an enormous success. And it was on live. On at 8:00, off at 9:00 in those days, and the next day, everybody was talking about something that worked because television was so new. And Dean and Jerry creamed America, and they were all talking about it the next day. And so, a few nights later, we were flying across country, before jets, in a long flight, and we were looking down, and Ed Simmons said to me, “I wonder how many people down there we have made laugh?” And that was when there were – I don’t know, 18 million sets, or 9 million sets – and the coaxial cable had only just been laid. And you know, I had a trip recently – and it was the only night time trip that I’ve taken in a great many years – and so perhaps that’s why the thought occurred to me only this one time. But I looked down, and now after those years of “All In The Family” and the fact that it’s in syndication, and playing three times a day in so many places – and “All In The Family” and “Maude” and “Good Times” and “Mary Hartman” – I mean, the plethora of shows – and I thought, “My goodness, for every light down there, there just may be somebody I have made laugh.” I’m saying “I” in this particular case – we’re, I repeat, it’s an awful lot of people – but there’s a joke, a moment, or something that came from me on each of those shows, as it did from all of the others in each of those shows. And to look down at America at night and see lights everywhere and wonder if it’s just possible, after all those thousands of half-hours and all of those years and the fact that they’re playing so much in syndication – that wherever there’s a light, there is somebody that something, some part of me, helped to laugh. I love that thought. I love it.
BM: Within there, but let me just ask you for cutting purposes, that’ll be the end of the show – but let me just ask you – is there, was there a moment when you laughed most in “All In The Family?” Do you remember?
NL: I don’t know the moment. I can only tell you that Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, Bea Arthur certainly – I mean, a number of those people… I can think of moments with Carroll, and Bea, where I have laughed so hard, the tears poured down my face. I think they will tell you that – that I may be the most insane laugher they have known. I mean, I am – and I had known as I was laughing, that these people were adding time to my life, that that laughter had to be adding time to my life. And I figure – if the fates had me leaving at 60, before I got into this business, this glorious business of helping people laugh, and laughing myself – if the fates had me leaving this earth at 60, it’s because they didn’t know that I was going to be involved with the likes of Carroll O’Connor and Bea Arthur and Jean Stapleton and Sherman Hemsley and so forth. And that I was going to laugh so much – because I know, if they thought I was leaving at 60, it’s got to be 80 now – or 90 now.
BM: What makes Carroll O’Connor so good?
NL: He’s a glorious actor – and he – Archie Bunker and Carroll O’Connor are just one of those great matches. The best writer for Carroll, for Archie Bunker, has always been Carroll O’Connor. The best. I could come up with stories. Other writers could come up with stories, and moments, and I could help him – and I could write some wonderful Archie Bunker, I don’t mean I couldn’t – but when Carroll O’Connor slipped into the character, he was Archie Bunker, and everything… Now, he didn’t always slip into it. I mean, there were a lot of times Carroll would be standing around fighting slipping into it, because his intellect – the Carroll O’Connor intellect – was saying, “I don’t like this, I don’t like that, I want to do it this way, I want to do it that way” – and when those compromises had been found, always better for him, for me. I mean, we never made a compromise that wasn’t a better way to do it, you know. So those discussions were always well worth the discussion. But when he slipped into the character finally, nobody could write for Archie Bunker like Carroll O’Connor. They would – the pearls would just flow from his mouth – the malapropisms, you know, nobody touched malapropisms the way he could in character. And never could when he was out of character. It’s magic. Magic to have watched it.
BM: I started to ask you – what’s the explanation? And your explanation is magic. There is a magic in this business, isn’t there?
NL: There is a magic to creativity generally. And there is certainly a magic to the business. I’ll tell you one of the greatest, one of the things that gives me the greatest sense of that magic – and that is to finish something. And I did that recently with a show called “No Adults Allowed” – about kids, where kids do an improvise of their soap opera with the instruction of adults. And I hope to see that on sometime soon. But a group of us made that show, and I edited it. I did two days of editing by myself, because I was so in love with what I was doing. And got every little piece exactly the way I wanted it – and when I was finished, I knew it was wonderful. It was just wonderful. Brought it home, because my favorite group of people to show things to are my family. My daughters happened to be home. That’s this group of people here, by the way. Those people. And I brought it home, they were here, and invited some other friends – and it was on two minutes, and I began to realize it was terrible. I had done everything I could conceivably do to make it wrong. But I loved it. The important thing to remember is that before I started to screen it for them, I thought it was just wonderful, and I thought they were going to adore it. And I was 180 degrees off. And I knew it as it was playing. I began to understand why they had disliked it so. Now, the magic in it is that, however long you’re at it, and however much you care about it, and however much you think you know – you find out, every once in awhile, you go [slap!] right into a door, right into a wall, and realize that you’ve blown it totally. And you don’t know it, and you’ll never have it all together. And there’s such inspiration and such magic in that. You know, how could I make such a mistake? Well, the fact is, I can – and that’s terrific.
BM: Thank you.
PAUSE [Possibly the next day?]
BM: They didn’t like it. You didn’t tell me that yesterday.
NL: That piece that you looked at, that you have – nobody liked it. I love it…
BM: Why? What did they say? We can just sit here a minute and…
NL: Well, I made a bunch of mistakes. What’s interesting about these kids, what’s more interesting is they play parents in a difficult situation. But it’s the kids’ reaction to the situation that’s much more interesting that watching the kids. Like, they wanted to do an alcoholic situation, because some of them have lived it. So the father was an alcoholic and has a big fight with the mother. I thought the kids were so terrific I concentrated on that fight — like I do on the other shows. What was much more interesting was the moment when the little kids, and the other kids playing the children of those parents, are talking about – “Well, if they break up, who goes with who?” That was really what the show was about, not so much about the other. My concentration was on the other. And also on allowing them to do problems that were too much and too many. With the same sense of dynamics that we use in the adult shows. I thought it was great. That’s the key thing – I thought it was great until other people looked at it, and I realized how much, how wrong I’d been.
BM: There’s that cartoon in there of you juggling all these shows. How do you do it? It has to be some trick.
NL: Are we on camera now?
BM: Uh-huh. They’re just shooting me listening to you now.
NL: Oh, I didn’t know that.
BM: I’m just having you tell stories so they can get listening shots. How do you do it?
NL: I would never have been able to do it if I didn’t grow to do it. If circumstances didn’t force me to do it. And I was able to…
BM: What do you mean? What circumstances forced you?
NL: Well, I did “All In The Family.” And the idea for Sanford & Son came along. And then, Bea Arthur appearing on [“All In The Family”] was terrific, and the idea for making her the kind of liberal that Archie represented as a conservative gave life to “Maude.” By then, I was in a climate that I had not anticipated. If you think of a clock as the sun — the ticking of that clock for three shows, and then when “Good Times” came along, four shows – was the sun that created the climate, and I’m growing in that climate. Now, that climate dictated that I better have another ear, or another eye, or roller skates on my legs. Well, my legs grew roller skates, and an eye grew back here, and ears grew bigger, and I was able to listen more – and I was able to concentrate on several things at the same time. I could never have done it if somebody said, “Hey Norman, there’s four shows. Like to take them over?” Impossible. But the climate dictated what I finally became able to do. And that’s how I became able to do it.
BM: Well, you’re one of the most creative men I’ve ever…
NL: Wanna see my medals?
BM: Yeah, I want to see them.
NL: You want to see photographs? Have I got photographs!
NL: My kids are so terribly interested in everything that I do.
BM: They didn’t even know a microphone when they saw it. Let’s see some of it.
NL: You want – have I got pictures for you! You want to meet Archie Bunker’s predecessor? That’s Herman Lear. My mother. My father is dead. My mother is happily very much alive and well.
BM: What does she think about your taking all of your family and showing them to millions of people?
NL: She’s very happy with a lot of it, and distressed with a little of it. She’d just as soon I had forgotten the word “stifle.”
BM: He used that word really?
NL: My father?
BM: Yes – he used that word?
NL: “Jeanette, stifle!” Yes, he used the word. But my mother would as soon I forgot that. Maggie and Kate, and this is a picture of my dad’s family. There’s my father.
BM: Where did they come from originally?
NL: My grandfather was born in New Haven. But his father had come from Russia.
BM: Were they poor?
NL: Yeah, and they were always poor. They didn’t need a Depression to be poor. My family managed to be poor without a Depression. Everybody’s family can’t say that.
BM: I like this one. Frances is with a very debonair young man there.
NL: Yes. You want to see a terrific picture of Frances, my favorite picture of Frances? Oh, I put it in another… Well, this is a great one of Frances and Ellen. That’s when Ellen was married.
BM: She looks like a dancer, Frances does.
NL: Here’s a picture – my Tom Sawyer picture. I was 14 years old, working in Coney Island. One summer. My father was sick, and I was helping to support the family.
BM: What’s this?
NL: That’s a microphone. And I was – I would stand at a place that took six pictures for a nickel. “Hey, hey, six pictures for a nickel. Five cents, the only place on the island. Everybody takes them, everybody likes them. Hey, little girl, you oughta be in pictures!” And then they sit down, they go six times for five cents. That was when hot dogs and sauerkraut and a rootbeer cost five cents, too.
BM: Oh, them were the days.
NL: Here – ask me to show you my favorite picture of me.
BM: Show me your favorite picture of you, Norman.
NL: Okay – I will show you my favorite picture of me, since you asked. That is 1942, in Rome, during the Great War. And I looked like that for about 20 minutes. One afternoon in Rome, 20 minutes, I looked like that.
BM: Clark Gable. And after that, the dissolution.
NL: Yes, total dissolution after that.
BM: What did you do to win the war?
NL: To win the war? I was on this plane. This was Umbriago Two. We lost Umbriago One. And there’s my crew.
BM: What were you?
NL: I was a radio operator and gunner.
BM: Did you make many raids, many missions?
NL: Yeah, we flew 33 sorties and 57 missions.
BM: Over Italy and Germany?
NL: Over Germany, yeah.
BM: You ever see them?
NL: My pilot, Brown – what’s his first name… He came to see me about four or five years ago. Haven’t seen any of them since.
BM: What is this?
NL: That was a photograph taken on the way back. That was a last war photograph on the way back, sitting at the radio controls.
BM: It looks like a World War II movie that I saw when I was a kid.
NL: What interests me about photographs of me is that I never look the same. All through the years, I kept changing. And this is the way I wished to look.
BM: Don’t we all?
NL: But I never seemed to make it for more than those 20 minutes.
BM: You sure this isn’t one where you put your head through a circle and they take a picture of you?
NL: No, that’s this. Somebody was syndicating “Mary Hartman.” When we did “Mary Hartman,” we had somebody else syndicate it. We do all of that ourselves now. And I went to a convention where they were selling things, shows – and I walked into a room, a little bedroom that was a sales place for this fellow who was syndicating our “Mary Hartman” plus other things. And his gimmick was, with everybody that came in — he had a Hawaiian shirt on, with short sleeves, and those splashy colors – and he would drag you into the little bedroom – this was a living room-bedroom – and he’d drag you into the little bedroom, he’d throw the scarf around you, put on the thing and the goggles, put his arm in the thing, shoot a photograph, take it out and hand it to you, put it in a frame – and you were a World War I veteran. And that’s the way he sold “Mary Hartman.” And that’s why we went into the business ourselves.
BM: That’s my Walter Mitty. Who would you be if you were Walter Mitty? What secret fantasy would you like to act out in your old age?
NL: I have the suspicion that to act out any secret fantasy in my old age would be to lose what exists now. Namely, Frances, Ellen, Maggie, Kate and so forth. I wouldn’t give up any of that. For anything. I’m living a fantasy. How would I ever have dreamed that I would have laughed my way through a life with those people?
BM: How can you tell where the fantasy begins and the reality ends?
NL: There’s enough to remind me. Life is not without any travail. There’s a lot of it. There’s enough to remind me each day. What else is around? There’s a terrific pictures of Frances. I forget how many years ago.
BM: How long have you been married?
NL: Twenty-five years come December 7th – Pearl Harbor Day. We were married on Pearl Harbor Day. The 13th is Kate’s birthday. Twenty-five years.
BM: Okay, Sid?
[Production sounds – end of tape]