Norman Lear in his Golden Age

Norman Lear Selected Press

Norman Lear in his Golden Age

By Christopher Graff The Associated Press
Burlington Free Press, July 27, 2002

SHAFTSBURY – -Norman Lear, hailed as the most influential television producer of all time, says his best production is yet to come.  It won’t be a TV show, though. And it won’t be aimed at the ratings.  It is a gift from the heart.

by_al_desciptions_photo“I am building a show,” said Lear.  “It’s a revival, a red, white and blue revival…that will get people to their feet, witnessing to the fact that they realize they matter as Americans.”

The words, images and ideas tumble out of Lear with an energy and enthusiasm that appear to give lie to the fact he turns 80 on Saturday.

The man who gave America “All in the Family,” a 1970s comedy with an edge, now wants to share with Americans their Declaration of Independence.  He and a partner bought a rare copy of the 1776 document two years ago for $8.14 million.  The broadside forms the centerpiece of a traveling tribute.

“This is the birth certificate of the United States,” said Lear, who says he cried when he first saw the copy he eventually bought.

Lear explains his plans by saying: “I start every day with hope.  I start every day saying, ‘Here is a day, what are you going to do with it?’”

He has done plenty.

His career as a producer, director, comedy writer and screenwriter brought him four Emmys, a Peabody, induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame – and the National Medal of Arts, given in 1999 by then President Clinton, who said Lear “has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.”

Lear’s legacy also includes “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and “The Jeffersons,” which provided unvarnished views of people and issues not previously seen on network television.  He created Archie Bunker, an outspoken, blue-collar bigot, and raised such issues as abortion, homosexuality and anti-Semitism.

However, a thread of nostalgia ran through “All in the Family” as evidenced by the opening theme, “Those Were the Days,” a thread that also has been woven throughout Lear’s life and connects him with the future.

“I am of that generation that had far more appreciation for America and American values than I see today,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press at his summer home.

My Grandfather used to write the president all the time,” said Lear.  “I remember picking out of the bronze mailbox a little white envelope that said ‘White House’ on it.

“There was everyday proof that America worked.  My grandfather felt that he mattered.  He felt it enough to write the president and he mattered enough to get an answer.”

That connection to country is what Lear seeks to rekindle with the touring Declaration of Independence.  He acknowledges it will be a tough task.

“We are a country of great excess,” he said.  “That defeats an awful lot of the stuff that has made us great.”

Today finds people of all political stripes condemning corporate misdeeds, but Lear has been sounding warnings about such a possibility for more than 20 years, primarily through two organizations he founded: Business Enterprise Trust and People for the American Way.

“The name of the game over a great many years has become ‘Give me a profit.  I must have a profit this quarter larger than the last,’ which always comes at the expense of other values.

“There are no villains.  Nobody invented this.  This is something that grew up in the free enterprise system,” he said.

Lear also blames the never-ending search for campaign contributions for souring the public on politicians and the political process.

He believes the solution to the cynicism is to get a conversation going.

“That’s what happened with ‘All in the Family.’  People talked.  Families would watch the show together because this was a time with just three television networks and usually just one TV set in the house.  They would watch together and then they would talk.”

It’s no coincidence that Lear’s Declaration of Independence project is aimed largely at children.

“They may not be old enough to vote, but they can make a difference,” he said, noting that pressure from children helped encourage parents to recycle or quit smoking.  “That’s the way they are going to help their parents understand they have got to participate.”

Lear is surprised at the attention his 80th birthday has attracted.

“When you hit 80, things accrue to you that are not reality,” he said.  “Suddenly I am far wiser than I truly am.  Suddenly I know more than I ever did.  I stand and walk straight.  I can still lift a coffee cup to my lips and people think ‘Isn’t it a wonder! Look at that.  He’s 80!’”

He watches little television these days, although he thinks HBO’s “Six Feet Under” is brilliant and praises the hundreds of choices viewers now have.

“People ask me what’s the golden age of television and I say this is the golden age of television,” he said.  “Whatever you want is there over that vast array of channels.”

Much of Lear’s time is devoted to his family: He has twin 7-year daughters and a 14-year-old son at home from his 1987 marriage to Lyn Davis, as well as three grown daughters from two previous marriages.

He no longer works the 16-hour days that were required during the frantic 1970s, but no one would characterize him as retired.

His summer home, where poet Robert Frost once lived, is no remote retreat.  The multi-building estate on a hillside in southern Vermont includes offices, a gym, a screening room as well as spacious living quarters decorated in an American flag theme.  Phone lines blink and intercoms buzz as Lear’s business interests track him down.

Sitting comfortably in the expansive living room, wearing his trademark white sailor’s cap as groundskeepers busily prepare for the weekend birthday celebration, Lear is asked how he would like to be remembered.

He knows he’ll always be known as the producer of “All in the Family,” but he has a more basic wish.

“I would like to be remembered as being grateful,” he said.  “Grateful for a great life.”