The Life And Times Of Norman Lear

Even if you aren’t familiar with the name Norman Lear, there’s no doubt you recognize the work he has produced. The TV writer was hugely successful in the 1970s for shows such as The Jeffersons, All In the Family, and One Day at a Time. The great thing about Lear was that he met controversy head-on and didn’t shy away from hot button topics.

In a few years, Lear will be 100 years old. However, that doesn’t mean he’s twiddling his thumbs in a rocking chair at home. The prolific writer and producer is still working on projects. Read on for some interesting facts about the man behind some of America’s greatest sitcoms.

He Has Ukrainian And Russian Roots

Lear Young
PBS
PBS

Norman Milton Lear was born on July 27, 1922, in New Haven, Connecticut. His father, Hyman “Herman” Lear, was a traveling salesman who was also born in Connecticut. His father’s parents came from Russia. Norman’s mother, Jeanette (Seicol) Lear, was born in Elizabethgrad in Kherson Gubernia, Ukraine.

When he was three years old, Norman welcomed a sister into his home, Claire Lear Brown. As a child, he likely had no idea that his talent and skills would make him a powerhouse in Hollywood.

His Father Served Time In Prison & Was The Inspiration Behind Archie Bunker

Archie Bunker
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Norman’s father was arrested for selling fake bonds and was sent to prison when his son was just nine years old. Norman has referred to his father, who spent three years in the clink, as a “rascal” and partially based the character Archie Bunker on him. However, Archie was a white Protestant. He also based Edith Bunker partially on his mother.

Bunker was racist, sexist, and difficult to deal with, which was similar to Norman’s father. His mother was very distant with her children, and Norman spent many of his formative years with relatives.

He Dropped Out Of College To Fight In WW2

service
Pinterest/jgenesio
Pinterest/jgenesio

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Norman left Emerson College in Boston in 1942 to join the Army. He was a radio operator/gunner on Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. Norman was involved in 52 combat missions and received the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters.

He was discharged in 1945 and is included in a couple of books, including Crew Umbriag by Daniel P. Carroll and 772nd Bomb Squadron: The Men, The Memories by Turner Publishing and Co.

He Made Just $40 A Week As A Publicist After The War

Lear service
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Pinterest/eileenfarrell14

When the war ended, Norman decided to launch a career in public relations. He chose the job because he looked up to his uncle Jack, his father’s brother. Norman admired his Uncle Jack, who was a press agent, later recalling, “That’s the only role model I had.”

George and Dorothy Ross hired Norman to be a publicist in New York City in 1945. Norman made just $40 a week. Then he decided to relocate to California to further his career.

He Found His Groove In LA & The First Show He Created Starred Henry Fonda

Norman Lear
Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for Backstage Creations
Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for Backstage Creations

After he moved to Los Angeles, he teamed up with a cousin’s husband and sold home furnishings and family photos door to door. At the same time, he was writing TV comedy sketches for shows such as Martin and Lewis and Rowan and Martin. He later became the producer of The Martha Raye Show.

Norman worked on The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show before creating his first TV series in 1959, The Deputy. The half-hour western starred Henry Fonda.

He Received An Oscar Nomination For Divorce American Style

Oscar Nomination
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Norman wrote and produced the 1967 film Divorce American Style, which starred Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds. The film centered on a couple, together for 17 years, that decide to see a therapist. Therapy doesn’t work and the couple splits up, but they eventually reconcile at a night club after determining their marriage was better than their divorce.

Norman received his one and only Academy Award nod for the film. He was nominated for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.

Carroll O’Connor Wasn’t His First Choice To Play Archie Bunker

Jean Stapleton, Carol O'Connor, Sally Struthers, and Rob Reiner in a scene from the T.V. series 'All in the Family.'
Bettmann / Contributor
Bettmann / Contributor

In 1971, CBS aired his show All in the Family. Norman’s first choice to play Archie Bunker was Mickey Rooney, not Carroll O’Connor. But Rooney declined the part because he felt it was too controversial. The show won several Emmy awards and was a hit in reruns as well.

All in the Family was number one for five years and eventually transformed into Archie Bunker’s Place. Bunker was a bigot and racist who often clashed with his liberal son-in-law Meathead, played by Rob Reiner. The show covered several hot topics of the time period, including civil rights and the Vietnam War.

He Is Actress Katy Sagal’s Godfather

Katy-Norman
Pinterest/KateySagal
Pinterest/KateySagal

You probably know actress Katy Sagal, who is famous for her roles on Married…with Children, 8 Simple Rules, and Sons of Anarchy. Her father, Boris Sagal, was friends with Norman. It probably didn’t hurt that Boris was born in Ukraine to a Jewish family and was a TV and film director.

Boris and Norman had a lot in common, so Boris made his friend his daughter’s godfather. Interestingly, the show Married…with Children is partially based on All in the Family.

He Once Paid Millions Of Dollars For A Copy Of The Declaration Of Independence

Norman Lear with an original copy of the Declaration of Independence
Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage
Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage

Norman and his wife Lyn spent a small fortune on one of the first copies of the Declaration of Independence. The couple spent $8.1 million on the document in 2000. But instead of locking it up in a safety deposit box or displaying it solely at home, they decided to send it on a tour of the country.

For the decade that the couple owned the document, it traveled to all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It also made some stops at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, the Super Bowl in New Orleans, and the Daytona 400 NASCAR race, among other places.

He Paved The Way For African-American Sitcoms With Sanford And Son

Sanford And Son
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Norman’s show Sanford and Son also debuted in 1972 and aired until 1977. It featured racial humor and spurred numerous catchphrases. The show was highly rated on NBC and is considered a precursor to several other African-American sitcoms. While it was a top-10 show for several years, ratings dropped in its final season.

Sanford and Son is considered one of the best TV shows of all time. A couple of spinoffs were produced in 1975 and 1980, but neither of them resonated with fans.

His Show Good Times Was Also Groundbreaking

Good Times Was Also Groundbreaking
Bettman, contributor, Getty Images
Bettman, contributor, Getty Images

In 1974, Norman developed Good Times, which was a spinoff of Maude, which was a spinoff of All in the Family. Norman was also executive producer of the series, which featured TV’s first African-American, two-parent family in sitcom form. The show centered on a family that did what they could to overcome poverty while living in Chicago.

JJ, played by Jimmie Walker, was the breakout character on the show. His frequent use of the expression “Dy-no-mite!” was a huge hit with viewers.

The Jeffersons Broke Boundaries By Featuring An Interracial Couple

The Jeffersons
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1975, Norman introduced The Jeffersons to TV audiences. The show aired for 11 seasons until 1985. It is one of America’s longest-running sitcoms and the second-longest-running shows with a predominantly African-American cast (Tyler Perry’s House of Payne surpassed it by one episode).

The show was groundbreaking because it was the first program to feature a married interracial couple. The show was nominated for 14 Emmy Awards during its run. In 1981, Isabel Sanford became the first African-American actress to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series.

He Made One Day At A Time & Its 2017 Remake

One Day At A Time
Embassy Television
Embassy Television

The first incarnation of One Day At A Time aired from 1975 until 1984 and starred Bonnie Franklin as a single mother raising two teenage daughters played by Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli. It’s considered one of TV’s most successful shows of all time.

Despite being moved on the schedule 11 times, the program consistently ranked in the top 10 or top 20 shows. Norman’s company, Act III Productions, revived the series in 2017 but re-imagined it with a Hispanic family. It aired on Netflix for three seasons.

His Style Of Programming Fell Out Of Favor In The 1980s

Lear holding a coffee mug
Bob Riha Jr/Getty Images
Bob Riha Jr/Getty Images

By the eighties, network executives decided to change the way they produced their programming. They opted for safer shows with less controversy to appease advertisers and viewers. As a result, shows like the ones Norman made no longer made the cut.

Lear told Variety in 2019, “I’m told all the time by writers, producers and directors that they doní»t think they could do an ‘All in the Familyí» today. I doní»t know whether thatí»s true or not. I never got a letter that found the show distasteful that didní»t wind up saying, í«I know why youí»re doing it.í» They understood, whether they disagreed with it or not, that it was thought through and it was deliberate.”

He Was A Consultant On South Park

Writer/producer Norman Lear arrives at
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Norman sometimes uses his talent in some unexpected ways. And, as you know, he isn’t adverse to getting involved with controversial programming. So it’s no surprise that he decided to team up with the creators of South Park. He provided the voice for Benjamin Franklin in the animated series.

But that’s not all. He was also a writing consultant on two episodes from season seven: “Cancelled” (which happened to be the 100th episode produced) and í░I’m a Little Bit Country.í▒

He Produced The Cult Favorite The Princess Bride

Princess Bride
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Pinterest/minyamonster

When The Princess Bride hit theaters in 1987, it did okay at the box office, but it wasn’t a huge success. However, over time it has transformed into a cult classic. It’s often included in funny movie lists, and in 2016 was honored by the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.

In 2019 it was rumored that a remake was in the works after Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Tony Vinciquerra mentioned that some “very famous people” wanted a redo. The news was not well received by fans who stuck by the original and are adamant that they don’t want anyone to mess with the classic flick.

He’s A Huge Supporter Of The First Amendment

Writer and producer Norman Lear attends the book release and signing of
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Any fan of Norman Lear’s groundbreaking work will be well aware that he’s a huge supporter of the First Amendment.

In 2018, he penned an op-ed piece for the Hollywood Reporter. “The First Amendment has protected the agitators, artists, advocates, marchers and organizers who pushed and continue to push to overcome structural discrimination, protect workers and provide equitable economic opportunity, and win legal equality for women and LGBTQ people,” he wrote.

In 2019 He & Jimmy Kimmel Recreated Two Of His Beloved Shows In Front Of A Live Audience

Lear and Kimmel
Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic
Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

On May 22, 2019, Norman teamed up with Jimmy Kimmel to recreate episodes of All in the Family and The Jeffersons in front of a live studio audience. “When I walked into it for the first time, days before we shot it, to see the set of ‘All in the Family’ again íş my God. It was dear,” he later told Variety.

The cast included Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei as Archie and Edith Bunker and Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes as George and Louise Jefferson. The program was a huge hit with TV audiences and attracted over 10 million viewers.

He’s Pushing 100 & Still Has Lots Of Ideas

GettyImages-465166824
Beck Starr/Getty Images
Beck Starr/Getty Images

Norman is in his late 90s but has no plans to retire. He’s currently working on several projects, including a single-camera comedy titled Fried Chicken and Latkes as well as another one starring Laverne Cox and George Wallace. He also recently made a documentary about Rita Moreno and has a film project in the works.

“His brilliance has been his ability to feed off of his passion,” American television writer and producer Kenya Barris told Variety. “Most people lose one or the other as they age, but that’s not the case with Norman.í▒