What he was like in person.
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I don’t know about you, but I grew up watching All in the Family — with my family. It was a seminal bonding experience, an informal education on the human condition, a chance to laugh at human folly, a chance to dare to see the world differently, to think differently.
Many years later, I had the good fortune of meeting and becoming friends with the creator of that show, Norman Lear.
Much has already been said about him and his legacy. I want to add my small piece to the remembrances.
When I heard that Norman had died, one of my first thoughts was how far this man brought America and how far backward we have gone in recent years.
How he helped America become more enlightened and more tolerant — and how tragic it is that he spent his final days seeing just how unenlightened, intolerant, and viciously tribal our society has become.
And yet it is this legacy of Norman Lear that will keep me fighting the good fight until we get back to the progress he helped engineer — and are able to move forward again.
Norman understood this strain in America, for sure.
At only nine years of age, while tinkering with his crystal radio set, he happened upon the demagogic, antisemitic radio personality and Catholic priest Father Coughlin. What the man said, and how he said it, bothered him, and shaped him. Later, he would introduce America to his own cast of bigoted, narrow-minded people — including Archie Bunker, a white man, and George Jefferson, a Black one.
Norman was all about getting to know people different from ourselves, learning to live with them, and even learning to like them. His shockingly advanced social comedies — one hit after another from All in the Family to The Jeffersons to Maude to Good Times to One Day at a Time — showed us unfamiliar cultures and complex characters. And made us laugh at them and, just as importantly, at ourselves.
His impact on millions of Americans was profound. It shaped people forever — and likely is shaping the children of those people, even if the younger generation doesn’t know about him or these small-screen gems.
Norman was a pioneer in breaking down barriers of all kinds — racial, gender, ethnic, sexual. He introduced straight talk about the real world into a television universe full of puffery, fantasy, sanitized, and banal content.
After a career in making a difference through media, Norman turned to the issue arena, founding the nonprofit, 300,000-member People for the American Way (PFAW) to advance tolerance and progress. Besides backing and opposing political candidates in a manner consistent with a vision of a better, more just America, it fostered opportunity through such entities as the Young Elected Officials Network, the African American Ministers Leadership Council, and the Latino Vote program, which played a role in the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
PFAW also took the gloves off — with its Right Wing Watch exposing the ugliness, hypocrisy, and dangerous hate speech of politicians, preachers, and media outlets — and can take credit for, among other things, having Alex Jones’s reckless Infowars removed from several popular distribution sites.
Norman took pride in the fact that his PFAW was labeled “No.1 enemy of the American family” by the televangelist Jerry Falwell. (And he was also pleased to have made former President Richard Nixon’s list of “Enemies.”)
He was one of a special breed of liberal: Like South Dakota Sen. George McGovern and many others who at one time populated Congress — he was a supporter of peace who enlisted and served in the military, a striking contrast to today’s belligerent, bloviating Republicans, who, like George W. Bush and Donald Trump, talk tough but squirmed out of dangerous duty.
He was a pilot in World War II and bombed the Nazis in 35 sorties over Europe.
Still, he was deeply worried about the vast military complex, and, for WhoWhatWhy, penned a fascinating rumination on why the GOP has remained utterly silent about that remarkable “military industrial complex” farewell speech from that party’s two-term war-hero president, Dwight Eisenhower.
Norman was a patriot in the real, not the adulterated, hijacked, sense of the word.
In 2001, Norman bought a rare, original copy of the Declaration of Independence, and spent three and a half years touring the country, showing it to people as part of a multimedia exhibition, hoping to inform and arouse the public with the document’s ultimate message: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” (Go here for the details.)
The activism was admirable, but unquestionably it was his messaging via the entertainment medium that had the most impact — and has had a lasting if incalculable effect on America.
Norman just pulsated with life and spontaneity, and was responsive to anything and everything around him, and couldn’t help but embrace every moment as a gift.
At 63, an age when most people are thinking about retiring, he started Act III, a media and entertainment company.
Thirty years later, The New York Times videotaped an astonishing gathering of elderly — and still vivacious — showbiz folk who read from Norman’s hilarious script Guess Who Died. Their short performances were stellar. At the end, a 93-year-old Norman said:
Aren’t you expected to grow, learn more about yourself, learn more about the world? You are when you’re young. Why would you be less expected to grow when you’re 80? The culture dictates how you behave, and maybe the elderly buy into it, the way they grow old. My role here now is to say “Wait a minute. That’s not all there is. There’s a good time to be had at this age.”
At 101, just two days before he died, Norman was still having a good time, doing what he loved the most — writing.
WhoWhatWhy was proud to have Norman as a financial supporter and shared his belief in the wisdom of age in a culture that worships youth and marginalizes anyone who has passed outside of the primary marketing demographic. Our organization harnesses the entire spectrum of demographics in our society, from freshman students to senior citizens, integrating enthusiasm with equanimity and new perspectives with contextual wisdom. If you came to our meetings you would see the astonishing age range and how wonderfully we all work together, and the sparks that result.
The values Norman embodied include just being a decent, down to earth person.
He was a gentle man in many ways, but he was a strong man — kind of mirrored in the strong, principled peacenik son-in-law “Meathead,” played by Rob Reiner, versus the blustery, hypocritical, “all talk and no action” Archie Bunker character played by Carroll O’Connor on All in the Family.
Whenever we met outside his office, he never came with any of the trappings and entourage that is associated with his level of achievement. Some of our meals took place in a casual cafe in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, to which, even well into his late 80s, he always drove himself.
He was always warm, always enthusiastic. Unlike a lot of very successful people, he didn’t need to pontificate, and was always more apt to ask a question or just settle into listening mode than to tell you what he thought. He was a perennial student, eager to discover new facts and alternative explanations. Even though he was such an activist, he never pushed his agenda or platform.
Asked about the title of his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, Norman illustrated the lust he had for life, even at the age of 92, with what some would consider a small thing: “I will wake up tomorrow morning to whatever I’m about to eat… I love to eat… and I will think, ‘Even this…’”
And in 2021, on CBS Sunday Morning, he spent time making it very clear how important it is when making a sandwich to put the onions underneath the smoked salmon, not on top of it, because the salmon keeps the onions from breaking apart.
Indeed, Norman had an appetite for life, and a recipe: be positive, try to make a difference, and keep on going.
Norman was so perpetually active as he got older and older that I often cited him to my own dynamic mother for inspiration as she passed through her 80s and into her 90s.
“Well,” she would say, “that’s great (she was a fan) — but I am no Norman Lear.” And she seemed a little suspicious that I was exaggerating his feats at an advanced age — and, perhaps, making him even older than he actually was. “Every time you mention him he is a year older.”
And so he was. But he was still doing great stuff. He was and he did — far as I know — pretty much to the end.