LOS ANGELES—Everything written about Norman Lear anymore leads with his age, which is impressive, but it’s far from the only thing to talk about, so we’ll talk about it last. It’s a Thursday morning in October, and Lear, whose phenomenal streak as a creator and producer of TV sitcoms in the 1970s included “All in the Family,””Maude,””Good Times,””The Jeffersons,””One Day at a Time” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” apologizes for dawdling at his breakfast table past 10.
“I was out pretty late,” he says. “1:30 or so.”
First he was off to Burbank, where, as part of a “modern masters” lecture series, he sat for a long Q&A with an audience of young film and TV writers. The event was recorded for his podcast, “All of the Above.” (Because of course there’s a Norman Lear podcast, and no subject is off-limits.)
After that, while the rest of the city slept, Lear stopped at a comedy club on Sunset Boulevard in hopes of finding Dave Chappelle, from whom he needed to ask a favor. He watched three other acts, waiting for Chappelle to go on (“All very funny,” he says) and then went backstage to talk to the comedian. (About what? “We’ll see,” Lear says.)
Lear will be receiving the Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 3, but the president and first lady won’t be anywhere near the awards show or any of the weekend’s celebrations. When Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter called Lear a few months ago to tell him about his selection, Lear said he’d be thrilled to have it (at last!), but as they worked through the details, he realized he had a problem: Donald Trump.
The man who brought Archie Bunker into the American living room nearly 50 years ago—teaching tens of millions of viewers each week that even the most selfishly hardheaded bigot can eventually be reasoned with or simply loved for who he is—just couldn’t abide the idea of standing in the White House shaking Trump’s hand. Days after the Kennedy Center announced this year’s honorees, Lear told reporters that he would boycott parts of the event.
“I will not go to this man’s White House,” he says. “I will not go to my White House so long as this man is president.”
Politics have traditionally been set aside at the Honors: Barbra Streisand, queen of the Hollywood left, and President George W. Bush awkwardly smooched at the executive mansion medal ceremony before the 2008 awards show. But things are different now. The stakes are higher, the people are angry, and Washington is sordid. In August, after first Lear and then dancer Carmen de Lavallade said they would avoid meeting the president—and their fellow honoree Lionel Richie also started to waffle—the White House announced that the Trumps would not be participating in any of the Honors events, “to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction.”
Lear shrugs a little. “I’m glad [the Trumps] backed out, because the emptiness of that place America is used to seeing, with those of us being honored together with the president—that emptiness will make a bigger statement.”
In his well-received 2014 memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience,” Lear writes of his euphoria on visits to Washington, how being in the White House makes him feel “a foot taller.” The city stirs Lear’s patriotism—the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the National World War II Memorial, especially. Lear flew as a radio operator and gunner on B-17 bombers over Europe in the war, tasked with making sure all the bombs made it out of the plane’s bay, wondering hypothetically about the families at dinner tables below and deciding, in that dark but utterly human moment, “F—- ‘em.”
His politics have always leaned left; he believes we’re all just versions of one another, brothers and sisters together, lucky to live in a land of tolerance and diverse opinions. That’s what his best TV shows were about, at their core. The messy family dynamic is desperately interesting to anybody. It’s how we relate to one another.
Concerned that the religious right was claiming patriotism and faith for itself, Lear took a break from television in the late 1970s and invested a considerable portion of his fortune in elevating his concept of the American ideal. He founded People for the American Way in 1980, and he and his wife, Lyn, jumped at the chance in 2000 to purchase at auction an exceedingly rare “Dunlap Broadside” copy of the Declaration of Independence. They paid just over $8 million and arranged to have it displayed on a cross-country tour to inspire young Americans to vote.
Lear was friends with all kinds of Republicans, starting with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. (“We didn’t agree on anything,” Lear says. “I might have been the only liberal at his memorial.”) He once had lunch with Clarence Thomas in his Supreme Court chambers. He got Gerald Ford and Lady Bird Johnson to co-chair a TV special called “I Love Liberty” and arranged for Barry Goldwater and Jane Fonda to share a stage.
Lear isn’t surprised that a sense of outrage and disillusionment has taken over—a Bunker mentality fused with a Meathead stridency, everyone digitally shouting one another into oblivion. He feels disillusioned, too. Many nights, he and Lyn sit up in bed and tune in to MSNBC, and before they know it, they’ve watched the network’s entire lineup, lulled toward sleep by liberal harangues and fresh astonishments.
“Hayes, Maddow, O’Donnell,” he says. “Two or three hours goes by like 10 minutes. I can only imagine how a camera would reveal us. We don’t smoke, but we could look stoned.”
Flipping channels, there are the late-night hosts, transformed into pundits and opinion-makers. Viewers look to them, he supposes, because of an absence of leadership.
“The late-night hosts remind me how inefficient, ineffective and—what’s really the right word?—how deeply disappointing the Democratic [representation in] Congress is,” he says.
It’s the absence of anger that gets him. “T-A-T!” he says, employing a favorite Yiddish phrase, “Tuchus affen tisch—ass on the table! Tell it like it is . . . call [Trump] out. Force him out if you can. Go down trying. But you’re not representing me if you’re not doing it.”
That lack of leadership affects the other side, too. “Here comes the alt-right and the neo-Nazis, these young people who are also desperate for leadership. Son of a bitch, I so understand people and their disappointment.”
He’s here if anyone wants his advice, but he long ago learned the heartbreak of offering one’s services as a member of the coastal elite. In his memoir, Lear wrote: “For 40 years or so I’ve spent untold hours in meetings; at breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; and on phone calls offering up my thinking for this campaign and that cause, but . . . no one ever acted on a single idea I presented. Not ever. Every bit of contact following . . . had to do with my checkbook and my Rolodex.”
Lear nods in assent as the passage is read aloud.
“Well said and a hundred percent true. . . . There’s all this truffa about listening to the American people.”
On a studio set, or at a guest lecture, or attending a VIP brunch in Oprah Winfrey’s back yard—just about anywhere, look for the little white boating hat. That’s Norman Lear. (“Here, put a hat on,” his second wife said to him decades ago, to get him to stop picking at his head. When his favorite hat was lost, he had several more just like it custom-made at a Paris shop—a lifetime’s supply, he supposes.)
The years have turned him into a sort of a cross between Warren Buffett (nowhere near as rich, he points out) and George Burns in those “Oh, God!” comedies. On Twitter, Lear recently showed his support for National Football League players who took a knee during the national anthem by sharing a photo of himself as a young man in uniform and on one knee in World War II. He paired that with a present-day photo of himself on one knee.
And even though there are around 500 scripted dramas and comedies in production for the U.S. television market, Lear decided a couple of years ago to get back in the game of making TV in a meaningful way: He’s a producer on the superbly reimagined version of “One Day at a Time” on Netflix, based in spirit and tone on his 1970s hit. It returns for a second season in January.
The Lear touch is evident on the new “One Day at a Time,” which weaves the topical and the familial. For years, when his shows were criticized for having too much “point of view,” Lear would respond that TV always had a point of view—but that in the 1950s and ‘60s, the point of view was domestic bliss, happy times and white people galore. All Lear says he did was change the point of view. Hints of his style are perhaps most noticeable today in single-camera dramedies such as “Transparent” and “Veep,” which are at once personal and yet sharply, sometimes caustically, relevant.
What really strikes him about TV today: “There’s just so much of it, it amazes me!” Lear says. “When we were three networks, nobody was saying, ‘Wait a minute, there isn’t enough content!’ “
Everywhere he goes, someone is telling him about some new show he ought to watch. He tries. There was a time when his shows occupied half of the Nielsen’s Top 10 list. Now, who knows if anyone is watching. “Netflix doesn’t share information,” he says. “I don’t know how many people watch [“One Day at a Time”]. We’ve got 13 fresh episodes sitting until January, and then they go up all at once. That is so odd.”
He turned 95 in July. On the one hand, it’s an amazing feat (see how fast he ambles up the stairs!), and on the other hand, big whoop.
At 90, Lear noticed that women started saying he was cute. At 95, he says, you get applause for standing up—and an ovation for walking across the stage. It’s all anyone wants to talk about. HBO aired a documentary last spring, “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” that featured a few moments of Lear hanging out with his longtime friends Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Other active Hollywood nonagenarians (Tony Bennett, Betty White, Dick Van Dyke) were also in it.
“I don’t wake up in the morning to be old,” Lear says. “I wake up to do the things that were on my mind when I fell asleep last night.”
On his mind most is his next series, which is about to start filming its pilot episode. It’s a single-camera comedy called “Guess Who Died?” and NBC has dibs on it. It’s about old people—not the sunshiny, silver-fox AARP vision of old people, but the nitty-gritty of aging, the inherent humor in it. Once again, Lear will invite viewers into a demographic situation they might otherwise ignore.
“We don’t look at aging in our culture,” he says. “And the crazy thing is, we all want to get there! It’s good stuff. There’s good stuff there.”