Norman Lear Interview: An American Icon Lifts the Veil on a Nation Divided
Image attributed to PBS
Legendary television writer/producer Norman Lear is known for producing such 1970s sitcoms as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Maude and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. As a political activist, he founded People for the American Way in 1981 and has supported First Amendment rights and progressive causes.
Largely responsible for the explosion of bold, groundbreaking television in the 1970s, the first documentary about the 94-year-old entertainment icon, American Masters – Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, premieres nationwide on October 25, 2016, on PBS. PBS Distribution will release the film on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD the same day with additional bonus features.
"I think in Donald Trump we have a good example of how far we can go to mediocrity. If these people are into Donald Trump, it’s not because they’re into Donald Trump above Hillary Clinton. They’re into Donald Trump as a way of making a bigger statement than that. The bigger statement is saying, 'Help! Give us some leadership. Give us the information we need to be an informed citizenry. Don’t give us media where talking heads are sitting around yelling at each other and giving us bumper sticker philosophy. Help us!'”
Lear has teamed with Shonda Rhimes and other celebrities including Amy Poehler and Common for a documentary series on Epix, investigating aspects of social, economic and political division. The docu-series, entitled America Divided, features narratives around inequality in education, housing, healthcare, labor, criminal justice and the political system, all woven into an eight-story, four-and-half hour series. Lear reports on the housing crisis in New York, from people who have no homes to luxury apartments purposely kept vacant. The first episode of Epix’s America Divided premieres on September 30, 2016.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Thanks for taking the time today. It’s an honor and a pleasure to speak to you!
Norman Lear: You know, it’s going to cost you every bit of time, too, so we’re even. And, thank you.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The first episode of America Divided was very powerful!
Norman Lear: Yeah. RadicalMedia, the producers, certainly know what they’re doing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How did the project come together?
Norman Lear: I just know I got a telephone call asking if I’d like to be a part of it as a correspondent. Despite the fact that I’d never done it, I was certainly interested. I was pleased because I knew the work and quality of this team, so I said, “Yes.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When you went out in the field to report on the housing crisis in New York, did you learn anything that you did not know before?
Norman Lear: You know, in the deepest, most profound sense, I knew that there was this kind of suffering going on, but we humans have a way of living with that, doing what we can, we think, but then learning we never did enough. That was a part of what I was living through, and then also because I was now in it, the surprise of that to actually be sitting with a black family who had a long lease on an apartment that the landlord was trying to get them out of.
The landlord was trying to move them out and doing everything he could to do so, including tearing down a staircase and putting it up, doing minor repairs that caused great dust, messing with the air and the quality of the space they were living in to get them out and succeeding in great numbers, thereby what they call gentrifying.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. The extreme measures the landlords were going to in order to make more money from the next tenant, were horrible.
Norman Lear: What the producers, I think, in the show succeeded in doing is putting a big spotlight on it. While we have a sense of what’s going on, unless we’re staring into the light and seeing it, I think that will make people much more a part of wishing to do something about it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You spoke out about the housing crisis through the characters in All in the Family and other shows in the 1970s. Has there been much change in the housing conditions since that time?
Norman Lear: I don’t know. I think the problems are every bit as much as they were. We’re much more sound than fury. We make a lot of noise, but I’m not satisfied with where we are in terms of solutions. We have the solutions, but we haven’t brought them home.
We made the promises. The promises exist in the Declaration, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, but we don’t have the kind of equality and the kind of equal opportunity that we promised.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What can the average citizen do to help with the solutions for the housing crisis, gun violence and the equality imbalance in the country?
Norman Lear: Well, of course, first comes the vote and just seeking to matter. I don’t want to sound like I’m on a high horse here. I think we all matter, but the degree to which we matter, given the size and scope of the creator’s enterprise here, this planet being one of perhaps a billion planets in our universe and our universe being one among about a billion universes, can you get your fingers close enough to measure the difference between how much of us matter? You can’t.
Each of us are just as important in the great scheme of things, so we start by voting and making sure that everybody we know gets to the polls also and votes. What could be more important, especially after what we saw the other night?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’re referring to the first presidential debate, so was it just a coincidence that America Divided is airing so close to the election?
Norman Lear: I think it is a coincidence because they certainly were not planning as they developed this. The network had to say, “Yes. We’ll do it.” They had to pick a time. There are too many elements that have to come along at the same time to think it might’ve been scheduled this way.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Well, I don’t think it could’ve been planned any better.
Norman Lear: Yeah.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When and why did you first become involved in activism?
Norman Lear: I think it might very well have started when I was a kid. I was nine years old. My father made a mistake. He went to prison for it. I was living with an uncle and another uncle and eventually my grandparents. I didn’t know where my mother and sister were. It was not the easiest time.
At the same time, I learned of Father Coughlin who was preaching hatred of Jews. I was a Jewish kid. But I was so aware that I had a civics class, and in my civics class at nine years of age, I knew of the Constitution of my United States and my Bill of Rights and my Declaration. I underline the word “my” because it belongs to all of us. That’s the way I felt about it. I knew that these protections existed for me and for everybody else.
I think all the time now that we don’t have civics classes, so we don’t learn about this. We’re just told we’re great like we’re God’s chosen because we’re Americans. We are all, across the globe, God’s chosen, whatever out skin color, whatever our religion. That’s what the American Way is all about. When the religious right came along and said, “You are a good Christian or a bad Christian depending on your political point of view,” I knew something had to be done to counter that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942 to fight in World War II.
Norman Lear: I did, yeah.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How do you feel about being part of the Greatest Generation?
Norman Lear: I think one of the problems is we began to believe that. That was the title of a book, and it was the title of a book to sell the book. It was a good one (laughs). But, it didn’t prove we were the greatest generation. It just proved that somebody said that, and a lot of people agreed.
We began to believe our own press, I think, and stopped seeing ourselves correctly when we looked in the mirror. At the end of World War II, it was just great that we had won that war. It was miraculous the way we came together to beat the Axis and win that war, and then we developed the Marshall Plan to help Germany get back on its feet. It was great. But, we began to believe our own press that we did that because we were God’s chosen.
Well, we were just human beings that came together the way human beings can come together and not as God’s chosen. We need to be the ship that opens up those discussions and help others understand that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When you began your comedic writing career, did you think about the risks you may be taking to advocate social change through the medium of television?
Norman Lear: We didn’t start off thinking we were advocating social change, truly. When I started All in the Family, I was breaking my ass to make a living. That’s what I was doing. I happen to be a serious person. I happen to be somebody who sees the fun and the comedy in the human condition, whatever the situation is, dramatic or comedic. The foolishness of the human condition is something I found early on, so that’s what we were dealing with.
Every problem in All in the Family was happening across the street or up the street or down the street or right in my own home, so there was nothing all that unusual. What was unusual was that the establishment had never elected to allow it on television before or in the media before, But, the problems were just ordinary problems. Before that show, the biggest problem one of the earlier ones faced was, “The roast is ruined, and the boss is coming to dinner. Oh, what is the family going to do?”
But, as grownups, we elected to do Archie with Edith facing menopause or how Archie was facing losing his job or the political disagreements between Archie Bunker and his son-in-law. These were real problems we as writers face, and it wasn’t me alone. These were some of the greatest collaborators. We were just dealing with the problems we knew in American life. It was other people who said it was unusual for television.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’m not sure All in the Family would play well to today’s audiences, do you?
Norman Lear: I hear that all the time. I’m only just coming back to television, like we just finished 13 episodes of a Latina version of a show I did years ago called One Day at a Time. This is three generations of Cuban American women.
Rita Moreno is playing the grandmother and Justina Machado, the mother. But, I’m hearing from people that you might not be able to do it. I rather doubt that, and I’m going to try (laughs). Not necessarily another version of One Day at a Time, but they are characters who carry those attributes.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will you ever try to do another version of All in the Family?
Norman Lear: No. I’m not going to re-cast Carroll O’Connor. That’s impossible.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve said that Donald Trump is way worse than Archie Bunker. What are your thoughts on the election?
Norman Lear: I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of the American right hand. The American people are saying, “This is the kind of leadership! Take this!” They give us the finger, and that finger is Donald Trump, another way of saying that I don’t think they believe in him, but it is a way of saying, “Screw you.” They have every reason to be fed up when you’re reading about Wells Fargo or that company that made the air bags in cars or that big pharmaceutical scandal with the EpiPen. The news is just full of larger entities taking advantage.
How much more can you read about the 1% that owns 80% of the American wealth? Those figures aren’t necessarily correct, but you know what I mean. This is a country whose form of government depends on an informed citizenry. You can’t have an informed citizenry, sufficiently informed, unless they’re led by some dignity and understanding. I’m not necessarily talking about the presidency. I’m talking about all kinds of leadership in every facet of American life.
I think in Donald Trump, we have a good example of how far we can go to mediocrity. If these people are into Donald Trump, it’s not because they’re into Donald Trump above Hillary Clinton. They’re into Donald Trump as a way of making a bigger statement than that. The bigger statement is saying, “Help! Give us some leadership. Give us the information we need to be an informed citizenry. Don’t give us media where talking heads are sitting around yelling at each other and giving us bumper sticker philosophy. Help us!”
I see myself as a bleeding heart conservative. You will not mess with my First Amendment, my Bill of Rights, my guarantees of equal opportunities. That’s the ultimate conservative expression. We all have equal opportunity under the laws of this land, and I will do anything to protect everyone’s equal opportunity. That is a conservative position, but you can’t have it unless your heart bleeds for the unfairness and the unequal opportunity that exists.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will there ever be equality for all people?
Norman Lear: Well, because I don’t want to wake up in the morning without hope, I have to say, “Yes. I’m hopeful it can be.” It’s clearly a long way off. There a lot to do. There’s a lot to do.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’m looking forward to the documentary airing next month on PBS about your life.
Norman Lear: Two wonderful women producers and directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, did a brilliant job. They made a film I’d seen years ago called Jesus Camp and a couple of other things I thought were wonderful. They were 100% in charge of this. That was the understanding from the beginning, and they did a great job.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What would you like your legacy to be?
Norman Lear: I would say to live in the moment. Understand that when someone says “over and next,” those two words are more important than we know. Over and next. When something’s over, it’s over, and we’re all onto next. If there was a hammock in the middle between those two words, “over and next,” that would be what is meant by living in the moment.
The fact of your life, and the fact of everybody’s lives that may be listening to or reading this conversation, is that it has taken every split second of their lives just to get to listen to us, every split second of your life just to get to talk to me and every split second of my life just to get to talk to you. So how much proof do we need that the moment is everything?
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