Norman Lear lived to 101 and left so much behind: some of the best televisions shows in history (ones actually made history), some excellent films (I recommend the little-seen Divorce American Style), and countless important causes that all had to do with maintaining democracy.
Lear famously started People for The American Way in 1981 to defend constitutional values threatened by the religious right. When my partner and I were doing fund-raising readings of our political play (about Helen Gahagan Douglas who was defeated by a nasty young guy named Nixon), I called Norman. Before I could get to my pitch-plea, he said, “Michele, let’s do this together.” The reading was in Los Angeles: Norman flew in, stood at its end, and I believed shed a few tears. He then caught the redeye back to D.C.
I met him through my father, an anti-nuclear, democracy-concerned philanthropist. They forever became known as the “Malibu Mafia,” but they were so much more than that. One cause after another brought them together.
A Creative Hero
Norman was always available. I wrote a piece about laugh tracks last year and reached out to him. He was 100, but gave me a pithy quote. We will hear this week from everyone fortunate enough to have worked with, or been inspired by, him: Rob Reiner, Al Franken, Jon Stewart and so many more. I am wondering about Dick Van Dyke, now 97, who starred in “Divorce American Style,” an unusually serious role for the comedian. The list of our living creative heroes grows shorter.
It should be noted that Lear’s shows were often about women..and strong ones at that.
It should be noted that Lear’s shows were often about women..and strong ones at that. Maude ring a bell? One Day At A Time. Jeffersons?
Along the way, Norman helped people who dreamed of a similar career. Rob Ulin was graduating Harvard and took a long shot in contacting the legend. “I’m one of a long list of people who got their break from him,” says Ulin. “He gave me my first job right out of college. I got to know him all over again years later when our kids were in the same high school class. At that point I was 48, he was 88. The man lived many lives, and he made the most of all of them.” Ulin went on to produce “Roseanne” and many other shows.
Norman Lear won every award—well, except for the Nobel—and his proudest were not the Emmys, but the humanitarian ones. They were countless and handed out from our country’s leaders.
This man’s unique ability was to help us understand that even people who may disagree with us are worth understanding. (Archie Bunker comes to mind.) And it rubbed off in his real, as well as reel, life. His son-in-law, Dr. Jonathan Lapook, has started an important medical organization called The Empathy Project.
I still remember, after my dad’s intimate backyard memorial, Norman coming up to compliment my daughter’s singing. “She has perfect pitch,” he said. As did he.