How Norman Lear, the King of TV, Remains as Relevant as Ever at 100

·11-min read

It’s no secret that working in Hollywood isn’t easy — and can be exhausting. But Norman Lear, who has been in the industry for more than 60 years, has never considered walking away.

“Not for a second. We’ve had ups and downs and but it’s always a good time,” the icon told Variety ahead of his 100th birthday on July 27. “It feels very much like 99, which felt a lot like 89!”

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And he has no plans to slow down — or stop cracking jokes.

“I think the big secret is never forgetting to wake up in the morning. It starts with getting out of bed,” Lear says. “But there isn’t a day when there aren’t stories to tell — exciting, relevant and of the moment stories.”

For many, the earliest memory of Lear’s work is watching “All in the Family,” the first sitcom that he shepherded on his own, that debuted on CBS in 1971. In 2019, the series, along with “The Jeffersons,” was re-created through Jimmy Kimmel’s “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” produced by Lear and Kimmel; it led to the mega-producer’s fifth Emmy. That year, Sony renewed its overall deal with Lear’s Act III Prods., planning multiple projects with Lear and his producing partner, Brent Miller.

Sony owns the majority of his catalog, and the deal runs through his birthday. So, what happens when it’s up? “Another deal with us,” quips CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment Tony Vinciquerra.

“We first met when I joined Sony a little over five years ago,” he says. “Of course, I was aware of Norman and his groundbreaking work since the 1970s. We became fast friends after our first lunch and have since initiated and worked on several projects together. His work is always of the highest quality and being associated with Norman is a point of immense pride for me and the entire studio.”

Norman Lear, Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton on set of “All in the Family” in 1971. - Credit: ©CBS/Courtesy Everett Collection
Norman Lear, Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton on set of “All in the Family” in 1971. - Credit: ©CBS/Courtesy Everett Collection

©CBS/Courtesy Everett Collection

But it’s so much more than Lear’s extensive TV success that fills his cup and keeps so many in the business wanting to work with him. In 1981, years after developing “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons,” he launched People for the American Way, an advocacy organization that now has more than 1 million members who fight right-wing extremism and defend values including freedom, equality and opportunity.

“It was love at first sight and we have become fast friends. We have both taken risks to move the nation forward. We have both dedicated our lives to healing our national divisions,” says Ben Jealous, who became president of the organization in 2020. “We share the dream of the great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass that America is destined to be ‘the most perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family that the world has ever seen.’”

Like millions of fans, Jealous connected to Lear’s shows on a personal level at first.

“To a child in an interracial household, Norman’s shows affirmed what my family was teaching me about love for the full breadth of humanity,” he says. He watched “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” with his family when he was 6 years old. “We had some Archie Bunkers on my white father’s side of the family. My Black mother spent her early childhood in the housing projects. My favorite uncle even had a dry-cleaning shop.”

Of the many things he admires about Lear, Jealous names his work ethic at the top. “It might surprise people to know that Norman is indefatigable. He gives his all to every project he is involved in, whether it’s television or People for the American Way,” he says. “We talk strategy every week for an hour. He’s a real-life Superman — with a career as a writer and a mission to make the world a better place.”

Much of that drive comes from Lear’s past as a World War II combat veteran, serving in the army from 1942 to 1945. “He believes that ‘we, the people’ means all the people. People for the American Way works to build a country that reflects that vision — a country that makes real the values of equality, fairness, justice and opportunity for all,” says Jealous. “In other words, truth, justice and the American way.”

Truth-telling is an important theme intertwined through Lear’s catalog. In every one of his projects, he’s found a way to train a smart comedy lens on the issues of today, never shying away from social or political issues. That began with “All in the Family.”

“I’d never seen anything like it. It was an amazingly impactful show and one that really captures the essence of so much of Norman’s work: Perfect writing, perfect cast, entertaining and controversial for all the right reasons,” says Vinciquerra.

“Live in Front of a Studio Audience” - Credit: ABC
“Live in Front of a Studio Audience” - Credit: ABC

ABC

It’s one of the many reasons that “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” has worked so well; the stories he chose to tell decades age, despite how controversial then, still work today.

“Maude,” which marks its 50th anniversary in September, tackled multiple topics that upset both CBS and the audience, including alcoholism, drug laws and mental-health struggles.

Most notably, however, was a two-part Season 1 episode when Maude became unexpectedly pregnant and decided to get an abortion; the episode aired two months before it became legal in the U.S. through Roe v. Wade. When CBS re-aired the two-part episodes in August 1973, 39 stations pre-empted it.

With Roe v. Wade’s recent reversal, could the “Maude” episode work in today’s landscape?

“It’s such an interesting question, and I have no idea,” Lear says. “My guess is certainty you can tell it. What the reaction would be — as one proceeded to rehearse and do it and anticipate it being on the air — it’s hard to guess. But it could be done.”

Miller thinks it definitely could be — and should be — told again: “I think the world is ready for us to do a ‘Live in Front of a Studio Audience’ with ‘Maude.’”

Lear adds, “There is only one Bea Arthur, there will never be another. But it’s exciting to imagine what somebody else will make of that character. It’s opening a new door and that’s exciting.”

In one of their many projects together, Lear and Miller are producing a new version of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” which aired in syndication for 325 episodes in the late ’70s. The remake, led by Emily Hampshire, was announced on Lear’s 99th birthday, and will follow Mary, a smalltown resident whose life changes when she becomes “Verified” on social media after her nervous breakdown goes viral.

With changes in the air at TBS — the WarnerMedia-run cable channel is not developing fresh scripted content — the pair aren’t sure it will remain there or relocate — but they are sure it will be of interest.

“We’re really excited about what Jacob Tierney and Emily have done with the show, and we’re eager to know whether or not it will stay at TBS or whether it will move forward to another network,” says Miller. “The show and the concept, the idea behind it and Emily’s passion behind it, couldn’t be more sellable today. Wherever we land, I’m excited for people to meet this new ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,’ who they already know as Emily Hampshire. Seeing her in this character, I think they’re going to be really excited.”

. - Credit: Robert Trachtenberg for Variety
. - Credit: Robert Trachtenberg for Variety

Robert Trachtenberg for Variety

While Lear feels that he’s been able to tell most of the stories he’s wanted, there is one idea that Miller still hopes to produce. In 2018, NBC filmed a pilot for “Guess Who Died?,” but execs eventually passed on the sitcom, which he describes as “a half-hour comedy about those who are 65-plus, living in a community and thriving.”

Though he gives credit to Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” which ended this year, Miller points out the lack of that age group on TV: “There’s nothing out there since ‘The Golden Girls’ that really gets people excited.”

Speaking of getting exciting, Miller can’t believe that Lear is 100 — and notes it’s “the moment we’ve all been waiting for” since they began working together 15 years ago.

“It’s coming full circle because we met on his 85th birthday, and we worked together on throwing a party for him and his wife; he was turning 85, she was turning 60, they were celebrating 145 years of the Lears,” he says, noting that they planned two parties — one in California and one in Spain. “We worked six months to make both of those parties a success, so it was kind of serendipitous that he came into my life when I needed him, and I came into his life when he might have thought he wanted a little of me around.”

As for why Lear is such a great partner, the list is endless. “He never stops being interested. And cares less about being interesting. He wakes up every morning with a childlike excitement for our industry. He’s a collaborator. He’s supportive. He’s funny,” says Miller. “He’s Norman fucking Lear.”

Kimmel echoes Miller: “Norman’s relentless optimism and love for the work he does are infectious and inspiring. Having the opportunity to work with and get to know him has been one of the great thrills of my life.”

Still, it wasn’t always hit after hit, even for Lear. In 1994, he created a sitcom about a new family living in the “All in the Family” home, but “704 Hauser” was canceled after five episodes, so he took a brief hiatus and shifted his focus to philanthropic work. That included a book tour with one of the first published copies of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which he had purchased. His wife, Lyn, accompanied him on a tour, traveling the country to share the document, during which they attended the 2002 Olympics and Super Bowl XXXVI.

He published a memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience,” in 2014, and three years later, returned to the television landscape to reboot 1975’s “One Day at a Time.” The series ran for four seasons — and gathered a handful of Emmys. The success of the Netflix-turned-Pop TV series led to Sony’s initial deal with Lear.

But those who’ve worked with him stress that it’s not about the awards for Lear. People want to work with him — actors, directors, producers and executives alike — because of who he is. (To note, he was honored with the National Medal of Arts in 1999, the Peabody Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016 and the Kennedy Center Honor in 2017.)

“He’s 100 years old and still working hard — that says a lot about his drive and passion,” says Vinciquerra. “If you look at his body of work, some of his shows were controversial when they aired, but he pushed people to think differently about issues like race and bigotry when it was most needed. His vision and his ideas are always spot-on. He’s really a beautiful person with such a big heart and it shows in all his work. … Even after all these years, his strength and reputation in this business has not diminished at all. That’s a very rare thing in this town. You see it every time he sits at the studio commissary. People  are drawn to him. Everybody still wants to work with him. It always amazes me who is sitting across the table from him.”

While he’s accomplished so much thus far, he can’t point to which specific project taught him what.

“Life is a learning experience day by day,” he says. “I’ve learned something every day from the start to this moment, and there’s far more to know.”

Norman Lear and Brent Miller - Credit: ABC
Norman Lear and Brent Miller - Credit: ABC

ABC

Plus, he’d be happy even if this world all went away. As a father of six and a grandfather of four, he has a few ideas of what he’d be doing if he weren’t still producing.

“I would be selling halvah, it’s a Jewish candy. Or, when I was a kid there were shoe-shine boys — I’d bring that back!”

Mostly, he’d just make sure that every day contains laughter. For someone whose shows have made people belly laugh for decades, we had to ask Lear what it is that makes him laugh.

“The foolishness of the human condition,” he quickly responds. “The keenest look at that was at a well-known person’s funeral. As the casket was being lowered into the grave, a woman two rows ahead of me was scratching her ass. It was funny!”

It seems that there’s little things that Lear can’t accomplish — he even knows when to move on, something Miller says is the best lesson he’s learned.

“One of my favorite quotes of his is ‘Over and next.’ He feels that they are two words that are not used enough. He feels that once something’s over, it’s over and you’re on to next and if there was a hammock that connected those two words, it’s the best definition of living in the moment. I try, on a daily basis, to lay in that hammock. That’s 100% Norman.”

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