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December 7, 2023 16 mins

Starting in the early 1970s, Norman Lear changed the face of television, fusing comedy with social commentary. Lear died on December 5th at the great old age of 101. Mo revisits their 2015 conversation for CBS Sunday Morning.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:02):
On Tuesday, December fifth, Norman Lear died at the great
old age of one hundred and one. All the superlatives
you've been reading about his contributions to television are justified.
He fused comedy with social commentary in a way no
one had before on TV. And here's the wonder of

it all, he kept it funny. There was nothing eat
your spinach about his shows. If you heard our season
two episode on television's Rural Purge of the early nineteen seventies,
you know how insulated from the real world television was
until then. No one changed that more than Norman Lear

by bringing in stories and characters that audiences hadn't seen
on TV or oftentimes in their own lives. His shows
weren't so much progressive as they were humane, and did
I mention they were funny. Personal note. I became friends
with Norman through his son in law, CBS News chief

medical correspondent and my friend doctor John Lapouch. I'll always
be grateful to have known Norman, to be able to
witness how much his family adored him, and to have
stood around a piano with him on New Year's Eve
twenty nineteen, singing I'll be seeing you, what a conscience,

what a heart. Here's an abbreviated version of an interview
I did with Norman in twenty fifteen at the Austin
Film Festival, where he was being honored, not long after
his memoir was released. I can't think of any scripted
comedies that generate the kind of discussion that your shows

did back in the seventies and eighties. Is television doing
something wrong?

Speaker 2 (01:58):
No, I think the kind of discussion you referred to
that we generated it may not be generated now. There's
more to do with the fact that we were new
at the time and there were only three networks. So
you were either going to watch the Roaster's ruined and
the Boss is coming to dinner over here, or you're

going to see Auncie need to really struggle with a
with a with a problem American families are struggling with
or mod or good Times or the Jeffersons.

Speaker 1 (02:30):
I mean, that's a that's a modest explanation.

Speaker 2 (02:33):
That's real. I mean, I don't know about minus. It's
it's what I think.

Speaker 1 (02:37):
Was occurring during that time.

Speaker 2 (02:39):
Were you thinking, you know.

Speaker 1 (02:42):
What's another social issue that hasn't been spoken about that
we can address what's what's another taboo we can explore?
Or were you just thinking, you know what, I just
want to tell good stories.

Speaker 2 (02:53):
Well, both we wanted to tell good stories. But I
advised writers to read the LA Times and also to
get the New York Times, and if you had the
time for read the Wall Street Journal to get a
broadering of attitudes and so forth, and come in with
those things that would a story make.

Speaker 1 (03:16):
Good times, samfer and Son, the Jeffersons. Why were you
drawn to black characters and topics?

Speaker 2 (03:26):
I think because on Maud, for example, esther role was
doing so well as Florida, it was so clear that
she could anchor a show. And if the network didn't
think she could anchor a show, on an episode of Maud,
we introduced her husband when he came to pick her
up one night. It was John Amos. And now you

saw a really solid couple. And now the network saw
that too, and in quick order they said, you know,
they may be a show with those people. Well, of
course that's what we were thinking. So it happened very naturally,
and there the understanding of realization that oh, this would

be the first black family. That was exciting. But it
was like an afterthought, and we realized, how could we
not realize? But it started with the talent of the performance.

Speaker 1 (04:20):
So it happened more organically. You weren't thinking, there, I'm
going to break ground.

Speaker 2 (04:24):
No, no, no, it happened quite organically as a result
of the talents we were working with.

Speaker 1 (04:30):
But in your book you talk about taking the train
into New York City when you were a kid to
see theater and what would happen.

Speaker 2 (04:39):
Yeah, on the trains of New York now Haven and
Hartford Railroad, slipping into one hundred and twenty fifth Street, Harlem.
In Harlem, Yes, the tenements were like they felt like
they were eight feet away. They were probably thirty fee
They were very close. And the windows leading into the

apartment were, you know, for six minutes or so, very visible,
and life inside those windows and sometimes when the fire
escape outside those windows. And I used to wonder about.

Speaker 1 (05:12):
Them, you know, who were these families?

Speaker 2 (05:14):
Were these families, what were they thinking? What were their problems?
That woman, what was her favorite item of clothing? Who
was her favorite child? What was it? That child? What
did she he want to be when they grew up?
I guess that's a writer's.

Speaker 1 (05:32):
Yeah, telling stories imagining scenarios relationships.

Speaker 2 (05:36):
Well, I also had something in common with them. You know,
I knew by then, when I'm sixteen seventeen years old,
I knew by then that as a Jewish kid, there
were people who hated me simply for that reason. And
I learned that from Father Conglin, a radio priest who

was a vicious anti vid wing, rapidly right wing and
anti Semitic, and and I understood by certainly by then
that black people had it worse than I had it.
But I had that in common. It was an affinity

that was important to me.

Speaker 1 (06:22):
Later this year at the Apollo on the fortieth anniversary
of the premiere of The Jefferson's You're going to be
honored for your contribution to African American culture.

Speaker 2 (06:34):
Yeah, I love. I'm proud of that.

Speaker 1 (06:36):
I love that people talk to you about you know,
what your shows meant? Does that? Has that happened a lot?
In particular with African American adult is It.

Speaker 2 (06:48):
Has happened a lot. I grew up with your show.
My father and I we used to laugh, you know,
I never saw my father laugh like that. I hear
that a lot. It's so touching. And we watched it
as a family. We don't watch anything as a family. Now.
We watched Your All in a family as a family,

and we talked about Archie, and we talked about the
subject matter. And that's the thing. The one thing that
I think the show accomplished that I can count on
because I've heard it through all the years, was that
there are big words to me. We talked, We looked

at the show, and we talked. And if entertainment is
about anything, it's about causing people to walk out of
a theater and hum the tunes or talk the subject
or you know, the message or the content.

Speaker 1 (07:45):
Not surprisingly, much of Norman's comedy was shaped by his childhood.
When he was nine years old, his father went to
prison for selling fake bonds. When you found out as
a nine year old that your father was going to prison,
how did that change your outlook on life?

Speaker 2 (08:02):
I was my father was going to prison. I was bereft.
I adored him. I loved his zest for life. He
was gone. He was seen being manacled to a detective
walking down the steps of the courthouse. There were a
crowd of people in the house. My mother was selling
the furniture she couldn't live in shame and Chelsea, and

there were a lot of people, so I knew a
lot I didn't, And I was in that, in that condition,
when a neighbor or an adult sun grown guy puts
his hand on my shoulder and says, well, you're the
man in the house now, Norman, and they're there, A
man doesn't cry. Nine years old, I'm hearing that, And

sometime later I imagine that, you know, thinking about that,
as I thought about it often, I thought, well, teaches
me a lot about the foolishness of the human condition.
So I think that fool taught me how foolish we are,
you know how. And also that in the most solemn

or tragic of moments, there is humor, because saying to
a nine year old in that condition, you're the man
that has to be as funny as anything. I know how.

Speaker 1 (09:31):
How much like Archie Bunker was your father?

Speaker 2 (09:35):
Not at all like Archie Bunker, except in certain attitudes.
I mean, Carol transcended anything I might have imagined my
father could be.

Speaker 1 (09:48):
What was what is the first adjective that you'd use
to describe Archie Bunker?

Speaker 2 (09:54):
H fearful, fearful of progress, fearful of tomorrow, fearful of God,
have got never able to admit it that he isn't
good enough for what's coming.

Speaker 1 (10:12):
He's also lovable, oh yes.

Speaker 2 (10:15):
Lovable in his love for family, for his family.

Speaker 1 (10:18):
You don't like when people fixate on Archie Bunker being bigoted, saying,
oh he was, he was a bigot.

Speaker 2 (10:25):
Well, it doesn't cover the world, it doesn't cover him.

Speaker 1 (10:28):
You know, you wrote, created, developed a lot of these
roles and then cast them. The actors so often ended
up affecting the role itself and changing the direction.

Speaker 2 (10:39):
Of the role. Sure, yeah, sure, I mean what kind
of a head would I have had if writing all
in the family I had Carol O'Connor in mine. You know,
Carol O'Connor gave me something he had that he didn't
know he had. I remember him telling me there was

a cab driver that he was thinking of when he
read the script, and he was using that cab driver.
You know that his image of that cab driver is
he delivered his version of Archie Bunker. But his version
of Archie Bunker is nothing I could have had in mind.

So you know, I wrote some words and he inhabited them.

Speaker 1 (11:26):
And what about be Arthur and Maud. How much did
she affect the development of the role.

Speaker 2 (11:34):
Well, she affected enormously, and she is quite different from
Carol O'Connor. I knew her well. I had seen her
on Broadway, I'd seen her off Broadway. We had become friends.
So Maud was specifically written with her in mind.

Speaker 1 (11:51):
And you have a very special relationship to that role.

Speaker 2 (11:55):
Yes, yes, that role was in a sense me in
the sense of her the way she was political. She
felt she was for me, a bleeding heart conservative in

the sense that you could not if you were dealing
with fairness and justice. She was one thousand percent progressive.
She would be called by anybody a liberal, But I
view one's protection of a First Amendment and the Bill
of Rights and those guarantees that we will be I

don't like the word tolerant. That the United States the
law protects our ability to be equal under the law,
and that's a conservative for me. That's the ultimate conservative position,
something you will not give up on. Conservative and it's

and it's considered our culture.

Speaker 1 (13:04):
The bleeding heart, it's just a mod a is a
bleeding our conservative. I love the theme song for Maud.

Speaker 2 (13:11):
Oh thank the Alan.

Speaker 1 (13:17):
Wrote, But I can never remember the last lyrics.

Speaker 2 (13:20):
And then there's mud, and then there's that that enterprising
arising right, ond.

Speaker 1 (13:28):
Right, it's enterprising, never compromising.

Speaker 2 (13:30):
Never compromising some other arising right.

Speaker 1 (13:33):
Right, ond bomb.

Speaker 2 (13:37):

Speaker 1 (13:38):
What is your favorite of the theme songs of the shows?

Speaker 2 (13:40):
I love them? Are? I think by now moving on
up has become such an anthem.

Speaker 1 (13:46):
Well, it's got that amazing bridge. Fish, don't fry in
the kitchen, beans, don't burn on the griill. Took a
whole lot of climb in just to get up that hill.

Speaker 2 (13:56):
Right one dayre I really into them? Is extent, all right.

Speaker 1 (14:01):
And let me just also say that I've noticed that
you handle and this is going to sound like a
silly compliment, but you handle adulation well. I've seen during
our time here people come up saying your show means
this to me, meant so much, and my goodness, your
Norman lear and you handle it very well.

Speaker 2 (14:21):
Yeah, you know what it comes to mind. You see
a wonderful we all see a wonderful plant, and we
admire the plant, and it's representative of all the plants
we've ever seen and all of the other joyful things

in nature that make us feel so great. And it's
an expression of love of nature, our relationship to that
plant as we're looking at it. And and I think
that adulation that that that comes to me as an

expression of our own humanity. For humanity, it isn't me,
it's it's it's well, he's a good guy, and it
makes me feel good, and I'm happy to tell him.
But I'm telling the world about them. I mean, and

it has to be right, you know. I think that's incontrovertible.

Speaker 1 (15:29):
Is there one question throughout your life that you've been
trying to answer?

Speaker 2 (15:39):
I guess the question of question is what follows this now?
I haven't been trying to answer it because I know,
you know, there's too much evidence that I'm not going
to be able to find the answer. But there's something
exciting about that about not knowing.

Speaker 1 (15:55):
It would be great if you went to a hereafter,
because so many of the great stores in your shows
have passed on, and if you could be reunited with them.

Speaker 2 (16:07):
I would love that. If I could introduce, you know,
Carol Ocanna the Bernon Shaw. Hey, Bernie, meet Carol, I'd
like that. That would be that would be a dream
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