Norman Lear

Norman Lear Biography

Television Producer, Producer, Screenwriter (1922–)
Television icon Norman Lear has written numerous popular and groundbreaking sitcoms such as 'All in the Family' and 'The Jeffersons.' His work addressed racial and political issues in the U.S.

Who Is Norman Lear?

Norman Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on July 27, 1922. He dropped out of Emerson College to join the Air Force during World War II. He left the military in 1945 and began writing comedy, which eventually transformed into screenwriting and producing for television and films. His best known projects include the TV shows All in the Family, The Jeffersons, MaudeGood Times, One Day at a Time and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Unlike other shows which featured idyllic family situations, Lear's focused on using humor to portray America's "real" working families and their struggles amid the pressing social issues of the time.

Early Life

Television and film writer and producer. Born Norman Milton Lear on July 27, 1922, in New Haven, Connecticut. Lear grew up with his younger sister Claire in a Jewish family. His parents, Herman and Jeanette Lear, worked in sales. 

When Lear was only 9 years old, his father went to prison to serve a three-year sentence for fraud. With his father in jail, Lear was sent to live with his uncle Jack and aunt Sadie in Hartford before being relocated again to live with his grandparents in New Haven. "Nobody quite understood what the hell I was going through," Lear has said, "and I had to make my own way. There wasn't anybody going to help me." He also never imagined himself growing up to be a rich and famous celebrity. "All I wanted was to grow up to be a guy who could flip a quarter to a nephew," he once said. 

When his father got out of jail, his family reunited and moved to Brooklyn, where they would live for four years until his father was seriously injured in an car accident. The family would return to Hartford while his father recovered. Lear graduated from Weaver High School in 1940.

Lear attended Emerson College in Boston, but dropped out in 1942 to join the United States Army Air Forces. He served as a radio operator and gunner during World War II, flying 52 combat missions in the Mediterranean Theater and earning the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters. Lear left the military in 1945, and worked for four years in public relations before embarking on a career as a freelance comedy writer.

In 1950, Norman Lear teamed up with Ed Simmons to write The Ford Star Review, a musical comedy variety show that aired for one year on NBC. Although the show's run was brief, Lear and Simmons impressed comedian Jerry Lewis, who hired them to write for the Colgate Comedy Hour, where they worked until 1953. In 1958, Lear moved from writing to production, joining with director Bud Yorkin to found Tandem Productions. With Lear writing and producing, the pair produced numerous feature films, including Divorce American Style (1967), which earned Lear an Academy Award nomination in 1967.

'All in the Family'

In 1970, Norman Lear got the idea to revamp the British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part to fit into an American context. Set in Queens, New York, All in the Family aired on CBS from 1971 to 1983 (renamed Archie Bunker's Place in 1979) and won four consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series. 

All in the Family was groundbreaking in many respects, helping to usher in a new era of television programs that tackled controversial and socially relevant subject matter. The show, which centered around the bigoted character Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O'Connor), examined the issues of race, sexuality, and social inequality through the lens of comedy, breaking longstanding television taboos against profanity, racial slurs, and toilet humor.

“Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker was a genius at work, God's gift to the world. He is etched permanently in our memories." - Norman Lear

In addition to All in the Family, Lear wrote and produced a host of other controversial shows that dealt with pressing social issues. In 1972, he introduced Maude on CBS, whose caustic, liberal title character (played by Bea Arthur) provided a foil to the conservative Archie Bunker. In one episode of the series, Lear tackled the subject of abortion, months before it would become law of the land resulting from the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. 

Lear also brought black families into starring roles on primetime television with Good Times (1974-1979) and The Jeffersons (1975-1985). He credits the talent and humor of Esther Rolle, John Amos, Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford, as the true trailblazers of these groundbreaking series. While Lear's shows were often criticized for their sharp political bent, he vociferously defended his right to incorporate his personal views into his writing. "Why wouldn't I have ideas and thoughts," he said, "and why wouldn't my work reflect those ideas?"

Politics and Activism

In order to have a more direct impact on social change, in 1981 Lear decided to leave the world of television for political activism. In that year, he founded People for the American Way, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting First Amendment rights, strengthening public education, and promoting electoral and immigration reform. In 2000, Lear founded the Norman Lear Center at USC to support research investigating the intersection of entertainment and society. Four years later, he founded Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan youth voter registration initiative. For his work in both television and political activism, President Bill Clinton presented Lear with the National Medal of Arts in 1999, stating that "Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it."

Family and Other Projects

Lear lives in Los Angeles, California with his third wife Lyn Davis Lear, with the two having married in 1987. The couple have three children together: son Benjamin and twin daughters Madelaine and Brianna. He also has two daughters from his previous marriage to Frances Loeb, Kate and Maggie; and a daughter, Ellen, from his first marriage to Charlotte Rosen.

Lear and his wife continue to participate in political causes; in 2009, they founded Born Again American, a group committed to reviving informed citizenship. And in October 2014, at the age of 92, he published his critically-acclaimed autobiography Even This I Get to Experience. In 2016, a documentary about the iconic producer, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Asked by an interviewer to sum up his influence on American television and society, Lear recalled one night when he was riding in an airplane. "I remember looking down and thinking, hey, it's just possible, wherever I see a light, I've helped to make somebody laugh."

In December 2017, Lear received the lifetime artistic achievement award at the Kennedy Center Honors. Although he originally threatened to boycott an event hosted by President Donald Trump, he agreed to accept his honor in person after it was revealed that Trump would not be there — and made sure to take a dig at the missing president. 

"We happen to have somebody in the White House who doesn’t care about the arts and humanities," Lear said. "I think he was smart to stay away and stay out of town — which is something he does on weekends anyway." 

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