Norman Lear Looks Back On His Long Life In 'Even This I Get To Experience'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the days before showrunners were famous, Norman Lear was a brand name. His name stood for topical stories and quality TV. He co-created "All In The Family," which premiered in 1971 and was the number one show for five years. Story lines addressed subjects that were not typically discussed on TV back then, like racism, homophobia, politics and generational conflicts. Carroll O'Connor played the conservative father, Rob Reiner - the liberal son-in-law. "All In The Family" spun off "The Jeffersons," about a prosperous African-American family, and "Maude," about a middle-aged, liberal woman who never hesitated to speak her mind. Other Norman Lear hits included "Sanford And Son," which starred comic Redd Foxx, and "Good Times." Both shows were about African-American families at a time when few TV shows had black casts. Norman Lear got more directly involved with politics as the founder of the liberal group, People For the American Way. At the age of 92, Norman Lear has written a memoir called, "Even This I Get To Experience." Let's start with a scene from the first season of "All In The Family," which like many scenes from the show, was about how bigoted Archie Bunker was. Archie is making insulting comments about a friend of a son-in-law, a friend Archie thinks is gay. Also in the scene are Archie's wife played by Jean Stapleton and their daughter played by Sally Struthers.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")
CARROLL O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) He's proud, Roger, as queer as a four dollar bill and he knows it.
SALLY STRUTHERS: (As Gloria Stivic) That's not only cruel, daddy, that's an outright lie.
ROB REINER: (As Michael Stivic) You know something, Archie, just because a guy is sensitive and he's an intellectual and he wears glasses, you make him out a queer.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) I never said a guy who wears glasses is a queer. A guy who wears glasses is a four eyes, a guy who is a fag is a queer.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Go ahead, Edith, now answer the girl. Now you've seen Roger sashaying around here with his la-de-da talk. He's a pansy.
JEAN STAPLETON: (As Edith Bunker) I don't know.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) What do you mean you don't know?
STAPLETON: (As Edith Bunker) I'm not an expert on flowers.
REINER: (As Michael Stivic) You might as well face it, you're all alone in this. We all know Roger and we all know he's straight. And even if he wasn't - and I said if - what difference would that make? Do you know that in many countries, England for instance, there is a law that says whatever two consenting adults do in private is their own business.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Listen, this ain't England. We threw England out of here a long time ago. We don't want no more part of England and for your information, England is a fag country.
REINER: (As Michael Stivic) What?
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Say, ain't they still picking handkerchiefs out of their sleeve? Do they still standing around leaning on them skinny umbrellas like this here. I know their whole society is based on a kind of a fagdom.
REINER: (As Michael Stivic) You know, you're right Archie. You're right. The British are a bunch of pansies - pansies, fairies and sissies. Japanese are a race of midgets. The Irish are boozers. The Mexicans are bandits.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) And you Polacks are meatheads.
GROSS: Norman Lear, welcome to FRESH AIR. So in your memoir, in your autobiography, you write that the network executives gave you notes asking you not to use the language that we just heard, and I'm going to read a memo that you quote in your autobiography. We ask that homosexual terminology be kept to an absolute minimum and, in particular, the word fag not be used at all. Queer should be used most sparingly and less offensive terms, like pansy, sissy, or even fairy, should be used instead. A term like regular fellow would be preferred to straight. So, but the way you're using it, those words are being used by a character who's obviously representing the wrong way of thinking. I mean, you're obviously not endorsing those kinds of, you know, stereotypes. So how did you get around the network executives who didn't want you to use the language and say the things that you are obviously doing, even in that clip we just heard?
NORMAN LEAR: Well, basically I said, you know, if you force the change I won't be back. That sounds so much like a big deal. It wasn't as it played out, at the time, a big deal. In the very first show, Archie had a line - they came in from church 'cause he hated the sermon and the young people were - thought they had the house alone and they were going to go upstairs to make love. They heard the door open, they came down quick - Archie got the moment, he understood what had happened then he said, 11:10 of a Sunday morning. They wanted that line out. It had to be out. And why? Because it was specific, the audience would know exactly what he was talking about. And I said, of course they would, they were going to bed. I said, well, they're also married, what is the problem with a married couple...
GROSS: ...Having sex. Yes, we can say that (laughter).
LEAR: And so, 20 minutes or so before it was to air in New York, I was on the phone with the president of the company saying they were going to put it on but they were going to cut that line. Well, the show would've been just fine with that line cut, it wouldn't have hurt the show. But it was such a silly, little argument that if I lost that, I would've continued - or the scripts, the shows would've continued to lose, on a constant basis, those little arguments. And I knew I just couldn't live with that.
GROSS: But this was your first TV show that you created. So if you lost, if you said, you know, I leave if you take that out and you lost that battle, you'd be really out of luck. You needed this show.
LEAR: But I had finished a film for United Artists - wasn't out yet but called "Cold Turkey" starring Dick Van Dyke and I - I had a three picture deal offered me. I wasn't so brave. Everybody told me I shouldn't be - I should be turning down the CBS offer, anyway, since I had a three picture deal to write, produce and direct. In a studio that was telling me, Norman, there's only Woody Allen and Blake Edwards, nobody else does this with comedy - writes, produces and directs. But "All In The Family" was an emotional - it had a great emotional attachment to me because I was writing about my father in some sense too. Along what I'm saying, it wasn't such a brave decision.
GROSS: So you write in your autobiography that you gave the character of Archie, the father in "All In The Family," some of your father's characteristics. Which ones? Was your father as racist and homophobic and antifeminist as Archie Bunker was?
LEAR: No. We didn't get to those arguments that way but he was the blusterer and he had an opinion on everything, knew everything. And he was a bit of a racist, although he would never ever have thought so or admit it, you know, I was the dumbest white kid he ever met. And when I would say, you're putting down a race of people to call me that - no I'm not and you're the dumbest white kid I ever met. So he had shades of that.
GROSS: Did your parents fight and bicker a lot?
LEAR: Oh, my God.
LEAR: (Laughter). In a film called "Divorce American Style," Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds playing the parents, as they fought around the kitchen table exactly the way my folks did, I was upstairs and in the film a young man was in bed, scoring the argument. We were in an apartment, I didn't have a bedroom upstairs, so I sat at the kitchen table with a pad and scored their arguments out was - and kind of made it funny for me because that was my way of fending it off, handling it.
GROSS: My guest is Norman Lear. His new memoir is called "Even This I Get To Experience." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Norman Lear. And he has new autobiography called "Even This I Get To Experience."
So we talked a little bit about "All In The Family." "Maude" is one of the shows that was spun off from it. She was a relative of Edith Bunker, the mother in "All In The Family." Who did you base the character of Maude on? And why don't you describe her for people too young to have watched the series when it was on?
LEAR: Well, I had seen, many years before, a review. And an actress by the name of Bea Arthur, performer, singer, sang a song called "Garbage" standing in the street light at night, under a street lamp with a big pocketbook and a big hat and a deep voice singing a song called "Garbage" about a fellow who treated her like garbage. Every time she got to the word, the audience howled. And she had a great voice, too. I never forgot her performance, and on "All In The Family" I wanted somebody to beat the hell out of - I wanted somebody who really knew Archie to clobber him.
We wrote a character into "All In The Family," a cousin of Edith that was her best friend as they were growing up who met Archie when he met Edith and who disliked him intensely. I made sure she was available before we wrote the character. That's how much I wanted her in the role. And she came out, and she clobbered Archie in an episode of "All In The Family." That was so strong, before the show was going off the air in New York, Fred Silverman, a VP at CBS, was calling to say, I think there's a show in that woman. And of course, we had figured that as well. And that's how "Maude" was born.
GROSS: So you write that Maude is the character that most resembles you. What similarities does she have to you?
LEAR: She was a - you know, an out-and-out liberal as I am. No apologies in any direction. And the kind of liberal I am in the sense that I am not well schooled in the political reasons for my being a liberal. That was Maude. She was emotionally, intellectually, as far as she could go, that, and that's me, too.
GROSS: I want to play a scene from what is I think the most famous episode of "Maude." It's actually a double episode. And it's when Maude finds out at the age of 47 that she's pregnant, and she's considering having an abortion. This was a few months before the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion. But abortion was already legal in several states, including New York where the character of Maude lived. So it would've been legal for her to have an abortion. She's not sure what to do. And in this scene her daughter, played by Adrienne Barbeau, is talking with her about it. And her husband - and what is this? - her third husband.
LEAR: Fourth. Fourth husband.
GROSS: Yeah. And her fourth husband, Walter, played by Bill Macy, is there, too. So here's that scene from a 1972 episode, season one, of "Maude."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAUDE")
ADRIENNE BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) You know, I've been thinking there is no earthly reason for you to go through with this at your age. You know it. I know it. Walter knows it.
BEA ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) I don't want you to talk - just don't talk about it now. Please.
BILL MACY: (As Walter Findlay) Wait a minute. I didn't say anything, but now that you mentioned it - it's legal in New York now, isn't it?
BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) Well, of course it is, Walter. Mother, I don't understand your hesitancy. When they made it a law, you were for it.
ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) Of course. I wasn't pregnant then.
BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) Mother, it's ridiculous my saying this to you. We're free. We finally have the right to decide what we can do with our own bodies.
ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) All right. Then will you please get yours into the kitchen.
BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) You're just scared.
ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) I am not scared.
BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) You are. And it's as simple as going to the dentist.
ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) Now I'm scared.
BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) Mother, listen to me. It's a simple operation now. But when you were growing up it was illegal, and it was dangerous, and it was sinister. And you've never gotten over that. Now you tell me that's not true.
ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) It's not true. And you're right. I've never gotten over it.
BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) It's not your fault. When you were young, abortion was a dirty word. It's not anymore. Now you think about that.
GROSS: OK, that's a scene from "Maude." And why did you want to do an episode about abortion? You didn't see abortion discussed on sitcoms of the time in the early 1970s.
LEAR: No. I simply saw it in homes everywhere. It was part of the American cultural fabric. It was - it wasn't talked about a great deal, and it wasn't written about a great deal. And I didn't understand why. Actually I didn't give it that kind of - and by the way, the script was written by Susan Harris who later went on to create "Golden Girls." But it was conversation I'd heard a hundred times in family life - in my country and my culture. So I didn't see any reason why we couldn't open it up for a television family.
GROSS: So what did the network have to say about this episode? Were they at all concerned about running it - again, it's before Roe v. Wade.
LEAR: This is when the network became concerned. We did the show. They were concerned of course. As a result of their concern, we made this addition in the script - that Maude had a friend who had four children, was pregnant with her fifth and couldn't afford the four she had, let alone another child. And there was no question in this woman's mind - or her husband's - that she was going to have that baby. So that was part of the fabric of this storyline. So we present the other point of view in that way. That was as a result of the network's need. There were times when things were improved because they had problems. That was one of them.
But the show went on the air in, let's say, January, and absolutely nothing happened. There were, of course, some letters. There were, of course, some telephone calls. They didn't amount to much at all. America lived with it. They had seen that situation in their lives, and it was no surprise. You know, the surprise was, oh, they're doing that on television. And the religious right - it happened in front of their eyes, and there was nothing they could do about it because it had happened.
But when the show went into reruns, it was due to appear, let's say, in May, then they were organized. Then they carried on with signposts and protests and somebody laid down in front of Mr. Paley - he was the owner and conceiver of CBS - laid down in front of his car in New York. It happened in front of my car in LA. So that's when they got upset. And that's when the network was upset and didn't wish to run it when it went into reruns.
GROSS: So the network was kind of concerned when "All In The Family" was about to start because of some of the language and because of some of the sentiments expressed, which were, you know, most unusual for primetime network sitcoms. So the first episode actually started with a disclaimer which you print in your book - so I will read it - and the disclaimer to the first episode of all in the family said (reading) the program you are about to see is "All In The Family." It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show, in a mature fashion, just how absurd they are.
What a comedy killer that is.
LEAR: (Laughter) It was a total surprise to us. I had no idea that was going to happen. But we lived with it for some weeks, and then they took it down.
GROSS: They did it more than once? They did it before each show for a while?
LEAR: I think they did it for some three or four weeks. And when they realize the show was accepted, they took it away.
GROSS: And I'm sure you thought this was totally unnecessary?
LEAR: I thought it was unnecessary. I don't remember being upset by it. You know, it was, in a sense, even - you know, it's like more fingers pointing at it. Go watch, you know. Something's happening here.
GROSS: My guest is Norman Lear. His new memoir is called "Even This I Get To Experience." We'll talk more after break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Norman Lear, the co-creator of the TV shows "All In the Family," "Maude," "The Jeffersons," "Sanford And Son" and "Good Times." He has a new memoir called "Even This I Get To Experience." We talked a little bit about "All In The Family" and about "Maude." "The Jeffersons" was spun off from "All In The Family." They started off being the neighbors of the Bunker family.
GROSS: So when you gave the characters their own show, it was still pretty unusual for a TV series to be centered on African-American characters. And what are some of the issues that came with that when you were starting to design the series?
LEAR: Well, the first of them was "Good Times." The character of Florida was Maude's maid. And it was clear - she became very, very popular. And it was clear that she could play a key role in a show about her as the kind of mother - or a mother like Maude. And so at some point, we introduced the character of her husband who came to pick her up once, and we cast John Amos. We did that a couple of times, and the network, too, realize that, you know, these were two very strong actors that did comedy exceedingly well. And so we looked for their children, and they became "Good Times."
And "Good Times" - the senior actors in "Good Times" which was, as I said, the first of the two shows to go on the air, had an enormous responsibility. And I'm not sure when I recognized that. Perhaps I didn't at the beginning, I certainly did after a while because they were the only representations of parents and lovers, a husband and wife, you know, fixtures in an American family that were black and had ever been on television. And they represented their race, and that responsibility weighed on them.
GROSS: So three of the shows that you created starred African-American characters, "Good Times," "The Jeffersons" and "Sanford And Son." What was your thoughts about who should be in the writer's room - whether it should be exclusively African-American writers, like, what the representation of African-American writers should be on those shows?
LEAR: Well, it couldn't be African-American writers only because there weren't that many who sought to be writing. And we had several and always looked for more.
GROSS: "Good Times" - the family of "Good Times" lived in a housing project. T he family in "The Jeffersons" owned a chain of dry-cleaning stores, and they were prosperous, middle-class. Did you intentionally want to represent two different economic classes in those shows?
LEAR: Well, what happened, Terry, was that "Good Times" had been on for a couple of years, and some in the black press were writing that it's a shame that there were no upwardly mobile African-American families on television, that James on "Good Times" had to hold down two jobs and sometimes he would have a third. And that made sense to us, and we were looking at "The Jeffersons" as the possibility of a spinoff also. And so it made sense to think of them as moving on up. He was known early on as having a dry cleaning store. So then we gave him a second and a third, and soon he had a chain and he was moving on up when we spun him off.
GROSS: And then of course you had your show "Sanford And Son," which starred Redd Foxx.
LEAR: "Sanford And Son" I had very little to do with. I - Bud and I found Redd Foxx in Las Vegas. I was very much a part of that decision to do the show. As a matter of fact, we rehearsed the show - the pilot. We had no network deal, but we made a deal with Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson to play his son. And we rehearsed it about three rehearsal halls down from an "All In The Family" - where I was rehearsing "All In The Family."
I couldn't get the CBS executives in the same building to come down and see this rehearsal. And frustrated one day, I called NBC and got a hold of the executives at NBC who were lunching nearby and came over almost, like, in trench coats with the collars up and the hats pulled down 'cause they were NBC executives in the CBS building. But they saw a run-through of the pilot episode in rehearsal - standing up, no chairs, just everybody watching and roaring. And they bought this show. NBC bought that show in the CBS building.
GROSS: That's unusual. (Laughter).
LEAR: I don't think it ever happened before or since.
GROSS: Norman Lear, thank you so much. Thank you for all the TV shows you've given us, and thank you for the interview.
LEAR: Well, thank you for it. I couldn't have enjoyed it more.
GROSS: Norman Lear's new memoir is called "Even This I Get To Experience." The theme songs from Lear's shows are embedded in the minds of many people who grew up with them.
GROSS: When I spoke with singer-songwriter Mark Mulcahy last year I asked him...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Do you have any favorite TV themes, like, did you grow up really enjoying any TV themes?
MARK MULCAHY: Oh, well, yeah. I mean, I think it was the golden age of, you know - it was very important to write a great theme song, and when I was watching television a lot more than I am now. So, yeah, there's a million great ones, you know, "All In The Family" and all those ones. But...
GROSS: Would you sing a favorite TV theme for us?
MULCAHY: (Laughter). Yes, I would. I would sing "Maude" if I could. Yeah. I love that one. You know, the show it's called just "Maude," right? It wasn't called something, something "Maude?" Yeah. Let's try it. Let's try "Maude." I didn't know what I was getting into when I walked into this place.
MULCAHY: I didn't plan on singing "Maude."
(Singing) Lady Godiva was a freedom rider. She didn't care if the whole world looked. Joan of Arc had the Lord to guide her. She was a sister who really cooked. Isabella was the first bra burner, ain't you glad that she showed up? And when the country was falling apart, well, Betsy Ross got it all sewed up. And then there's Maude. Oh, and then there's Maude.
GROSS: (Laughter). That was really fun.
That was Mark Mulcahy recorded in our studio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.