October 20, 2018

Norman Lear on race in America, Judaism, World War II and his bright future

When I met Norman Lear at his spacious Beverly Hills office for an interview, he immediately told me, “The timing is good.” He didn’t say why — just that it has something to do with what he plans to do next.

That’s right, next. At 92, an age when most of us would be content to make plans for lunch, much less for the coming year, Lear looks more forward than back. In his just-published page-turner of an autobiography, “Even This I Get to Experience,” he tells the story of a long life full of “nexts”: World War II Army Air Force gunner, comedy writer for Martin and Lewis, arguably the most influential sitcom writer and producer in TV history, media entrepreneur, political activist, paterfamilias.  

Oh, and history maker.

From the moment of its premiere in 1971, Lear’s sitcom “All in the Family” revolutionized television and changed America. It dealt with racism, anti-Semitism, sex and just about every topic that until then was off limits for mass entertainment. The show went to No. 1, and Lear went on to create “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “Good Times” and more. At one point, five of the top 10 television programs in America had been created by Lear.

“I grew up watching your shows,” I told him.

“So did I,” he replied with a smile.


Norman Lear (center) created, developed and produced the hit show “All in the Family,” which ran from 1971 to 1979. The politically charged sitcom starred (from left) Jean Stapleton, Carroll O’Connor, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers and Mike Evans. Photo: CBS/Landov

His success and fortune made, Lear went on to build and sell multimillion-dollar media companies, then jumped into activism. He bought an original edition of the Declaration of Independence and organized a campaign of democracy awareness and voter registration around it, creating People for the American Way, and influencing the electoral process itself.

Lear writes of all these firsts in a book that is filled with humor and anecdote. His press appearances and interviews have focused on Lear the writer, the producer, the activist. But what surprised me in reading the book was the lifelong influence of another aspect of his identity: Lear the American Jew.

It’s there from the first chapter. All of Lear’s talent and drive emerged from a childhood in Hartford, Conn., and then Brooklyn, that at times reads like a Yiddish Charles Dickens story. Lear’s father was a hustler whose arrest left the family destitute and forced Lear to live at the mercy of less-than-welcoming relatives. His mother, a world-class narcissist, never seemed to see past her own needs.  

Along the way, his maternal grandparents, for whom being Jewish and being American were central to their lives, nurtured and shaped Lear. Judaism was less a religion than an identity. In the book (and in our interview) he recounts being 9 years old and hearing the anti-Semitic preacher Father Charles Coughlin on a homemade radio.

“That kid poking around on his crystal set, spooked by a Jew hater, still lives in me,” he writes, adding later, “I could be, and often was, at the center of things and still feel like an outsider.”

America offered him protection as a minority, and opportunity. Lear returned that with patriotic fervor and a life’s work that pushes America to live up to its Constitutional promises.

Now Lear wants to go even deeper. Married for the third time, a father of six children spanning several decades, Lear seems to have taken a spiritual turn with his life. That’s why, he told me, the timing of the interview is fortuitous. Lear’s “next” is to mount a nondenominational spiritual service and broadcast it digitally on Sunday mornings to theaters across the country. The man who once brought millions of Americans together to laugh now wants to bring them together to celebrate, to pray, to give thanks.

Lear, of course, already has set this in motion. He has been in contact with Fathom Events, the company that projects live events such as opera and theater into movie theaters nationwide. 

“I do Jon Stewart on Monday, Dr. Oz on Tuesday,” he said, impatiently. “Then I got a meeting coming up with Fathom, right after the holidays.”

Our interview was wedged between morning meetings and an afternoon tea with former first lady Nancy Reagan. In the Lear universe, political rivals often end up as friends.

Lear, dressed in blue jeans, a tucked-in shirt and his signature hat, sat in a ground-floor office adorned with photos of his family and his past TV successes. A flat-screen TV by the reception desk showed images of protests following the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case, and that’s where our conversation began.

 

Rob Eshman: Last night, a grand jury in Staten Island decided not to indict the officers in the case of Eric Garner, and today there are protests nationwide. Thirty years after you started this national conversation on race, does it seem to you that we haven’t made much progress?

Norman Lear: We haven’t made any progress, because we, as Americans, don’t look at the mirror and see ourselves. I don’t want to put this only on the American people. Leadership doesn’t help us in every direction, whether we’re talking politics or business or media. The establishment doesn’t help us look in the mirror and see ourselves honestly. Our society, our families, our individuals have a tendency to racism.

RE: A couple of nights ago, Jon Stewart said that maybe we’re just race-aholics in this country and we’ll never really be cured.

NL: What we don’t do is talk about it. What we don’t do is open our eyes and our hearts to a conversation about it.

RE: Not until I read your autobiography did I see, spelled out, the strength of your Jewish identity. And I really got the strong sense that you are continuing that tradition of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Goodman and the Jewish civil rights marchers who died; that you were continuing that tradition of the Black-Jewish struggle for justice, but through comedy.

NL: Well, I think it’s clear. When I was 9 years old, I discovered Father [Charles] Coughlin.  That was a big deal in my life. I learned there were people who had it in for me because I was Jewish. And I was in shock.

That was really a major moment. I don’t know at what point it was, it couldn’t have been all that long after, that I realized what these Black kids — there weren’t that many in those schools I went to — had it far worse than I because I was Jewish. So I was empathetic at an early age.

Then I used to go to New York to see the theater. And my folks let me go when I was young — I have a long history of remembering the train pulling into 125th Street, and the tenements were already filled. You could put hands out of the train to touch the windows. And there were largely Black families living in those tenements.

And I felt something.

I felt the family orientation. I don’t know how to express it. And that was an important thing in my growth along those lines.

RE: It came from that sense that these people were discriminating against, or hated, you because you were Jewish, and then you empathized with these other people who were being discriminated against as well.

NL: Yeah. Their struggle made mine not seem to be a struggle.

RE: I had no idea how much that consciousness of being Jewish, of being discriminated against, really affected you.

NL: Oh, deeply, deeply.


Norman Lear in Rome during World War II. Photo from “Even This I Get to Experience”

RE: That was one of the things that pushed you to want to be part of World War II, to actually want to fight.

NL: I wanted to kill.

RE: You wanted to kill?

NL: I wanted to kill. As a radio operator, I was closest to the bomb bay doors. So when we dropped our bombs, I was the one who got up and looked into the bomb bay, and I was the one who let the pilots know when all the bombs had landed. So I would look down and see our bombs floating first, and then I [would] see a wider picture, the bombs from all the other planes. I see these hundreds of bombs. And I’d think we could miss a tank factory, or whatever we were bombing. I remember thinking, “What if we hit a farmhouse?” And my reaction to that was, “F— ’em!” — in those words. And then at some point I wondered — and I don’t know whether it was in the years when I was flying these missions or years after, I don’t know when — I wondered, would I have signed a piece of paper that said, “OK, I don’t give a sh– if it hits a farmhouse”?

RE: Would you have?

NL: I want to believe with all my heart that I would never have signed it, but I also have never been tested.  

RE: This was before you knew about the concentration camps.

NL: We didn’t know about concentration camps, per se, but we knew terrible things were happening to people, and Jews were trying to escape.   

RE: Instead of cowering, you really came out swinging in your life.

NL: I never lacked conviction.

RE: Even your college essay was about how important the Constitution was to you as a minority.

NL: It was for the American Legion Oratorical Contest. And maybe, because I was a member of a minority and I depended just a little more on those guarantees, maybe I honored it more, I cared more about it. Maybe it meant more to me than it meant to the average goy.

RE: Where did that Jewish identity come from?

NL: I loved my grandparents deeply, and I lived with them when my father was away. And I sat around on Friday evenings and played gin rummy.

So I sat on Friday evenings — in a sense, to show you how religious they were. We were playing cards, gin rummy, but they were very religious otherwise. My grandfather went to shul all the time but not in that political Jewish conservative way.


Lear’s maternal grandparents, Lizzie and Shia Seicol. Photo from “Even This I Get to Experience”

RE: Not politically conservative, but deeply patriotic.

NL: My grandfather loved parades. And I remember sitting on the corner with him and holding his hand and seeing a tear come down [from] his eye when this American flag went by and the marching band was playing.

RE: You have to think that this image of this Jewish man, deeply attached to America — a strong outsider identity combined with his love of this country — that just stayed with you and in some way defines you.

NL: I wanted to serve in battle; I wanted to be 50 years old and Jewish and be able to say, “I was in battle. I served in the war; in that war.” And that was as a result of the need to prove myself as a full American and as a minority. 

RE: But you didn’t come across a lot of personal anti-Semitism in your life?

NL: No. I ran into it in the service a couple of times. I was stationed in Florida and we were on a long breakfast line and somebody made an anti-Semitic crack ahead of me. I was angry at myself because I didn’t hit the guy, but that’s not what I did. And at the same time, I couldn’t wait to enlist; I couldn’t wait to serve; I couldn’t wait to be in battle.

RE: And how do you think that your Jewish identity impacted your work, your professional life, your writing, your shows?

NL: Well, on the sensitivity to all of the things we’re talking about, being Jewish was a part of that, like being American was a part of it, by understanding the rights and guarantees of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence. That was in me at an early age.

I often think I basically always was looking for a father, so I was conscious of the documents that assured your security. And then, on top of that, there were the Founding Fathers. So “father” was a big word in my life.

RE: But did your father have an impact on your Jewish identity at all or was that …?

NL: I don’t think so. Much more my grandparents, my mother’s parents.

RE: You gave a quote in the book inspired by Daniel Pearl’s last words, “I am Jewish,” and your quote was, “I identify with everything in life as a Jew.” You described yourself as a “total Jew” in that book.

NL: Well, I had to have been talking culturally, because I’ve never been religious.

But I am a total Jew. I don’t like prayer, per se. I like gratitude. So I don’t care where the prayers are coming from, and I don’t disapprove. Just keep them out of my face, and keep them out of the public square. Enjoy your relationship with the Almighty, God, the deity or whatever you care to call it, as a private act, because there are no two of us whose contact with the Almighty is the same.  

One of my “nexts,” and probably the leading next, would be to find a way to do a nondenominational religious service honoring everybody’s God. But not traditional, not out of the sacred Scriptures, not out of this church or that church, but honoring our common humanity. A river of reverence runs for thousands of miles. The temperature and climate change, and as a result, the foliage changes, but the waters are the same that nourish all of us. That’s our common humanity. I’d like to do Sunday morning services with the most kick-ass music and preaching.

RE: What do you hope would come out of it?

NL: A conversation about how we can’t have this anymore. We’ve been killing ourselves, and each other, in the name of God more than anything else. That’s got to stop at some point. That’s what I hope, to start that conversation.

RE: So you’d want this spiritual service to bring people together in conversation around the same things we talked about in the beginning?

NL: Yeah. Bring them all into the conversation. We’re all groping, except those a–holes who “know.”

RE: In your book, you call yourself an “Unaffiliated Groper.” 

NL: I love that! That’s what I am.

RE: Is that because as you’ve gotten older, spirituality has become more important to you?

NL: Groping is a big word for me, because that’s what this conversation is. Groping to say it better. Behind that is groping to understand it better. There’s nothing more important in my life. And I see that everything I do, and think, and speak — that’s at the center of all of it, groping for just a little more understanding. And I’ve learned that there’s more. It doesn’t end because one is of any age.

RE: More what?

NL: More information, more insight, more understanding of how hard it is to be a human being. And how great it is.
       

This interview was edited for publication.