Norman Lear is arguably one of the most important crusaders for free speech. He created boundary-pushing sitcoms like “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Maude,” which tackled hot-button issues like racism, sex and abortion during an era when television largely avoided controversy, and he also founded the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way. So the documentary team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, best known for “12th & Delaware” and “Jesus Camp,” were understandably shocked that no one had made a movie about the 93-year-old icon’s life story.
“We couldn’t believe it, we were astonished,” Ewing told Variety on Thursday night at the New York premiere of their documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” the first theatrical release from American Masters Pictures. The event was held at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center.
“Aside from the fact that he revolutionized the sitcom, we read the galleys of his book (‘Even This I Get to Experience’) and realized he has a ‘Forrest Gump’-like quality to his life,” Ewing said. “He’s intersected with every major moment of American history in the last 80 years, including fighting in World War II, his brushes with anti-Semitism, being an orphan and having a father who went off to jail. He’s got an amazing personal story that most people don’t know about. So for us, we knew the combination of the work and the personal story was going to make for a killer documentary.”
The film includes archival moments from Lear’s sitcoms and life, telling the story of how his relationship with his criminal father and struggles with poverty led him to create entertainment that dealt with important real-life issues, including a famous episode of “Maude” wherein the titular character had an abortion. It also details how Lear’s fear of the rise of the religious right influenced his political activism, which continues to include advocating for freedom of speech and separation of church and state.
One of the visual flourishes Ewing and Grady used to tie the film together was a series of scenes where a 9-year-old boy, played by child actor Keaton Nigel Cooke, wanders through Lear’s life wearing his signature white bucket hat. “Norman is a child at heart, and whenever he talks about that period of his life, we saw a 9-year-old run across his face,” Ewing said about the choice. “We decided to just try it.”
The screening was followed by a question and answer session between Lear and the filmmakers, which was hosted by “The Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj, who thanked Lear for participating in a documentary that finally helped convince Minhaj’s parents that he could actually make a living as a professional comedian.
“My folks never asked me what I wanted to do in life, it just didn’t come up,” Lear said, noting that he never planned to become an entertainer. “After the war, I came back to New York and got a job as a press agent. My friend wanted to be a comedy writer, and one evening we wrote a script together, and that same night I became a comedy writer.”
Lear spent most of the Q&A praising the filmmakers and redirecting any compliments he received for his work to his supportive family members and many collaborators. He credited Carroll O’Connor’s performance as the iconic Archie Bunker for the success of “All in the Family,” noting that he continues to cry at a scene where Bunker is emotionally overwhelmed after watching a woman give birth.
“This is the absolute truth, I don’t have a single regret, because if I can be as happy as I am this minute,” Lear told Minhaj at the end of the session. “I know it took everything I ever lived through, every moment, every second I lived to get to this moment, how on earth could I regret anything?”