Ask Norman Lear what the past couple of months have been like for him, and he responds with a joke. “It’s been 60 days of waking up,” he says. “I love that. I love waking up. And I love going to bed too.”
But what the legendary producer really relishes is going to work, and at age 97, Lear is enjoying yet another career renaissance. He won an Emmy on Sept. 14 (making him the oldest winner ever) for “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” which ABC recently renewed for two more specials. His “One Day at a Time” remake, which had been canceled by Netflix, scored a fourth season at new home Pop TV and is back in production. And with partner Brent Miller, he’s got a number of projects in the pipeline — both original ideas and fresh takes on his classic library.
Lear and Miller have been so prolific that Sony, which owns much of the Lear catalog (through Columbia Pictures’ 1985 acquisition of his Embassy Communications), recently renewed its overall deal with Lear’s Act III Prods. That will keep him busy, and ensconced on the studio’s Culver City lot, right up to his 100th birthday.
“He’s not resting on his laurels,” says Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Tony Vinciquerra. “Whenever I see him, every few weeks, he always asks me, ‘What more can we do? What should we be doing with our library?’”
The name “Norman Lear” has become synonymous with smart comedy that doesn’t shy away from real-life social and political issues — shows like “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” both of which were re-created for the first “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” special in May. Lear’s comedies defined the 1970s, especially as civil rights, Vietnam, women’s liberation and Watergate led the public discourse and inspired many of his shows’ characters and teleplays. One 1974 TV Guide profile of Lear’s “kingdom” touted his shows’ “uniformly high quality.”
“I probably watched every episode of ‘All in the Family’ four times and probably every episode of ‘The Jeffersons’ two or three times,” says Jimmy Kimmel, who was the driving force behind making “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” a reality. “I love watching people meet him, because you can see how much his work means to them.”
It wasn’t easy, however. Lear famously battled some of his stars — most notably Carroll O’Connor (who had gripes about his salary and occasional disagreements over the role of Archie Bunker and “All in the Family” storylines) and network executives, who clashed with Lear over content such as the abortion episode of “Maude.” “No state seceded from the union,” Lear quips of the controversies of the time. Nevertheless, by the 1980s, network execs had opted to play it safe with advertisers and audiences, and Lear-style shows mostly fell by the wayside.
“I’m told all the time by writers, producers and directors that they don’t think they could do an ‘All in the Family’ today,” Lear says. “I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I never got a letter that found the show distasteful that didn’t wind up saying, ‘I know why you’re doing it.’ They understood, whether they disagreed with it or not, that it was thought through and it was deliberate.”
Lear went on to produce films such as “The Princess Bride” and “Fried Green Tomatoes,” but took a bit of a hiatus after his 1994 show “704 Hauser,” which centered on a new family in Archie Bunker’s old house, didn’t connect with viewers. In the 2000s, much of his attention was on advocacy and philanthropic work. He and wife Lyn purchased a rare, original copy of the Declaration of Independence and took it on a road tour for much of the next decade.
After exhausting that tour, Lear sold the document and focused on writing his memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience,” published in 2014. Meanwhile, production began on a documentary about Lear’s life, “Just Another Version of You.” It was while working on the documentary that Miller got the sense Lear was ready to tackle TV once more.
“I love watching people meet him, because you can see how much his work means to them.”
“I wondered if we could get into production again, because it seemed like he was enjoying this,” Miller says. “He liked the excitement and the activity.”
Around the same time, Lear’s name began popping up on the lips of TV creators eager to bring more real-life tension to their situation comedies. When Chuck Lorre described “Mom,” Kenya Barris pitched “Black-ish” and Jerrod Carmichael developed “The Carmichael Show,” they all cited the same inspiration: Norman Lear.
“He made it possible,” Lorre says. “I don’t know why television as a medium moved away from it for many years. But he showed you that you can put on a television show that’s funny — really funny — and tackle some real issues that affect real people. That was woven into my DNA watching that stuff as I was growing up.”
Barris says Lear’s shows have been the model for all of his own work: “Shows that are about something, made for the times,” he says. “When we were in the early days of ‘Black-ish,’ without even knowing me, he personally reached out and gave his blessing — in a way that made me feel like we were doing something special and in a way that not many other people would do.”
With Lear itching to get back in the game, a CAA agent shared a study with Miller in 2015 that showed that Coca-Cola had identified single Latina women with families as a key target demographic. That immediately brought “One Day at a Time” to mind. The original series, which ran for 209 episodes between 1975 and 1984, starred Bonnie Franklin as a divorcée raising two teenage daughters. Miller and Lear pitched a Latinx remake to Sony, and eventually Mike Royce (“Men of a Certain Age”) and Gloria Calderón Kellett (“How I Met Your Mother”) were paired as showrunners.
“Norman is very disarming,” Calderón Kellett says. “For a very busy, important person, he makes you feel like the only person in the room. I felt like I could be honest with him.”
Calderón Kellett says she didn’t think trying to nail down a Latinx “One Day at a Time” would work, given the dozens of countries and cultures that fall under that banner. She told Lear too many shows that aim to feature Latinx characters usually wind up watered down. “I can’t speak for all West Coast Cubans, but I can tell you my story, and I can be specific with that,” she says she told him. He said, “Well, let’s do that,” and then asked her about her mother.
“I said, ‘Well, picture Rita Moreno,’” she recalls, “because I’ve been saying that my whole life.” That inspired Lear to ring his lifelong pal Moreno — and recruit her for the show. “One Day at a Time” was picked up by Netflix and earned critical acclaim for its portrayal of a multigenerational Latinx family living in Los Angeles.
“The timing couldn’t have worked out better, given where television was going,” says Sony Pictures TV president Jeff Frost. “It was starting to go back to where it was in the ’70s, speaking about social issues and taking a closer look at ourselves. It wasn’t without a risk for any of us: revitalizing a show from the ’70s that was very specific to that time, and updating that today. But they did it in a masterful way.”
From the beginning, Royce and Calderón Kellett ran the show, but Lear was deeply involved — attending every taping (often entertaining the audience) and giving his opinion. The fire in his belly that marked those 1970s shows hadn’t subsided; in fact, Lear was eager to add even more politics to the mix. “We were creating this character who was a veteran [lead Penelope Alvarez, played by Justina Machado], and the first thing he said to us was ‘We’re taking on the VA,’” Royce says. “That was a big issue at the time, and his constant mantra was ‘We’ve got to get in there.’”
At the same time, the showrunners were cognizant that they had been handed the keys to the Norman Lear legacy. “It was pressure that we wanted to do right by him,” Calderón Kellett says. “He got in there a lot more early on. And I think we earned his trust. He was able to step back and enjoy it more.”
With the success of “One Day at a Time,” Sony struck a deal with Lear to further mine his library and bring him onto the lot. “It was in some ways a homecoming for Norman to come back to his library,” Frost says. “Numerous people had pitched ideas around the Norman Lear library, but there was no one better to bring it back than Norman Lear himself.”
Sony welcomed Lear to the lot by naming a building for him. Vinciquerra even vacated his own office in the studio’s executive building, giving it to Lear as a goodwill gesture.
“I wanted to make sure he was in a proper place,” Vinciquerra says. “And now I can brag that Norman Lear is in my old office. It’s a great calling card. One of the special things about having him here is walking to the commissary, which is in the Norman Lear Building, and he’s frequently sitting at lunch with the most amazing people. Luminaries of television are coming to learn at the knee of the master.”
Vinciquerra, of course, has also found a way to use Lear’s presence to his advantage: “If there’s somebody we want to talk to, I always call Norman and say, ‘Hey, do you know this person?’ If he says yes, he’ll volunteer to send an email to introduce us. Because if you get an endorsement from Norman, that’s a pretty strong one. We don’t want everyone to know our secret weapon, but he’s one of our better salespeople right now.”
|Woody Harrelson as Archie Bunker and Jamie Foxx as George Jefferson (with Ellie Kemper as Gloria and Ike Barinholtz as Mike) in “Live in Front of a Studio Audience”
Courtesy of ABC
In 2018, Lear joined forces with Peter Tolan to write “Guess Who Died,” a sitcom about a retirement community that he’d been developing for nearly a decade. NBC shot a pilot but eventually passed.
Then came a bigger disappointment: This year, Netflix announced that after three seasons, it wouldn’t renew “One Day at a Time.” The show earned raves from critics for its smart storytelling and on-screen representation of Latinx and LGBTQ characters, but Netflix said it couldn’t justify more episodes due to low viewership. (The streamer doesn’t release such data, so no one really knows for sure.)
“It was like a death in the family,” Lear says. “When ‘One Day at a Time’ was canceled, I can’t begin to tell you how many people talked to me about how sad they were about it, and how Netflix had made a terrible mistake. Journalists don’t usually write the way they wrote about missing that show. And I felt bad for Mike Royce and Gloria Calderón Kellett, who had done such an incredible job pulling that family together and feeding them all those glorious words for three seasons.”
Sony has a reputation for finding unique ways to bring shows back to life, having revived canceled programs such as “Community,” “Damages” and “Unforgettable,” among others. But “One Day at a Time” posed an unusual challenge, given that its Netflix deal had an airtight stipulation: The show couldn’t move to another streaming or digital platform.
“I wouldn’t accept it was over, even in the dark days — and there were dark days when it looked like things wouldn’t work out,” Frost says. “It was a lot of complicated dealmaking.” Ultimately, Sony was able to strike a pact with the CBS-owned Pop TV cable network, which includes a repeat run next summer on CBS.
“It’s Norman Lear coming back to the CBS family 40 years later,” says Pop TV president Brad Schwartz. “There was something really romantic about that. There were so many reasons for us to do ‘One Day at a Time,’ but the cherry on top of it was, man, as a TV executive, you kind of pinch yourself: I’m going to be working with Norman Lear!”
Perhaps the biggest win this year for Lear, however, came on May 22, when he and Kimmel re-created episodes of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” back-to-back for “Live in Front of a Studio Audience.”
“I never got a letter that found the show distasteful that didn’t wind up saying, ‘I know why you’re doing it.’”
Norman Lear on signature series “All in the Family”
“I loved Kimmel for thinking of this and having the guts to do it,” says Lear of the special. Kimmel demurs, saying, “All I did was deliver the pizza; I didn’t make it,” and adding that Lear was instrumental in recruiting the cast, which included Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei as Archie and Edith Bunker, and Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes as George and Louise Jefferson.
For the special, the two shows’ living rooms were rebuilt side by side on a soundstage at the Sony lot. Miller remembers how “spiritual” it was to witness Lear
seeing the refashioned sets. Says Lear: “When I walked into it for the first time, days before we shot it, to see the set of ‘All in the Family’ again … my God. It was dear.”
The episodes were 40 years old, yet the storylines are just as relevant today. When Archie and Meathead fight about Nixon, they could very well be discussing Trump. “The problems are still with us,” Lear says. “There’s no problem that families faced in the ’70s that they’re not facing today. We’re human beings; we don’t change that much.”
“Live in Front of a Studio Audience” was a hit, averaging 10.4 million viewers in its initial airing. Next, a holiday special will be broadcast in December. Another one is set for spring 2020. “It’s all a kick,” Lear says. “I can’t get over how successful — how happy — it made people.”
The success came with a bit of controversy, however, as the family of Lear’s former partner Bud Yorkin expressed their frustration that his name hadn’t been included in the title of the special. (They also felt Yorkin’s role in adapting “All in the Family” from the original British comedy “Till Death Do Us Part” was minimized in Lear’s book.)
Lear, who read the Los Angeles Times story that highlighted the Yorkin family’s concerns, has since made sure to reference his former partner in interviews. “Bud’s was the horse we rode in on,” he says.
Yet Lear doesn’t dwell in the past. “Each of us is on to the next,” he says, and the success of “One Day at a Time” and “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” has accelerated interest in more of his library. For one, Lear hints that a new version of “Maude” could be in the works.
“We have so many people coming to us saying, ‘We want to remake this show or that show,’” Vinciquerra says. “Very famous people whose names I won’t use, but they want to redo ‘The Princess Bride.’ Some people want to do animated versions of some of the sitcoms. Not a month goes by when we don’t have an idea coming from some very big name wanting to do things with Norman.”
Even Lear’s mid-’70s syndicated series “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and “Fernwood 2 Night” are under consideration. “His library is not just the six shows that everyone immediately knows him for. There’s also ‘227,’ ‘Facts of Life,’ ‘Silver Spoons’ — all of those shows are also part of the Lear library,” Miller says. “There are a lot of properties for us to mine.”
Additionally, Lear and Miller are developing several original projects, including “Fried Chicken and Latkes” (a single-camera comedy starring Rain Pryor) and another starring Laverne Cox and comedian George Wallace. They also have the PBS “American Masters” documentary “Rita Moreno: The Girl Who Decided to Go for It” (with Lin-Manuel Miranda as a producer) and a feature film in the works.
It’s quite an extensive list. But for Norman Lear, it’s not enough. “I wouldn’t want you to try it,” he quips. “If it exhausts you to think about it, don’t do it.”
Barris cites Lear as the ultimate living testimonial to the mantra, “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.” “That love has kept him sharp and vibrant, and his brilliance has been his ability to feed off of his passion,” Barris says. “Most people lose one or the other as they age, but that’s not the case with Norman.”
Miller is conscious of Lear’s workload yet notes that the producer is “the oldest and the youngest person in the room, because he’s still curious about doing more. He just wants to keep going.”
Adds Kimmel: “It’s all you could ask for to be still vital and knowledgeable and optimistic about the future. I wish we had more Norman Lears, but I think we’re lucky to have this one.”