Norman Lear often recalls the moment he became politically and socially conscious of the world around him. When he was 9, he discovered Father Charles Coughlin while tinkering with his crystal radio set. Coughlin was an infamously anti-Semitic broadcaster and considered the father of hate radio.
Lear, who is set to receive Variety’s Creative Conscience Award on Sept. 17, sees a parallel to the propaganda and hate speech that can easily be found today online and even on mainstream newscasts: “It’s so familiar to me as it washes over all of us. The hate that’s being spewed — the racial hate, the religious hate. I sure remember the feeling of this creeping hatred and racism back then, and I feel it all around us today.”
The Coughlins of the world “scared the shit out of me” as a young Jewish boy, Lear adds. “But it also helped me get my guard up.” As he became aware of Jewish quotas at colleges and the anti-Semitic furor in Europe, Lear embraced the U.S. Constitution — and felt a duty to enlist during World War II, ultimately flying 52 combat missions.
“It was to fight the bad guys that drew him in,” says Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. “In the war, that’s exactly what he was doing. In his gut he was so proud of what this country stands for, and to help it live up to its ideals has been so front and center in his life.”
Voices like Coughlin’s weren’t “in the American way,” Lear believed. That’s how he came up with the name People for the American Way, the advocacy group he founded in 1981 to combat hate speech and right-wing propaganda.
“There was a creeping far right that was consuming the culture, but I think we’re seeing that right now,” he says. “When I was a boy, civics was taught in every public school. So you learned about love of country, but also how we were going to love one another and care for one another politically and economically. But it’s no longer taught, and kids grow up without that understanding.”
His work as an activist is what earned Lear the Creative Conscience Award, which recognizes those in entertainment dedicated to humanitarian, cultural and charitable causes. Past recipients include Martin Scorsese, Halle Berry and Troye Sivan.
Kaplan describes People for the American Way as “a scrupulous record-keeper of the offenders who have dishonored the American dream. If you want a tour guide to the many hate groups of many kinds, [it is] one of the key sources you would go to. It has become an advocate for the First Amendment and our other fundamental freedoms.”
It was in that spirit that Lear, his wife, Lyn, and internet mogul David Hayden bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence in 2000 for $8.14 million. “He said at a meeting, ‘It wants to travel,’” Kaplan recalls. “From that was launched the idea of a 50-state tour. Imagine putting on a road show in which you took this precious document, in the archival condition it needs, to all 50 states and have people from all walks of life be able to come and see it.”
Lear’s production partner, Brent Miller, took part in the final portion of the road show, carrying the document in a big steel briefcase. The Declaration of Independence would even get its own first-class seat on airplanes as they traveled. “What was most amazing about it was the reactions of people who saw it for the first time,” Miller says. The Declaration of Independence tour later morphed into Declare Yourself, a campaign to register young voters that coincided with the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama.
Lear’s other efforts included co-founding the Business Enterprise Trust, a now-dormant organization that celebrated businesses for contributing to the social good, and the Norman Lear Center, which was founded after he grew interested in research Kaplan had conducted in how little local TV news covers municipal and statewide politics. “He said, ‘You’ve got to do more of this,’ and started contributing to our work,” Kaplan says. “Ultimately, he was so supportive of it that I said, ‘Norman, I can’t take any more of your money unless you let me name this thing after you.’”
And then there’s the American Civil Liberties Union, which Lear says he “couldn’t be more grateful for.” The ACLU came to his defense in the 1970s when he was attacked for supporting the right of a neo-Nazi group to march in Skokie, Ill. “I was called a Nazi lover and a Jew hater,” he recalls. “But that’s my America. Everybody has a right to be out there, and I hate the haters, but, son of a bitch, we’ve got to suffer them too because that’s who we are.”
In recent years, the Lear Family Foundation, which he and Lyn founded in 1997, has contributed to a wide range of causes, including Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, Imagen Foundation, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, Ballet Hispánico and The Friends of the Saban Free Clinic. Much of the foundation’s attention has been on environmental issues, via Global Green, Heal the Bay, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Media Assn. and the Rainforest Alliance.
“It’s going to get us,” Lear says. “Climate change will end everything we’re talking about unless we get off our asses. The planet cannot go on forever as we, the humans, continue to do whatever we’re doing wrong.”
Kaplan says he hopes that Lear is still active and flourishing “when this current period is behind us and we come back to our civic senses.”
For Jimmy Kimmel, who produced “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” with Lear, the iconic producer is an inspiration: “To be 97 years old and looking to the future, and trying to make the world a better place, I think is a pretty unselfish thing to do.”