Norman Lear, from TV to Activism Norman Lear went from producing hit TV shows like All in the Family to political activism, including efforts to get young people to vote. The 85-year-old Lear says both involve a lifelong passion.
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Norman Lear, from TV to Activism

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Norman Lear, from TV to Activism

Norman Lear, from TV to Activism

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An 85-year-old man stepped before an audience the other day. He was speaking to college students, and when he tried to cross the divide of all those years, the man started simply.

Mr. NORMAN LEAR (Writer-Producer): I said, Hi, I'm Norman.

INSKEEP: Norman is Norman Lear. He's a famous television producer. He turned his talent for showmanship to liberal political activism, and in this political year he's trying to get young people to vote.

Mr. LEAR: To start with, it takes a passion and a devotion to the subject, and it's the desire to pass that passion on, thinking of it as a lot of dry grass that's just waiting for the spark. I think that's as good a definition as I've thought of, anyway, of what showmanship is all about.

INSKEEP: Norman Lear is our latest guest on The Long View, our conversations with people of long experience. His experience includes the production of very political TV shows like "All in the Family." That 1970s hit starred Carroll O'Connor as a bigoted New Yorker named Archie Bunker. In one episode, Bunker's character found himself talking with the black entertainer, Sammy Davis, Jr.

(Soundbite of TV show, "All in the Family")

Mr. CARROLL O'CONNOR (Actor): (As Archie Bunker) Now, no prejudice intended, but you know, I always check with the Bible on these here things.

Mr. SAMMY DAVIS JR. (Singer): Oh, yeah.

Mr. O'CONNOR: (As Archie) I think - I mean if God had meant us to be together, he'd have put us together. But look what He done. He put you over in Africa. He put the rest of us in all the white countries.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAMMY DAVIS JR. (Singer): Well, you must have told him where we were because somebody came and got us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Thirty-seven years, Norman Lear, and you're still laughing at that clip.

Mr. LEAR: Well, I come across the show on television - you know, I never know when it's going to air, but I do run across it, and I will laugh the same way. Those performers are undeniable. It didn't escape our notice also that the more you get people to care when they laugh they will laugh more. You know, if you got them concerned or involved - and then you're funny.

INSKEEP: Meaning that's why you draw something out of the newspaper. If it's something that's happening in real people's lives, they're going to feel that laugh...

Mr. LEAR: Much more, yeah.

INSKEEP: Did you believe that program was as different as people have now said for decades that it was?

Mr. LEAR: I don't think we believed that. We were writing a show and enjoying the taping. Standing behind an audience of 240 people and watching an audience come out of its seat and go down and come back up again on a big laugh was a spiritual experience.

INSKEEP: It's famously said that when you go in and try to pitch a movie, sell a movie, you try to boil it down to a sentence, which ideally will be it's like something that was successful only slightly different. Was there a sentence that described "All in the Family?"

Mr. LEAR: Well, can I tell you - answer that question anecdotally?


Mr. LEAR: Sitting in New York, just imagining who might play this - I had written a screenplay in New York. I thought Mickey Rooney would be a good Archie Bunker, and I called him. Mickey Rooney got on the phone. I had never met the man, but I loved him. He talked about himself in the third person. He said you want to - you want to do something with the Mick? Tell him, tell him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEAR: So I said okay. Archie Bunker, he's a bigoted guy. He calls them heebs and spics and spades. And Rooney said they are going to kill you in the streets. You can't do that. He said you want to do a show with the Mick? Listen to this. Vietnam vet, short, blind, large dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Did that show ever get made? I'm trying to remember.

Mr. LEAR: No, it didn't.

INSKEEP: Mickey Rooney, there's an actor who just seemed to work every second on screen to be loved. I'm thinking about how different a show that would have been if that had been Archie Bunker.

Mr. LEAR: Well, it might not have happened. I mean, we might have met to talk about it but we never did that.

INSKEEP: Why did you leave producing television full-time?

Mr. LEAR: I left when I wanted to do a film called "Religion" - 1980 - and I wanted to savage what I saw happening as the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart started to proliferate across the tube.

INSKEEP: This would be the period when Christian evangelicals were becoming political active in a way they hadn't been for many decades.

Mr. LEAR: Yes. The mixture of politics and religion scared the hell out of me, and I went out and made a 60-second television spot. A hard-hat sitting on a piece of factory equipment was saying, you know, there's got to be something wrong when ministers are telling us we're good Christians or bad Christians depending on our political point of view. He wound up saying that's not the American way.

So an organization I never intended, People for the American Way, just sprung up around it, and I was out of television.

INSKEEP: And it also meant that you went from dealing with political issues metaphorically, through fiction - "All in the Family" was very political.

Mr. LEAR: Right.

INSKEEP: To dealing with them directly, literally.

Mr. LEAR: Right.

INSKEEP: How did you choose to focus in recent years on young voters?

Mr. LEAR: Well, some years ago there was a copy of the Declaration of Independence for sale. This was printed the night of July 4, 1776. So I looked at it and thought it's my country's birth certificate. I had to have it, to share it with the country, which is what we did. People stood on line for an hour and a half in some of these towns. A lot of young people, and little by little we started to think this was extremely attractive to young people, as was the whole idea of talking about participating as citizens. And we kind of morphed into what is now Declare Yourself, where we have registered over 250,000 young people just in this primary season.

INSKEEP: What do you wonder about the country that you, or people collectively, will be leaving them?

Mr. LEAR: Oh, I can't not compare it with the feelings that existed for the country when I was a kid. There was no question about how we felt about the country. When I was a kid in high school, the American Legion started something called the American Legion Oratorical Contest - to tell you how long ago it was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: When people still said things like oratorical.

Mr. LEAR: Oratorical, yeah, but the contest was you spoke for ten minutes about the Constitution. But talking about the Constitution was easy for everybody because everybody - it was so much in our minds, the Bill of Rights, all the things that added to I love my country.

INSKEEP: Is it less-so now?

Mr. LEAR: Far less so, far less so.

INSKEEP: Do you remember what part of the Constitution you spoke about and a little something of what you said about it?

Mr. LEAR: I do. I had experienced some anti-Semitism as a kid, and the Constitution, I talked about what the Constitution meant to me as a young Jewish kid and how much comfort it gave me to know that I had a constitutional protection. I could run into problems, but you know, that I was equal. And that was, you know, that was enormously important to me.

INSKEEP: That's The Long View from Norman Lear, and tomorrow we'll get the long view from a very different Hollywood figure, an actress who got her big break in 1928.

Unidentified Woman (Actress): It was a contract to come to Hollywood. I just couldn't believe it. I slept with this contract under my pillow.

INSKEEP: The sweetheart of Mexico tells her story tomorrow on The Long View. You can hear 25 other conversations in our Long View series, from Alan Greenspan to Eartha Kitt, at and you're hearing it on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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