TV legend Norman Lear Biography

In this video grab issued Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, by NBC, Norman Lear accepts the Carol Burnett television achievement award at the Golden Globe Awards. (NBC via AP) (2021 NBCUniversal Media, LLC)
In this video grab issued Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, by NBC, Norman Lear accepts the Carol Burnett television achievement award at the Golden Globe Awards. (NBC via AP) (2021 NBCUniversal Media, LLC)
12 Min Read

Norman Lear is one of the most recognized and rewarded TV writers and producers in Hollywood history. Norman Lear is a World War II veteran, actor, writer, producer, director, and creator of such legendary sitcoms that defined and revolutionized American television.

He created some of the most famous shows from the latter half of the 20th century, including Maude, All in the Family, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, and more. He holds the record as the oldest Emmy winner, which he impressively earned twice by winning the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Special for Live in Front of a Studio Audience in 2019 and 2020, as noted by Deadline.

About Norman Lear

  • Born: July 27, 1922, in New Haven, Connecticut, USA
  • Birth Name: Norman Milton Lear
  • Height: 5′ 9″ (1.75 m)

Norman Lear was born on July 27, 1922, in Connecticut. In Boston, he dropped out of Emerson College to enlist in the Air Force, fighting in World War II. After he was discharged in 1945, he became a publicist, settling in California.

Norman Milton Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to Enie/Jeanette (Sokolovsky) and Hyman “Herman” Norman Lear, a traveling salesman. His grandparents were all Russian Jewish immigrants. Jeanette was the inspiration for Edith Bunker, and Herman was the all-time inspiration to Norman Lear, creating Archie Bunker’s character.

Norman Lear has often described his father as a “bigot” and someone who was into “get rich quick schemes.” Lear was a victim of the depression and saw his family, as he has described it, go “belly-up.” Norman Lear was inspired by his press agent, uncle Jack, who visited the family and always flipped Lear a quarter. Norman Lear wanted to be the person who could flip someone a quarter.

Norman Lear, at this time, never really thought of becoming a prominent Hollywood writer. He won a one-year-scholarship to Emerson College in a national high-school writing contest and went off there with all government tuition for one year. Norman Lear figured he had struck a gold-mine, and during the depression, this was the only way he could get into college.

Lear attended Emerson College but dropped out when news struck that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. At that point, Lear has stated, all chaos broke loose, and along with many others, he decided to enroll in the United States Army. He was nineteen. In the army, Lear was a radio operator. He was discharged in 1945.

Lear eventually landed a press agent job, paying forty dollars a week. Due to hard times, he was not being paid well and decided to pursue another career. In 1954, he was a writer for the CBS sitcom, Honestly, Celeste! This series was canceled after eight episodes. Norman Lear then became the producer of NBC’s The Martha Raye Show after director Nat Hiken left the series. In 1959, Lear created his first television series, The Deputy, on the NBC network and starring Henry Fonda. Norman Lear created this series alongside Roland Kibbee. The show ran for two successful seasons and ended in 1961.

Norman Lear: Career

After World War II, Norman Lear had a career in public relations. His Uncle Jack inspired the career choice: “My dad had a brother, Jack, who flipped me a quarter every time he saw me. He was a press agent so I wanted to be a press agent. That’s the only role model I had. So all I wanted was to grow up to be a guy who could flip a quarter to a nephew.” Norman Lear decided to move to California to restart his publicity career, driving with his toddler daughter across the country.

His first night in Los Angeles, Norman Lear stumbled upon a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara at a 90-seat theater in the Circle Theater off Sunset Boulevard. One of the actors was Sydney Chaplin, the son of actors Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey. Chaplin, Alan Mowbray, and Dame Gladys Cooper sat in front of him, and after the show was over, Chaplin performed.

Norman Lear then started his comedic writing career in 1967. He wrote and produced the 1967 film Divorce American Style and directed the film, Cold Turkey, starring Dick Van Dyke. In The Family came about when Norman Lear read a British column on a show called “Til Death Do Us Part,” about a father and a son-in-law who always fought about everything politically. As soon as he read that, he immediately knew it was just like him and his father’s relationship.

Norman Lear tried to sell a “blue” collar sitcom to the ABC network, and two pilots were filmed and rejected. A third pilot was filmed, and CBS picked up the show. It premiered on January 12, 1971, to disappointing ratings. Each pilot being shot by different entertainers than the original. Only Caroll O’ Connor and Jean Stapleton remained the original cast, as different people played the brother-in-law and daughter. Norman Lear put Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner in the sitcom only after being accepted by CBS.

When it was aired on television for the first time, an ample warning appeared on the screen stating none of the presented content should be taken seriously and should only be seen for hilarity. Norman Lear stated that the sitcom became successful later because people knew Archie Bunker: to many people, Archie Bunker was their father. What came next for Norman Lear was the successful sitcom Sanford And Son, along with creator Bud Yorkin, in 1972.

This sitcom was inspired by the British sitcom Steptoe and Son. Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson played the prominent roles. In All In The Family, a guest-star named Bea Arthur appeared in an episode, and the first spin-off was formed from All In The Family called Maude in 1972, starring Arthur. Ratings soared through the roof and much more quickly than All In The Family. A memorable episode from Maude which struck a degree of controversy was the abortion episode.

A spin-off came from Maude called Good Times with the maid character played by Esther Rolle (Florida Evans). Good Times premiered in 1974 and dealt with controversial issues such as poverty, crime, and welfare, but most of all depicted life in a low-income housing area for African-Americans. Eric Monte and Mike Evans created it. This series featured entertainers John Amos, Ester Rolle, Bern Nadette Stanis, Jimmie Walker, Ralph Carter, Ja’net Dubois, and many others. It wasn’t the only sitcom to depict African-Americans’ life: what later followed in 1975 was The Jeffersons, another spin-off from All In The Family.

Many people hadn’t realized that African Americans could move away from the ghetto and become successful as George and Louise did. To many people across America, it was seen as a hilarious comedic genius; no other show ever called someone a “honky” or slammed doors in people’s faces and still showed controversial issues to a large degree. In several episodes, the show dealt with drugs, violence, and racism. The characters George and Louise Jefferson were created by Eric Monte.

All In The Family received multiple Emmy awards. Good Times ran for five successful seasons and ended in 1979, with multiple Golden Globe nominations. Maude ran for six seasons, ending in 1978 and receiving multiple Emmy and Golden Globe wins and nominations. Sanford and Son ended in 1977 with a Golden Globe win and several Emmy nominations. All In The Family ended its long run in 1979, with nine successful seasons.

What came next for Norman Lear was Archie Bunker’s Place’s spin-off, with Caroll O’Connor and Danielle Brisebois. The show was especially memorable as Edith Bunker was killed off because Jean Stapleton wanted to leave the show to pursue her acting career further. Norman Lear stated that killing off Edith Bunker was one of the most challenging decisions he had to make throughout his entertainment career. Archie Bunker’s Place ended in 1983 and was his last successful television show.

Norman Lear: Awards

In 1967, Norman Lear was nominated for an Academy Award for writing Divorce American Style. Norman Lear was among the first seven television pioneers inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984. He received five Emmy Awards (two in 1971, one in 1972 and 1973, and one in 2019) and two Peabody Awards (a personal award in 1977 and an individual award in 2016).

He received the Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association in 1977. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6615 Hollywood Boulevard. In 1980, he received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded the National Medal of Arts to Norman Lear, noting, “Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.” In 1999, he and Bud Yorkin received the Women in Film Lucy Award in recognition of excellence and innovation in creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television.

On May 12, 2017, Norman Lear was awarded the fourth annual Woody Guthrie Prize presented by the Woody Guthrie Center based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The event took place in the Clive Davis Theater at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. The Woody Guthrie Award is given annually to an artist who exemplifies Guthrie’s spirit and life work by speaking for the less fortunate through music, literature, film, dance, or other art forms and serving as a positive force for social change in America. Previous honorees include Pete Seeger, Mavis Staples, and Kris Kristofferson.

On August 3, 2017, it was announced that the Kennedy Center had made Norman Lear, along with Carmen de Lavallade, Lionel Richie, LL Cool J, and Gloria Estefan, one of the recipients of the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump were scheduled to be seated with the honorees during the Kennedy Center ceremony, which took place on December 3, 2017. They were planning to host a reception with them at the White House earlier in the evening.

Variety magazine’s senior editor Ted Johnson reacted with statements such as “That in and of itself will be an interesting moment, as Norman Lear and Estefan have been particularly outspoken against Trump and his policies.” It was afterward announced that Norman Lear would boycott the White House reception. In the end, the President and Mrs. Trump did not attend. Norman Lear was honored as The New Jewish Home’s Eight over Eighty Gala 2017 honoree. In 2019, Norman Lear was awarded the Britannia Award for Excellence in Television.

Norman Lear receives the Carol Burnett Award at the 2021 Golden Globes. Television pioneer Norman Lear, creator of such shows as “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” received the Carol Burnett Award on 28th February 2021, the Golden Globes’ highest award specifically for his medium at the 2021 ceremony.

Norman Lear: Spouse

  • Charlotte Rosen (1943 – 1947) (divorced) (1 child)
  • Frances Lear (December 7, 1956 – 1986) (divorced) (2 children)
  • Lyn Davis Lear (September 5, 1987 – present) (3 children)

Norman Lear: Publications

  • Lear, Norman. “Liberty and Its Responsibilities,” Broadcast Journalism, 1979-1981. The Eighth Alfred I. DuPont Columbia University Survey, Ed. By Marvin Barrett. New York: Everest House, 1982. ISBN 978-0-896-96160-9
  • Lear, Norman. “Our Political Leaders Mustn’t Be Evangelists,” USA Today, August 17, 1984.
  • Lear, Norman, and Ronald Reagan. “A Debate on Religious Freedom,” Harper’s Magazine, October 1984.
  • Lear, Norman Lear. “Our Fragile Tower of Greed and Debt,” Washington Post, April 5, 1987.
  • Lear, Norman. Even This I Get to Experience. New York: The Penguin Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-594-20572-9

Norman Lear: Quotes

There was a time when I suggested that no show should last more than five years. That is a success, and then you make room for new ideas and new talents.

[On being 90 years old] Suddenly, I walk into a room, they’re ready to applaud. I’m told how great I look all the time, and they don’t mean beautiful. They mean, You’re alive.

The best gift I’ve ever gotten, I’ve gotten every day of my life, and that’s waking up. I love waking up. I’m a morning, afternoon, and evening person. Two small words are the essential words in the English language: ‘over’ and ‘next.’

Life is made up of small pleasures. Happiness is made up of these tiny successes. And big ones come too infrequently. And if you don’t collect all those tiny successes, the big ones don’t mean anything.

[On “joyful stress” while making shows] We had the joy of doing something we cared about, the joy of seeing its score, and hearing people laugh. I think I learned early that it’s hard to be a human being. I don’t care what the circumstances of one’s birth; it’s hard. If life hasn’t made mischief for us, we’ll make it for ourselves. But that’s the game of life.

[On the significance of his hat] The significance is not the same as how it started. The significance is over time. It just became, “Where’s your hat?” If I went somewhere without it, people would ask me, “Hey, wait a minute, where is the hat?” So it became significant.

There wasn’t anything-whether dealing with menopause or the economy or bigotry or the language Archie used-it wasn’t anything that wasn’t familiar to us as we lived. Nothing that you wouldn’t hear in a schoolyard. It was the stuff of life we were living.

[When told he changed society] No, we reflected society. We didn’t change it.

An entertainment icon on living a life of meaning | Norman Lear

Source: IMDb, Wikipedia, People

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