TV Legend Norman Lear at NATPE
BY CATHY CORCORAN
When Norman Lear walked onstage to a standing ovation in the Fontaine Ballroom Tuesday, the NATPE keynote speaker was wearing his hat.
He has always been obsessed with longevity, explained the 92-year-old icon. In his earlier years he thought that washing his hair every day might lead to long life, so he poured on the shampoo.
“But all that washing might have lead to your losing your hair,” quipped moderator Phil Rosenthal, creator of Everybody Loves Raymond.
“That’s okay,” countered Lear, doffing the hat to reveal a shiny bald dome. “I have my hat, and I’m still here!”
His comedy chops razor sharp, Lear lead the packed audience through a laugh-filled 45 minutes with reminiscences from his days with All in the Family, to battles with network execs, to his new book—Even This, I Get to Experience—to his plans for a new TV show.
When All in the Family debuted in 1971, Rosenthal was a 10-year-old boy who was glued to the tube with his family every Saturday night to watch the show. Before All in the Family, shows like Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbil- lies and Green Acres dominated the three networks—the only game in town, Lear reminisced. The biggest problem these TV families faced was the boss unexpectedly showing up for dinner, or mom trying to hide the dented car from dad, Lear said.
Meanwhile in the real world, students were marching in the streets and raging controversy over the Vietnam war was dividing families along generational lines. Lear wanted to do a show with a TV family dealing with challenges that real American families were dealing with—the war, racism, homosexuality, menopause, breast cancer and the intergenerational conflicts immortalized by Archie and Edith Bunker, their daughter Gloria, and her husband, Michael, aka “Meathead.”
“Oh behalf of the American people,” said Rosenthal,“I want to say, ‘How dare you?”
Lear laughed. “The network guys didn’t know what to make of us,” he said.
They weren’t the only ones. “You want to send a message,” one critic wrote, “You got Western Union.”
It wasn’t just the critics either. Lear held a prominent place on Richard Nixon’s enemies’ list. He’s proud that Nixon can be heard (on the infamous secret audio tapes released during the Watergate hearings) complaining that he couldn’t under- stand why All in the Family wanted to “... make a horse’s ass out of a real good guy.” (Archie Bunker).
Lear’s idea for a new show involves shooting it with three or four cameras in front of a live audience. But, he says, he can’t get it on the air. What? Norman Lear can’t get a show on the air? Apparently not.
In addition to the networks, the 113 cable networks, and 32,800 hours of primetime content, Lear vents, “How come no one is interested in old people?”
His new show, Guess Who Died?, is funny,” he says. “It can reflect what’s going on in our world through the eyes of older and wiser characters.”
Rosenthal said that a friend in the business called him recently about a news item. A college that ran out of dorm space for its students moved them into rooms in a nearby retirement community.
Although it might sound like a potential concept for a sitcom, he wouldn’t bother pitching it to the networks. They’d like everything about it except for the old people, Rosenthal said.
“People over 60 are the largest demo and the fastest-growing one...And we have the most disposable income, too,” Lear said.
“So what are we gonna do?” he shrugged. “Sit around and complain all day?”
Not Norman Lear. He says everyone should carry two pieces of paper in his or her pocket. “The first one should say, ‘I am but dust and ashes.” But before the audience can get depressed about that, he adds. “The second piece of paper should say, ‘Isn’t it great to get up in the morning?’”
It is if you’re Norman Lear.
Lear’s new book, Even This I Get to Experience is published by Penguin Press. It’s available in hard cover and as an audio book.