'Just Another Version Of You' Celebrates Norman Lear's TV Legacy
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And now a talk with Norman Lear who revolutionized the American sitcom.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FATHER KNOWS BEST")
SIEGEL: Long ago, TV sitcom fathers where wise and virtuous, thoughtful and kind. Give a TV dad 25 minutes of air time, and he could solve any problem that came his family's way. Sitcom fathers were idealized creatures from an idealized America. Well, Norman Lear changed all that.
Inspired by the success of a British sitcom called "Till Death Us Do Part," Lear conceived up the Bunkers, a working-class family in Queens, N.Y. The patriarch, Archie Bunker, was angry, bigoted and frustrated with modernity. When he argued with his liberal son-in-law, it wasn't about simple problems in a simple country.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")
ROB REINER: (As Michael Stivic) Anything interesting in the paper?
CARROLL O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Yeah, 200 arrests in Vietnam Day peace demonstration - 200. They should've thrown a whole bunch of them in the can.
REINER: (As Michael Stivic) Well, I think they just don't like the idea of America fighting an illegal and immoral war.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Well, if they don't like, they can lump it.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Take it down the road and dump it.
SIEGEL: "All In The Family" was shocking, uncomfortable and revolutionary. Norman Lear followed it with a number of hits sitcoms, most of which broke a mold. "Good Times" was about a black family in a public housing project. "The Jeffersons" was about a black family that moved into the upper middle class. "One Day At A time" was about a divorced single mother. From 1971 through the 1980s, he churned out hits.
Well, Lear is the subject of a new documentary called "Just Another Version Of You," and we talked the other day about his life and career, starting with the character of Archie Bunker and the real life character he was partly based on. Norman Lear's own father who went to prison when Lear was 9 years old was, like Archie, a narrow-minded racist but still a member of the family.
NORMAN LEAR: Yes, my father called me the laziest white kid he ever met, and I would scream at him. You're putting down a whole race of people to call me lazy. That's not what I'm doing, and you're the dumbest white kid I ever met.
SIEGEL: There's an implication in this film that your father's story - the fact that he went to jail for selling fake securities - that some of this was a motivation for you for decades to tell stories that were better and, frankly, you know, more pleasant than real stories.
LEAR: Well, it wasn't the man my father, it was the circumstance he left me in. He went to prison for three years when I was 9 years old. I lived with an uncle and then my grandparents. Nobody quite understood what the hell I was going through, and I had to make my own way. There wasn't anybody going to help me.
SIEGEL: I want you to try to describe to young people who've grown up since "All In The Family" and "Maude" and "The Jeffersons" - all of the - all of your programs changed what we see on television - the thought that on "Father Knows Best," Robert Young might have come home one day and saying, I'm leaving; I think the marriage has gone on long enough; let's get a divorce...
SIEGEL: ...Would've been - this is just science fiction.
LEAR: You know, but the problems they were facing in those years in that show and all those shows - "Petticoat Junction," "Beverly Hillbillies" and so forth - if the roast was ruined and the boss was coming to dinner, that was one of the biggest problems in the history of human families.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) Right.
LEAR: We dealt with what was real. You know, it was as simple as that.
SIEGEL: Your upbringing was first-, second-generation American immigrant family and...
LEAR: Yes, and Jewish. And so when my dad was sent to prison and I was alone. I came across Father Coughlin on the air.
SIEGEL: Yeah, Father Coughlin - we should (unintelligible). Father Coughlin, a radio priest, notorious anti-Semite, had a fair following in the United States.
LEAR: Had a pretty fair following, and he bred hatred for Jews, for FDR, for the New Deal. He kind of liked what was going on in Germany. There's a fellow named Hitler coming along (laughter). He was - and he scared the hell out of me.
SIEGEL: Yeah. The impression from the documentary is that listening to Father Coughlin on the radio was a lifetime's worth of motivation for you. I mean, that right there was enough to make a...
LEAR: And it was. I think it's motivated a great deal of everything I've been about since.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you about a very interesting confession late in life that you acknowledge in the documentary which I think is a - it's very interesting insight into human nature. You had told the story often in public that your grandfather sent a letter every month to the White House addressed to, my dearest darling Mr. President. And he would write routinely and wait for an answer, and you say in the film this story - and there are instances of you saying it on television - just wasn't true.
LEAR: It wasn't true. And it took a great deal of thought and sleeplessness and whatever to come to the conclusion that I had to write that if I was going to write an honest testimony of who the hell I was and how I lived my life. It motivated so much of my life - that need for a father, for a father image, for feeling there was somebody there for me. I borrowed my friend Arthur Marshall's grandfather because he told me his grandfather wrote letters constantly to the president, and every letter, it was addressed my dearest darling Mr. President.
SIEGEL: So it's a very moving story your friend told of his grandfather, and you co-opted his story. You...
LEAR: I stole it.
SIEGEL: Stole it would be the - that would be another word for co-opt, yeah.
LEAR: (Laughter) Yes.
SIEGEL: I mean, was he still alive when you stole it...
LEAR: He was...
SIEGEL: ...From Arthur Marshall? I mean, did he...
SIEGEL: ...Notice this?
LEAR: No. When I wrote - he was alive when he knew I was doing that, but he wasn't alive when I wrote it. What doesn't trouble me about saying it - because basically it's a lie - but it fulfilled a need that caused no problem and kind of - it was well-received every time, and it seemed to be important and helped the listener. And I love telling it, and I'm sorry I have to say it wasn't my grandfather. It was somebody else's.
SIEGEL: During the 1970s, you were phenomenally successful. I mean you could look at the top 10 shows in a given year. I don't know. Half of them might have been Norman Lear programs on television. And then you stepped away from TV. Looking back on that, have you ever regretted that, that perhaps there were another 20 years of - another 40 years of sitcoms in you that you might have produced?
LEAR: No, I don't live with the regret at all. If I'm sitting here this moment talking to you and showing it, there isn't a moment that took place that preceded it that wasn't worth it. Good or bad...
SIEGEL: Good or bad...
LEAR: ...You know, here I am. And in those years, I started people for the American way, or I caused (unintelligible) people for the American way. And I don't wake up any morning of my life and not thank God it's there.
SIEGEL: Norman Lear, it's been great talking with you.
LEAR: I couldn't have enjoyed it more, Robert Siegel. Thank you.
SIEGEL: Thank you. The documentary is called "Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You." It's in theaters now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.