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The single most influential person in TV history may well be producer Norman Lear, who changed the medium — and American culture — with landmark shows such as All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. In his new autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, the 92-year-old Lear looks back on his life, including his troubled childhood, his World War II service and the ups and downs of one of TV's most enduring careers.
Q: Do you get tired of hearing people talk about how sharp you are at 92?
A: Something happened when I turned 90. At 89, I didn't get applause for just walking across a room. But if I simply stand up now, I get applause.
Q: For lots of people, Norman Lear was born the night Archie and Edith Bunker sat down at the piano. But one of the most striking things about your book is this: You're halfway through before you even get to All in the Family.
A: Isn't that amazing? I'm shocked by that myself.
Q: Has TV lost All in the Family 's sense that entertainment can change the culture by commenting on it?
A: There seems to be less on TV about the way we live our average lives, and more about the dark side. I think it's the golden age of TV drama, but 90 percent of it is so dark. But then this is not a very happy time. It's a much more worrisome than happy time in our culture.
Q: Of all the characters you created in your career, which one was the most like you?
A: Maude. Because she was a nonscholarly liberal. She was as close to Jack Kennedy's definition of a liberal as anybody I wrote about. And like me, she was kind of a horse's ass — not really able to back up everything she said from her liberal point of view. It came from the heart and soul, which made it no less important, but the intellectual understanding wasn't there. I'm much that way. If you argued with me about some given point, I might not be able to get that far into the argument. I just know I'm right. [Laughs] I know I'm right from the heart and gut.
Q: There are worse places from which to make decisions than the heart and gut.
A: Well, I wish we could see more of that today.
Q: Take a snapshot of the world the night All in the Family premiered, and a snapshot of the world today. How are those two pictures different?
A: I think the world is meaner. As we get closer and closer by virtue of technologies that enable us to fly across the globe in a matter of hours and find each other online instantaneously, at the same time five of us can sit at the dinner table and three of us are on cellphones. So the very things that bring us together in one way separate us at the gut level. But at the same time, I know I am not sufficiently distant from it all to have a real good view of the world today. It's 50 or 100 years later that you realize how much has transpired.
Q: You obviously have the cultural legacy of your TV shows and films and now this book, but then there's the legacy of your family: There are 47 years between your oldest and youngest children?
A: [Laughs] My oldest daughter just turned 68. And my twins are 19 and entering their sophomore year in college.
Q: That sounds simultaneously thrilling and horrifying.
A: When I think about Thanksgiving coming, and that we'll all be in Vermont together, it's nothing but thrilling. It's the greatest. I have one son and five daughters. My wife Lyn (married in 1987) is the same age as my oldest daughter, and they are like sisters — in fact, all of my daughters and my wife are like sisters. They couldn't be closer, which is perhaps the greatest joy of my life. I was in Vermont walking through the woods with a friend who's a religious historian, and I asked him: What is the shortest definition you can give me of worship? He said one word: gratitude. And I'll be worshipping that way over Thanksgiving constantly.
Q: One surprising revelation about yourself in the book is your spirituality. Is it difficult to be a person of enduring faith and persist within the entertainment industry?
A: I have persisted, and I am a person of enduring faith, but I haven't given up anything to be who and what I am. I have not always known how deeply spiritual I am. But I can look back and see that it was there. I'd say my awareness began with my marriage to Lyn, and it has grown and grown. I can speak of having grown this very morning. A rabbi once told me a man should have a garment with two pockets. In the first pocket should be a piece of paper on which is written: "I am but dust and ashes." In the other pocket should be a piece of paper on which is written: "For me the world was created." Once I heard that, I can't get up any morning and not think, "It's all here for me! Of course!" Did you know you were created for this conversation with me?
Q: Well, yes.
A: And I for you, buddy!
Q: You've known and worked with so many people over the years; the older you get, the more people you miss, right?
A: Oh my God, yes. There are so many. But certainly I miss Jean Stapleton and Carroll O'Connor (the stars of All in the Family). When I did the audio version of this book, I started crying when I read about [laughs] the agony of working with Carroll, but how much I loved him at the same time. I was laughing and weeping.
Q: Laughing and weeping. That's life, isn't it?
A: It certainly has been for me.
Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.
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