Norman Lear, producer of such iconic hits as All in the Family, was celebrated Tuesday as AARP’s first TV for Grownups honoree and toasted by friends and stars of his many shows on the occasion of his 96th birthday, coming Friday.
Rita Moreno, 86, who stars in Lear’s newest show — the Netflix reboot of One Day at a Time, presented Lear with the honor at a Los Angeles event that brought out stars such as Jimmie Walker and John Amos of Good Times, Marla Gibbs of The Jeffersons and Adrienne Barbeau of Maude. They were joined by admirers such as actors Frances Fisher and Robert Forster who shared stories about how the icon made their lives better, and celebrities including Bob Saget and Ed Begley Jr.
Lear, dapper in his ever-present fisherman's cap, said, "When people ask me how old do I feel, I always say I think of myself as the peer of whomever I’m talking to. If you’re 26, I’m 26; if you’re 86, I’m 86; if you’re 12, I’m 12.”
Moreno praised Lear, "It's astonishing. You are eternal." The actress, who appears on the cover of the upcoming issue of AARP The Magazine, credited the show’s success, and all of Lear's record-breaking home runs, to his shaping "characters that shift societal perceptions through humor and heart." Just Shoot Me! star Wendie Malick, a longtime Lear friend who hosted the evening, said, "Norman, you continue to push those emotional buttons, enlightening society with humor and compassion, one day at a time."
Moreno told AARP that Lear "never stops creating." Or reading reviews. "Nothing pleases him more than the fact that the critics love the show," said Moreno, who has fun kidding and dishing with her boss because "we’re both up there in age and he speaks my language."
She still teases him for not casting her as the late Charles Durning's wife in a comedy pilot long ago. "I went into his office and he said, 'What are you doing here?'" she recalled. "I said I was there to audition. He told me, 'Rita, I love you, but you look too young to play Charles' wife.' I really wanted that role! But now look at us here, together, tonight."
Other stars seconded that emotion. Gibbs, 87, who played quip-ready maid Florence Johnston on The Jeffersons, said, "Everybody should be honoring Norman. He’s done so much! I mean [the free-speech advocacy nonprofit] People for the American Way, all the shows, all the people he's employed, all the love he's given, all the minds he has enlightened — including mine." Before her role as Florence, Gibbs had been relegated to roles in blaxploitation movies. "He started a whole new life for me," said Gibbs.
"I haven’t seen Norman in years,” said Barbeau, 73, who played Bea Arthur's daughter Carol on Maude, "but he's just as vibrant as he was in 1972." She credits Lear for indirectly potentially saving the life of one of her friends. "We did an episode on manic depression. Nobody talked about that [illness then]. But in doing the show I realized I had a friend who was troubled and I was able to help him. That episode helped a lot of people."
Walker, 71, said, "Norman’s fave show was Maude. He loved Bea Arthur.” Lear still likes the show, and the idea of reviving it on Broadway. "There’s a musical there," Lear told AARP. "He’s still trying to sell shows," said Walker. "He’s always working — he should have his own network, the Norman Lear Network." Evidently influenced by Lear’s work ethic, Walker keeps busy too: He has a comedy special airing on Direct TV on August 7 and an album out soon after.
"I’ve known Norman for many years," said Fisher, 66. "He’s a smart man, sharp as a tack. He’s a role model to all of us as we get older. Meaning stay passionate about what you’re doing." And what is Lear’s secret to showbiz success? "He finds humor in conflict," said Fisher. "People see themselves, they laugh at themselves, and that’s the way their minds are opened, their hearts are opened."
"This man has done what very few people can do — he put a mirror up to ourselves," said comedian Bob Saget, 62: "People might say, 'Hey, wait a minute: I’m not George Jefferson, that's not how I live — but I understand what he's going through, because I’ve been in that situation.’ The show wasn’t about racism, it was about relationships and doing the right thing."
"There’s no Norman Lear on TV's horizon today that I see," said Good Times star Amos, 78. "No one who combines comedy with emotions the way Norman has been able to evoke. On Good Times, 40 years ago, we tackled gun violence when J.J. was shot. Norman brought the country closer together, with frankness and his heart. He had so many shows in the top 10 at the same time. I’m glad I get the chance to express my deep love for the man here. And I hope to be there to celebrate Norman’s 100th!"