TV Pioneer Norman Lear: Changing Television Forever

Norman Lear was a creative powerhouse and a beloved figure in Hollywood, serving as an inspiration and close friend to many in the industry, including movie stars, directors, screenwriters, and network executives. Through groundbreaking shows such as All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, and Good Times, he revolutionized television by bringing relevant social issues into American homes.

Lear dedicated his life to portraying the reality of modern culture, which was reflected in the impressive art collection he curated with his wife, Lyn Davis Lear.

In May, Christie’s in New York will showcase their collection during the 20th and 21st Century marquee week. Leading up to the auctions, a number of Lear’s most ardent supporters, who also happened to be his friends, colleagues, and mentees, reminisce about his contributions to American entertainment and the enduring nature of his legacy.

Billy Crystal, actor, writer, director and comedian

I first encountered Norman in 1975 at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. At that time, I was in the early stages of my standup career and it marked my initial visit to Los Angeles. While residing on Long Island, I worked as a substitute teacher during the day and pursued comedy at night. Following my performance, which was well-received, I had the opportunity to converse with Mr. Lear and Carl Reiner outside the venue. Their kind words left me feeling elated, making my journey back home feel like a flight without the need for an actual plane.

A couple of days later, while I was feeding my 2-year-old daughter, the telephone rang. I picked up and a lady inquired if it was me, and then said, “Please wait for Norman Lear.” “Hello, this is Norman Lear, we crossed paths at the comedy store,” he mentioned, as if I wouldn’t recognize him. “There’s a role on All in the Family scheduled for next week. You would portray Mike’s closest friend, and I believe you would work wonderfully with Rob [Reiner]. Can you make it out here?” He managed to find me and phoned me at my residence! There were numerous actors who could have taken on that role in LA, but he had a hunch about me. It still moves me deeply.

During the initial rehearsal, when I was introduced to Rob, Sally [Struthers], and the other members of the cast for that particular episode, Norman emphasized the inclusive nature of the process: if you have any ideas, feel free to share them. It was then that I truly understood what a remarkable producer he was, valuing the contributions of others to enhance the final outcome. Despite being new to the scene, Norman, Rob, and the writers were receptive to any suggestions offered.

Lear’s performances were not just funny. They were never foolish or patronizing; instead, they were sincere, insightful, and embraced for their authenticity. He fearlessly tackled genuine issues without hesitation.

I believe his influence can still be felt in the way shows are created today. There’s a subtle presence of, “What would Norman do?”

His warmth, humor, intelligence, and integrity are what will stay with me the most. Despite his brilliance and significant impact on American culture, he always came across as a gentle, witty, and charming figure, almost like a beloved uncle.

My initial encounter with Norman took place while filming the pilot episode of black-ish. He had been informed about the show and displayed an exceptional level of support that was not required of him, offering his voice, experience, and advising me to simply remain true to myself.

Norman’s influence on me as an artist surpasses that of anyone else in television. His message to be true to oneself and share one’s own story has resonated deeply with me. I have learned that while I cannot tell someone else’s story, I can convey my own experiences through the perspectives of others. This is what I strive to do as a storyteller – to share my own narrative through the lens of those who have impacted me, regardless of their gender or background. This is the legacy of Norman that I aim to uphold in my work as an artist.

Norman’s production that had the greatest impact on me, although all of them did, was The Jeffersons. I had never seen a depiction of a Black man who was unafraid to stand up to authority in that manner. My father especially admired Mr. Jefferson, and I, too, aspired to embody his qualities in some way.

Norman discussed messages and portrayed them skillfully through his characters’ voices, conveying the truth. These messages addressed various aspects of the world and expressed the emotions people experienced: the unpleasant, the positive, the joyful, the sorrowful. Utilizing television, he held up a mirror to society, accurately reflecting the discussions occurring at dinner tables, in bedrooms, and at workplaces. He took these private conversations and shared them with the world through broadcasting.

Shonda Rhimes, screenwriter, producer and founder of Shondaland

I have fond personal recollections of Norman, and one of my cherished memories is from a weekend retreat. I was tasked with interviewing him, and I was feeling quite anxious about it, but also grateful for the opportunity. Norman sensed my nervousness, took my hand, and reassured me by saying, “It’s going to be okay. Let’s just do this.” We went on stage and had a wonderful time. His kindness and generosity were truly remarkable, qualities that define his character. In three words, I would describe Norman as brilliant, humorous, and eternally youthful. Always youthful, without a doubt.

Norman’s contributions to the community are still being felt in the entertainment sector as a result of his focus on portraying humanity. He managed to infuse humor, intelligence, and intrigue into his depiction of human nature.

When you watch shows like Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons, you see Norman reflecting society. I really liked how he brought topics not usually seen on TV and showed America and the world who they were at that time.

Norman’s contributions to the community are still felt in the entertainment world because he focused on portraying humanity. He added humor, intelligence, and intrigue to human characters, whether they were admirable or flawed. His storytelling showed us how to understand people on a deeper level.

Norman’s top advice to me was to approach every day as a work day, ensuring that I am always focused on a task. He believed this was the key to staying youthful and involved.

Ted Sarandos, Co-CEO of Netflix

I frequently encountered the words “Created by Norman Lear” and began to view it as a common expression, akin to “In God We Trust.” I mistakenly believed it was a fabricated phrase, unaware that Norman Lear was a real individual responsible for creating the content.

I informed Norman that my excessive television watching was likely influenced by my childhood habit of binge-watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in 1976 when I was 12 years old. This show was considered one of Norman’s greatest works. It was a soap opera that aired in the middle of the day where I grew up in Arizona, so I was unable to watch it. However, on Sunday nights at 10:30pm, the local station would replay all five episodes of the show. Despite my parents’ better judgment, they allowed me to stay up and watch all five episodes of Mary Hartman every week.

Norman had a strong concern for two things. He was concerned with bringing laughter to you, and he was concerned with provoking thought in you, and he was very concerned about them in that particular sequence. There are numerous individuals and narratives [from his shows] that continue to be quite contentious even today. Norman consistently pushed the boundaries.

I continuously absorbed knowledge from Norman Lear, and I am convinced that we all do. He motivated me to embrace boldness, to take tough decisions, emphasizing the significance of ideas in shaping culture and society, and the importance of championing them. A key aspect of this is cultivating courage and being in the company of exceptional storytellers.

Reginald Hudlin, writer, director, producer and former president of entertainment for BET

Norman consistently demonstrated revolutionary qualities, repeatedly achieving what is incredibly difficult to do. It is challenging enough to have a single hit in any field, such as a hit movie, hit record, or hit TV show. However, he not only had multiple hits but also managed to change the medium on multiple occasions.
Norman skillfully delved into the essence of American identity and humanity without sacrificing entertainment value. While it is simple to preach to the choir, he managed to captivate a wider audience by maintaining a perfect balance. This allowed him to effectively convey his message to those who needed it the most.

Norman accurately depicted our societal reality by portraying working class individuals truthfully, unlike many television shows that glamorize aspirational lifestyles. He shed light on the jobs they hold and the way they live, providing a raw and honest perspective.

Norman recognized the importance of race in his work. He portrayed Black people in a nuanced manner, showcasing both working class and upper middle class individuals in his shows. These characters were relatable and well-developed, resonating with audiences then and continuing to do so today.

Norman’s impact on generations of television and film creators is undeniable. His activism and dedication to remaining politically active even after achieving financial success and celebrity status is truly commendable. I am thankful for his existence.

Phil Rosenthal, writer, producer and creator of Everybody Loves Raymond

I often mention that television history can be divided into two eras: BN (Before Norman) and AN (After Norman). Norman had such a significant influence with shows like All in the Family, Maude, and Good Times, tapping into the American culture and providing commentary. His perspective was filled with love, inclusiveness, joy, and a desire to create a better world.

‘All In the Family’ was the show I loved watching growing up, despite not fully grasping the political themes. The characters were incredibly well-developed, humorous, and endearing. It’s clear that the key to delivering a message effectively is to make sure the audience connects with the messengers.

During the first season of Everybody Loves Raymond, I received a call in the writer’s room informing me that Norman Lear was on the line. Norman was a significant influence in my television career and I was thrilled. When I answered the phone, he mentioned that we were fans of each other and suggested meeting for lunch at Pinot on Ventura the next day at noon. I eagerly agreed. Additionally, he mentioned that there was another fan who wanted to meet me as well.

Upon arriving, I found Norman sitting with Carl Reiner, and I was utterly amazed. They welcomed me as if I were a relative, as if I were part of their family. They truly felt like family to me, and I remained close to them for more than 25 years. Norman, Lyn, and their family have always been like family to me.

Norman and Lyn had an impressive collection of art. Their homes were filled with stunning modern pieces that exuded youthfulness, joy, and a zest for life – qualities that perfectly embodied Norman and Lyn. The artworks in their homes were so remarkable that it was hard to believe they were actually in someone’s private residence. Their collection was a true testament to their youthful and vibrant spirit.

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