From Killing Germans in WWII to Revolutionizing TV, Norman Lear Reflects on His Life
Norman Lear is a television icon, known for bringing controversial political elements into popular TV shows. Outside of his long career in Hollywood, Lear is also a political activist: He’s passionate about protecting the First Amendment and founded People for the American Way, an advocacy organization for progressive causes.
Lear begins by telling Scheer how his childhood and early experiences in the military shaped his political and moral views.
“We were in love with what America was about then,” he says. But flying bomber planes in World War II changed his worldview. “We have to face our humanity,” he tells Scheer, after recounting his time in the war. “I think we, each of us, have the capacity for expressing, if not doing, the evil any other human being is capable of doing.”
They discuss Lear’s rocky entrance into the television industry. “I was fired once because of the things that I caused to be printed,” he says.
Scheer brings up “the impact of [Lear’s] shows … and the issues [he] dealt with,” to which Lear responds: “Those issues we dealt with were the issues American families were dealing with. … We did what we had to do.”
“You were the force that changed television in America,” Scheer concludes.
Lear has a new book out, “Even This I Get to Experience,” in which he chronicles his television career and decades of activism.
Listen to the interview in the player above, and stay tuned for Part 2 of the conversation next week. Read a full transcript of the interview below, and check out past editions of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
–Posted by Emma Niles.
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes, hopefully, from my guests. In this case, no question: it’s Norman Lear. And–OK, the man’s a legend, the man has been a major force in making American life liveable. And I’m just going to read, he wrote a book recently, a terrific book. And it’s called Even This I Get to Experience. And the book came out, and you know, I hate to say it, I still buy my books at independent bookstores, but I was on Amazon, I got the electric version, electronic version. I read it, I read it straight through; and that’s not a great thing to do, ‘cause you should take a break and go to the bathroom or something. But I did; I couldn’t put it down. And I just–and then a message flashed and said, “Would you like to be the first one to review it.” So I’m going to read what I said then, impulsively, after reading his book. “Truly brilliant in its honesty, as one would expect from the man who transformed television from a myopic center of banality into a medium of accountability. All of the major controversies that confront us today, from war and peace on through race relations, gay rights, gender equality, freedom of and from religion, economic inequality, the right and obligation to challenge power and the powerful, and the reality that the American ideal would always be a work in progress was brought into the American home by this genius.”
Norman Lear: If I was to be buried, I would want that on my stone.
RS: Oh, there you go. [Laughter] I’m not paying for the stone, but I’ll talk to the people who are in the know. But I really, I meant it; I meant it, I wrote that at three in the morning or something, impulsively; I’ve known you for years. In fact, my wife warned me, don’t do these long introductions, but I do have to say, I met you on assignment from the Los Angeles Times; I was a young reporter. I think you had four of the top ten television shows: All in the Family–what else was on then, Sanford and–?
NL: Maude, Sanford and Sons, Good Times, The Jeffersons.
RS: OK. So you were this overwhelming figure dominating the ratings in television, and the amazing thing is you dealt with all the taboo topics; you had a gay football player long before anyone ever discussed the issue; the gay issue was not front and center, you dealt with gender inequality, as all the things I said before.
NL: We just, only a few weeks ago, remembered that we dealt with transgender on a show called All That Glitters, which was a soap opera that was on five times a week. The show that followed Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which was very successful. All That Glitters wasn’t as successful, wasn’t–I guess wasn’t successful. But in that show, Linda Gray, who became a great star, the company that the show was centered around, fictional company, was putting out a cigarette called–they had the Marlboro Woman. And this guy, played by Linda Gray, became a woman.
NL: Oh, my God, it was good. [Laughter] I loved that.
RS: OK. So now, you know, people are used to seeing a lot of wild stuff because of cable and satellite and everything. But people should understand that we’re talking about a time when you had three networks–CBS was the most powerful–and they had programming practices, directors, and censorship was alive and strong. And here was this, this guy out there in California, challenging them in a very profound way. And you won because you got the ratings, but it was a–
NL: Yes, may I–I would underline that. Because of the ratings. It wasn’t because I was this, that, or the other thing; it was because the shows delivered viewers.
RS: Yeah, but it turned out you got the ratings because it turned out the American public was a hell of a lot more tolerant and serious and–even though this was largely comedy–and could entertain a range of ideas. And so–
NL: Who was it, Bob, who said–the name is on the tip of my mind–nobody ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Some wit said that. And I think the establishment, by and large, has gone by that kind of, you know, edict: Nobody ever lost money underestimating the intelligence–I never believed that. We probably are not the best educated people in the world, or country in the world; but we’re wise of heart. There’s enough smartness to go around, if that smartness is appealed to.
RS: Well [Laughs], that’s an important reminder at a time when Donald Trump is president. And you’re going to be honored at the–
NL: Well it applies, in my mind, more now than ever. ‘Cause I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of the American right hand. They said a long time ago, as he was running, “We see leadership everywhere; we see leadership in the Congress, leadership running for, you know, the republicans or the democrats, or we see leadership in business and we see the automobile with the airbag, you know, killing people but they keep making them, and they keep making them. We see pharmaceutical companies and read stories about how badly they’re treating us. Leadership stinks, leader–there is no leadership. It’s all short term.” I could go on–I will go on. [Laughs]
RS: You will go on. But let me say, by the way–so you’re going to be honored this year at the Kennedy Center on July 4th, right? Of next year–
NL: Yes–no, no, December 2nd.
RS: December 2nd, OK, at the Kennedy Center. And you’re going to be, this coming July 4th you’re going to be 96. And you’re–
NL: No. I’m going to be 95. I will still be 95; it won’t be ‘til the 27th that I’m 96.
RS: OK. [Laughs]
NL: So this will be my 95th Fourth of July.
RS: OK. But you’ll be at the Kennedy Center, and you actually said you wouldn’t go to the White House for a preliminary thing because you were disapproving of Donald Trump’s cuts on the programs for the arts, and so forth. But Donald Trump–and we’re recording this the week that Donald Trump spoke at the UN, and he stressed patriotism–patriotism, patriotism. Very similar in my memory to Richard Nixon stressing patriotism. And you have been, one of your great achievements in your civic achievements is you founded People for the American Way. And you challenged a kind of mindless appeal to patriotism, and you came out for diversity and dissent and questioning and so forth. And I was thinking, watching Donald Trump invoking patriotism, patriotism, the same as Richard Nixon–neither of these guys experienced war and the horror of war, you know, and so forth. You did! You did. You, like George McGovern, who Richard Nixon defeated, you both were up there in those airplanes, flying over Germany in the most dangerous of missions. I forget how many George McGovern had, the democratic candidate now somewhat forgotten. But a truly heroic figure in every aspect of his life, and a man of reason and common sense. And yet his patriotism was challenged by Richard Nixon, but it was George McGovern who won the distinguished Flying Cross, and who flew–I think it was 53 or something, really dangerous missions. And when Norman Lear–you–got involved with People for the American Way, you were attacked all over the place–who is this, you know, character, and he’s disloyal, and blah blah blah. And the fact is–and you at the time, it wasn’t until your book came out, you really addressed this question of your own war record. And I recall you never brought it up–when I interviewed you–
NL: What do you mean, it’s not in the book? Of course it’s in–
RS: Of course–no, I said, when I read it in the book–
RS: –but when I interviewed you some 40 years ago for the LA Times, you didn’t mention it.
RS: And you didn’t mention it when you were in the middle of a lot of controversies, and so forth. And yet–
NL: When World War II came along, that was the war where, without question, we were the good guys. I mean, there was no question about that war–that we had been attacked.
RS: That didn’t mean you had to go. You were a kid–
NL: But I had to.
RS: –twenty-year-old kid at Emerson College, right? Back East. And your parents thought, you know, why you? Right? As I recall, you wrote that somewhere. And, ah, you–you went. You said–
NL: Because I thought when–Norman, when you’re 95, you want to be able to say you fought in World War II. [Laughs]
RS: Yeah, and you did.
NL: And I did. And–
RS: And so as long as we’re touching on that, tell us–you know, because you haven’t talked about it a lot; in the book you do a bit. What did it mean? And what did it do to your thinking? I mean, you were up there–
NL: Well, let me–let me start by saying, this is all stuff you’ve read in the book, but when I was nine years old my father went to prison. When I was nine or ten years old my dad was away; I heard Father Coughlin on radio. He was a Catholic priest who was anti-Semitic, pro-fascist, as it turned out; I don’t know if we were using the word fascist at this time, but Hitler was coming along and he liked what was going on in Germany, and he hated Jews, and he said so in his fashion. And it scared the hell out of me. But I had one saving grace: I was, in school there were civics classes. I want to repeat that and repeat that and repeat that. We had civics classes. We were learning, in school, the promises that the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to it, all of those words–meant and made, those promises that were made to all of us. Equal justice under the law, equal opportunity in America under the law. I often think we were in love with America because we understood this. We all love our country today; I wouldn’t challenge anybody’s patriotism. But we were in love with what America was about then. Because we were learning, as kids, what America was about. And those promises we have yet to deliver on are the promises that continue to sustain me. Someday, we’re going to get ahold of ourselves and deliver on those promises.
RS: Such as?
NL: We were rehearsing at Emerson College on a Sunday morning, a play called Two Orphans; I remember that so clearly. Gertrude Binley Kay was our director; she was, you know, a professor at the college. She wore huge hats and [imitating accent] she talked in a Boston Brahmin kind of fashion. That’s a pretty good imitation of Gertrude Binley Kay. And somebody came running in at 10:30 or so in the morning to say they’d just heard on the radio that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. And [Laughs], and Gertrude Binley Kay [imitating accent] wished us all to go down to Boylston Street to the Japanese antique store and throw rocks through the window. That was her eruption. My eruption was, I’ve got to join the military. I mean, we weren’t at war that day; we were going to be at war in two days, as it turned out, when FDR declared war. And I just had to be a part of it.
RS: And so–
NL: Out of everything that I said preceding that–out of what I think of as in love with what we were about.
RS: When you say “part of it”–and your experience was really quite similar to George McGovern; McGovern was a divinity student, and he volunteered, and he was a pilot. And, you know, heroically crash-landed his plane to save the troops, and did all these bombing missions and so forth; you know, flying over Germany was the most dangerous thing you could do. And you ended up in that position–
NL: Can I tell you a story about flying over Germany that’s very recent?
NL: Two years ago, about two months before the Veterans Day parade in New York, the Air Force had learned that I had flown, that my group had flown the longest mission in the European theater. There were two theaters of war, the Eastern and the Western. And from Foggia, Italy, where I was stationed to Berlin–it was the longest mission–it was flown twice; I flew it once. They also learned that Tuskegee Airmen had flown with us to protect us; you know, they were in P-51s, we were in bombers, B-17s. And I loved the Tuskegee Airmen, because they seemed to fly closer to us; we felt more protection when we saw their red tails, and sometimes we saw their black faces. Tuskegee Airmen was the only African American group in the Air Force. They asked us–oh, and they found Roscoe Brown, was his name, university president, African American, had been a Tuskegee Airman, and flown that mission. So the two of us led the parade, the Veterans Day parade, two or three years ago. Roscoe has since passed, I’m sorry to say. But that was the thrill of thrills, to meet him, to stand there and shake his hand in front of that crowd and then, you know, travel up Fifth Avenue. But this is also a significant part of the story. Lynn and I, my wife and I, were in Europe a year after that. And our friends the Emersons were the ambassadors in Berlin, still sitting in, and they had–
RS: John Emerson from–
NL: John and Kimberly Emerson. And they invited us to come and stay with them for a few days. We were flying into Berlin, Lynn and I, commercially, and I was remembering the only other time I had flown–I didn’t go into Berlin; we bombed it. I was the radio operator and I had the top gun. The radio operator was the closest position to the bomb bay doors. So I was the guy who leaned over–I had to get up a little and lean over to see that the last bomb left the bay, and then I could tell the pilot he could close the bomb bay doors. On every mission, that was part of my job: to let the pilot know the last bomb had left the bay. So I had the experience, on every mission, of looking down and watching our bombs leave our bay, and then gather with all the bombs from all the other B-17s–hundreds of bombs dropping. And I remember thinking, hundreds of bombs–they don’t all hit a target. One of them hits a farmhouse. And I even imagined a family sitting around the table. And I have a tendency to want to bite my lip as I’m saying this, with the frustration of it. But I remember each and every time thinking, what if it hits a farmhouse? And thinking: “I don’t give a shit. I don’t care. I don’t care.” Then I also recall a day later, or hours later, I don’t know, but at some point thinking: If anybody came to me with a piece of paper and a pencil and said, “Mr. Lear, sign this, and forever you will never–you will never doubt yourself, you will always not care if a bomb hit a family,” and I thought to myself, “I could never sign that. I would never sign that. That’s not me.” But the fact of my life is, I’ve never been tested. I’ve never been tested, thank God. So all I know is, in my life, I’m on record, you know, 35 times we dropped bombs; I flew 52 missions, but 35 times, I didn’t care. In thinking about that, being utterly amazed by it–it still, it’s a big lesson about the human condition.
RS: It’s a lesson that a lot of veterans from that war–that’s why it’s been called the best generation, and so forth–I remember my own brother, my half-brother–my father was German, from Germany. And my brother was also bombing Germany–my brother [inaudible]–and
NL: Eighth Air Force?
RS: Yeah. And he was bombing our home town, my father’s home town. And I’ve been to Germany many times; I’ve talked to my father’s brother, who actually was in the German army and fought on the Russian front. And I know my brother was so impacted by that experience, and other things that we saw during the war, that he became a pacifist; he wouldn’t even let his kids play with war toys after. You know, he felt very strongly about that. But it was interesting, because Japanese people were rounded up and put in camps, and certainly not trusted to fight unless they were translators that could be used in the war against Japan. German Americans, which were the largest immigrant group–there was no problem about their being in the Air Force, fighting. And yet they learned a lot of lessons, all the people fighting. And that was where we got the Civil Rights Movement, had some energy after that; there had been a Civil Rights Movement before, but that was a segregated armed forces, as you point out with the Tuskegee Airmen. And that contradiction–of we were fighting for freedom and so forth, and then you come back–I don’t want to say what motivated you, but I think you were certainly part of a generation that said, wait a minute; we were supposed to be on the side of freedom; why do we still have segregation? Why do we still have these problems in this society? And you in your television writing–
NL: Well, that’s this point I was making about not caring as those bombs dropped. That’s–we have to face our humanity, who we are as human beings; our capacity–I think we, each of us, have the capacity for expressing, if not doing, the evil any other human being is capable of doing.
RS: [omission] We’re back with Norman Lear, discussing an incredible life in the television industry, and a political life. So if we segue coming back from the war, and then your television career where you start as a writer, and basically writing what, comedy? And–
NL: You know, I didn’t set out to be a writer. I came to Los Angeles to be a press agent. The only role model, or the only person I considered a role model, was an uncle who used to flick me a quarter. Or maybe he did it once or twice, and I had made a thing of it. But I remember clearly, I wanted to be a guy who could flip a quarter; he was a press agent; I didn’t even know what a press agent was at that time. But I wanted to be a press agent. So [Laughs] when I was overseas, I went into Foggia and I stood behind–because I spoke a little bit of Italian–behind a printer, and letter by letter, we did this one-page composition about Norman Lear, this press agent in the making who’s going to be out of the service and finish his missions, and wanted to be a press agent. Anyway, I sent this–I still have a copy of it, it’s florid [Laughs]–and sent it to my Uncle Jack; he sent it out to a group of press agent companies. And I had one offer to come to work and one offer to come to a meeting to talk about work. So I had a job before I got out of the Army, and I was a press agent for a while, and I was fired twice. I was fired once, and then a guy kept me for a reason and he fired me again, because of the things that I caused to be printed. [Laughs]
RS: And what was that? I mean, were you–
NL: Well, nobody remembers these names, but among our clients at the Ross Agency in New York were Moss Hart, who was a great playwright, and Kitty Carlisle, who was an actress and a bit of a singer, but a major person and a star of a television show called Guess My Line, or–
RS: Oh, What’s My Line?
NL: What’s My Line, What’s My Line. You guessed what that person’s occupation was. So I wrote of the two of them–they might have known each other, I didn’t know whether they knew each other or not–but I wrote of them, that Moss Hart was gifted with a pocket flask–was gifted by Kitty Carlisle with a pocket flask measured to his hip while he napped. And Dorothy Kilgallen, a famous columnist at the time, printed it. Somebody must have said to Kilgallen after it was in print, “What the hell is that?” And she called George Ross and she said, “Who wrote that? I want that kid fired.” So, I was making $40 a week; he took me [Laughs], he took me down to $35, but he kept me. Weeks later, or months later, we had another show–we had a show on Broadway called, a revue, musical acts and comedy acts and so forth; not a story, but a revue. And one of the acts was Buster Shaver and His Midgets. And the lead midget was a woman named Olive. So I wrote, and Kilgallen again printed, that Buster Shaver was seen shopping Fifth Avenue, he on foot, she on a Saint Bernard. This time Kilgallen called, and this time I was really fired. So we moved to Connecticut, stayed there for a little while, and then came out to California. Oh, and I started to say–I came out to be a press agent, like my uncle. But I ran into Ed Simmons, and our wives were friends, and they went to a movie one night when we each were babysitting our little kid. And he wanted to be a comedy writer. He was working on an idea he had; he asked me to help him, and I did. We wrote this thing that evening, the girls came back from the movies like 10:30, and I said, let’s go out and see if we can sell it. ‘Cause there were a bunch of nightclubs then. Four, five, six blocks away, at Beverly near Fairfax, there was a place called the Bar of Music. And there was a piano player, I used to remember her name well, who did insults and jokes and so forth, playing the piano, and so forth. And we sold it to her for $35 or $30 or whatever the hell it was. And we started to write together every evening.
RS: And that was it.
NL: That was it.
RS: And so you then had a show–I mean, tell–you know, people don’t remember the impact of your shows on CBS. It was incredible. And I use them in teaching, I show some of the old shows, and the issues you dealt with.
NL: But those issues we dealt with were the issues American families were dealing with. We didn’t invent them–we didn’t–
RS: But they weren’t talking about them. And you dared–I mean, I remember, because when I came to interview you in the seventies, and I was working for the LA Times, and I didn’t know you personally and I went to see you, and you already–not already, you were this enormous legend at that point. You owned television; my God, you were the golden guy. And yet you weren’t doing it by cheapening, you weren’t doing it by pandering, you weren’t doing it by selling out. You were doing it by raising the bar. It was astounding. You know? Astounding is the only way I could describe it. And I wasn’t the only one that felt that way. The reason they sent me to interview you, the LA Times sent me out, is–who is this guy? I mean, with no exaggeration, you are the major person–force–that changed television in America. It was banal, it was boring, it was–
NL: It’s hard for me to see it that way–
RS: I know, Norman, I, but I want to–for people listening to this, I want to make it really clear. Television was boring. Now television is exciting; people expect television to be exciting, they expect it to be well written, they expect it to be provocative. But back then–
NL: And it is. I think this is the golden age. You know, it’s so hard to imagine and believe. We had three and then four networks; nobody wanted for content. America [Laughs] didn’t want for content with four networks. And today we have, what, 400 networks? I don’t know. More content than I can keep up with. And I’m talking about content that people tell me, Norman, you mean you haven’t seen–? And I look at it and it’s terrific, just as my good friends suggested it would be. But I haven’t got the time. I don’t think life affords the time to see it all.
RS: Right. But back then, in the day, when you were doing this, television–yes, we all were excited there was this image that had come along in the fifties. But–and it was getting, you know, it was color, it was moving and everything, but it was stilted; it was very safe–that’s the operative word. And at these three networks, you had these guys programming practices, and they were censors. They had to approve everything, right? And they did very much underestimate the audience. Could you just take us through some of those controversies? I mean, you know, like gay rights–for God’s sake, I mean, you dared to–you know, you had Archie Bunker confronting his best friend in a bar who was a football player and he admires this guy and everything, and they’re watching a boxing match, and the guy turns out to be a homosexual. You know, right?
NL: [Laughs] I’ll never forget that scene. They are hand-wrestling at the moment [Laughs] the football player tells him, “Archie, have you ever seen me with a woman? Have you ever heard me talk about a woman? We’ve known each other a lot of years.” “Bah!” Archie just shakes his head, he can’t believe. The guy says, “No, no, really.” And O’Connor’s face as he understands that his good friend, the football player, is gay–oh, my God. Golden. [Laughs]
RS: Golden! Of course. What was the response at the network? Any questions, or–?
NL: You know, it’s one of those things where they were frightened to death of it, and I shouldn’t do it, and–anyway, we did it. And in that case, I think we were heralded. Of course there was some mail, some people didn’t like it, but for the most part, I don’t remember a big contest about that. The same thing with Maude’s abortion. You know, Maude’s abortion took place in, let’s say, October, the show went on the air. Nobody knew what the subject was until they saw it on the air. There was very little reaction to it. I mean, there was some mail, of course, but there was a lot of “Right on, Maude, thank God we aired this.” When the show went into reruns in June, and everybody knew that this episode about Maude’s abortion was coming, that’s when the far-right and the religious right knew it was coming, and that’s when they organized. And they laid down in front of Mr., what’s his name who owned CBS, Paley’s car in New York; they laid down in front of my car, they carried on and carried on and carried on, and it was a ton of mail, and you know. But that’s only–it didn’t come naturally, it came from pocketed groups who were there to complain.
RS: You know, let me suggest something, and this is certainly true of George McGovern, and I want to take it back to that World War II veteran experience. No one could tell you you were un-American. I mean, we’d had a House Un-American Activities Committee; we’d had a blacklist in Hollywood. But there was a whole group of people, particularly these veterans from World War II, who said “Don’t you tell me what being an American is.” OK? And you had that confidence, just like George McGovern did. You know, “Wait a minute, I was there. I fought for this country.” And I had Ron Kovic in my class the other night, you know; he has three quarters of his body paralyzed from his wounds in Vietnam. And you can’t, no one’s going to intimidate Ron Kovic and tell him you can’t speak out and object to the Iraq War, object to the bombings. He’ll say, “Hey, I gave three quarters of my body to this, and I’m in this wheelchair, so don’t tell me.” Well, you guys had that confidence, that generation that came back from World War II; you weren’t going to put up with a lot of garbage, you know? I think there were a lot of–you stood out, but there was a whole group of people–
NL: But it’s people like you who point to it. I didn’t operate from that base or think about that. We did what we had to do.
RS: But you had a certain courage that you were going to do it your way, and no one was–I mean, look. I remember the atmosphere when the so-called religious right, and the Falwells and everybody went after you. It could be very intimidating. And you know, you just took it. And you started this incredible organization, People for the American Way; you got even Gerald Ford and republicans like that to–
NL: Oh, you just reminded me when you said Gerald Ford. Something I want to do now, I’d love to do it on my 95th Fourth of July. I did a show when People For the American Way was one year old. And in 1982, or in ‘81 and we started People For in ‘80, I did a show on ABC called I Love Liberty. And the only way I got it on the air, proving it to be, in advance, nonpartisan–because I wanted to do the most patriotic show, take back the flag. And I think the flag and the Bible today, in America, is considered right. The far right owns the flag and the Bible, because they talk about it all the time. I don’t think you have to have a lapel pin to be a good American or to, you know, for people to know you love your country. So I got Gerald Ford–that’s what reminded me of this–and Ladybird Johnson to co-chair the event. On the screen, co-chair the event. I had Barry Goldwater and Jane Fonda on the same stage. I had John Wayne–oh, my God. It was, I think if I was to be buried, again, and I won’t be [Laughs]. But–is it 95 that causes me to think of that? [Laughter] No, I’ve told this story too often, and I’ve said it the same way: if I was buried with a piece of tape, it would probably be I Love Liberty. I love that so much. And we need it now, to take back those–to talk about America without sounding like Donald Trump.
RS: OK, that’s it for Part 1 of this two-part interview with Norman Lear. My engineers are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. The producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. And see you next week with Part 2 of an interview with the legendary Norman Lear.