Norman Milton Lear (born July 27, 1922) is an American television writer and producer who produced such 1970s sitcoms as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude. As a political activist, he founded the advocacy organization People for the American Way in 1981 and has supported First Amendment rights and progressive causes.
Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Jeanette (née Seicol) and Herman Lear, a traveling salesman. He has a younger sister, Claire Brown. Lear grew up in a Jewish home and had a Bar Mitzvah ceremony. His mother was born in Kirovohrad in Kirovohrad Oblast in the Ukraine, while his father was born in Connecticut, to Russian-born parents.
When Lear was 9 years old, his father went to prison for selling fake bonds. Lear thought of his father as a “rascal” and said that the character of Archie Bunker was in part inspired by his father, while the character of Edith Bunker was in part inspired by his mother.
Lear graduated from Weaver High School in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1940 and subsequently attended Emerson College in Boston, but dropped out in 1942 to join theUnited States Army Air Forces.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, during World War II, Lear enlisted in September 1942, serving in the Mediterranean Theater as a radio operator/gunner on Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers with the 772nd Bombardment Squadron, 463rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) of the Fifteenth Air Force, where Lear said they bombed Germany. flew 52 combat missions, for which he was awarded the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters. Lear was discharged from the Army in 1945. He and his fellow World War II crew members are featured in the book “Crew Umbriago” by Daniel P. Carroll (tail gunner), and also in another book: 772nd Bomb Squadron: The Men, The Memories by Turner Publishing and Co.
After World War II, Lear had a career in public relations. The career choice was inspired by his Uncle Jack, “My dad had a brother, Jack, who flipped me a quarter every time he saw me. He was a press agent so I wanted to be a press agent. That’s the only role model I had. So all I wanted was to grow up to be a guy who could flip a quarter to a nephew.” ar decided to move to California to restart his career in publicity, driving with his toddler daughter across the country.
His first night in Los Angeles, Lear stumbled upon a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara at a 90-seat theater in the round Circle Theater off Sunset Boulevard. One of the actors in the play was Sydney Chaplin, who was the son of actors Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey. Chaplin and Alan Mowbray and Dame Gladys Cooper sat in front of him, and after the show was over, Chaplin performed.
Lear had a first cousin in Los Angeles, Elaine, who was married to a man named Ed Simmons, who wanted to be a comedy writer. Simmons and Lear teamed up to sell home furnishings door-to-door for a company called The Gans Brothers and then sold family photos door-to-door, again with Simmons. Throughout the 1950s Lear partnered with Simmons, and they turned out comedy sketches for television appearances of Martin and Lewis, Rowan and Martin, and others. In 1954, Lear was enlisted as a writer hoping to salvage the new Celeste Holm CBS sitcom, Honestly, Celeste!, but the program was canceled after eight episodes. During this time, he became the producer of NBC’s The Martha Raye Show, after Nat Hiken left as the series director. In 1959, Lear created his first television series starring Henry Fonda, a half-hour western forRevue Studios called The Deputy.
Norman Lear (center) created, developed and produced the hit show All in the Family, which ran from 1971 to 1979. The politically charged sitcom starred Jean Stapleton, Carroll O’Connor, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers and Mike Evans.
Starting out as a comedy writer, then a film director (he wrote and produced the 1967 film Divorce American Style and directed the 1971 film Cold Turkey, both starring Dick Van Dyke), Lear tried to sell a concept for a sitcom about a blue-collar American family to ABC. They rejected the show after two pilots were filmed. After a third pilot was shot, CBS picked up the show, known as All in the Family. It premiered January 12, 1971, to disappointing ratings, but it took home several Emmy Awards that year, including Outstanding Comedy Series. The show did very well in summer reruns, and it flourished in the 1971–72 season, becoming the top-rated show on TV for the next five years. After falling from the #1 spot, All in the Family still remained in the top ten, well after it transitioned into Archie Bunker’s Place. The show was based on the Britishsitcom Til Death Us Do Part, about an irascible working-class Tory and his Socialist son-in-law.
Lear’s second big TV sitcom was also based on a British sitcom, Steptoe and Son, about a west London junk dealer and his son. Lear changed the setting to the Watts section of Los Angeles and the characters toAfrican-Americans, and the NBC show Sanford and Son was an instant hit. Numerous hit shows followed thereafter, including Maude (the lead character of which was reportedly based on Lear’s then-wife Frances),The Jeffersons (as with Maude a spin-off of All in the Family), One Day at a Time, and Good Times (which was a spinoff of Maude).
What most of the Lear sitcoms had in common was that they were character-driven, had sets that more resembled stage plays than common sitcom sets, were shot on videotape in place of film, used a live studio audience, and most importantly dealt with the social and political issues of the day. Ironically, although Lear’s shows are often considered somewhat autobiographical and closely identified with his personal experiences, his early hits were actually all adapted from someone else’s creations: the two aforementioned British adaptations and Maude, while reputedly based on Lear’s wife, was actually the brainchild of series producer Charlie Hauck. Bud Yorkin was also a major force behind All in the Family, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and others.
Lear’s longtime producing partner was Bud Yorkin, who also produced All in the Family, Sanford and Son, What’s Happening!!, Maude, and The Jeffersons. Yorkin split with Lear in 1975. He started a production company with writer/producers Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein, but they had only two shows that ran more than a year: What’s Happening!! and Carter Country. The Lear/Yorkin company was known asTandem Productions that was founded in 1958. Lear and talent agent Jerry Perenchio founded T.A.T. Communications (T.A.T. stood for “Tuchus Affen Tisch”, which is Yiddish for “Putting one’s butt on the line”) in 1974, which co-existed with Tandem Productions and was often referred to in periodicals as Tandem/T.A.T. The Lear organization was one of the most successful independent TV producers of the 1970s. TAT produced the influential and award-winning 1981 film The Wave about Ron Jones’ social experiment.
Lear also developed the cult favorite TV series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (MH MH) which was turned down by the networks as “too controversial” and placed it into first run syndication with 128 stations in January 1976. A year later, Lear added another program into first run syndication along with MH MH, All That Glitters. He planned in 1977 to offer three hours of prime time Saturday programming directly, with the stations placing his production company in the position of an occasional network.
Lear himself stepped down as production supervisor on his shows in 1978 to work on a film dealing with his concerns about the growing influence of radical right-wing evangelists. The film was never fully developed, but the process stimulated his long engagement in political activism. About this same time, he had also gone through a political conversion, after he had called the presidency of Jimmy Carter an “embarrassment”.
In the fall of 1981, Lear began a fourteen-month run as the host of a revival of the classic game show Quiz Kids for the CBS Cable Network.
In January 1982, Lear and Jerry Perenchio bought out Avco Embassy Pictures from Avco Financial Corporation, and the Avco part of its name was dropped after merging that with T.A.T. Communications Company to form Embassy Communications, Inc. Embassy Pictures was led by Alan Horn and Martin Schaeffer, later co-founders of Castle Rock Entertainment with Rob Reiner. On June 18, 1985, Lear and Perenchio sold Embassy Communications to Columbia Pictures (then owned by the Coca-Cola Company) which acquired Embassy’s film and television division (which included Embassy’s in-house television productions and the television rights to the Embassy theatrical library) for $485 million in shares of The Coca-Cola Company. Lear and Perenchio split the net proceeds (about $250 million). Coke later sold the film division to Dino De Laurentiis and the home video arm to Nelson Holdings (led by Barry Spikings).
The brand Tandem Productions was abandoned in 1986 with the cancellation of Diff’rent Strokes, and Embassy ceased to exist as a single entity in late 1987, having been split into different components owned by different entities. The Embassy TV division became ELP Communications in 1988, but shows originally produced by Embassy were now under the Columbia Pictures Television banner from 1988 to 1994 and theColumbia TriStar Television banner from 1994 to 1998.
Lear is unofficially credited with giving Rob Reiner, son of Carl Reiner (and a star of All in the Family) his start as a director by financing the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. Lear’s Act III Communications, founded in 1986 with Tom McGrath as President, produced several notable films, including Rob Reiner’s next three films: The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, and The Princess Bride, as well as Fried Green Tomatoes.
Political and cultural activities
On February 2, 1989, Norman Lear’s Act III Communications formed a joint-venture with Columbia Pictures Television called Act III Television to produce television series instead of managing.
Lear attempted to return to TV production in the 1990s with the shows Sunday Dinner, The Powers That Be, and 704 Hauser, the last one putting a different family in the house from All in the Family. None of the series proved successful.
Today, Lear’s TV library is owned by Sony Pictures Television.
However, Lear was successful as a businessman, especially with his leveraged acquisition vehicle Act III Communications, founded in 1986 and led initially by Tom McGrath (who met Lear while negotiating on behalf of Coca-Cola the acquisition of Lear’s old company) and later by Hal Gaba, a former Embassy executive. This included: Act III Theatres, sold to KKR in 1997 at what is to this day considered a record premium; Act III Broadcasting, sold to Abry Communications; and Act III Publishing, sold to PriMedia. Lear is also the owner of Concord Records and in 2005 consummated a 50% interest in the film library and production assets of Village Roadshow Productions Pty Ltd.
In 1997, Lear teamed up with Jim George to produce the Kids’ WB cartoon series, Channel Umptee-3. It premiered on Kids WB’s Saturday morning lineup on October 25, 1997. The cartoon made television history, as it was the first to meet the Federal Communications Commission’s then-new educational/informal programming requirements. Like Lear’s other television works, it received positive reviews, but ratings were low due to the network’s focus on their core high-rated programming at the time. A time switch from a concrete Saturday schedule to a revolving Friday timeslot caused the show’s ratings to dip even more, and it was eventually canceled after one season. September 4, 1998 marked the last airing of Umptee-3 on the WB.
In 2003, Lear made an appearance on South Park during the “I’m a Little Bit Country” episode, providing the voice of Benjamin Franklin. He also served as a consultant on the episodes “I’m a Little Bit Country” and “Cancelled”. Lear has attended a South Park writers’ retreat, and served as the officiant at co-creator Trey Parker’s wedding.
In 1967, Lear was nominated for an Academy Award for writing Divorce, American Style. Lear was among the first seven television pioneers inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984. He received four Emmy Awards (two in 1971, and one each in 1972 and 1973) and a Peabody Award in 1978. He received the Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association in 1977. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6615 Hollywood Boulevard.
President Bill Clinton awards Lear with the National Medal of the Arts
In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded the National Medal of Arts to Lear, noting, “Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.” Also in 1999, he and Bud Yorkinreceived the Women in Film Lucy Award in recognition of excellence and innovation in creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television.
In addition to his success as a TV producer and businessman, Lear is an outspoken supporter of First Amendment and liberal causes. The only time that he did not support the Democratic candidate for Presidentwas in 1980: he voted for John Anderson because he considered the Carter administration to be “a complete disaster”.
In 1981, Lear founded People For the American Way (PFAW), a progressive advocacy organization. PFAW ran several advertising campaigns opposing the interjection of religion in politics. Lear has long been a vocal critic of the ideas held by the Religious Right and has advocated for the advancement of secularism.
Prominent Religious Right figures such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart accused Lear of being an atheist and holding an anti-Christian bias.
In the January 21, 1987 issue of Christian Century, Lear associate Martin E. Marty, a Lutheran professor who taught biblical studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School between 1963 and 1998, refuted these allegations and stated that the television producer had praised the moral values of various religions and had personally praised his interpretation of Christianity. Marty also noted that while Lear and his family were never followers of the Orthodox Judaism that was practiced in his childhood community and questioned the beliefs held by the local religious leaders, the television producer was still a follower of Judaism. In a 2009 interview with US News journalist Dan Gilgoff, Lear refuted claims by the Religious Right that he either was an atheist or prejudiced against Christianity and maintained that while he did not believe religion should hold influence in politics or any other form of policy-making, he still held religious beliefs and had also integrated some evangelical Christian language into his Born Again American campaign as well. In a 2014 interview with The Jewish Journal journalist Rob Eshman, Lear described himself as a “total Jew,” though never a practicing one.
In 1989, Lear founded the Business Enterprise Trust, an educational program that used annual awards, business school case studies, and videos to spotlight exemplary social innovations in American business. In 2000, he provided an endowment for a multidisciplinary research and public policy center that explored the convergence of entertainment, commerce, and society at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication. It was later named the Norman Lear Center in recognition.
Lear serves on the National Advisory Board of the Young Storytellers Foundation. He has written articles for The Huffington Post.
Lear is a trustee emeritus at The Paley Center for Media.
Declaration of Independence
Lear and Rob Reiner produced a filmed, dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence—the last project filmed by famed cinematographer Conrad Hall—on July 4, 2001, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The film, introduced by Morgan Freeman, features Kathy Bates, Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson, Whoopi Goldberg, Graham Greene, Ming-Na, Edward Norton, Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey, andRenée Zellweger as readers. The film was directed by Arvin Brown and scored by John Williams.
In 2004, Lear established Declare Yourself, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign created to empower and encourage eligible 18–29-year-olds in America to register and vote. Since then, it has registered almost 4 million young people and contributed significantly to the unprecedented turnout of young voters.
Born Again American
As part of the ongoing drive to promote active and thoughtful citizenship, Lear premiered BornAgainAmerican.org at the Presidential Inauguration in 2009. The BornAgainAmerican campaign includes a specially commissioned song and an interactive website, reminding visitors of the American values expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
2015 Iran Nuclear Deal
Lear was one of 98 “prominent members of Los Angeles’ Jewish community” that signed an open letter supporting the proposed nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers led by the United States. The letter called for the resolution of the bill warning that this would be a “tragic mistake” should Congress kill the agreement. The letter was also signed by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad; Walt Disney Concert Hall architect Frank Gehry; Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and many more.
Lear has been married three times:
1943–2013: Charlotte Lear née Rosen. Ended in divorce.
1947: Daughter, Ellen Lear, a sex therapist
1956–1986: Frances Lear née Loeb (1923–1996; breast cancer). Publisher of Lear’s Magazine. Separated in 1983. Ended in divorce, where she received $112 million divorce settlement from Lear
1958: Daughter Kate Breckir LaPook, an executive
1959: Daughter Maggie Beth Lear
Lyn and Norman Lear
1987–present: Lyn Lear née Davis (1947–). Psychologist. Met in 1984
1988: Son Benjamin Davis Lear
1994: Daughters Madelaine Rose Lear and Brianna Elizabeth Lear; twins born to surrogate
Shows Created or Produced
All in the Family 1971-79
Sanford and Son 1972-78
Duke Ellington … We Love You Madly 1973
Good Times 1974-79
The Jeffersons 1975-86
One Day at a Time 1975-84
Hot L Baltimore 1975
All’s Fair 1976-77
The Nancy Walker Show 1976
Louise Lasser in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman 1976-77
A Year at the Top 1977
The Dumplings 1977
All That Glitter 1977
Fernwood 2Night 1977
Forever Fernwood 1977
Sanford Arms 1977
America 2Night 1978
Apple Pie 1978
In the Beginning 1978
The Baxters 1979
Hanging In 1979
I Love Liberty 1982
a.ka. Pablo 1984
E R (aka Recovery Room) 1984
Sunday Dinner 1991
All in the Family 20th Anniversary 1991
The Powers That Be 1992-93
704 Hauser 1994
Channel Umptee-3 2000
Norman Lear net worth $800 million