You may know that Norman Lear created All in the Family and The Jeffersons, but did you know that he also produced “Stand By Me” and “The Princess Bride?” Today the prolific writer/producer/director turns 90 and we take a look back at the career of the man who not only brought “Archie” and “Edith” to the small screen, but helped bring “Princess Buttercup” and “Westley” to the big screen, as well.
Born Norman Milton Lear on July 22, 1922 in New Haven, Connecticut, Lear wanted to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and become a press agent. (Lear’s uncle worked at MCA and always seemed to have a quarter to spare, even during the lean Depression years.) At the end of his senior year of high school, Lear won the American Legion Oratory Contest, earning him a scholarship to Emerson College. He left Emerson in 1942 to become a gunner in the Air Force during World War II, then fulfilled his childhood dream and worked for George and Dorothy Ross as a press agent in New York. Now married with a baby on the way, he returned to Connecticut, but soon moved to California. Leaving the life of a press agent behind, Lear performed odd jobs to make a living, including starting a business to mail celebrity addresses out by request. He and friend Ed Simmons teamed up to dabble in writing, and Lear promptly fibbed his way to the big time. He pretended to be a reporter interviewing Danny Thomas, got Thomas’ phone number, and pitched him a routine about Yiddish words that had no English counterparts. The not-Jewish Thomas wound up using the sketch at Ciro’s nightclub, giving Lear and Simmons their big break:
Agent David Susskind (who happened to be Lear’s first cousin!) then recruited the pair to write for Jack Haley’s Four Star Revue back in New York. Shortly after, in 1950, Jerry Lewis lured the duo away to write for Martin and Lewis on The Colgate Comedy Hour, where a young Bud Yorkin worked as stage manager. Martin and Lewis had recently signed movie contracts in California, so the show and its writers relocated back to the West Coast. This time Lear would stay put in sunny California.
After three years writing for Martin and Lewis, Lear and Simmons moved on to writing for The Martha Raye Show in 1954, where Lear got his first taste of directing. He split with Simmons and became a junior writer on The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show from 1957-58, where Bud Yorkin was a producer and Lear’s boss. Lear and Yorkin soon decided to form a company together, Tandem Productions. The pair complemented each other – Yorkin had more experience as a producer/director, and Lear was by then an experienced writer. They made a deal with Paramount to executive produce variety shows and specials, including The Andy Williams Show, and specials for Carol Channing, Bobby Darren, and Danny Kaye (who Lear says cooked excellent Chinese food).
Lear dabbled in films, writing the 1963 movie “Come Blow Your Horn,” and soon read an article about the British sitcom ‘Til Death Do Us Part, which featured a father-son relationship that reminded Lear of his own relationship with his father. From this premise he created All in the Family in 1968 and sold the show to ABC. He shot a pilot with Carroll O’ Connor and Jean Stapleton, but not Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers, and the show didn’t make it air. Lear then made a second pilot (also without Reiner and Struthers), which CBS picked up when Bob Wood replaced Jim Aubrey as head of the network. Just as All in the Family was starting, Lear wrote and directed the 1971 film “Cold Turkey” and was offered a three picture deal with United Artists. He turned down the deal in order to focus on All in the Family, which premiered to rather poor ratings:
CBS re-ran the series that summer and the audience grew. Then the Emmys that year did a cold open with “the four principles of All in the Family,” putting the show squarely on the map.
All in the Family showcased Lear’s talent for intertwining social consciousness with humor. In his Archive interview he explains how he can find comedy in anything:
Lear and Yorkin soon created 1972’s Sanford and Son from the British program Steptoe and Son. Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson were tapped to play the leads:
The duo produced Maude in 1972, which famously aired an episode (“Maude’s Dilemma”) in which the title character decides to have an abortion. Lear describes how the episode initially aired without significant controversy, but caused a raucous when broadcast in reruns:
Lear became master of the spin-off, creating Good Times from Maude in 1974, and The Jeffersons from All in the Family in 1975 (Maude was already an All in the Family spin-off). In 1974 he started T. A. T. Productions with Jerry Perenchio (the name comes from the Yiddish expression “Tuchus Affen Tisch,” which in Lear’s words, roughly translates to, “enough with the talk, put your ass on the table.”) Lear continued creating hit shows with 1975’s One Day at a Time, and the critically acclaimed, but short-lived syndicated show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in 1976. At one point during the 1970s, Lear created/produced four of the five top shows on television. Those were the days.
He had some flops, as well. 1977’s syndicated Fernwood Tonight (aka Fernwood 2-Night) about a local talk show host, All That Glitters about male/female role reversals, and Hot L Baltimore about two prostitutes in The Hotel Baltimore, (the “E” had fallen off the sign, hence Hot L Baltimore), didn’t last beyond one season.
Lear decided to end All in the Family in 1979 (he was not involved with Archie Bunker’s Place) to dedicate more of his time to causes in which he believed – he formed the advocacy group People for the American Way in 1980. He was a member of the first group of inductees into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984, along with honorees William Paley, Lucille Ball, Edward R. Murrow, David Sarnoff, and Milton Berle. Lear also became active in movie production, buying Embassy Studios (T. A. T. became Embassy Communications), and soon selling it to Coca Cola. Lear then formed (and currently serves as chairman of) Act III Communications, which produced 1986’s “Stand By Me,” 1987’s “The Princess Bride,” and 1991’s “Fried Green Tomatoes,” among others.
Lear remained active in television throughout the 1990s, producing Sunday Dinner in 1991, and 704 Hauser in 1994. More recently he’s produced several movies, including 2000’s “Way Past Cool,” and the 2011 short, “The Photographs of Your Junk (Will Be Publicized!).” We can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next.
Happy 90th, Norman! Here’s to many, many more!
Watch Norman Lear’s full Archive interview.
- by Adrienne Faillace