Norman Lear wants to show you his scrapbook, and—after 92 years—it’s a pretty thick one. Although he established himself as a comedy writer at the dawn of television in 1950, writing for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Lear didn’t really become a public figure until the 1970s. During that golden decade, he revolutionized TV with such socially conscious sitcoms as “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons” and “One Day at a Time.” Unlike the comedies that preceded them, these series explored such touchy subjects as racism, ethnic prejudices, homophobia, women’s rights, abortion, sex education and single parenthood.
In recounting how he built these cultural landmarks, Lear also provides glimpses of the actors who brought the episodes to life. Carroll O’Connor, who played the iconic bigot Archie Bunker, fought with Lear over every script but was so perfect for the role that Lear has nothing but praise for his acting skills. Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker) and Bea Arthur (Maude) were dreams to work with, as was Rob Reiner (Archie’s “meathead” son-in-law, Mike), whom Lear had known since he was a 9-year-old next-door neighbor. Lear would later back Reiner in the classic “rockumentary,” This Is Spinal Tap.
Born into a lower-middle-class family in New Haven, Connecticut, Lear recalls being sent to live with relatives when his father served time in prison for a financial scam. Clearly, Lear has spent much of his life trying to justify his worth to his largely self-centered parents. He speaks frankly here about his three marriages and his weaknesses as a husband and father. And he explains how his political bent led him to found the liberal lobbying group, People For the American Way. Age has not diminished Lear’s gifts as a storyteller.