Behind the Legend: Exploring the Biography of Norman Lear (July 27, 1922 – December 5, 2023)

Norman Milton Lear was a big shot on American TV. He produced, wrote, created, or developed over 100 shows. Lear was known for creating and making many popular sitcoms in the 1970s, including “All in the Family” (1971-1979), “Maude” (1972-1978), “Sanford and Son” (1972-1977), “One Day at a Time” (1975-1984), “The Jeffersons” (1975-1985), and “Good Times” (1974-1979). Even in later years, he kept making TV happen, with a remake of “One Day at a Time” in 2017 and a Netflix reboot of “Good Times” in 2022.

Lear bagged several awards, like six Primetime Emmys, two Peabody Awards, the National Medal of Arts in 1999, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017, and the Carol Burnett Award at the 2021 Golden Globes. He was also part of the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

Beyond his TV work, Lear was known for his active political involvement and support for liberal and progressive causes, plus funding politicians. In 1980, he founded People for the American Way to stand against Christian influence in politics, and in the early 2000s, he went on a journey declaring independence with a written statement.

Childhood and Education

Norman Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to Jenny (née Seicol) and Herman “Hyman” Lear, the eldest child of a traveling salesman. He had a younger sister, Claire Lear Brown, who died in 2015. Lear grew up in a Jewish family in Connecticut and had his Bar Mitzvah ceremony there. His mom hailed originally from Ukraine, while his father’s family was from Russia.

When Lear was nine and living in Chelsea, Massachusetts, with his family, his dad got jailed on charges of selling fake bonds. Lear saw his father as “wicked” and mentioned that the character of Archie Bunker (portrayed as a white Protestant in the show) was somewhat inspired by his father, while Edith Bunker’s character was somewhat inspired by his mother. However, Lear has said that the moment that inspired his lifelong advocacy came from another event he experienced at the age of nine when he first encountered anti-Jewish sentiments from Catholic radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin while tinkering with his crystal radio set. After listening to Coughlin’s radio sermons, Lear felt that Coughlin would target those who considered Jewish figures like President Franklin Roosevelt as “great heroes.”

Lear attended Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, New York, graduated from Weaver High School in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1940, and enrolled at Emerson College in Boston. However, in 1942, he left his studies to join the United States Army Air Forces.

Military Service and Beyond

In September 1942, Lear enlisted in the United States Army. He was a radio operator/gunner on a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber with the 463rd Bombardment Group of the 772nd Bomb Squadron and served in the Mediterranean theater. He participated in 52 combat missions and was awarded the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters in recognition of gallantry. His experiences in the Second World War are depicted in Daniel P. Carroll’s book, “Crew Umbriago.”

The Path to Television Stardom

  • From 1950 to1959

After World War II, Lear ventured into a career in communications. He was inspired by his uncle, Jack: “My father had a brother, Jack, who, whenever he saw me, used to ridicule me. He was a press agent, so I wanted to become a press agent. He was my only idol. So, all I wanted was to grow up to be a guy who could give his nephew a quarter.”

To restart his career in advertising, Lear decided to move to California and took a cross-country road trip with his young daughter.

On his first night in Los Angeles, Lear stumbled upon a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” at the Circle Theater, a 90-seat theater near Sunset Boulevard. Actors Charlie Chaplin and Lita Gray’s son Sidney Chaplin were among the cast of the play. During the show, Lear sat in front of Charlie Chaplin, Dame Gladys Cooper, and Alan Mowbray, and after the show, Charlie Chaplin performed.

Lear’s first step in Los Angeles was with his step-sister Ellen, who married Ed Simmons, an ambitious comedy writer. Simmons and Lear teamed up to sell household goods door-to-door for The Gaines Brothers company, later selling family pictures door-to-door as well. During the 1950s, Lear and Simmons crafted comedy sketches for television presentations like “Martin and Lewis,” “Rowan and Martin,” and others. They were offered a record-breaking guarantee of $52,000 (equivalent to around $568,766 in 2022) to write for every Martin and Lewis act, and they were known for scripting five extra ones for Colgate Comedy Hour, where Lucy made her debut in 1953. Lear also admitted in 1986 that he and Simmons were the principal writers for three years on The Martin and Lewis Show.

In 1954, Lear was listed as a writer and was asked to save the new CBS sitcom “Honestly, Celeste!” starring Celeste Holm, but the program was canceled after eight episodes. Following a stint as a director on Ned Hiken’s series, he became a producer for the short-lived (26 episodes) NBC sitcom “The Martha Raye Show.” Lear wrote some early monologues for The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, which aired from 1956 to 1961. In 1959, Lear created his first television series, “The Deputy,” a half-hour Western for the Revue Studios, featuring Henry Fonda.

  • From 1967 to 1977

Starting as a comedy writer and later stepping into film directing (he wrote and produced the 1967 film “Divorce American Style” and directed the 1971 film “Cold Turkey,” both starring Dick Van Dyke), Lear pitched an idea for a sitcom about the Blues – “All in the Family” to ABC. After two pilot tapes, they turned down the show: “Justice for All” in 1968 and “Those Were the Days” in 1969. Following the third pilot tape, CBS picked up the show, known as “All in the Family.” It premiered on January 12, 1971, with modest ratings but went on to win several Emmy Awards that year, becoming a hit in reruns during summers and remaining a top-rated TV show in the 1971-72 season, thriving for the next five years. Despite slipping from the #1 spot, even after Archie Bunker’s place, “All in the Family” stayed in the top ten. The show was based on the British sitcom “Till Death Us Do Part,” which revolved around a cantankerous working-class Tory and his socialist son-in-law.

Lear’s other major TV sitcom, “Sanford and Son,” was also based on a British sitcom, “Steptoe and Son,” about a junk dealer in West London and his son. Lear transplanted the setting to Watts, Los Angeles, and changed the characters to African-Americans, making the NBC show “Sanford and Son” an immediate hit. This success led to several hit shows, including “Maude,” “The Jeffersons” (both spin-offs from “All in the Family”), “One Day at a Time,” and “Good Times” (which was a spin-off of “Maude”).

Most of Lear’s sitcoms shared three traits: they were shot on videotape instead of film, live studio audiences were used, and they dealt with the social and political issues of the time. “Maude” was often considered based on Lear’s wife, Frances, a fact he confirmed, with Charley Hauck as the main producer and writer.

Lear’s long-time producing partners were Bud Yorkin, producing “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “What’s Happening!!,” “Maude,” and “The Jeffersons.” Yorkin split from Lear in 1975. He started a production company with writer/producer Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein; however, only two of their shows lasted more than a year: “What’s Happening!!” and “Carter Country.” Known as the Tandem Productions, Lear and talent agent Jerry Perenchio founded the company in 1958. Communication Arts (“T.A.T.,” a Jewish expression meaning “Tuchus Afen Tisch,” “keep your bottom on the table”) was in co-existence with Tandem Productions in 1974 and often referred to as Tandem/T.A.T. in publications. Lear’s organization was among the most successful independent TV producers of the 1970s. T.A.T. produced the impactful and award-winning 1981 film “The Wave,” based on Ron Jones’ social experiment.

Lear developed the beloved TV series “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” (MH2) that was initially rejected by the networks as “too controversial” and was syndicated in January 1976 to 128 stations. A year later, he paired MH2 with “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” as the first programs to be syndicated nationally with All That Glitters. He planned a three-hour prime-time Saturday programming with direct station involvement with his production company in a temporary network-like position.

In 1977, African-American playwright Eric Monte filed a lawsuit against ABC and CBS producers Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin, and others for allegedly stealing his ideas for Good Times, The Jeffersons, and What’s Happening!! Monte settled for $1 million and residuals from Good Times and a fraction of ownership and a percent ownership of the show’s syndication. Due to Monte’s lack of professional knowledge and legal representation, he didn’t receive royalties for other shows he created. However, Lear and other Hollywood producers blacklisted Monte and made it difficult for him to work with.

  • From 1980 to 1999

In 1980, Lear founded the organization People for the American Way to counter the goals of the established Christian right-wing group, the Moral Majority, which began in 1979. However, in 1981, Lear embarked on a 14-month run as the host of the classic game show “Quiz Kids” for the CBS cable network. In January 1982, Lear and Jerry Perenchio acquired Embassy Pictures from Avco Financial Corporation. After the merger with T.A.T. Communications in January 1982, the company was renamed Embassy Communications, Inc. The leadership of Embassy Pictures was taken by Alan Horn and Martin Shafer, who later co-founded Castle Rock Entertainment with Rob Reiner.

In March 1982, Lear created an ABC television special called “I Love Liberty” as a counterpoint to groups like the Moral Majority. Notable guests at the event included conservative icon and 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

On June 18, 1985, Lear and Perenchio sold Embassy Communications to Columbia Pictures (then owned by Coca-Cola Company) for $485 million in shares. With the demise of Different Strokes, the Tandem Productions brand was dropped in 1986, and by the end of 1986, the existence of Embassy as a unit ceased, dividing various components among different entities. Coca-Cola sold the film division to Dino De Laurentiis, and the home video arm was sold to Nelson Holdings (led by Barry Spikings). The Embassy TV division became ELP Communications in 1988, but the shows originally produced by Embassy were under the banner of Columbia Pictures Television from 1988 to 1996 and under Columbia TriStar Television from 1996 to 2002.
Act III Communications, founded by Lear in 1986, named Thomas B. McGrath as president and CEO after serving as the first senior vice president. On February 2, 1989, Act III Communications formed a joint venture called Act III Television with Columbia Pictures Television instead of managing television series.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Act III Communications acquired several trade magazines, including Channels, founded by former New York Times TV correspondent Les Brown. Channels ceased publication in 1989, by which time Act III, along with Brown, had co-founded TV Business International with Nick Snow and his London-based 21st Century Publishing. It was later sold to Pearson PLC and now falls under Informa PLC.

In 1997, Lear and Jim George created the Kids’ WB series Channel Umptee-3. It was the first cartoon to meet the immediate educational programming needs of the Federal Communications Commission.

  • From 2000 to 2023

In 2003, Norman Lear appeared in an episode of South Park, lending his voice to Benjamin Franklin. He also worked as a consultant on episodes like “I’m a Little Bit Country” and “Cancelled.” He joined the South Park writers’ retreat, where some of his ideas made it into the show, and he officiated at co-creator Trey Parker’s wedding.

Lear made headlines with the 2016 documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.” In 2017, he worked as an executive producer for the show “One Day at a Time,” a reboot of his 1975-1984 series of the same name that premiered on Netflix, starring Justina Machado and Rita Moreno as a Cuban-American family. Starting May 1, 2017, Lear hosted a podcast, “All of the Above with Norman Lear.” On July 29, 2019, it was announced that Lear collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda to create an American Masters documentary about Moreno’s life, temporarily titled “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.” In 2020, it was announced that Lear and Act III Productions would revive “Huz” the Boss?

In 2014, Lear published a memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience.”

Political activities and cultural Contribution

Norman Lear was a big supporter of liberal causes and the First Amendment. The only time he didn’t back a Democratic presidential candidate was in 1980 when he supported John Anderson instead of Jimmy Carter, as he considered Carter’s administration a “total disaster.”

Lear was part of the rich and influential Jewish intelligentsia known as the Malibu Mafia. In the ’70s and ’80s, they discussed progressive and liberal political issues and pooled their resources for causes. He helped financially in legal defense for Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers, and supported the struggling progressive magazine The Nation in keeping it afloat. In 1975, he formed the Energy Action Committee to oppose the powerful Big Oil lobby in Washington.

  • For American Ways

In 1981, Lear founded People for the American Way (PFAW), an advocacy group formed in response to conservative Christian politics. PFAW ran various ad campaigns against religious interference in politics. They successfully halted Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987. Despite being criticized by some Christian leaders like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Jimmy Swaggart for allegedly being atheistic and anti-Christian, his colleague Martin E. Marty defended Lear, praising his respect for religious and moral values on television.

In a 2009 interview with journalist Dan Gilgoff of U.S. News, Lear dismissed claims by conservative Christian nationalists that he was atheist and anti-Christian. Lear maintained religious beliefs and integrated some evangelical Christian language into his Born Again American campaign. He believed that religion should be separate from politics and policymaking. In a 2014 interview with journalist Rob Eshman of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Lear referred to himself as a “complete Jew” but stated that he was never a practicing individual.

In 1989, Lear established the Business Enterprise Trust, an educational program that highlighted commendable social innovations in American business until its closure in 1998. He announced a reduction in his political activism in 1992. In 2000, he arranged an endowment for the Norman Lear Center, a multidisciplinary research and public policy center, which identified the intersection of entertainment, commerce, and the public in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Lear served on the National Advisory Board of the Young Storytellers Foundation, wrote columns for The Washington Post, and was a trustee of The Paley Center for Media.

  • Declaration of Independence

In 2001, Lear and his wife Lin purchased the 8.1 million dollar Dunlap Broadside – one of the first printed copies of the United States Declaration of Independence. John Dunlap printed about 200 copies on July 4, 1776. Today, only twenty-five copies remain, with only four in private hands.

Not a collector of documents, Lear stated in a press release and on the Today Show that his intention was to take the document on a tour across the United States so that the country could experience its “birth certificate.” By the end of 2004, the document had traveled on the Declaration of Independence Road Trip, organized by Lear, visiting several presidential libraries, dozens of museums, the 2002 Olympics, Super Bowl XXXVI, and Live 8 concerts in Philadelphia. On July 4, 2001, Lear and Rob Reiner dramatized the Declaration’s announcement in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, which was filmed as a final project by renowned cinematographer Conrad Hall. The introduction was narrated by Morgan Freeman and Kathy Bates, featuring Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson, Whoopi Goldberg, Graham Greene, Ming-Na Wen, Edward Norton, Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey, and Renée Zellweger. It was directed by Arvin Brown and scored by John Williams.

In 2004, Lear founded Declare Yourself, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign designed to empower and encourage young people aged 18 to 29 in America to register and vote. It has registered nearly 4 million young people.

Lear was one of 98 “leading members of the Jewish community of Los Angeles” who signed an open letter supporting a proposed nuclear understanding between Iran and the leading six world powers, including the United States. The letter urged the passage of the bill and warned that Congress ending the agreement would be a “painful mistake.”

Awareds & Honors

Norman Lear’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame sits at 6615 Hollywood Boulevard.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton honored Lear with the National Medal of Arts, saying, “Norman Lear has shown American society a mirror and changed the way we see things.” Additionally, in 1999, he received the Women in Film Lucy Award for excellence and innovation in creative works that have elevated women’s perception through television.

The Producers Guild of America recognized Lear in 2006 with the Producers Guild Achievement Award in Television, later renaming this honor as the Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television.

On May 12, 2017, Lear was honored with the fourth annual Woody Guthrie Prize by the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The ceremony took place at the Clive Davis Theater at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. The Woody Guthrie Prize is awarded annually to an artist who, through music, literature, film, dance, or other artistic expressions, speaks out for the less fortunate and serves as a positive force for social change in America. Previous honorees include Pete Seeger, Mavis Staples, and Kris Kristofferson.

On August 3, 2017, it was announced that the Kennedy Center had named Lear as a recipient of the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors, alongside Carmen de Lavallade, Lionel Richie, LL Cool J, and Gloria Estefan. During the December 3, 2017 event at the Kennedy Center, the plan was for President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump to sit with the honored guests and host a reception at the White House later in the evening. Variety magazine’s senior editor Ted Johnson commented, “This will be an interesting moment in itself as Lear and Estefan have been particularly outspoken against the policies of Trump.” Later, it was announced that Lear would boycott the White House reception. Ultimately, the President and First Lady were not in attendance.

Lear has received several other notable honors, including:

1977: Peabody Awards – Lifetime Achievement
1977: American Humanist Association – Humanist Arts Award
1980: Academy of Achievement – Golden Plate Award
1984: Television Academy – Hall of Fame
2007: Britannia Awards – Excellence in Television
2017: National Hispanic Media Coalition – Media Icon
2017: Peabody Awards – Lifetime Achievement

Personal Life and Death

Norman Lear was married three times. His marriage to Frances Loeb, the publisher of Lear’s Magazine, lasted from 1956 to 1985. They divorced in 1983, and Loeb eventually received $112 million from their settlement. In 1987, Lear married producer Lyn Davis. Across his three marriages, Lear had six children and four grandchildren. He was the godparent of actress and singer Katey Sagal. On July 27, 2022, he reached the age of 101. Sadly, on December 5, 2023, Norman Lear passed away at his home in Los Angeles due to natural causes.