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Norman Lear

Norman Lear is an American television writer and producer who produced such popular 1970s sitcoms as All in the Family, Sanford and Son and Maude.

Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut. He attended Emerson College in Boston, but dropped out in 1942 to join the United States Air Force during World War II. He received a decorated Air Medal for his wartime accomplishments before leaving the military in 1945.

Starting out as a comedy writer, then a film director (he wrote and produced the 1969 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 1971-1972 season, becoming the #1 rated show on TV. The show was based on the British sitcom Til Death Us Do Part, about an irate working-class Tory and his Socialist son-in-law.

Lear's second big TV hit was Sanford and Son, also based on a British sitcom (Steptoe and Son) about a Cockney junk dealer and his son. Lear changed the setting to Los Angeles and the characters to African-Americans, and the NBC show was an instant hit.

What most of the Lear sitcoms had in common are that they were character-driven, had a flat, theatrical look similar to soap operas, and very often dealt with social or political issues of the day.

Lear's longtime producing partner was Bud Yorkin, who served as executive producer of Sanford and Son, split with Lear in 1975. He started a production company with writer/producers Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein, but they had only one show that ran more than a year: What's Happening!!. The Lear/Yorkin company was known as Tandem Productions. Lear and talent agent Jerry Perenchio founded T.A.T. Communications (T.A.T. stood for Tokas-Adamn-Tokin, which is Yiddish for Putting one's butt on the line) in 1975, 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.

Lear himself stepped down as production supervisor on his shows in 1978, as there were too many for him to personally supervise while running the business itself.

In 1982, the company bought out Avco Embassy Pictures from Avco Financial Corporation, and the Avco part of its name was dropped. In 1985, Lear sold all his film and television production holdings to other entities, with Columbia Pictures (then owned by the Coca-Cola Company) acquiring Embassy's television division (which included Embassy's in-house television productions and the television rights to the Embassy theatrical library) for $500 million. He was no longer involved with the productions in any way.

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 1988-1994 and the Columbia TriStar Television banner from 1994-1998.

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.

Lear is unofficially credited with giving Rob Reiner his start as a director by helping the son of Carl Reiner acquire financing for the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. Throughout the 1980s Lear's Act III Communications, founded in 1986 with Tom McGrath as President, produced several notable films, including Stand by Me, Fried Green Tomatoes, and The Princess Bride.

Awards

In 1969, 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 (in 1970, 1971, 1972, and 1973) and a Peabody Award in 1977. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6615 Hollywood Boulevard.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded the National Medal of Arts to Mr. Lear, noting that "Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it."

Lear's most popular shows and movies continue to be shown to new generations today on TV and on DVD.

Political and Cultural Activities

In addition to his success as a TV producer and businessman, Lear is an outspoken supporter of First Amendment and liberal causes. Taking a less active role in his TV productions in 1978, he soon turned his eyes to political activism, founding People for the American Way in 1981. People for the American Way ran a number of campaigns about religion in politics, and in 1987 helped lead the campaign to keep Robert Bork off of the Supreme Court. In 2005, Republican Arlen Specter -- who in 1987 sided with Democrats to keep Bork off the bench -- has said that Bork's originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution could theoretically proscribe racial segregation even within the United States Congress.

Lear later founded the Business Enterprise Trust in 1989, an educational program that used annual awards, business school case studies and videos to cast a spotlight on exemplary social innovations in American business. He also founded the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication in 2000, a multidisciplinary research and public policy center dedicated to exploring the convergence of entertainment, commerce and society.

In 2001, Lear and his wife Lyn purchased a Dunlap broadside -- a rare, original copy of the Declaration of Independence -- for $8.1 million. Not a document collector, Lear stated in a press release and on The Today Show the following day that his intent was to tour the document around the United States so that the country could experience its birth certificate first-hand.

That summer, Lear and Rob Reiner executive-produced a filmed, dramatic reading of the document -- 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 the Declaration of Independence being performed aloud by Kathy Bates, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson, Whoopi Goldberg, Graham Greene, Ming-Na, Edward Norton, Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey, and Renée Zellweger. The film was directed by Arvin Brown and scored by composer John Williams.

The document traveled throughout the United States, visiting several presidential libraries, dozens of museums, as well as the 2002 Olympics, Super Bowl XXXVI, and the Live 8 concert in Philadelphia. Through the end of 2004, it was part of the Declaration of Independence Road Trip and the Declare Yourself campaigns.


Note: This profile was written in or before 2005.

Norman Lear Facts

OccupationProducer, Screenwriter
BirthdayJuly 27, 1922 (95)
SignLeo
BirthplaceNew Haven, Connecticut, USA

Selected Filmography

American Masters: Norman Lear DVD
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
Norman Lear TV Collection
Corpus Christi
Saturday Night Live
I'm A Little Bit Country
America Divided: 102
A Note of Triumph: the Golden Age of Norman Corwin
Howard Schultz + Norman Lear
Maude's Problem
Continue » Find more details on the Norman Lear Movies page