Austin Film Festival 2015: A Conversation with Norman Lear

Norman Lear
Norman Lear

“Everybody Loves Raymond” and “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” creator Phil Rosenthal chatted with legendary television creator Norman Lear about Lear’s life and experiences in television during the Austin Film Festival Saturday at the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel.

The panel began and ended with standing ovations for Lear, who was responsible for tackling then-taboo subjects including race, gender and abortion in his 1970s situation comedies.

Lear, wearing his trademark hat, discussed his childhood and subsequent family life, and told Rosenthal that he had been a humor writer for his high school newspaper. His column was called, “Notes to You from King Lear.”

“Did somebody encourage you to do that?
“ Rosenthal asked?

“No,” Lear replied. “Nobody ever encouraged me to do anything.”

He later became a shadow writer for social columnists at New York City newspapers, feeding them humorous items. If his material got laughs, he said, he never got to hear nor enjoy them.

A sobering segment about Lear’s moral crisis in the military, where he flew in 52 missions bombing Berlin in a B-17, led to lighter anecdotes about Frank Sinatra and, eventually, the genesis of “All in the Family.”

Phil Rosenthal
Phil Rosenthal

Lear was working on Martha Ray’s live, musical television program when he discovered that filmed programs that could be rerun, such as “I Married Joan,” were potentially very lucrative. He picked this up from a friend who wrote on that program and was going through a divorce. All his ex-wife wanted, he told Lear, were his “Joan Allen reruns.”

“There was more excitement in live television, but for good reason, I wanted to do a situation comedy,” Lear said.

Eventually, he discovered the British television comedy “Til Death Us Do Part,” which focused on a father and son who fought about political issues. “My father called me the laziest white kid he ever met,” Lear recalled. When Lear would try to educate his father about the racial problems with such statements, his father would respond that his son was also “the dumbest white kid he ever met.” So the material resonated with him.

Lear made a pilot, “And Justice for All,” in which future “All in the Family” icon Carroll O’Conner played a character named Archie Justice. His future television wife Jean Stapleton also starred. The pilot was never made into a series, but the network wanted it remade in a year so it could keep its option on the property. Lear recalls shooting the exact same script two more times with different actors. Finally, a regime change at CBS led to the series being picked up as “All in the Family.”

“At the moment of commitment the entire universe conspires to assist you,” Lear told the crowd, quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “I take credit for casting those four people, but can take no credit for what developed after that. The chemistry was glorious from the start and got more so in every episode. That was a gift from the gods.”

When Rosenthal told the crowd that Lear’s trailblazing was largely responsible for his own success, Lear humbly replied, “We all walk in on the shoulders of others.”

Rosenthal noted that because of the importance we place upon “All in the Family” in the history of television, we tend to forget how funny it is. This led to a discussion of the famous episode guest-starring Sammy Davis Jr., the first toilet flush heard on television and the transvestite character to whom Archie administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in his cab.

The subject of taboo topics led to the discussion of Lear’s spin-off, “Maude,” and the episode centering on abortion. Lear noted that when the episode first ran, there was nary a peep, with the exception of perhaps a few complaint letters.

“But when show went into reruns, the religious right — the far right, the crazies that now compose the tea party — knew the show was coming on,” he said. They showed up in force with banners and laid down in front of cars in protest.

“I didn’t understand I was expressing a point of view, because I was defending the comedy we were trying to do,” Lear told the audience, noting that all of the shows were filmed in front of live audiences he was attempting to entertain. At some point, he said, he realized that if the biggest problems faced by characters on shows that preceded his was that “the boss was coming to dinner and roast was ruined,” well, that fact was also sending a “wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling message” — that everything was fine and dandy in America. At that point, he began to embrace his platform.

This resulted in Lear proudly winding up on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, which Lear discovered as a result of Nixon’s infamous tapes. A seven-minute segment of the recordings, Lear said, found the President bemoaning an episode of “All in the Family” with Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. In that episode, Carroll O’Connor’s bigoted Archie Bunker learned that one of his favorite athletes, a pro linebacker, was gay.

“These were his words,” Lear said: “we were ‘making fun of a good man (Bunker).’ ”

As usual, Rosenthal was a great interviewer and the perfect choice to guide the 93-year-old Lear through the discussion even if, at times, Lear appeared uncomfortable with the adulation.

“You’re wet,” Lear told Rosenthal, explaining that he’d long ago decided people fit into one of two categories: dry or wet.

“If you’re dry, there are no hugs You’re brittle; flaky. If you hug someone who’s a dry person, you could get cut on their body,” Lear joked. “Wet people are huggable and warm. And you’re soaking wet.”

“In many ways that I don’t even want to go into,” Rosenthal replied. “Norman Lear, you made my life better.”