Norman Lear on Turning 100 and Changing the Face of Television (Exclusive)
By Miguel A. Melendez
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Norman Lear is celebrating his 100th birthday on Wednesday, and one constant that has remained with the legendary writer and producer all these years is his palpable optimism.
The architect behind such landmark shows as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, The Facts of Life, Sanford and Son and Diff'rent Strokes sat down with ET's Kevin Frazier to talk about the impact the storylines from those iconic shows are still reflective of today's America. He also shared his thought process for addressing some of the more sensitive subjects, like race, abortion and sexuality. Those subjects, somehow, continue to be sensitive multiple decades later, but Lear is hopeful.
"I've said this as recently as yesterday or the day before, I don't want to wake up in the morning without hope and faith in the future," he tells ET.
Lear himself is gobsmacked at the thought of celebrating an entire century, but the milestone birthday offers him an opportunity to reflect on how he changed the face of television and what truly defines an All-American family. Lear was the first to prominently feature an interracial couple in Thomas and Helen Willis (portrayed by Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker, respectively) on The Jeffersons.
"It was just the most glorious ride in the history of rides," says Lear when asked to describe how he pushed that storyline.
Lear developed some of TV's most iconic characters, including Jimmie Walker's James Evans Jr. (or J.J.) on Good Times, but even Lear admits that words are just words on paper and said words don't come to life until actors breathe life into them. Take, for instance, Walker's "dynomite" line, which Walker transformed into "Dy-No-Mite!" A phrase forever etched in pop culture lore.
But while reminiscing about his shows, the trailblazer tells ET he's not one to regret any of his work, and that includes the then-controversial episode of Maude that aired in 1972 and addressed Maude Findlay's abortion in the two-part episode dubbed "Maude's Dilemma." Those episodes, by the way, aired two months before the United States Supreme Court's landmark decision on Roe v. Wade, which has since been overturned.
Lear, a genius ahead of his time and never one afraid to push the boundaries, objected to the idea that Maude suffer a miscarriage instead of having an abortion, largely because he considered the miscarriage storyline a "cop out." And, in that episode, Maude looks to Walter for assurances about making the right decision and forging ahead with an abortion. Walter responds, "In the privacy of our own lives, you're doing the right thing."
While the episodes drew hundreds of letters in protest and some affiliates decided against airing the episodes, Lear is as proud as ever for sticking to his principles, and it's not lost on him that a woman's right to choose is in peril.
"I mean, that line [Walter's 'privacy of our own lives' line] is as important to me today as it was [then]," Lear says. "But yes, in the privacy of your life and your family and as you see your future and that child's future, nobody else can make this decision. It's yours."
Lear is arguably the most influential producer in the history of television, so it's no surprise that his entire library can now be streamed on Freevee from Amazon. What's more, reboots of his shows Who's the Boss? and Mary Hartman,Mary Hartman are also in the works, and he's now the oldest-ever Emmy nominee in history, thanks to his collaboration with Jimmy Kimmel on Live in Front of a Studio Audience: The Facts of Life and Diff'rent Strokes, which are up for two Emmys (Variety Special and Production Design). Lear, Kimmel and Brent Miller serve as executive producers.
Lear has undoubtedly left his stamp on television. After all, he's also the one who gave George Clooney one of his first major TV roles on The Facts of Life, not to mention Regina King (227) and, of course, Janet Jackson (Good Times).
The legendary producer's epic birthday won't wind down anytime soon. He'll be honored with an ABC special dubbed Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter, which airs Sept. 22.