UPDATE SUNDAY MORNING: Whoopi Goldberg will interview Lear at New York’s 92 Street Y on October 14.
“Mother, I just got a confidential call from a friend,” he says. “Nobody knows this yet, so you can’t tell anyone, but the Television Academy is forming a Hall of Fame and these will be the first inductees: the man who started NBC, General David Sarnoff; the founder of CBS, William S. Paley, maybe the greatest newscaster of all time, Edward R. Murrow; easily the best writer that ever came out of television, Paddy Chayefsky; the two greatest comedians in television history, Lucille Ball and Milton Berle … and me. There was about a two-second beat, and she said, ‘Listen, if that’s what they want to do, who am I to say?’ ”
Leave aside the fact that for a couple of decades Lear made Archie and Edith Bunker, along with Meathead, Gloria, George Jefferson, Maude, Fred Sanford and all the rest, made them part of the the fevered American conversations about the wars — between the races, the sexes, the nations, the boroughs.
And the fact that his passion for essential American values led him with a partner to purchase an original print of the Declaration of Independence in order to send it on a truck-stop tour of the continent so just-folks could have a one-on-one encounter with the document that launched the nation.
And that next month he will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from PEN USA, champion of writers in danger around the world.
Leave that all aside and remember that Lear is one of the great storytellers. Even This may be the worst title ever given a memoir, but the book is a trove of great stories brilliantly told about the worlds of television, movies, entertainment, society — and a 92-year-old-man still unashamedly looking for love from a felonious father and a mother who somehow forgot to say “I’m proud of you.” As with the greatest comedy, a skein of sorrow is woven into the narrative. I’ve known Lear for some 25 years, and he is never less than inspiring — even, or especially, when talking about our complicated parents.
A few weeks ago, we sat down in his mementos and family photos filled office at the Beverly Hills HQ of Act III Communications. In the middle of a free-wheeling conversation the first cartons filled with his book arrived. As he cradled a newly printed volume in his hand, several of his nine decades dissolved behind a childlike grin and I swear his eyes twinkled.
DEADLINE: One of the first things that comes across in the book is how Jewish it is. There are a lot of Yiddishisms and, let’s call it, Jewish humor. How would you define that?
LEAR: I use the expression “the foolishness of the human condition.” Burlesque was Jewish humor to me and Jewish humor is inside the human condition. If I knew more about Irish humor, I might find it the same.
DEADLINE: What’s the role of anger?
LEAR: Well, I don’t know whether it’s anger. It’s reporting on anger. I mean anger I don’t think plays. You see an angry comic, you’re turned off, but going inside and talking about one’s father’s anger or grandfather’s anger is quite another thing.
DEADLINE: There’s this moment in Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, where the two brothers have gathered the family around the radio to listen to their first sketch, which of course is all about their family. There’s dead silence after the broadcast and the father says, “How could you do that? You’ve humiliated our family.” And they all go slinking away. And the brother says, “I don’t understand why they reacted that way. It wasn’t them — it was this guy and it was all of them together and we didn’t mean to hurt them.” But the Neil Simon character says, “I knew it was them.” And he turns to the audience and says, “There’s a part of me that everybody loves — and there’s a part of me that’s a mean son of a bitch.”
LEAR: I don’t know whether it’s clear in the book but there’s a part of me that is what everybody has seen and there’s the part of me that’s the 9-year-old kid that is still struggling with wanting to make good for my father…
DEADLINE: Your voice is so distinctive, but you’ve always had strong partners. Did that have something to do with looking for a father figure?
LEAR: The facts suggest I couldn’t do it on my own. They were all fruitful and I loved my partners. In live television — we did Martha Raye, Martin and Lewis — we owned nothing. We were highly paid but we owned nothing. Following the Martha Raye show, I was thinking about situation comedy and when I read that there was a show in England called Till Death Us Do Part, about a bigot and his son or son-in-law, I didn’t have to see anything or know anything. I grew up with a father who called me the laziest white kid he ever met, and my God, how had I never thought of that? So I knew I had it — or at least I knew I had what to start on.
DEADLINE: Can you continue with that story? You heard about the show in England. You thought, How can I have missed that? so, it’s my story too. What happened next?
LEAR: It was a given that it would be very different from the British version. Oh shit, it was a very different, which I learned when I finally saw some of it. I had written about 78 pages about what I wanted it to be before I saw what they were doing, and it was terrific but it wasn’t what I was going to do because I was writing about my father that I loved. I wasn’t interested in the raving-lunatic style.
DEADLINE: One of the many extraordinary things about Archie Bunker was his comfort with casual bigotry – this is the way everybody speaks. If you were pitching All In The Family today, would the pitch be the same?
LEAR: I think so. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be. Because nothing has changed. In those regards nothing has changed.
DEADLINE: You spoke out strongly not too long ago about the idea of a show about old people. And how you thought no way would that happen today.
LEAR: And it hasn’t! I’ll be happy to give you a copy of a script I like a lot. I love the title, Guess Who Died? and I love several of the characters. It could be rewritten 10 ways to Sunday — but everybody has seen it, and nobody has ever called me and said let’s talk about it, and that includes very recently some people who could make it move in a flash. Not even a discussion of it.
DEADLINE: Of all the issues that were covered in those shows during that heyday when you had seven of the top 10 shows, what was the toughest?
LEAR: We had a wonderful character on All In The Family, a transsexual, that started when Archie was driving a cab. I wanted to do a show where Edith lost her faith. It was very clear that Edith’s faith could not be stronger. So one time, a woman was in the back of that cab who had a heart problem, and Archie gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. And she showed up at the door to thank the man who saved her life, and she was a he. So Archie he was confronted with having put his mouth to his, but Edith fell in love with him/her, and we did a couple of shows after that where she was a guest on the show. What could cause Edith Bunker to lose her faith? And I thought, “This woman, this character is killed for being who she was.” Edith couldn’t imagine a God that could allow that. She lost her faith in one episode. Now, we couldn’t air that episode until we knew how she regained it. Didn’t have to be successive but she had to regain her faith.
DEADLINE: You needed her to or the network needed her to, or you agreed with the network?
LEAR: Oh, there was no question. I mean because her loss of faith was going to be significant. We couldn’t figure out how she would get it back. We sat around and talked about it. At some point, weeks and weeks later, somebody innocently asked, “What happens to Archie when she loses her faith?” Son of a bitch. In that answer the regaining of her faith was inherent. She had to regain it to save him because he depended on a strong Edith.
DEADLINE: We forget how many of those issues…those really ahead-of -their-time issues were touched upon in your shows.
LEAR: Yeah, but they were everyday issues. None of them was atomic energy and they haven’t changed.
DEADLINE: When I think of the movies you produced, the first one that always comes mind is Fried Green Tomatoes. A wonderful — and, oddly — spiritual movie.
LEAR: I could not understand how the entire fucking town wouldn’t get behind that script. It was a script I loved, that couldn’t get funded. Jon Avnet couldn’t get it made. I had funded the first several of Rob Reiner’s pictures. Rob couldn’t get the rock group movie funded, This Is Spinal Tap. We had sold a company and I had a bunch of money, and I’ve never been a businessman. It just happened that I loved these scripts. So, I mean that’s how they got made. I had nothing to do with them creatively.
DEADLINE: The point at which you became involved in issues regarding the Constitution — what turned on that switch for you?
LEAR: Being a Jew. I mean I would prefer to say, I was born to Jewish people. The fact is, I was very conscious as I wrote of being Jewish. When I ran into Father Coughlin and suddenly I realized I’m disliked, if not hated, for being Jewish. And at the same time, we were studying civics, I’m learning about the meaning of the Constitution and the Constitutional guarantees of liberty and freedom, and you know, in the eyes of the law we are all the same, and now I’m finding that hatred exists in the world and I’m a victim of it. Dogma, also, I learned, separates us and I don’t like what separates us. There is a straight line from Father Coughlin to a sensitivity to the Declaration and the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment, all of that. It’s all of a piece. Thrillingly, I learned that in the writing of the book. Holy shit! I didn’t know that.
DEADLINE: What do you mean, all of a piece?
LEAR: That I’ve been that same person at 8, or at 9 and at 15, all the way through. The same American who was unhappy with where America was going shortly after the War and is miserable about how it’s behaving today, and I can’t let that go without saying why. Because America fails to look itself in the mirror, doesn’t see the myth it lives in or has created for itself. Like it is God’s chosen country and doesn’t see its own humanity as related to humanity everywhere. My bumper sticker reads “Just Another Version Of You,” and I believe it. America’s forgotten that and thinks it’s God’s chosen and it behaves that way too often. And I say that with as much love as I think can exist for the country I was born in.