Norman Lear, television producer of such shows as All in the Family and Sanford and Son, has died. A visionary and progresssive voice that was willing to hold a mirror up to America’s face, Lear faced a multitude of challenges in his storied life.
Born on July 27th, 1922 in New Haven, CT, Lear’s parents were Jewish and of Russian descent. He left college to serve in the Air Force in WWII, eventually flying 52 missions. But for me, Lear will always be associated with the biggest belly laugh I ever heard my grandfather project.
Like Mr. Lear, my grandfather was a WWII participant, in the Pacific Theatre as a member of the U.S. Navy. Like Lear, he was progressive in relative comparison to his peers. Much of this came from a respect for the unity it took to defeat the Axis powers. Lear never thought much social change resulted from his works:
Though “All in the Family” and its successors changed TV forever with their sharp political edge and theretofore unseen frankness, Lear later took a cool look back on what the show ultimately achieved.
He averred, “I didn’t see it changing television at all. We had a Judeo-Christian ethic hanging around a couple thousand years that didn’t help erase racism at all. So the notion of the little half-hour comedy changing things is something I think is silly.”
Perhaps unaware of the size of the shadow he cast over time, along the way he founded People for the American Way, an organization dedicated to the cause of social and racial justice, and protecting against the overreach from the “conservative moral majority.”
But most of all Lear will be remembered for how his brilliant humor allowed America to see its underbelly of bigotry. Like all great artists, he reflected his era with unflinching honesty. Like all great leaders, he gave everyone but himself the credit.
Working with a list of luminaries that reads like a recitation of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Lear established a career in writing, then production. But Mr. Lear will always be known for three shows that changed the way America saw itself, “All in the Family”, “Sanford and Son”, and “The Jeffersons.”
Depicting the struggle of America’s working class in the first two, the latter told us a story about escaping a ghetto as a successful businessperson. George Jefferson presented an interesting look at resentments and distrust, with his own bigotry laid bare. In rewatching the episodes as an adult, George’s insecurities are clear as financial success failed to make him comfortable with his own hard-earned place at the table.
Many volumes will be written about Lear, and the truth is his life may well become a college course one day, or at least, a larger part of the curriculum. But over 101 plus years, Lear’s life of courage changed America as much or more than most Presidents, because he was able to do through art the one thing that must precede policy reforms:
Farewell, soldier, producer, American hero.
Thank you for turning my laughs into my education.
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"Leaving is hard. The thought of leaving is hard," he added. "But the adventure of going remains to be seen. I'll get back to you."