Music Box Films 91 minutes Documentary/ Biography
Norman Lear is the man who transformed TV forever starting in the 1970’s with edgy sitcoms that dealt with everything from bigotry, war and politics, to abortion and more. And he’s still working at the age of 94 on a Latino version of One Day at a Time. He’s also still a screaming liberal, even weighed in on politics when we saw him live in Chicago in May saying “Trump is the middle finger of the American right hand.”
Lear was at the Music Box Theatre where he and Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, Freakonomics) introduced this documentary on his life and vast body of work. It is now playing at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. The film is a little slow going in the beginning, using a little boy version of Lear as a segue between portions of his life. But the story of his childhood, service in the military, how he got into show business, creations and collaborations and his marriages include fascinating details. (Link to the Q & A feature we shot when Lear was in Chicago in July.)
Ewing and Grady told us at the screening that they were concerned that Lear, being a producer, would want a certain amount of control when they made the documentary, but that wasn’t the case. They said that because he understands artistry, he gave them a lot of freedom and he told the crowd who came to see the film and him that he loved the film.
He had a rough childhood in New York City. His father went to jail for selling fake bonds during The Depression and his Mother checked out, handing him over to uncles to raise him at the age of 9. He worked at Coney Island growing up to make money and that’s where he got a different kind of education. He left college to become a radio/gunner during World War II.
He moved his family from NYC to LA to go into Public Relations and started writing comedy bits with a cousin. He says getting $25 for a joke they wrote gave him the impetus to do more and they ended up doing just that for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He says Lewis was amazing. That you could just say one word to him and he’d take off on it.
The film shows how he wanted to do a comedy show about a blue collar family which eventually turned into All in the Family. He says he knew as soon as Carroll O’Connor came in the audition, that he was the Archie Bunker he was looking for. The film shows the respect Lear had for what O’Connor brought to his character and the rest of the family in that series. He says the chemistry was a miracle and “the fate of the heavens” that brought magic to his scripts.
The film shows how he created All in the Family, Maude, One Day at a Time, and series showing Black family life for the first time on TV with The Jeffersons and Good Times. It also shows how he wrote so many, often at the same time and the price he paid taking time away from his own family. He’s had 3 marriages and 6 kids. His love stories are interesting, as are his collaborations and friendships with the likes of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Even John Stewart and George Clooney talk about the respect they have for him in the film.
Is this worth your bucks? Yes, this is worth seeing for several reasons. Norman Lear is a groundbreaker who was willing to put topics out there with characters we could relate to at a time when there were sensitive issues that are still being dealt with today. He’s also a very funny guy who speaks his mind and knows how to deliver a punch line, even when it comes to his own life. Because of what he’s done with his, we’re all in Lear’s family.