So how did TV icon Norman Lear celebrate his 100th birthday on Wednesday? He certainly didn’t do it quietly. Instead, he wrote an opinion piece published in Wednesday’s New York Times that reflected on how Archie Bunker would have reacted to Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection.
In the late 1960s, Lear got the inspiration to create an American version of the British sitcom, Till Death Do Us Part, about a reactionary white working-class Tory and his Socialist son-in-law.
After rejecting several pilots, CBS finally picked up Lear’s All in the Family, which premiered in January 1971. The family patriarch, Archie Bunker, (played by Carroll O’Connor), is a bigot who is prejudiced against anyone who is not like him as he struggles to deal with a rapidly changing world. In his opinion piece, Lear wrote:
The kinds of topics Archie Bunker and his family argued about—issues that were dividing Americans from one another, such as racism, feminism, homosexuality, the Vietnam War and Watergate—were certainly being talked about in homes and families. They just weren’t being acknowledged on television.
For all his faults, Archie loved his country and he loved his family, even when they called him out on his ignorance and bigotries. If Archie had been around 50 years later, he probably would have watched Fox News. He probably would have been a Trump voter. But I think that the sight of the American flag being used to attack Capitol Police would have sickened him. I hope that the resolve shown by Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, and their commitment to exposing the truth, would have won his respect.
Lear wrote that he himself was “deeply troubled” by the Jan. 6 attack on Congress by supporters of former President Donald Trump. And as the House Jan. 6 select committee has revealed even more about the lengths Trump was prepared to go to remain in power, Lear said he’s concerned about the future “for the people and country I love.”
“To be honest, I’m a bit worried that I may be in better shape than our democracy is,” the newly minted centenarian observed. “I don’t take the threat of authoritarianism lightly.”
Lear described how he dropped out of college after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and joined the U.S. Army Air Forces, flying more than 50 missions in a B-17 bomber over Europe to defeat fascism. “I am a flag-waving believer in truth, justice, and the American way, and I don’t understand how so many people who call themselves patriots can support efforts to undermine our democracy and our Constitution. It is alarming,” he wrote.
“At the same time, I have been moved by the courage of the handful of conservative Republican lawmakers, lawyers, and former White House staffers who resisted Mr. Trump’s bullying. They give me hope that Americans can find unexpected common ground with friends and family whose politics differ but who are not willing to sacrifice core democratic principles.”
Lear said that whenever he feels disheartened by the direction that the country is going in, he does not lose faith in our country because he reminds himself of “how far we have come” and thinks of all “the brilliantly creative people” he worked with in entertainment and politics.
After All in the Family, Lear went on to create and produce more memorable sitcoms that dealt with controversial topics—Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
A two-part 1972 episode of Maude, which starred Bea Arthur, aired the year before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and is relevant today. Maude discovers that she is pregnant at the age of 47 and then must decide whether or not to have an abortion. She does.
Lear reacted to the rise of the radical Christian right, reflected by such groups as the Moral Majority, by co-founding the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way in 1980 to defend constitutional values such as free expression, religious liberty, and equal justice. Lear’s group played an active role in blocking the 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. In his opinion piece, Lear wrote that he founded the group to “defend our freedoms and build a country in which all people benefit from the blessings of liberty.”
He concluded his piece by observing: “This is our century, dear reader, yours and mine. Let us encourage one another with visions of a shared future. And let us bring all the grit and openheartedness and creative spirit we can muster to gather together and build that future.”
Rich West, a professor at Emerson College who has taught a course on Lear’s career, told The Washington Post that Lear’s shows “force people to confront their own values, their own prejudices, their own beliefs.”
“You think of rape and you think of mental health and you think of inflation, you think of alcoholism, you think of domestic violence and poverty. And guess what? All of those are resonating today in 2022,” West said. “That’s why I believe he’s an icon. It’s not because of what he wrote, but because his themes are sustained today. And we have conversations today about the same things that he was writing about in the 1970s.”
His shows “made you feel uncomfortable. They made you feel confused. They made you feel happy and sad. But they always prompted some reflection long past the credits of the show, if you were willing to go there,” adds West. “And I think that’s where the critical part of his influence is.”
ABC announced Wednesday that it is planning to celebrate Lear’s centennial with a two-hour prime-time special, Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter, which is scheduled to air on Sept. 22.
Variety wrote that the special will air just 10 days after the Emmy Awards, which Lear plans to attend. He is already the oldest Emmy nominee and winner ever, receiving the Emmy for variety special for two consecutive years for his Live in Front of a Studio Audience specials with Jimmy Kimmel. He is nominated again this year for the third edition of the Live specials, which aired in 2021, and re-created episodes of Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life.
And as he begins a new century, Lear is not ready to retire. His production company, ACT III, has 23 projects in development, including a Who’s the Boss? reboot starring Tony Danza and Alyssa Milano and a Good Times animated revival for Netflix.
And a day before his centennial, Lear offered some thoughts on Twitter.
Lear began by singing a few lines from Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore,” recalling how he began his entertainment career in the 1950s by writing sketches for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis for The Colgate Comedy Hour on TV.
He marveled at the wonders of modern technology and how it helped him get to his 100th year. “My God, the miracle of being alive with everything that’s available to us,” said Lear. “And me turning 100 tomorrow. Did you hear me? Tomorrow I turn 100. That’s as believable to me as today I’m 99.”
Lear then gave his listeners some advice: “Living in the moment,” he said. “The moment between past and present, present and past, the moment between after and next. The hammock in the middle of after and next. The moment. Treasure it. Use it—with love.”
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