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Remembering Norman Lear, who died this week at the age of 101

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's hear some of a conversation with the late Norman Lear. The TV producer and activist died this week at the age of 101. It can be hard today to grasp just how much Lear revolutionized network television. He worked social commentary into sitcoms that usually avoided it. In the network TV of the 1960s, Andy Griffith played the sheriff of a Southern town, and whatever the virtues of that nostalgic show, it never touched the civil rights struggles of the real-life American South that were going on at the same time. That was normal TV.

In the 1970s, Norman Lear's "All In The Family" absolutely did reference the social divisions of the time, which we discussed with Lear on this program in 2008. We played him a clip of Archie Bunker, a white New York City man played by Carroll O'Connor, who encounters the Black entertainer Sammy Davis Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

CARROLL O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Now, no prejudice intended, but, you know, I always check with the Bible on these here things. Yeah. I think that, I mean, if God had meant us to be together, he'd have put us together. Well, look what he's done. He put you over in Africa. He put the rest of us in all the white countries.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMMY DAVIS JR: (As himself) Well, you must have told him where we were because somebody came and got us.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Thirty-seven years, Norman Lear, and you're still laughing at that clip.

NORMAN LEAR: I come across a show on television. You know, I never know when it's going to air. But I do run across it, and I will laugh the same way.

INSKEEP: "All In The Family" wasn't afraid to laugh at the kinds of remarks that might otherwise bring an uncomfortable silence to the room. It was an enormous hit and inspired a spinoff built around a Black family, "The Jeffersons." In later years, Norman Lear moved from commenting on politics through his art to getting directly involved.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEAR: The mixture of politics and religion scared the hell out of me, and I went out and made a 60-second television spot. A hard hat sitting on a piece of factory equipment was saying, you know, got to be something wrong when ministers are telling us we're good Christians or bad Christians depending on our political point of view. He wound up saying, that's not the American way. So an organization I never intended. People For the American Way, just sprung up around it. And I was out of television.

INSKEEP: People for the American Way was the best known of his liberal activist groups. When we spoke in 2008, Lear was in his 80s but still active in a group that aimed at getting young people to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: What do you wonder about the country that you or people collectively will be leaving them?

LEAR: Oh, I can't not compare it with the feelings that existed for the country when I was a kid. There was no question about how we felt about the country. When I was a kid in high school, the American Legion started something called the American Legion Oratorical Contest, tell you how long ago it was (laughter).

INSKEEP: When people still said things like oratorical.

LEAR: Oratorical, yeah. But the contest was you spoke for 10 minutes about the Constitution. But talking about the Constitution was easy for everybody because everybody - it was so much in our minds, the Bill of Rights, the - all the things that added up to I love my country.

INSKEEP: Is it less so now?

LEAR: Far less so, far less so.

INSKEEP: Do you remember what part of the Constitution you spoke about and a little something of what you said about it?

LEAR: I do. I had experienced some antisemitism as a kid. And the Constitution - I talked about what the Constitution meant to me as a young Jewish kid and how much comfort it gave me to know that I had a constitutional protection. I could run into problems, but that I was equal. You know, that was enormously important to me.

INSKEEP: Norman Lear speaking on MORNING EDITION in 2008. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.