Lear was born into a Jewish family in New Haven, Connecticut on July 27, 1922. His father Herman worked as a securities broker, and his mother Jeanette was a homemaker. Lear attended Emerson College in Boston for a short time before leaving school in 1942 to serve as a bomber radio operator during World War II. After the war, he pursued a career in show business and was soon writing for stars like Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye.
Lear first gained great fame as the writer and producer of All in the Family, which initially aired in 1971. The show, which starred actor Carroll O’Connor (as the narrow-minded conservative Archie Bunker) and Rob Reiner (as his liberal son-in-law Michael), was the first TV sitcom to deal openly with such social issues as race relations, politics, the Vietnam War, and feminism. At the time, Lear was President of the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California.
The next year, Lear introduced Maude, another controversial and influential sitcom that dealt regularly with such issues as birth control, abortion, and divorce.
Lear’s career in television also included his production of other popular -- though less politically charged -- shows like Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and One Day at a Time.
In 1981 Lear was planning to produce a movie whose main character was a conservative religious figure. To get ideas for how he could present the character, Lear began watching televangelists like Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggert, and Pat Robertson. After some 80 hours of viewing what he considered to be their odious rantings, Lear abandoned the film project and instead resolved to find a way to discredit the views of conservative Christians. “It was the relentless political message that got to me,” he would later recall. “Hour after hour they [the televangelists] were telling people, ‘You are a good Christian or a bad Christian, depending on your view of the Supreme Court, or capital punishment.’”
To combat the Christian right, Lear founded People for the American Way (PFAW) in 1981. He hired Anthony Podesta, whose brother John Podesta would become chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, as PFAW’s first President. (Today the organization’s President is Ralph Neas, and its Board of Directors includes notables like Alec Baldwin, Kathleen Turner and Mary Frances Berry.)
In 1982 Lear derided American consumerism, which he defined as an “obsession with the bottom line” in “a climate of opportunism.”
In 1989 Lear helped establish the Environmental Media Association, whose mission is “to mobilize the entertainment industry in a global effort to inspire people into action.”
In 1995 Lear was a signatory to a New York Times ad voicing support for the convicted cop-killer and leftist icon Mumia Abu Jamal. Other notables who lent their names to the ad included Noam Chomsky, Roger Ebert, Mike Farrell, Danny Glover, bell Hooks, Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Charles Rangel, Susan Sarandon, Gloria Steinem, Cornel West, Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins, and Norman Mailer.
In 1998 Lear created the Lear Family Foundation, which supports many leftwing causes and organizations.
Also in 1998, Lear was a signatory to the Statement of Principles of the New Century Alliance for Social Security, a coalition of groups -- spearheaded by Institute for America’s Future -- that opposed the privatization of Social Security. Other signers included John Sweeney, Steven Kest, Mike Farrell, Roger Hickey, Marian Wright Edelman, Patricia Ireland, Kweisi Mfume, Raul Yzaguirre, Robert Reich, Susan Shaer, Jesse Jackson, Eleanor Smeal, Brent Blackwelder, Nancy Duff Campbell, Heather Booth, and Andrew Stern.
In 2000 Lear was a signatory to a letter addressed to President Bill Clinton, asking him to place a moratorium on federal death penalty executions. The letter specifically opposed the scheduled execution of death row inmate Juan Garza, stating: “We cannot bring Mr. Garza or others back if we decide that they were the victims of a death penalty system distorted by bias and arbitrariness.” Garza was a convicted drug dealer who had murdered three people in the U.S. and was suspected of four more killings in Mexico. Other signers of the letter included Mary Frances Berry, Julian Bond, Wade Henderson, Jesse Jackson, Jim Wallis, Barbra Streisand, Robert Reich, and George Soros.
In a 2002 interview on PBS, Lear was asked by host Bill Moyers, “Did your heart leap with joy last week when the Federal Court in California said that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because that phrase ‘one nation, Under God’ violates the separation of church and state?” Lear responded: “I won’t say that I was pleased; [but] I wasn’t upset.”
Lear’s contempt for any mention of a deity in school was evident when he told another reporter, “I grew up with prayer in schools. It was a joke. We also pledged allegiance to the flag…. So prayer in school was a joke.”
Lear believes that art in all its forms -- paintings, music, TV sitcoms, etc -- can be used effectively as a weapon with which to thwart the influence of conservatives:
In 2003 Lear endorsed a statement condemning the Smithsonian Institution’s plan to exhibit the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress used in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. He and his fellow 250+ signers -- among whom were Noam Chomsky, Martin Sheen, and Oliver Stone -- were opposed to the aircraft being regarded in a “celebratory” manner.
“Art … can be dangerous to those in power.… This, I submit, is precisely what so many cultural conservatives are fearful of.… In the wake of 9/11, the United States Government has become far more secretive, authoritarian and fear-inducing -- and the American culture has become far more volatile, polarized and fear-full. The disturbing truth-telling of Tony Kushner’s [play] Angels in America, Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial or even the early Eminem -- artistic entities that force us to pay more attention to those who suffer and to reconsider what we have taken for granted -- are too much the exception. More than ever we need the wisdom that only art and art criticism can provide.”
In the run-up to the 2004 elections, Lear founded “Declare Yourself,” a get-out-the-vote campaign using Hollywood entertainment figures and the Internet to inspire young Americans to become registered voters. Notwithstanding his leftwing leanings, Lear insisted that the voter drive was nonpartisan. The initiative was supported by celebrities with a decidedly leftwing bent, including Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Ed Norton, and Kevin Spacey.In March 2008, Campaign for America’s Future presented Lear with its Lifetime Leadership Award, recognizing him for “his work as both a groundbreaking television producer and an outspoken progressive activist and benefactor”; for “fighting the rising influence of the religious right in American politics”; and for having created People for the American Way, “an organization that has been a staunch critic of the right and a fierce defender of the principle that progressive Americans must have their faith and their patriotism acknowledged and respected.”
Between 1979 and 2008, Lear contributed some $970,000 to the campaigns of political candidates; of this, more than $810,000 went to Democrats. Among the major recipients of Lear’s donations were Bill Clinton, Barbara Boxer, Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders, John Lewis, Richard Gephardt, Maxine Waters, John Edwards, Al Franken, Kweisi Mfume, John Conyers, John Kerry, Patrick Leahy, Al Gore, Dennis Kucinich, Jesse Jackson, Robert Byrd, and Gore Vidal. In the 2008 presidential election, Lear contributed to both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama‘s campaigns.
Lear also has given money to such organizations as EMILY’S List, Progressive Majority, Voters for Choice, and the Sierra Club.