- Producer of such popular television programs as All in the Family and Maude
- Founder of People For the American Way
- Prolific donor to leftwing causes and politicians
Norman Milton Lear was born into a Jewish family in New Haven, Connecticut on July 27, 1922. He attended Emerson College in Boston for a short time before leaving school in 1942 to serve as a gunner and radio operator in World War II. After the war, Lear worked in the public-relations industry for four years and then launched a career as a comedy writer. In 1958 he collaborated with director Bud Yorkin to establish Tandem Productions, which created a number of feature films.
Lear gained fame in 1971 as the writer and producer of All in the Family, the first television sitcom to deal openly with social issues like race, sexuality, politics, and feminism. The show starred actor Carroll O’Connor as the character Archie Bunker, whom Lear deliberately portrayed as a “poorly educated, full-of-himself blowhard … spewing a kind of rancid, lights-out conservatism.” At the time, Lear was president of the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California.
In 1972 Lear introduced Maude, another controversial and influential sitcom that addressed such issues as birth control, abortion, and divorce. Lear’s additional television productions also included a number of popular—though less politically charged—shows like Sanford and Son (1972-77), The Jeffersons (1975-85), Good Times (1974-79), and One Day at a Time (1975-84). When Good Times was being created, Lear wanted two African Americans—Mike Evans and Eric Monte—to write the pilot, given the program’s focus on black characters and themes. But according to Lear, “they blew it creatively with a poor copycat of a script,” resulting in a situation where “what they wrote was a far cry from what we [ultimately] shot.” Nevertheless, says Lear, “[W]e did not seek to change their credit as the sole co-creators. I could be confessing to a bit of inverse racism here when I admit that it even pleased me to see them credited and paid. That would not have happened, at least not gratuitously, if they were white.”
In 1981 Lear was planning to produce a movie about two New York City police officers who doubled, fraudulently, as ordained Christian ministers. To get ideas for how he could present these characters, he began watching televangelists like Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggert, and Pat Robertson. After many 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 relentless political message” of conservative preachers who were “telling people, ‘You are a good Christian or a bad Christian, depending on your view of the Supreme Court, or capital punishment.’”1 Later in 1981 Lear founded People for the American Way (PFAW), to “oppos[e] the Religious Right,” “promote progressive policies,” and “elect progressive candidates.” He hired Anthony Podesta, brother of John Podesta, as the organization’s first president. One of Lear’s earliest PFAW crusades was to take legal action that aimed to use the “Fairness Doctrine” to limit the airtime and influence of televangelists.
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 1998 Lear created the Lear Family Foundation, which supports many left-wing causes and organizations.
In 2000 Lear was a signatory to a letter asking President Bill Clinton to place a moratorium on federal death-penalty executions, on grounds that the “death penalty system” was “distorted by bias and arbitrariness.” Other signers included Mary Frances Berry, Julian Bond, Wade Henderson, Jesse Jackson, Jim Wallis, Barbra Streisand, Robert Reich, and George Soros.
In a 2002 interview with 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.”
In March 2008 the 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.” In his acceptance speech, Lear lamented that the U.S. was being controlled by “the neocons, theocons, and big business—a threesome to end all threesomes.”
In June 2009 Lear co-chaired a Campaign for America’s Future “awards gala” honoring a number of “progressive champions.”
In 2011 Lear urged his fellow “lefties” to “start laying claim to what we see as ‘sacred’ and serve it up proudly to the religious right—to the James Dobson, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Karl Rove … hatemongers, sheathed in sanctity, and to the Koch brothers, the types that fund them and use them so effectively for their own political power-grabbing purposes.” “Over the past several decades,” Lear complained, “the power-grabbing right has built a powerful infrastructure—radio and TV stations and networks. They’ve built think tanks, colleges and law schools.”
In May 2015 Lear attended a $2,700-per-person fundraising event for Hillary Clinton‘s presidential campaign. Over the years, he has contributed well over $1 million to a host of Democratic candidates and causes.
Lear believes that art in all its forms—paintings, music, television programs, movies, etc.—can be used as an effective weapon to thwart the influence of conservatives: “Art … can be dangerous to those in power.… This, I submit, is precisely what so many cultural conservatives are fearful of.”
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1 “I was watching a TV preacher and heard something that all but made my heart stop,” Lear recalls. “I believe it was Jimmy Swaggart urging his audience to pray for the removal of a Supreme Court justice whom he found particularly offensive…. I could not find the words to describe how this disturbed every fiber of my American being.”