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 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.’”
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 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 1997 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 July 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: (a) “his work as both a groundbreaking television producer and an outspoken progressive activist and benefactor,” and (b) creating PFAW to “figh[t] the rising influence of the religious right in American politics.” 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.”
Speaking at PFAW’s 30th anniversary celebration in December 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.
In May 2018, Lear tweeted out a video endorsing Florida Democrat Andrew Gillum‘s gubernatorial campaign. Earlier in the campaign, Lear had donated $50,000 to Gillum’s Political Action Committee.
Over the years, Lear has contributed well over $1 million to a host of Democratic candidates and causes. Recipients of his funding include such notables as Tammy Baldwin, Xavier Becerra, Joe Biden, Barbara Boxer, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, John Conyers, Tom Daschle, Howard Dean, Chris Dodd, Dick Durbin, Donna Edwards, John Edwards, Russ Feingold, Dianne Feinstein, Al Franken, Al Gore, Alan Grayson, Kamala Harris, Tom Harkin, Tim Kaine, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Patrick Leahy, Ed Markey, Claire McCaskill, Kweisi Mfume, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Bill Richardson, Bernie Sanders, Adam Schiff, Kyrsten Sinema, Louise Slaughter, Tom Udall, Elizabeth Warren, and Maxine Waters. Lear also has given money to such organizations as EMILY’s List, the League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood, and Progressive Majority.
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.”
For additional information on Norman Lear, click here.
Further Reading: “Norman Lear” (Biography.com); “Norman Lear Fast Facts” (CNN, 7-12-2018); “Norman Lear Admits His Famous Shows Were Left-Wing Racial Propaganda” (10-3-2014); “Liberal King Lear” (National Review, 3-25-2008); “Death Watch” (Emerge, November 1995, vis-a-vis Mumia Abu-Jamal); “For a Moratorium on Federal Executions” (Spectacle.org, December 2000); “Transcript: Bill Moyers Interviews Norman Lear” (7-5-2002); “Norman Lear Speech to the 30th Anniversary People For The American Way Dinner” (12-5-2011); “Hillary Hits L.A. for Fundraising Events with Chuck Lorre, Norman Lear” (Newsmax, 5-7-2015); “Gillum Gets Endorsement from Former Boss Norman Lear” (Tallahassee Democrat, 5-25-2018); “George Soros, Norman Lear Among Top Donors in Gillum Campaign” (Tallahassee Democrat, 4-5-2017); Norman Lear’s Political Donations (OpenSecrets.org).