Norman Lear

Active - 1953 - Present  |   Born - Jul 27, 1922 in New Haven, Connecticut, United States  |   Genres - Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

American writer/director/producer Norman Lear was a graduate of Emerson College. After wartime air force service, Lear became a radio and TV comedy writer, gaining his first "fame" when he was publicly fired by Martin and Lewis. With his friend and longtime collaborator Bud Yorkin, Lear established Tandem Productions in 1959, for the purpose of turning out quality TV specials and comedy theatrical films. While Divorce American Style is a masterpiece of disciplined filmmaking, many of the Lear/Yorkin productions, notably The Night They Raided Minsky's (1967), and Cold Turkey (1971), ran hot and cold; each uproarious comic setpiece would be followed by a groaner, and by the end of the film the humor level had dwindled to chaotic shouting and running about. Lear's best work of the '70s would be concentrated on television. In 1968, he began adapting the British comedy series Till Death Do Us Part for American consumption; the result, which premiered in 1971, was All in the Family, which, in addition to winning a warehouse full of Emmies, literally changed the face of TV comedy. Now a high-roller, Lear churned out one top-rated network project after another, many of them spinoffs of earlier series: Maude (1972), Sanford and Son (1972), Good Times (1973), The Jeffersons (1975). So successful was Lear's output that he was forgiven the occasional flop like The Hot L Baltimore (1975). When all three major networks rejected Lear's soap opera parody Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, the producer released the series via non-network syndication in 1976, spawning a brief vogue for late-night syndicated comedy programs (most of them Lear's). During his glory years, Lear became a convenient target for clean-up-TV brigades and political extremists; he also came under fire from some of his own stars, who accused Lear of stifling their artistic potential. The producer responded to the efforts of self-styled censors by helping to create the People for the American Way, an organization dedicated to the perpetuation of freedom of expression on television. He was less successful in counteracting his personal travails; most of his stars left for greener pastures, while his longtime marriage broke up in a highly publicized fashion, with the ex-Mrs. Lear using her settlement money to establish a trendy magazine called Lear's. In the last fifteen years, Norman Lear has been justifiably canonized as a pioneer and innovator in the world of socially conscious television; but his most recent TV projects, such as the very shortlived Sunday Dinner, tend to be sourly reactionary efforts, lacking the cutting-edge brilliance of his best work.

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  • As a high-school senior, won an American Legion oratorical contest for a speech about what the U.S. Constitution meant to him.
  • Was an Army Air Force radioman during WWII; flew 56 missions and received an Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters.
  • Began his show-business career in the early 1950s writing gags for Danny Thomas; later wrote Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin's material for NBC's Colgate Comedy Hour.
  • Modeled Bea Arthur's Maude character after his ex-wife Frances Lear.
  • Cofounded People for the American Way, a civil-liberties advocacy organization, in 1981.
  • Was an inaugural inductee into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984 (along with Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Paddy Chayefsky, Edward R. Murrow, William S. Paley and David Sarnoff).
  • Purchased a Dunlap broadside, an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, for $8.1 million in 2001; it has been on display around the U.S. ever since.
  • In 2004, founded Declare Yourself, a nonprofit, nonpartisan campaign to encourage young adults to vote in political elections.
  • In 2009, started the Born Again American campaign, which promotes citizenship and activism.
  • Owns Act III Communications, a multimedia holding company.
  • Supports a variety of nonprofit organizations (including Habitat for Humanity, Heal the Bay and Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles) through the Lear Family Foundation.