When Norman Lear wrote contentious episodes of All in the Family
, Sanford and Son
, Good Times
and The Jeffersons
that dealt with war, procreative liberty, poverty, racism and feminism, he expected flack from the networks. What Lear never anticipated, he told SF Weekly
, was the pushback he received from the Good Times
and even the Black Panther Party — the very people he was trying to give voice to.
While Lear isn't black, he was still confident that he could do justice to issues of economic hardship, religious identity and teen sex faced by African Americans, because these were matters faced by all Americans. To the producer, we're all versions of each other.
Lear is now the subject of a new documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,
which premieres at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, on Saturday. The producer, who will be in attendance, will be honored with the Freedom of Expression award.
Could you explain the title of your new movie, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. On one hand, it seems to suggest that it's giving us another version of you, and on the other, that you're giving us another version of the American family through your television shows.
Well, actually, it is my bumper sticker, and it's been on my car for several years. I'm surprised I didn't use it as the title of my book, Even This I Get to Experience
. But I experienced it as another version of every other human being. So the women who directed, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, saw my bumper sticker and said, "We want to use that for the title of the movie." I said, "Fine," so that's how that came about.
What do you want audiences to learn about you from the film?
The title, itself, answers the very essence of what I feel — that we as human beings are just versions of one another. If people remember that, it might be a good deal more peace and less violence in this world. Isn't that the ultimate message — to get along?
In your career, you've often taken the harder road rather than going along to get along. Where did you get your fight from?
I think it came from a desire to reflect the reality of what it meant to be a human being, and, in our case, a human being in America. We were simply reflecting all of the problems and triumphs that American families were facing. There wasn't a subject that wasn't occurring up the street, down the street or across the street from us.
When you look back on your career, is there one moment that feels like your greatest success?
Well, I was nine years old, and my father went to jail and my mother was selling the furniture, and I was going to go live with an uncle. It was a lousy situation, when a grown man put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Well, Norman, you're the man of the house now." That had to be a defining moment for me. I'm in this condition and this other asshole is telling me I'm the man of the house, and then a moment later, he's saying, "There, there Norman, the man of the house doesn't cry." I had to learn something about the foolishness of the human condition at that moment.
You've recently said that you have no regrets. But was there ever a time where you felt failure?
There were many such moments, of course. A hallmark of that kind of thing was I adored comedienne Nancy Walker. I thought she was such a glorious talent. I did a pilot for her, and the show was on for some weeks, but it wasn't good enough. She was glorious, but I simply failed her.
In Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You?, Good Times actors John Amos and the late Esther Rolle describe their resistance to what they considered black stereotyping on the show. The Black Panthers also voiced some concerns about certain representations. What are your thoughts about that today?
The Black Panthers were complaining that the only show representing a black family had the guy holding down two and occasionally even a third job. Why wasn't there a family that was doing better, because there were lots of African-American families that were. That edged us, I'm sure, to thinking about The Jeffersons
, which turned into a really good thing.
The other thing is the resistance Esther Rolle and John Amos expressed about Jimmie Walker's J.J. character. I understood the enormous weight they were carrying as the first black parents on television. But that weight made them more sensitive than I thought the show needed to be in terms of the subjects we would discuss.
For example, Thelma, a young 15-16-year-old girl and the question of sex and boys who were attempting to make it with her. Or talking about race issues. Or a show where J.J. was a painter and painted a black Jesus. Those were all subjects that Esther and John would have liked not to go near.
How did you find a compromise?
I reached a point where I told them, "The black veneer or patina I had no experience with, so you control that. We'll go the way you feel. But growing up a human being, I've been a boy, father, cousin, uncle and friend. I understand family dynamics, and I don't think they're all that different. This show we want to do about Thelma, and we want to do another show about a group like the Black Panthers. I think that you are being too sensitive, and the buck stops with me, so I'm going to have to make those decisions." Ultimately, if I felt the subject was right and the script was good, we did it.
You've put so many once disenfranchised demographics on television. Are there any groups that are still underrepresented on TV?
Well, we just made the sixth episode of a Latino version of One Day at a Time
, which was a big hit for us years ago. This one stars Rita Moreno and Justina Machado, and they're Cuban Americans; that's a whole demographic the media has not done justice to. I'm hoping we just made the sixth of 13, and they'll be on the air in January.
What does it mean to you to be the recipient of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2016 Freedom of Expression Award?
There's nothing I believe in more keenly than freedom of expression, and I've been blessed with the opportunity in this country of exercising it. And then the fact that it's a Jewish organization ... I remember suffering as a result of learning about Anti-Semitism from vicious Anti-Semite, Father Charles Coughlin, on the radio. So freedom of expression and the right to an opinion or religion of any kind that doesn't make you look bad, the freedom to hold any opinion, politically, that you care about ... God bless America.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, July 24, at Castro Theatre, ($18), 429 Castro St., 621-6350 or CastroTheatre.com.