In 2001, Lear and his wife, Lyn, purchased a Dunlap broadside—one of the first published copies of the United States Declaration of Independence—for $8.1 million. John Dunlap printed about 200 copies of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Twenty-five copies survive today and only four of those are in private hands.
Norman Milton Lear (July 27, 1922 – December 5, 2023) was an American screenwriter and producer who produced, wrote, created, or developed over 100 shows. Lear created and produced numerous popular 1970s sitcoms, including All in the Family (1971–1979), Maude (1972–1978), Sanford and Son (1972–1977), One Day at a Time (1975–1984), The Jeffersons (1975–1985), and Good Times (1974–1979). His shows introduced political and social themes to the sitcom format.
Norman Milton Lear was born on July 27, 1922, in New Haven, Connecticut, to Jeanette (née Seicol) and Hyman "Herman" Lear, a traveling salesman. He had a younger sister, Claire Lear Brown (1925–2015). Lear grew up in a Jewish household in Connecticut and had a bar mitzvah ceremony. Both parents were of Russian-Jewish descent.
Lear attended Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, New York, graduated from Weaver High School in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1940 and attended Emerson College in Boston, but dropped out in 1942 to join the United States Army Air Forces.
Lear enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces in September 1942. He served in the Mediterranean theater as a radio operator and gunner on Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers with the 772nd Bomb Squadron, 463rd Bomb Group of the Fifteenth Air Force; in a 2014 interview, he talked about bombing Germany. He flew 52 combat missions and received the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters. Lear was discharged from the Army Air Forces in 1945. His World War II crew members are featured in the book Crew Umbriago by Daniel P. Carroll.
Lear was married three times. His first marriage was to Charlotte Rosen in 1943. They divorced in 1956.
Lear had a first cousin in Los Angeles, Elaine, who was married to an aspiring comedy writer named Ed Simmons. Simmons and Lear teamed up to sell home furnishings door-to-door for a company called The Gans Brothers and later sold family photos door-to-door. Throughout the 1950s, Lear and Simmons turned out comedy sketches for television appearances of Martin and Lewis, Rowan and Martin, and others. They frequently wrote for Martin and Lewis when they appeared on the Colgate Comedy Hour, and a 1953 article from Billboard magazine stated that Lear and Simmons were guaranteed a record-breaking $52,000 (equivalent to $570,000 in 2022) each to write for five additional Martin and Lewis appearances on the Colgate Comedy Hour that year. In a 2015 interview with Variety, Lear said that Jerry Lewis had hired him and Simmons as writers for Martin and Lewis three weeks before the comedy duo made their first appearance on the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1950. Lear also acknowledged in 1986 that he and Simmons were the main writers for The Martin and Lewis Show for three years.
In 1954, Lear was enlisted as a writer and asked to salvage the new CBS sitcom starring Celeste Holm, Honestly, Celeste!, but the program was canceled after eight episodes. During this time he became the producer of NBC's short-lived (26 episodes) sitcom The Martha Raye Show, after Nat Hiken left as the series director. Lear also wrote some of the opening monologs for The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show which aired from 1956 to 1961. In 1959, Lear created his first television series, a half-hour western for Revue Studios called The Deputy, starring Henry Fonda.
Lear's longtime producing partner was Bud Yorkin, who also produced All in the Family, Sanford and Son, What's Happening!!, Maude, and The Jeffersons. Yorkin split with Lear in 1975. He started a production company with writers and producers Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein; however only two of their shows lasted longer than a year: What's Happening!! and Carter Country. The Lear/Yorkin company was known as Tandem Productions and was founded in 1958. Lear and talent agent Jerry Perenchio founded T.A.T. Communications ("T.A.T." stood for the Yiddish phrase tuchus affen tisch, "putting one's ass on the line". ) in 1974, which co-existed with Tandem Productions and was often referred to in periodicals as Tandem/T.A.T. The Lear organization was one of the most successful independent TV producers of the 1970s. TAT produced the influential and award-winning 1981 film The Wave about Ron Jones' social experiment.
Starting out as a comedy writer, then a film director (he wrote and produced the 1967 film Divorce American Style and directed the 1971 film Cold Turkey, both starring Dick Van Dyke), Lear tried to sell a concept for a sitcom about a blue-collar American family to ABC. They rejected the show after two pilots were taped: "Justice for All" in 1968 and "Those Were the Days" in 1969. After a third pilot was taped, CBS picked up the show, known as All in the Family. It premiered January 12, 1971, to disappointing ratings, but it took home several Emmy Awards that year, including Outstanding Comedy Series. The show did very well in summer reruns, and it flourished in the 1971–72 season, becoming the top-rated show on TV for the next five years. After falling from the No. 1 spot, All in the Family still remained in the top ten, with the exception of the 1976-1977 television season where it ranked #12, and eventually became Archie Bunker's Place. The show was based loosely on the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, about an irascible working-class Tory and his socialist son-in-law.
Lear has been honored for his influence on American television and culture. Before All in the Family, television sitcoms in the 1950s and 1960s generally portrayed white American family life as comfortable and avoided raising issues such as racial discrimination and patriarchy. Beginning in 1971, All in the Family openly discussed current social and political topics and became the country's most popular show for five straight years. Lear's subsequent shows widened television's representation of racial and gender diversity, such as Good Times, the first television show centered on an African-American nuclear family. Television screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky said that Lear "put the American people [on screen] ... he took the audience and put them on the set".
Lear was one of the wealthy Jewish Angelenos known as the Malibu Mafia. In the 1970s and 1980s, the group discussed progressive and liberal political issues, and worked together to fund them. They helped to fund the legal defense of Daniel Ellsberg who had released the Pentagon Papers, and they backed the struggling progressive magazine The Nation to keep it afloat. In 1975, they formed the Energy Action Committee to oppose Big Oil's powerful lobby in Washington.
Lear also developed the cult favorite TV series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (MH MH) which was turned down by the networks as "too controversial" and placed it into first run syndication with 128 stations in January 1976. A year later, he added another program into first-run syndication along with MH MH, All That Glitters. He planned in 1977 to offer three hours of prime-time Saturday programming directly having stations place his production company in the position of an occasional network.
In 1977, African American screenwriter Eric Monte filed a lawsuit accusing ABC and CBS producers Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin, and others of stealing his ideas for Good Times, The Jeffersons, and What's Happening!! Monte received a $1-million settlement and a small percentage of the residuals from Good Times and one percent ownership of the show. Monte, due to his lack of business knowledge and experience as well as legal representation, would not receive royalties for other shows which he created. However, Lear and other Hollywood producers, outraged over the lawsuit, blacklisted Monte and labeled him too difficult to work with.
In 1980, Lear founded the organization People for the American Way for the purpose of counteracting the Christian right group Moral Majority which had been founded in 1979. In the fall of 1981, Lear began a 14-month run as the host of a revival of the classic game show Quiz Kids for the CBS Cable Network. In January 1982, Lear and Jerry Perenchio bought Avco Embassy Pictures from Avco Financial Corporation. In January 1982, after merging with company with T.A.T. Communications, the Avco was dropped, and the combined entity was renamed as Embassy Communications, Inc. Embassy Pictures was led by Alan Horn and Martin Schaeffer, later co-founders of Castle Rock Entertainment with Rob Reiner.
Lear was an outspoken supporter of First Amendment and liberal causes. The only time that he did not support the Democratic candidate for president was in 1980 when he supported John Anderson over Jimmy Carter because he considered the Carter administration to be "a complete disaster".
Lear was known for his political activism and funding of liberal and progressive causes and politicians. In 1980, he founded the advocacy organization People for the American Way to counter the influence of the Christian right in politics, and in the early 2000s, he mounted a tour with a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
In 1981, Lear founded People for the American Way (PFAW), a progressive advocacy organization formed in reaction to the politics of the Christian right. PFAW ran several advertising campaigns opposing the interjection of religion in politics. PFAW and other like-minded groups succeeded in their efforts to block Reagan's 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Lear, a longtime critic of the Religious Right, was an advocate for the advancement of secularism.
The chart does not include the made-for-television movies The Wave, which aired on October 4, 1981, or Heartsounds, which aired on September 30, 1984.
In March 1982, Lear produced an ABC television special titled I Love Liberty, as a counterbalance to groups like the Moral Majority. Among the many guests who appeared on the special was conservative icon and the 1964 U.S. presidential election's Republican nominee Barry Goldwater.
He was married to Frances Loeb, publisher of Lear's magazine, from 1956 to 1985. They separated in 1983, with Loeb eventually receiving $112 million from Lear in their divorce settlement.
On June 18, 1985, Lear and Perenchio sold Embassy Communications to Columbia Pictures (then owned by The Coca-Cola Company), which acquired Embassy's film and television division (including Embassy's in-house television productions and the television rights to the Embassy theatrical library) for $485 million of shares of The Coca-Cola Company. The brand Tandem Productions was abandoned in 1986 with the cancellation of Diff'rent Strokes, and Embassy ceased to exist as a single entity in late 1986, having been split into different components owned by different entities. Coca-Cola sold the film division to Dino De Laurentiis and the home video arm to Nelson Holdings (led by Barry Spikings). The TV properties continued under the Columbia Pictures Television banner.
Lear's Act III Communications was founded in 1986 and in the following year, Thomas B. McGrath was named president and chief operating officer of ACT III Communications Inc after previously serving as senior vice president. On February 2, 1989, Norman Lear's Act III Communications formed a joint venture with Columbia Pictures Television called Act III Television to produce television series instead of managing.
In 1987, he married producer Lyn Davis, who survived him.
Prominent right-wing Christians including Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Jimmy Swaggart have accused Lear of being an atheist and holding an anti-Christian bias. In the January 21, 1987, issue of The Christian Century, Lear associate Martin E. Marty (a Lutheran professor of church history at the University of Chicago Divinity School between 1963 and 1998) rejected those allegations, stating the television producer honored religious moral values and complimenting Lear's understanding of Christianity. Marty noted that while Lear and his family had never practiced Orthodox Judaism, the television producer was a follower of Judaism.
In 1989, Lear founded the Business Enterprise Trust, an educational program that used annual awards, business school case studies, and videos to spotlight exemplary social innovations in American business until it ended in 1998. He announced in 1992 that he was reducing his political activism. In 2000, he provided an endowment for a multidisciplinary research and public policy center, the Norman Lear Center, that explored the convergence of entertainment, commerce, and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Act III Communications purchased several business journals, including Channels magazine that had been founded by Les Brown, former New York Times TV correspondent. Channels closed in 1990, by which time Act III and Brown published and edited Television Business International (TBI).
In 1997, Lear and Jim George produced the Kids' WB series Channel Umptee-3. The cartoon was notable for being the first television show to meet the Federal Communications Commission's then-new educational programming requirements.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded Lear the National Medal of Arts, noting: "Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it." That year, he and Bud Yorkin received the Women in Film Lucy Award in recognition of excellence and innovation in creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television. The Producers Guild of America awarded Lear its Achievement Award in Television in 2006; by the next year, the honor was named the Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television. In 2017, he was awarded the fourth annual Woody Guthrie Prize presented by the Woody Guthrie Center, recognizing an artist whose work represents the spirit of Woody Guthrie "as a positive force for social change". He became the oldest recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors later that year at the age of 95.
Lear received many awards, including six Primetime Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, the National Medal of Arts in 1999, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017, and the Golden Globe Carol Burnett Award in 2021. He was a member of the Television Academy Hall of Fame.
Not a document collector, Lear said in a press release and on the Today show that his intent was to tour the document around the United States so that the country could experience its "birth certificate" firsthand. Through the end of 2004, the document traveled throughout the United States on the Declaration of Independence Road Trip, which Lear organized, visiting several presidential libraries, dozens of museums, as well as the 2002 Olympics, Super Bowl XXXVI, and the Live 8 concert in Philadelphia. Lear and Rob Reiner produced a filmed, dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence—the last project filmed by famed cinematographer Conrad Hall—on July 4, 2001, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The film is introduced by Morgan Freeman and Kathy Bates, Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson, Whoopi Goldberg, Graham Greene, Ming-Na Wen, Edward Norton, Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey, and Renée Zellweger appear as readers. It was directed by Arvin Brown and scored by John Williams.
In 2003, Lear appeared on South Park during the "I'm a Little Bit Country" episode, providing the voice of Benjamin Franklin. He also served as a consultant on the episodes "I'm a Little Bit Country" and "Cancelled". He attended a South Park writers' retreat, with some of his ideas making it onto South Park, and was the officiant at co-creator Trey Parker's wedding. South Park served as a bond between Lear and his son Benjamin, who wasn't familiar with his more known work from the 1970s.
In 2004, Lear established Declare Yourself which is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign created to empower and encourage eligible 18- to 29-year-olds in America to register and vote. It has registered almost 4 million young people.
In 2014, Lear published Even This I Get to Experience, a memoir.
Lear is spotlighted in the 2016 documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. In 2017, he served as executive producer for One Day at a Time, the reboot of his 1975–1984 show of the same name that premiered on Netflix starring Justina Machado and Rita Moreno as a Cuban-American family. He hosted a podcast, All of the Above with Norman Lear, since May 1, 2017. On July 29, 2019, it was announced that Lear had teamed with Lin-Manuel Miranda to make an American Masters documentary about Moreno's life, tentatively titled Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.
In 2020, it was announced that Lear and Act III Productions would executive produce a revival of Who's The Boss? At the time of his death in 2023, he was overseeing multiple shows in development, including a planned reboot of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
From his three marriages, he had six children. He was a godparent to actress and singer Katey Sagal. On July 27, 2022, he became a centenarian.
Lear died at his Los Angeles home on December 5, 2023 from cardiac arrest, as a complication of heart failure. He was 101. His body was cremated.