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Sundance preview: At 93, legendary TV producer Norman Lear still pushing for social change

First Published      Last Updated Aug 24 2016 04:13 pm

Norman Lear is one of the most successful producers in television history, a man who single-handedly changed the face of the medium.

At a time when CBS' schedule was filled with sitcoms like "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Mayberry RFD," "Here's Lucy" and "The Doris Day Show," Lear shook up the network — shook up America — with "All in the Family." Blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) became a household name and an icon.

Within a few months, "All in the Family" was at the top of the TV ratings, where it remained for five years. And Lear became a TV mogul with a string of often-controversial shows, including "Sanford and Son," "Maude," "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," "Good Times," "One Day at a Time" and "The Jeffersons."



The man behind Archie Bunker is the subject of the documentary that will open the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday in Park City. "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You" is the story of a poor Jewish kid who grew up and made America love a bigot.

"Everybody knows me to be a progressive or a liberal or lefty or whatever," Lear said. "I think of myself, by the way, as a bleeding-heart conservative."

ABC had rejected two versions of the "All in the Family" pilot. CBS bought the third version, but with great reluctance, Lear said.

Network executives "thought [the] American people aren't ready for that," he said. "But, reflexively, people were enjoying what they were seeing and recognizing what they were seeing. They weren't laughing at something they never recognized. There was nothing Archie ever said that you couldn't hear in a schoolyard."

"Just Another Version of You" is a story that Americans saw playing out on their TV sets back in the 1970s, although they may not have been entirely aware of it.

"There is an enormous amount of material, just with his shows," said filmmaker Rachel Grady, the co-director of the documentary who was granted access to Lear's massive personal archives. "I think he did over 1,000 hours in the '70s, and a lot of that stuff is relevant because it is actually somewhat illustrative of his life and things that are of great meaning to him."

Boiling it down to a single film was "a hard edit just because of the volume of good material, but an embarrassment of riches is not the worst problem," added Grady, who was nominated for an Oscar for her 2006 documentary "Jesus Camp" and has twice been nominated for Sundance's Grand Jury Prize — "12th and Delaware" (2010) and "Detropia" (2012).

It's been 20 years since the 93-year-old Lear had a series on prime-time TV, but he never retired. Beyond television, he became a social activist, a founder of organizations like People for the American Way, which he formed in opposition to religious-right organizations.

"He's done more events in the last year than I think I've attended in my whole life," said Michael Kantor, the executive producer of "American Masters," which co-produced the documentary that will air on PBS sometime this year. "So there's lots of contemporary footage, too, of Norman in action every day now."

Lear didn't just change television, he helped to change America. Or, perhaps, to preserve American values. His priority was then — and remains — preserving the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, he said.

"You will not [expletive] with my Bill of Rights, my Constitution, my guarantees of political justice for all," Lear said. "But does my heart bleed for those who need help and aren't getting the justice that the country promises them and the equal opportunity the country promises? Yes."

Lear's story is a version of the American dream. His father was a traveling salesman, the son of Russian immigrants; his mother immigrated from Ukraine. When Norman was 9, his father was sent to prison for fraud, and Lear grew up poor.

"He lied. He cheated. He didn't understand that the truth was golden," Lear said of his father, who served as a template for Archie Bunker. "But he was alive, and I loved that lust for life that he showed me."

Lear also loves his country. Passionately. He enlisted during World War II and served as a radio operator/gunner on B-17s in Europe, flying 52 missions; he was awarded the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters.

And he's fought many public fights over the First Amendment, even when they were unpopular.

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AT A GLANCE

Screenings

“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” is the Day One film Thursday, Jan. 21, at 5:30 p.m. at the Eccles Theatre in Park City; the film, in the Documentary Premieres program, also screens Friday, Jan. 22, at 8:30 a.m. at The MARC in Park City and 6:15 p.m. at the Grand Theater in Salt Lake City; Monday, Jan. 25, at 6:30 p.m. at Peery’s Egyptian Theater in Ogden; and Saturday, Jan. 30, at 6 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 7 in Park City.


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