Norman Lear passed away today at age 101. A screenwriter, film producer and TV legend, Lear was instrumental in developing some of the most beloved sitcoms of the 1970’s, including “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Sanford and Son,” “One Day at a Time,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times,” among others. In honor of his life and memory we at Moment would like to share a 1981 interview with Lear where he discusses the Moral Majority, a conservative Christian PAC, the American Way, a national ethos of the time, then-controversial actress Vanessa Redgrave and his life as a Jew.
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Let’s start with the issue of the Moral Majority. You’ve taken a very strong position on that. Why is it of such concern to you?
The degree to which they confuse and obfuscate good people, and issues, makes it impossible for people to think things through. To suggest, as they do—the Moral Majority, the Christian Voice, all of them—that there is a Christian position on an issue and that there is a Christian way of thinking runs counter to everything I’ve ever thought we meant as a nation by way of pluralism, diversity and the joyful right to hold and express any point of view. To the extent that they successfully proselytize one point of view as that of the good Christian, they confuse many good people, and they’re a great danger.
Let me push you on that. Would it have been wrong for a Christian minister during the Vietnam war to say that good Christians cannot support this war?
Yes, it would have been wrong to suggest that there is only one way to be a good Christian in the American scheme of things. Certainly, I was happy to see the activity of the clergy against the war, and I think one of the places people should lead is at the pulpit, but that’s not the same thing as telling people they’re bad Americans if they take a different view. Those people who believed in the Vietnam war were not bad Americans just because of that belief. Those of us who were against the war believed them to be wrong, but their “wrongness” didn’t make them bad Americans or bad Christians. There were, among them, bad Americans and bad Christians, but not because they held a particular political point of view.
Would you distinguish between what you’ve just said regarding Vietnam and the issue of civil rights? Civil rights goes directly to the question of pluralism. Are those who oppose the extension of civil rights to all Americans “bad Americans”?
I’d word it differently. I would say that the Constitution would indicate that they are bad Americans. They’re flying in the face of the Constitution. I would rather take positions that ask questions and seek reason than to condemn. The thrust of People for the American Way, and the commercials that we executed for that organization was to reason with people and to suggest to them that they should reason for themselves—and, by reasoning, lessen the confusion.
There’s a fine line between moral positions and political action. In the recent election, the line was crossed by pointing the finger at the candidates, by saying, in effect, “Here’s a complex candidate with a complex record, but take a look at just three issues, and on these three issues judge this candidate.” Still, couldn’t one argue that the church, the synagogue, as the interpreter of religious doctrine, is entitled to press moral positions on people?
The American Way believes, and I share the belief, that the central issue is pluralism, diversity, the freedom to believe and to espouse without being told you’re a good guy or a bad guy. Its role, in the future, in every way—on the tube, on radio, in print, at the newsstand, in the mail, in the library, wherever we can do it, and as successfully as we can do it—will be to espouse and to affirm the precepts most people, liberal and conservative, agree are the American way, in a very narrow context: one is entitled to hold a different point of view.
Let’s shift to another issue. You took a rather firm position on the Vanessa Redgrave debate in its day. I think Moment’s readers would be interested in hearing your view.
I do not think that venal executives at CBS elected to cast Vanessa Redgrave for the sake of the publicity that they would achieve. I do not think them that stupid, and I do not think them that venal. To believe that is almost in the nature of believing conspiracy theories. I think they made a stupid error. I think that they didn’t understand the degree of the problem. It always shocks and surprises me to learn how many people in establishment and leadership positions, in and out of television, really are not aware of what’s going on. I don’t mean that they’re not aware of the complexities of what’s going on: they’re unaware that certain very important things are going on at all. I think some unaware people made a dumb decision, and, having made that decision, and not understanding the context of the opposition, and the sincerity and the emotional content of the opposition, said they would not change their minds. And, having said it several times, they backed themselves against the wall and could not change their minds, they believed. So they held firm.
In the end, however, you advised the Jewish community to drop its opposition.
No: I suggested they make their opposition known as fully and as passionately as they wished to, but that they not engage in boycotts and do the kinds of things that would make Playing for Time the most watched program in history. It wasn’t worth their doing that. Vanessa Redgrave had a right to play the role. She was insensitive to wish to play it and invite the enmity of so many.
She probably was clever enough to want to play it, because the Christlike character that was actually portrayed was so un-Jewish that it should have been very comfortable for her—the suffering Jew and all that. Could you say something about your own Jewish background?
I was born in New Haven, Connecticut and raised in Hartford. My parents were not synagogue-going, although they always belonged to a synagogue. My mother and father were both born in this country, and both grandfathers came from Russia. I became a bar mitzvah because both my mother’s parents were alive—although I probably would have anyway—but, because of them, we had as big an affair as was feasible in a three room apartment. My grandparents in those days used to come in from New Haven and bring barrels of dishes for the holidays, the milchedig and fleishedig dishes; my grandfather was the religious member of the family, not my grandmother. She didn’t like sitting upstairs in the shul, so she didn’t go to shul very often. That was an early touch of feminism, though she never made anything more of it than that. She simply boycotted the upstairs area of the temple, and wasn’t invited to sit downstairs.
I would go to shul with my grandfather and feel foolish watching all of them, largely people of his age, daavening in Hebrew, without my understanding, or anyone else of my age understanding one word of it. I didn’t know why they insisted on my being there. Still, there was a period of my life surrounding my bar mitzvah—my best friends were Herbie Lerner and the Schwartz twins and we did everything together—and because they grew up in very religious families, and they conducted services for kids our age in the vestry, downstairs, I did that with them. And I played cantor and I played rabbi and I must have known some Hebrew at that time, at least well enough to help them conduct those services, because that’s what I did every Saturday for maybe a year and a half.
But my folks did not go to shul. In Hartford, where we lived when I was 14, 15,16, going to shul meant going for the holidays, to the high holiday services, spending a little time in shul, and a lot of time in the park in our new clothes, on nice fall days across the street from the temple. That’s what the holidays were about. There were also two years when I lived with my grandparents when the holidays meant more. And there was Uncle Isaac and Aunt Lena, and Friday nights with candles and prayers that I adored. I adored the tradition and the warmth of those evenings. Isaac and Lena were very important in my life, and those Friday night dinners were really terrific.
So I grew up not at all interested in personal involvement in any ongoing way with organizations of religion as such, but extremely Jewish in my feelings. And I went through that period that some 16 to 18-year-old young men go through where, if they can get away with it, they will say to strangers that they’re half-Jewish. I remember in my first year in the service I was— on and off again—”half-Jewish,” out of a great sense of insecurity. But I remember coming through that. Some joker in Italy—I flew with the 15th Airforce—was sitting at a bar drinking beer, and a couple of guys to my right were laughing. And I asked them what they were laughing at, and they passed me a piece of paper, and there was a four line poem on it. It had something to do with a McCarthy who was fighting here, and a Peterson who was fighting there, and an Izzy who was selling nylons, or something like that. And I asked these guys why they were laughing—they thought this was very funny—and it led one guy to say, “What the hell—why are you upset?” And I said, “Because I’m a Jew, you son of a bitch.” And the guy said something nastier to me than “you son of a bitch,” and that was the only time I ever hit anybody, full force, in the face. And I just flattened this guy, and I really scared myself. I was more frightened than I have ever been in my life, not because I thought I’d get hit back, but because of my violence. And he got up, but he didn’t touch me. And a day later I felt terrific about it, and I never again made this half-assed suggestion that I was half-Jewish.
I was in Palestine when it was still Palestine. I volunteered to stay over after the war. I’d done 57 missions, and the war ended, and I volunteered to stay for three months and ferry men and supplies about. I was not a pilot, I was a radio operator, but I volunteered with a crew to stay there, and that got me to Palestine. And I’ll never forget getting off a plane and getting into Tel Aviv, and realizing that every native was a Jew. I’ve never felt a greater sense of elation. What a sense of security, to know that I was in what would be a nation of Jews!
You’ve been to Israel since, I presume?
Yes, just once.
Archie Bunker is there all the time.
I was invited by the State to come over there, by the government, because Archie Bunker was such a folk hero. At eight o’clock, whatever night they played it, the streets were empty. The cab drivers would tell me that there was no sense trying to get a cab.
Did it surprise you that Archie Bunker would be a hit in such a different environment?
No, it didn’t, really, because I have a great respect for and belief in the Jewish sense of humor. I’m amazed that Maude isn’t there. I’ve told my company to offer Maude for nothing. I think they would adore Maude.
But Maude is, I think, less dependent on a specific kind of language. Doesn’t Archie create a language problem?
I know what they liked about Archie. There are so many Bunkers over there. To spend a little time in Israel, as a writer, anyway, is to understand that one of their big problems is that everybody is a general, or everybody is a sidewalk lieutenant. They know better than anybody, each of them, what should be done, in everybody else’s area of expertise. Well, that’s Bunker. He knows everything about everybody and everything, and so it’s easy for them to relate to that.
When Harry Truman was introduced to Chaim Weizman, he said, “Mr. Weizman, it’s a pleasure to meet the president of the State of Israel. We are, of course, very different kinds of presidents. You are the president of a country with a million and a half people, and I’m the president of a country with a hundred and fifty million people.” And Weizman said, “You’re wrong. You’re the president of a country with a hundred and fifty million people. I’m the president of a country with a million and a half presidents.”
Exactly. I understood that after two days, and it was easy to understand why they would relate to Bunker. Bunker is one of those presidents. He doesn’t have to know anything to know that he knows it all.
Let’s finish where we started. Living as you do at the margins of the Jewish community but in the thick of political and specifically liberal political issues, do you have a sense of what the role of the Jews in those issues is, and do you sense, from where you sit, a move to the right?
The disease of our time in this country, and I’m not talking about Jews solely—I’ll get to Jews in a moment—is everyone’s seeming need to win today, with no consideration of tomorrow. If you look at the three networks, their thrust simply is to win next Tuesday at eight o’clock. If you look at the automobile companies—they may be changing now, but the baton has been handed to the Japanese because fifteen years ago the name of the game for the chief executive officer of each of those major motor companies was “How can this quarter’s profit statement top last quarter’s?” And if they had bothered—after all, they saw the handwriting on the wall with the Volkswagen coming into the country, and all the other, smaller imports—they’d have done things differently. They’d have tried to develop small cars. But then they wouldn’t have met last quarter’s profit statement. Breakfast foods? They should be labeled candy, but they’re sold to children as cereal— again, the name of the game is profits. The whole country is caught up in it. And kids do not understand any longer that life is about succeeding by doing your best. They only learn that if you’re not a winner, you’re an absolute loser.
Jews have gotten caught up in the same phenomenon, the same dynamic. The name of the game is making it now. So, in the narrow, Jewish, sense, they’re not looking at the future of the Jew in America, just as General Motors wasn’t looking at the future of the car in America. Yet the glue that always held the Jewish community together was social conscience, and you can’t have a social conscience if all you’re concerned about is how well you can do today. “If I don’t win today, I’ve lost today?” That’s not really what life is about. But the Jews, having gotten caught up in that, have blown the Jewish social conscience. So, now, there are Jews in the forefront of opposition to busing in Los Angeles and they are the Jewish darlings of the right. Their involvement with self is such that they don’t explore busing, for example, in the national sense, in terms of what is good for all people, not just for this moment but for future moments. Theirs is an easy, simplistic way of I moving, but totally involved with | self and totally involved with winning today. And my concern for the Jewish community is that if it does j not find its social conscience again, : I don’t know what will hold it together. I don’t know what can hold it together.
Featured image: Lear attending Vicki Abelson’s Women Who Write. Photo credit: Louise Palanker via Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA-2.0).