I have known Norman Lear for many, many years....ever since we were both young men in New York; he - six years older than me - and partner Bud Yorkin were producing TV shows and I was publicizing them (The Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis Show anyone?) Starting about two years ago, whenever I sent Norman an email or one of my Huffington posts, I would get back an automatic message: I am busy writing my memoir, and if your message is important please send it to my assistant," with an email address for her. About a month ago, I saw Norman at the Ginny Mancini benefit and asked him, "When will the book be ready?" With a twinkle in his eyes, he replied: "Soon, my friend, very soon." Then, on a Monday this month, I open my New York Times and there on the front of the Arts section was a story entitled: Those Were the Days, Not Simple or All Sweet; Norman Lear Tells His Life Story, a long review of the new autobiography, EVEN THIS I GET TO EXPERIENCE. The accompanying picture has Norman sitting on what appears to be a bench in Central Park and was captioned, Norman Lear's memoir goes beyond his years creating boundary-breaking TV," while an inside picture shows him wearing his ever-present boat hat and says: Norman Lear, now 92, discusses his Depression childhood, behind-the-scenes tales and his involvement in liberal causes." There is a weird subhead to the article: October, it turns out, is a dangerous time to get married. That is explained....but I will save it for you to learn when you read the book. As I know you will....it is fascinating, fun and fearless, like the man in question.
Abashed that I was not able to do the first review of the book, I called him for a copy and the publisher, Penguin Press, sent one. Not autographed (only kidding.) It arrived last Friday afternoon and I began reading, going long into the night and all through Saturday and most of Sunday. I was puzzled by the strange title: "Even This I Get to Experience." So I sent him an email asking about it, and he returned with this:
"In my ninety-plus years I've lived a multitude of lives. In the course of all these lives, I had a front-row seat at the birth of television; wrote, produced, and created or developed more than a hundred shows, had nine on the air at the same time; founded the 300,000- member liberal advocacy group People for the American Way; was labeled the 'no. 1 enemy of the American family by Jerry Farwell; made it onto Richard Nixon's 'Enemies List,' was presented with the National Medal of the Arts by President Clinton; purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and toured it for ten years in all fifty states; blew a fortune in a series of bad investments in failing businesses and reached a point where I was informed we might even have to sell our home.
Having heard that we'd fallen into such dire straits, my son-in-law phoned me and asked how I was feeling. 'Terrible, of course," but then I added, 'but I must be crazy because despite all that's happened, I keep hearing this inner voice saying, 'Even this I get to experience'." And that's how Norman got the title.
The next day Norman added: "Early next morning, my son-in-law was on the phone again. He'd heard me say once that I wished to be cremated when I died and he was calling to ask me please change my mind. I asked why. In a voice that choked at the finish, he answered: 'Because someday I want to take my children, your grandchildren, to a gravesite that reads: 'Even tbis I get to experience.''" True story. (My friend, I still think it's a weird title, but that's Norman.)
Many years ago I produced a movie, "For Love of Ivy" which was created by and starred Sidney Poitier, and I hired Carroll O'Connor to play a featured role, that of Beau Bridges' father who owns the department store where they all work. Frankly, he was a pain-in-the-a from the get-go, so I can imagine what Norman went through with Carroll playing Archie Bunker in "All In the Family." for nine years. He devotes a whole chapter to the travail with Carroll, a monster of a man but a fine acting talent. After reading the first few chapters of the book, which describes Lear's horrific childhood during the Great Depression, we see a picture of his pompous, arrogant and deceitful father, Henry King Lear (the King name was made-up)....and learn how the father went to prison for three years in 1931 for fraud when Norman was just nine. So it was obvious to me that the bigoted, boasting Archie Bunker was based in good part on his father, whom he adored despite all his flaws. His mother was not much better, a narcissist and reprobate who shuffled him off to live with relatives while the father was 'gone.'. It's remarkable how we all somehow overcome the sins of our parents.
I have never, ever, related so personally to a memoir as I did to this, since I was there in New York and Hollywood at much the same time, and our lives interacted in many unexpected ways. For example he mentions his excitement at receiving a call from a Washington biggie named Milbern McCarthy Jr. when he was in college developing a war bond stamp-selling campaign. I think he meant Milburn McCarty Jr, an ex-Marine who became my boss in the eary '50s before and after I was drafted into the Korean War. Norman served in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II and flew 52 bombing raids over Germany, and he kept in touch with many of his plane's mates. After trying to be a theatrical publicist (as did I) after returning to civilian life in 1946, he and new writing partner Ed Simon got a lucky break via Danny Thomas and began writing the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis TV Show in the '50s - while I was working as Jerry's New York publicist. He had the same horrific experience with egomaniacal Jerry as did I (oth fired by a phone call from an assistant.) I knew well Bud and Peg Yorkin and more casually Norman and Francis Lear in all those years, and remember Francis as being hyper and over-the-top, especially when she was touting her new magazine, Lear's, the first feminist journal. (Norman describes her as being volatile and unstable, but fiercely intelligent and exceedingly interesting to boot.) In the late '80s I met the lovely Lyn Lear, current wife number 3, and she has been a subscriber to my Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter for almost twenty years . I confess that I had a tear in my eyes as I read about how they met and how the enduring romance blossomed despite all of the obstacles. (She was a blind date for my buddy Danny Melnick, who then brought her to a dinner party at the Lear house..and that's how it all began. They should light a candle to Danny for the miracle.) Today Norman has six children ranging in age from nineteen to sixty-eight! Yes, the man never does things by half. His daughter Kate is quoted in the book as saying: "He is someone who walks through life's peaks and valleys with equal wonder."
There is so much that is delectable about this book. One night in 1949, just arrived in L.A, with a wife and daughter, he leave their new apartment for a moment to get a newspaper to check the want-ads.... sees a production of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara in the neighborhood Circle Theatre and talks his way into an empty seat. He knows the show well and is mesmerized by the socialist message, but it's what happens next which stuns us all. Three reserved seats in front of him are occupied...by star Alan Mowbray, Dame Alyce Cooper, and the third is occupied by Charlie Chaplin. Really. (His son, Sidney, whom I later knew, was in the play.) He describes how Chaplin, responding to the applause aimed at him at the end, gets up and does a pantomime of the little tramp trying to mail a letter in a high wind. Try explaining that to an impatient wife.
I was mesmerized by his story of how he and Bud made the movie, The Night They Raided Minsky's, for Irv Levin's National General Corp., having persuaded Mayor Lindsey not to tear down the abandoned streets chosen for their shoot. The director of that film was the unknown young Billy Friedkin, coming off a Sonny & Cher movie. Norman just hints at the turmoil caused by their creative conflicts, mentioning that Friedkin finished his cut and went off to film Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party in London while Lear shot another two weeks of footage to complete the coverage. It just so happens that Friedkin's Pinter flm was being done for me since I was then production veepee at Palomar/ABC pictures...but that's another story. Norman brought in Charles Strouse and Lee Adams to do the music for the film, and says that they wrote a score which deliciously evoked the period of the film. It just so happens that Hilly Elkins and I were managing Strouse and Adams around that time, having worked with them on Mel Brook's Broadway musical, "All American". (Norman then described his experience with slimy Jim Aubrey, the CBS exec who later took over MGM, who cancelled his TV series of "Band of Gold" with beloved Suzie Pleshette after committing to make it, handing the time slot to his buddy Keefe Brasselle, echoing the same experience I had with Aubrey when he 'stole' my movie, Pretty Maids All in a Row," and made it without me. It may have been Norman who named Aubrey 'the Smiing Cobra.')
Again, his chapter on the spinoff which became Maude with Bea Arthur was a scintillating insight to the genius of Lear's inventive mind, followed by Redd Fox doing Sanford and Sons, then the first black family show on TV, Good Times. And then I remember The Jeffersons, while I never missed an episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (which starred Woody Allen's ex-wife, Louise Lasser). At their peak he had nine series on the air and they were viewed by 120 million people a week! More incredible is that Norman's series dealt with the most serious issues of the day......racism, povery, abortion, yet he did it within the realm of audiences roaring with laughter. Imagine that happenng today.
Yesterday (Sunday) I was supposed to stop by the opening party of Tony Bill's new Rose Hotel in Venice but I later emailed my dear friend that I couldn't make it for 'health' reasons. Actually I went home tired from my own children's charity event, Special Olympics' Pier de Sol, to finish the Lear book....and there in the next chapter was the story of how Yorkin and Lear made their first film, Come Blow Your Horn, based upon Neil Simon's successful Broadway show. Norman describes in exquisite detail how he pursued Frank Sinatra for months to do the film's lead until he finally succeeded. (My distant aunt, Molly Picon, was also in it.) And the young lead in the picture was... Tony Bill. I emailed Tony at midnight last night that Norman had paid him a wonderful tribute in the book, advising him to go into producing and directing if - as he said - he didn't feel comfortable acting. (Both of which Tony did brilliantly.)
Norman Lear is one of America's greatest storytellers. And this memoir is a wonderful, startling, honest and humorous portrayal of that incredible life and the times that sustained it. It is an amalgam of wit and wisdom which, to paraphrase his title, you must get to experience.
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