TELEVISION : DIVINING THE NEW LEAR : NORMAN LEAR REINVENTED THE SITCOM IN THE ‘70S, BUT IS CBS OR THE TV AUDIENCE READY FOR A COMEDY SERIES WITH A SPIRITUAL SIDE?
These past few months, at places like Sunset-Gower Studios in Hollywood, Burbank and the valet-parking line of the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel--where actor Robert Loggia, star of Norman Lear’s newest TV series, was retrieving his car--the phrase has assumed the tone of mantra: Norman’s back.
Lear is said to be thriving, he’s smiling a different smile, he’s revved up again. He’s put on a vanilla porkpie hat like the one he wore when he fashioned gruff, bigoted Archie Bunker and his good wife Edith out of a British series, made them part of America’s family, and changed the face of television situation comedy.
Producer, writer, director, political maven, media mogul--a man of many and sometimes contradictory parts--Lear has come full circle, returning to what he knows best, making an ambitious sitcom and veering off, he maintains, on yet another uncharted path.
The vehicle is “Sunday Dinner,” a six-episode series for CBS that he hopes will provoke reflection as well as laughter--reflection about the spiritualism that he sees lacking at America’s core just now.
Another family series with several generations living under the same roof, “Sunday Dinner” could just as easily be called “All in the Family.” Yet it’s as different as the 1990s are from the 1970s. So much has happened since then--to the country, to the TV industry and its audience and to Lear himself. Perhaps nowhere is this better reflected than in the fact that despite Lear’s phenomenal track record, CBS has ordered only six episodes of “Sunday Dinner” thus far and has yet to announce air dates for them.
It’s been nearly 20 years since CBS introduced, on Jan. 12, 1971, “All in the Family,” a sitcom Lear developed that dealt with racism, rape, sexism, impotence and all those unsayable racial and ethnic epithets, a series that begat “The Jeffersons” and “Maude,” which begat “Good Times,” making Lear king of a multimillion-dollar media empire that ultimately embraced publishing, broadcast stations, theaters as well as TV and motion picture production. (Not that he was a one-man band. He had partners, and teams of writers, producers and directors, but, as “All in the Family” writer Bernie West put it, he was “the general saying, ‘C’mon fellas, we can take this hill . . . and we could.’ ”)
And it’s been 10 years since Lear founded People for the American Way. He had left TV in 1978, saying he wanted to “flex other creative muscles,” perhaps a satirical movie about televangelists to be called “Religion.” Instead, after watching Fundamentalist preachers such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart, he became deeply concerned “at the way they were mixing politics and religion,” and wrote a 60-second ad saying this was “not the American way.” Out of that grew the liberal, anti-Religious Right organization that battled censorship and later helped defeat Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.
Now he has another concern to address, and so it’s back to television--putting not only his reputation on the line (an earlier “return,” in 1984, ended quickly with an unsold pilot for NBC and a six-episode series for ABC, “a.k.a. Pablo”) but also, in a very real sense, his own story.
“Sunday Dinner” centers around 56-year-old widower Ben Benedict (Loggia, who played the title role in “Mancuso, FBI”), who has a printing business and three grown children, and his fiancee, TT Fagori (Teri Hatcher), 30, an environmental attorney. They are not that unlike Norman Lear, 68, and his wife Lyn Davis Lear, 43. “I obviously took from my life,” Lear says. He has three grown daughters from two former marriages--the eldest of whom is also 43--and a strapping blond two-year-old, Benjamin Davis Lear. Lyn Lear, whom he married three years ago following his divorce from Frances Lear, holds a doctorate in psychology; her dissertation compared “self-actualization” results between Unitarian and Fundamentalist church members in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the “Sunday Dinner” subtext, says Lear, is “the profound issues--God, religion, various beliefs, the inner life, the need for it, the lack of need for it, ultimately meaning: What the . . . is it all about? Where do we go from here? How does humankind survive?”
On a September afternoon, Lear strides into the studio whistling. His forehead is a chart of lines but his eyes are bright blue, his body is taut--he works out daily with a former Marine personal trainer--and he exudes energy. “When people ask me in a line how would I describe the series,” he says, “it’s a spiritual bull entering a 1990s, neurotic, chaotic, human china shop.”
The spiritual bull, he says, is the younger woman who talks to God. Sometimes she refers to God as He/She/Someone, but when it’s personal, as in a longish monologue on a fire escape, she talks to the Chief.
“We’ve tried to get 360-degrees of attitude” about religion, Lear explains. “The older daughter (Vicky, 32) is a microbiologist, possibly an atheist. Her 12-year-old daughter (Rachel) thinks so. She’s certainly agnostic . . . (and) holds the thinking of a good deal of science. Her sister (Diana, 30), a designer, has been groping. She’s been through a lot of New Age things, fads and diets. The son (Kenneth, 26) is a product of the Reagan years, and he’s got a god--materialism. Money.
“The aunt (Martha) is a strict Bible-believing Christian woman. Amusing, interesting but very straight in the way she reads Scripture. (Ben) was raised the same way but turned in another direction. He became too upset as he studied history with the amount of wars started for religious reasons. With the Crusades and the Holocaust. Too many people behaved too badly in God’s name. And so he holds it at a distance.”
As has Lear, who is Jewish.
On “Sunday Dinner” there’s talk of “cosmic piety,” of an “immense intelligence,” of “the natural world (being) the largest sacred community to which we all belong.”
The genesis of “Sunday Dinner” was a project called “Good Evening He Lied,” which he bought from a treatment prepared by ex-anchorwoman Marcia Brandwynne after she was fired by KNXT, now KCBS, in 1982. “I wanted to savage TV news before ‘Broadcast News’ or any of that stuff,” Lear notes. He also wanted the female lead to have “some grounding in faith.”
At the same time, with People for the American Way, he began meeting “theologians, pastors, ministers. . . . I started off reflexively writing off anybody that called himself a born-again Christian. I’m a Jew. I always had a keen nose for anti-Semitism as a kid growing up and in the Army, but also a very strong feeling about the country and the First Amendment and the Constitution, which were my protectors as a member of a minority.”
But he soon realized that “born-again followers were missing something. . . . And it touched off something in me, which has always been in me, which is my own spiritual bent. Which I would identify largely as love. . . .”
Lear says he “worked like hell trying to write” the female lead, even had theological friends prepare monographs, but eventually returned the title to Brandwynne.
Enter Lyn Davis. “Along the way the last person I sought to do a monograph was somebody I met who was close in age to the (character) I was writing (about). But she was working on her doctoral dissertation and couldn’t do the thing. And,” he says contentedly, “we fell in love.”
They had met in 1984, Lear says, when a mutual friend had brought her on a blind date to the house for a dinner party. It was during a period when he and Frances had separated and then “came back together, and that lasted for about a month. . . . The evening was spent largely talking about People for the American Way and her dissertation.
“We had lunch a couple of weeks later. . . ,” he adds, “and over time fell in love. (The) marriage was over.”
Meanwhile, he says, “the desire deepened in me to find a way to do a show in which the inner life was discussed. . . . And then I read a book, ‘Dream of the Earth’ by Thomas Berry, a 76-year-old Passionist Father . . . about the marriage of religion (to) feelings that were fanned by the environmental movement.
“And (then) I said, ‘I know my lady (‘Sunday Dinner’s’ TT character),’ ” he adds, clapping his hands. “I know what she feels, what she thinks . . . and I bought the rights to it, so I could quote liberally. . . . This is a major figure in religion who (said), ‘Norman, sometimes I think we should take the Bible and the Koran and the Talmud, put those holy symbols aside until we remember what we find sacred in that tree, in that butterfly and in each other.’ ”
Lyn, whose “spiritual essence” as well as “purity and sunniness” is like the character TT’s, helped in his quest, Lear says. “When she came into my life, there was at the center of my life for the first time somebody who could nurture this.”
It is early November. Piles of boxes await the movers at Lear’s Brentwood house, which Henry Fonda once owned and where Lear has lived since 1972. To his table have come countless senators and presidential candidates for private dinner parties and fund-raisers. And here, in the fall of 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis met studio executives and stars.
Sitting down to talk in his library, Lear turns on his tape recorder, apparently for his own record. For a man who prides himself on “moments of hilarity,” the conversation is weighty. He’s tackling bringing the spiritual to TV because of “this aching cavity in people’s chests. My God, look at what we had. What have you got if the whole country is out for itself and everybody you know is only thinking of himself?”
Unfortunately, he adds, “the dominant influence in our culture is business, where once it was the church, and those morals and that morality had a big influence on American families. . . . If we’re talking about the saving of the planet or that last war as the result of nuclear, or what the Iraquis threaten us with, with chemicals and terrorists anywhere and everywhere . . . the next leap forward had better be a leap inward. . . . “
Yet Lear knows that for “Sunday Dinner” to succeed, he can’t depend on spiritual “subtext” alone. “If these people aren’t entertaining, if the stories aren’t funny or touching or serious and interesting, then subtext doesn’t matter at all. Ain’t nobody going to hear it.”
While Lear takes a call from PBS’ Bill Moyers, Lyn Lear shows the couple’s art: the David Hockney “Sprinklers” in the screening room, the Robert Graham sculptures and the colored-glass De Wain Valentine columns, the Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis and Jim Dine in the gallery; the pre-Columbian art on the Giacometti table in the living room, the Jasper Johns over the fireplace. “We bought a huge Rauschenberg for the screening room in our new house,” she says.
Under the Jim Dine sits a puppy pen. Lyn Lear breeds Maltese dogs as a hobby.
Their new 12,300-square-foot home is off Mandeville Canyon on a nearly 10-acre site, which Lear says is costing $15 million to buy and remodel. The property will have a facility for 30 cars built cantilevered under a tennis court that is being built on a hilltop.
Meanwhile, the Brentwood house is for sale, along with a New York apartment. Lear also owns a 150-plus acre vacation retreat outside Bennington, Vt.
Back in the library, Lear notes that “Sunday Dinner” wasn’t easy to prepare. Two years ago he underwent a radical prostatechtomy. A friend said that he also suffered a case of writer’s block. Lear dismisses that. He always has “a difficult time getting started on something fresh, which people really close to me, who love me, say, ‘Give yourself a break; it’s the incubation period,’ and I’m the one who beats on myself,” he says, punching his left shoulder.
“I have no ability to draw on past successes to sustain me: ‘Now wait a second, Norman, you’ve worried this way before, you’ve done it before, and people liked it before. Therefore why are you going crazy again?’ This is what I mean by not being able to go with the Tao. . . , " he says, referring to the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu’s “Tao Te Ching,” or Book of the Way. He picks up a thin-volumed translation of the “Tao” by Stephen Mitchell, a Berkeley scholar and translator. Lear also has Mitchell’s rendition on tape. When he can’t sleep, he listens.
CBS initially had wanted “Sunday Dinner” to debut in September. “To get six shows ready, I would have had to do it all in eight or 10 weeks. And I just don’t work that way,” Lear says.
Then his return to TV was to have been in October with a five-times-a-week late-night series consisting of two 15-minute stories, “Jody Gordon and the News” and “The Storyteller.” But he pulled out. “I think he got so involved with ‘Sunday Dinner’ that none of him was going to be in ‘Jody Gordon,’ ” CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky suggested recently. “I don’t think he wanted that to be . . . his return.”
In large measure Lear is at a crossroads.
Even as he went into production with “Sunday Dinner” this summer, substantial business losses, particularly in publishing, forced Lear to begin dismantling parts of ACT III Communications, his privately owned multi-media conglomerate. He blames “too many acquisitions in a bad market,” again in publishing, but concedes: “Listen, the buck stops with me; I certainly was apprised. . . . “
In September, ACT III Publishing folded two magazines, Television Engineering and Corporate Video Decisions. In October it sold Marketing & Media Decisions magazine to Affiliated Publications for an undisclosed amount. Last month it suspended publication of The Marketer, a monthly magazine aimed at marketing executives. The company still owns other magazines, including Channels, a trade magazine for the TV industry, though Lear notes: “If we can sell the others, we’ll sell them.”
A score of employees were axed; he says that more may go. Retrenchment has in turn bred an undercurrent of resentment. As severance, employees basically received two weeks per year of service. “That’s what the company policy was,” says Lear.
“The hypocrisy is there,” said one former ACT III executive. “Lear’s speeches stressing the dangers of bottom-line thinking and personal greed measured against his own creeping materialism; promoting ethics in business through the creation of the Business Enterprise Trust while at the same time providing barest severance to employees. . . .”
In 1989, with $1.3 million and a blue-chip board, Lear helped found Business Enterprise Trust to identify acts of courage, integrity and social vision in business. Now in the context of the trade publications he folded, he says: “We know how we can hunker down and stay lean and mean.”
“It’s fine to cut back, but I think you could treat people reasonably,” said another ex-executive. “Something closer to the industry standard would have been three to six months (severance pay).”
“That’s ridiculous,” scoffs Lear. “There’s no industry (standard). Who gave you all that?”
ACT III is also pulling back in broadcasting. The company has eight Fox affiliates; it had been expected to own 12, but Lear says he won’t acquire any more. And he’s cutting movie production.
As its troubles began, ACT III Communications, according to a key inside source, had about $500 million in assets, gross revenues of $200 million, an annual cash flow of about $60 million and was several hundred million in debt. Lear, who doesn’t disclose the numbers, doesn’t like the word debt. “Has the company got investors to whom are owed money? Certainly . . .”
According to Lear, the business picture isn’t all bleak. While “publishing has just been a national disaster, and my company and my investment in it has been suffering like everything else,” Lear adds that “happily we also have a theater business and our theaters are doing very well. Our theaters are kind of choice little groups. . . . And broadcasting, we were lucky enough or smart enough to build small Fox affiliates at a time when the Fox logo had begun to mean something. . . .
“Movies I didn’t have a lot of luck either,” and he pauses: “Well I did have some . . . Just got a check this week on ‘Princess Bride’ . . . We’re going to make two films this year, and there may be another. . . . “
ACT III was named for that phase in his business life. He and Bud Yorkin had started Tandem Productions in 1959, making such films as “Come Blow Your Horn,” “Start the Revolution Without Me” and “Divorce American Style” before moving to television with “All in the Family” and “Sanford & Son.” In 1974, Lear started T.A.T. Communications, the acronym for the Yiddish phrase Tochis Affen Tisch, or put your butt on the table, which produced “One Day at a Time,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and other shows. “Norman felt that he really wanted to be, as he put it, the sole creative captain of his ship,” noted then partner A. Jerrold Perenchio, who handled the business side. That became the independent TV powerhouse Embassy Communications, which he and Perenchio sold to Coca-Cola in 1985 for $485 million.
In 1986, Lear was listed by Forbes magazine as one of the 400 richest people in the United States, with an estimated net worth of $225 million--only to be deleted in 1987 following his $112-million divorce settlement from his second wife, Frances, with whom he had a 29-year-marriage and two daughters. She since has become founder and editor-in-chief of the women’s magazine Lear’s.
Last year, ACT III Communications and Columbia Pictures Television formed a joint venture, with Lear having “total creative and business autonomy” while Columbia retains all domestic and foreign distribution rights to ACT III Television’s programming.
Lear has a three-show deal with CBS. In addition to “Sunday Dinner,” a pilot on a second series called “Balls!” set in New York in the 1890s, is scheduled for production in January. Several more are in varying stages of development.
Lear indicates that he would like to build a new Tandem or T.A.T, but he insists that “Sunday Dinner” isn’t simply a vehicle to start down that road. “No. Anymore than it was to address teachers,” he says, referring to a speech he gave last July to the National Education Assn. in Kansas City.
“Schools cannot avoid the teaching about the core values that bind our society together"--including religion, Lear had told the educators. Such instruction must “not trample on the sensibilities of minority faiths,” he added. “But even granting there is a risk, the greater danger would be to forfeit all discussion in the schools of the inner needs of humankind. . . . “
Now this , Norman Lear wouldn’t have said 10 years ago, would he? “He wasn’t wise enough or smart enough--or whatever comes with growth and age,” Lear replies.
Lear is a man of many connections--in entertainment, in media, in politics, in business. Organizations that he helped found have expanded those connections--and enhanced his power base.
The Business Trust board includes chairman James E. Burke, former board chairman of Johnson & Johnson and Warren E. Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and at $3.3 billion the second richest man in the nation. Last year Norman and Lyn Lear helped found the Environmental Media Assn., whose purpose is to place environmentally correct messages into movies and on TV. On Nov. 18 in New York, People for the American Way gave Lear its “Spirit of Liberty” award; dinner co-chairs included Michael Eisner, Michael Ovitz, Marvin Davis, Barry Diller, Steven J. Ross, Robert Redford, Howard Stringer, Katharine Graham.
Politicians recognize Lear’s reach. If you’re an officeholder or running for office, notes John Emerson, chief deputy Los Angeles city attorney, who had been deputy campaign manager for Gary Hart, “you want the word of mouth on you to be good . . . there aren’t a lot of people in the liberal wing of the Democratic party who can be comfortable with the chairmen of Fortune 500 companies.”
Lear grew up in modest circumstances in both Connecticut and Brooklyn. His sister recalls him as a “card, a cutup” at Hartford’s Weaver High. But in 1940--the year he sold both Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie pennants and buttons--he also won first prize in the American Legion Oratorical Contest for New England. His subject was the Constitution and what it meant to him personally. He won a full scholarship to Emerson College but went only a year. He enlisted in the Army Air Force and flew 56 missions in World War II as a radioman.
He came to California more than 40 years ago to write, with his first wife and year-old daughter. Five weeks ago, he went over to CBS to participate in a tribute for Bill Paley and ran into Danny Thomas, his first big-name employer.
Lear almost personifies Hollywood longevity, spanning generations. Carl Reiner got to know Lear in the early 1950s when they were neighbors on New York’s Fire Island. His son, Rob, used to play jacks with Lear’s eldest daughter. In the ‘70s, Rob Reiner became Mike Stivic, Archie Bunker’s “Meathead” son-in-law, and in the 1980s Lear was producing Reiner’s movies: first “This is Spinal Tap” and “The Sure Thing” at Embassy, and later “Princess Bride” and “Stand By Me” at ACT III.
At a People for the American Way dinner here Oct. 29, Lear, as emcee, introduced Carrie Fisher as “a high-bred hybrid,” referring to parents Debbie Reynolds, and Eddie Fisher. Reynolds starred in Lear’s “Divorce American Style,” and Fisher dedicated his book, “Eddie: My Life, My Loves,” published in 1981, “To Lyn (Davis), who arrived just in time.” He also wrote that “in Lyn, I have found a kind of love that was new to me. . . . She is the most complete woman I have ever known: deeply spiritual yet practical.. . . “
On the first “Sunday Dinner” script--the only one of the six on which Lear takes a writing credit--the executive who was heading ACT III Television wrote on the cover: “A love letter to Lyn Lear.”
As one writer noted, Lear was all over the series “like white on rice.” Another writer said, “whenever TT’s in a scene, you know he wrote it.” About that Lear laughs.
So much in the series is traceable to Lear. In one scene, TT pinches the skin of Benedict’s hand to show the difference between younger skin and older skin. Lyn Lear affectionately does the same thing at the corner of her husband’s eye after he frets that photographs will show his lines.
As in the series, it was after he and Lyn came back from a trip to Africa that Lear told his daughters about their relationship. “I did like Ben Benedict--moving too fast. Insisting that they ought to be able to get together and find each other and love each other more quickly than life allows. Ben is doing that. I did that. I just felt that these are all wonderful people, they are all going to love each other. I was trying . . . to control it.”
“My daughters love their mother very deeply,” Lear explains. "(And) Frances was very much alive. But a daughter isn’t eager to meet the woman that has replaced her mother. It would be unreal if one were to assume that they would find that"--he laughs--"enjoyable. But they love me. I have great daughters, terrific daughters. . . . “
All three live in New York. Ellen Lear, who is divorced, is a sex therapist. Kate Lear, 32, who is married to a physician, is head of development for ACT III in New York, and was occasionally on the set. Maggie Lear, 31, who is single, has, her father says, “a special gift for working with emotionally troubled kids, and she just went back to NYU to pick up her (masters in social work) and then her Ph.D.”
“They’re crazy about Benjamin,” he adds. “And their mother is in the best place she’s ever been. Emotionally. Physically. She’s done for herself what I never could have done for her. She gave herself everything she needed.”
Asked about her magazine, he replies, “I like Lear’s. It’s a good book.”
Did it bother him, the use of their name?
“Nah,” he shrugs. “Everybody thought it would. . . . “
He is a man of surprising contrasts:
A First Amendment champion who tries, sometimes none too subtlely, to control stories and the timing of stories written about him. He grants certain access to his set but resists sitting down with him for a one-on-one session. “Her pen is moving again,” a publicist tells Lear as a reporter takes notes and a photographer shoots pictures of him working inside the “Sunday Dinner” studio booth. Yet when Lear does talk, he provides lunch and hours of frank conversation.
He’s discussing Tao philosophy. “As human beings, we are inclined to put ourselves in the way of the natural flow. We worry about things we cannot control . . . like what are you going to write about me? I cannot control that. What do I worry about it for?”
That night he phones and asks whether quotes can be read back to him.
He is a civil libertarian who advocates the separation of church and state and yet says: “Why is no President or officeholder sounding like (Vaclav) Havel (on spirituality)? Why aren’t we making these sounds? Gorbachev is making them. . . . It’s obvious the culture is screaming for it.”
Is Lear an executive who, as producer Patricia Palmer says, always has an “open door--you can stick your head in, have a chit-chat, you don’t have to go through layers, levels of people?” Or is he, as someone formerly in his TV department saw him, “very much like Ronald Reagan; he has insulated himself beautifully. . . . "?
Is he the man who welcomes suggestions from virtually anyone on his set, a man whom actors genuinely respect because he both supports them and pushes them into doing their best work, a man who energizes even at midnight, and whom writers such as Wayne Lemon, son of a Texas Baptist minister, find they can challenge when it comes to altering precious words in a script? Or does he court a sycophantic chorus?
As for the new house, he dismisses any notion that the cost may have caused him problems with the business, as has been whispered. “It’s common sense,” Lear answers. “How could a company this size depend on the difference between $15 million for a house and--given the property and everything else, nobody would imagine it could be much less. Tens of millions (in losses) in publishing, and somebody is talking about a guy who is over on a house?”
An environmentalist, he sees no conflict in how much space he is alotting for cars at the new house, though he shrinks from calling the 30-car facility, which he will use for political and social events, a garage . “This is the way America lives,” says Lear.
In his speeches, Lear constantly decries material matters--any conflict here?
“There’s nothing in anything I say that would suggest a portion of my hard-won (earnings) can’t be used to pleasure myself, my family. You don’t build things or cause things to happen without other people feeding themselves also. . . . (It) isn’t on somebody’s finger or going in a vault as some art does, and lots of jewels. It’s going to make work for a lot of people.”
Which sounds something like the classic trickle-down Republican argument.
He is talking about why he chose Robert Loggia, aside from talent, to play Ben Benedict on “Sunday Dinner.”
“I see in Ben Benedict a strong, controlling, vulnerable man, anxious to be the master of his destiny and everybody else’s around him, all with good intent. . . . Loggia has this in his face, in his manner.”
Sounds like Lear?
“I don’t know if I would describe me that way. . . . " He stops: “Now if Lyn were sitting here, she might have laughed quietly.” Janet Lundblad of The Times Editorial Library contributed to research on this story.