Norman Lear was sitting in his expansive, but comfortable Hollywood office reflecting upon more simpler times.
“I think everything was easier 20 years ago,” Lear, 68, said with a small smile. “Despite George Bush, it was a gentler time. Everything today is about speed and money. No one has time to deal with anything other than how fast they can get something done and how cheap they can get it done. It’s a much more difficult atmosphere in which to do anything.”
But the Emmy-winning writer-producer-creator of such landmark TV series as “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” has decided to return to TV after a seven-year absence. His new sitcom “Sunday Dinner” kicks off a six-week run tonight. Plus, Lear is developing at least three other comedies, including “Love Child” with Oscar-winner Linda Hunt, and “Ball$,” possibly starring Robert Klein and Raquel Welch.
(Vintage Lear is on display also: CBS is presenting classic episodes of “All in the Family” after “Sunday Dinner.”)
Instead of the blue-collar Bunkers, “Sunday Dinner” revolves around the weekly dinners of the very white-collar Benedicts. Robert Loggia stars as Ben Benedict, a 56-year-old widower who finds love again with TT Fagori (Teri Hatcher), a 30-year-old environmental attorney. TT (for Thelma Todd) privately talks to “The Chief,” her pet name for God. Though Ben loves TT, his three grown children are not happy about the situation and neither is Ben’s traditional religious sister (Marian Mercer).
“Sunday Dinner” is semi-autobiographical. In 1987, Lear, the father of three grown daughters, married his third wife, Lyn, 25 years Lear’s junior. The couple have a son, Benjamin, who turns 3 in July.
Every project he’s been involved with, Lear said, “has had pieces of me. Everybody writes that way. Sure, I knew a lot about what it’s like to have grown daughters and marry somebody as old as one of those daughters because Lyn and my daughter Ellen are the same age. I had first-hand information on all of that and it’s not without its humor. Also, my wife is deeply spiritual.”
Lear said CBS didn’t approach him about doing “Sunday Dinner.” He felt compelled to do the series.
“The ‘90s are a different time (than the 1970s) because the subtext of the ‘90s is the unmet spiritual needs of our people,” said Lear, who is Jewish.
Americans, he believes, only want to deal with what is quantifiable--SAT scores, the Gross National Product.
“Some people find God and some people find beauty and goodness in the unquantifiable,” he said. “We are the only animals who seem to have this capacity. You go too far in a quantifiable direction and you forget to remember the unquantifiable.”
Lear clasped his hands behind his head. “It’s so apparent now, it finally got to me,” he said. “We have gone so far as to become such a bottom-line, give-me-a-profit-statement-this-quarter-and-everything-else-be-damned society. That’s why I started the Business Enterprise Trust, which has consumed a good deal of my time. It’s an organization honoring businesses that are good for all of the constituents and are thinking long-term. They are making money, but are worthy citizens.”
CBS, Lear admitted, bought “Sunday Dinner” because of its comedic potential, not its spirituality. “They weren’t all that interested in the subtext despite the fact I said the subtext is what it’s about,” Lear said. “I think they were more interested in the characters.”
The subtext, though, has angered Rev. Donald Wildmon, the head of a conservative watchdog organization known as the American Family Assn. Lear said Wildmon is upset with the manner “Sunday Dinner” treats religion.
“We are not dealing with it in his way,” Lear said. “You hear the leading character talk (about God) and you are not quite sure if it (God) is a he or a she. Donald Wildmon knows God is only one thing. (To Wildmon) I am Christian-bashing when I suggest that somebody might think differently about God.”
“Sunday Dinner” isn’t the only vehicle for Lear’s quest to inform people about the need for spiritualism. He’s been invited to give speeches on the subject by such organizations as the National Educational Assn. and the American Academy of Religions.
“The metaphor I used to help them understand is when you look at a 1,500-mile river, you know the climate changes often along the banks of the 1,500 miles,” he said. “As a consequence, the flora and the fauna are all different. If you thought about religions along the banks of that same river, you would know that they were all different, but the stream that nurtured all of it is the same.
“We’ve got to be able to deal with the stream,” Lear said. “The stream for me is that capacity Buddhists have for finding Buddha and we have in this country for finding Jesus or whatever. We’ve got to start recognizing that and talking about it and dealing with it because that’s the only thing we have to collect around. You can’t live a life with just material things whether you believe in God or not.”
Lear acknowledged “Sunday Dinner” may not be everyone’s cup of tea. “ ‘Sunday Dinner’ has an order for six and with audiences fractioned as they are, it’s hard to conceive they will find anything that may be an acquired taste in just six weeks,” he said.
“All in the Family,” Lear’s breakout hit, initially had an order for 13 episodes. “Thank God we had 13,” Lear said. “We went on in January and the audience tuned into the show during the summer reruns. It was just in the nick of time because (CBS was) dropping their option.”
Lear is pleased with the time slot for “Sunday Dinner.”
“Sunday night for ‘Sunday Dinner’ is absolutely correct,” he said. “I understood ‘Murder, She Wrote’ was too big a hit to move and the network couldn’t afford to do that, so I waited. That was my election. It may turn out to be a mistake because it’s early in the summer, but it felt right to me.”
Lear acknowledged people will make comparisons between “Sunday Dinner” and “All in the Family,” especially because “Family” reruns will follow his new show.
“To the extent I can objectively examine myself, it isn’t a problem for me largely because we all lead so many lives,” Lear said. “The Norman Lear who enjoyed that success all those years ago is not the Norman Lear who is doing ‘Sunday Dinner.’ Obviously, one is far more hilarious than the other, but they are different animals. So I am going to enjoy the comparison.”
“Sunday Dinner” premieres tonight at 8 on CBS; “All in the Family” airs at 8:30.