For music or politics, he’s all ears

Times Staff Writer

Norman Lear has realized that the secret to being Hollywood’s elder statesman is to think young.

Music? Revive the old Memphis classics, mixed with a modern-day edge. (His record company -- Concord Music -- is up for 29 Grammys on Sunday, everything from pop to jazz.)

Politics? Team up with Napster, Google, MySpace and other online portals to encourage voter registration among 18-year-olds. “Make voting a right of passage, like getting the keys to the car,” Lear says.

And presidential candidates? Give to as many as you like early in the game so they all have a fighting chance. “I want to see a vigorous debate, it’s for the future of our children.” Oh, he adds, and don’t let the politicians bully you.


So when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, recently called the idea of supporting multiple candidates “the dumbest thing I ever heard,” Lear responded: “What’s Hillary going to do? Jail me?”

At age 84, the man who mixed social commentary and sitcoms in ways rarely seen before or since continues to invent new roles for himself and because of that enjoys a wide and influential status among liberal Hollywood activists. In short, he’s the one they look to for advice and counsel. After he announced several weeks ago that he would be making contributions to multiple candidates, Barbra Streisand followed suit this week. She announced on Tuesday that she would be supporting Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards in the run-up to ’08.

“Let’s hear what they all have to say,” said Lear, who is supporting Obama, Clinton, Edwards and Tom Vilsack. Recently, he posted an op-ed on the Huffington Post. “My reason for backing all of the above does not derive from the lack of a personal favorite. It comes from a naive belief that those who tend to lean or drift or blink to the left ... might have something to gain by a vigorous discussion of issues and policies.”

Chad Griffin, a Hollywood political strategist and former Clinton White House staffer, noted, “Very often in this town, people want to know what Norman is thinking. He’s a leader and someone who is looked up to by everyone I know. And that’s a rare thing in this town.”

Lear, who flew 52 combat missions during World War II, became interested in politics as a young boy growing up in New Haven, Conn. “My grandfather would write letters to the president,” he said. “He would start the letters, ‘My dearest, darling Mr. President, didn’t I tell you last week that you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that?’

“I was a captive audience. He would read these letters to me.... Some days I would go down to get the mail and there would be a little white envelope that said ‘White House’ on it. I don’t remember if I ever saw a signature from the president. But I know I saw those envelopes. So I grew up with that.”

His grandfather would also take him to parades, lots of them. “He would hold my hand when the flag went by. I’d feel the squeeze of his hand and I’d look up, there would always be a tear coming down his face. So I grew up fervently in love with everything American and all those values that my grandfather treasured so deeply.”

Lear moved to Hollywood in the 1950s, where he started as a comedy writer and then a director. (In 1959, he created Henry Fonda’s first television series, a half-hour show called “The Deputy.”) He went on to produce “All in the Family,” followed by “Sanford and Son,” then “Maude,” “The Jeffersons” and “One Day at a Time.”


All his best work had one thing in common: It dealt with social or political issues of the day.

“He views himself as a citizen of this country, a country he loves,” said director (and “All in the Family” costar) Rob Reiner, who considers Lear his “second father. He’s a mentor.”

Lear said the choice was simple: “If you care about your own welfare and that of the people you love, you’ve got to think about the welfare of the country.”

An outspoken supporter of 1st Amendment rights, Lear created the group People for the American Way in 1981 as part of an effort to separate religious extremism from politics. (It helped lead the campaign to stop Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987.)


In 2001, Lear and his third wife, Lyn, purchased a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence -- for $8.1 million. They took it on tour around the country so people could see the “birth certificate” in person.

Around that time, he decided to go into the music business with one of his business partners, Hal Gaba. They acquired Concord Music and then Fantasy Records, which included the Memphis soul label Stax, with its songs about civil rights and social change. (They were also savvy enough to get their albums into Starbucks.) “Music brings people together,” Lear said.

And so does politics.

“It’s all of a piece,” Lear said.