TV trailblazer Norman Lear receives Atlanta’s Phoenix Award

In the opening chapters of his memoir, legendary television writer and producer, Norman Lear offers vivid descriptions of his parents.

When I tell him during his recent visit to Atlanta that I’m pretty sure we have the same mom, his eyes crease and he erupts with laughter. He’s tickled that a middle-aged black woman and a nonagenarian Jewish man could share the same life experiences.

“My bumper sticker reads ‘Just another version of you,'” he said. “We are versions of each other. Why can’t we appreciate each other on that level?”

For decades, Lear delved into our common humanity through groundbreaking television shows including All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Good Times, Maude and The Jeffersons — which 40 years later remains one of the longest running prime-time shows with lead actors who were African-American. After leaving the television world in the 1980s, Lear devoted himself to supporting constitutional rights though his non-profit People for the American Way.

Now at 93, Lear says he has fallen in love with traveling the country and chatting with anyone and everyone about life. On Monday, during a private ceremony, the City of Atlanta honored Lear with a Phoenix Award. Afterward, he spent two hours talking about race, identity and American culture during a public event at Morehouse College.

His 2014 memoir, “Even This I get to Experience,” ($17, Penguin Press) is newly released in paperback and the sentiment of the title suggests we take an attitude of appreciating every moment and recognizing life’s little gifts for what they are.

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Lear’s introduction to what he calls the foolishness of the human condition came at age nine when his father was carted off to prison. “He tried to sell some fake bonds and was caught,'” said Lear hesitating before adding that his father didn’t always tell the truth and was a total rascal. “What you hear in my hesitation is I love the guy despite it all,” Lear said.

As his mother sold off their worldly goods to move them away from the neighborhood and shame, a well-meaning adult put his arm on Lear’s shoulder and told him he was the man of the house now.

“Under those circumstances you say to a nine-year old , ‘You’re the man of the house now?’ Despite my age, I saw the foolishness of that expression,” Lear says.

It was stupid, funny even, and comedy became the lens through which Lear would from then on view the craziness of life. As a young man frequenting burlesque venues in Boston, he developed an understanding of great material and comedic timing. The great burlesque acts reflected humanity in a much simpler fashion, he said, but it is the same humanity we still see in comedy and on television.

Lear, a fan of everything from South Park to Shonda Rhimes, says the issues of the day never change. The shows he developed decades ago dealt with abortion, women’s rights, child abuse, alternative lifestyles — all of which could be found on any television series on the air today.

“The human condition doesn’t change,” he said. “How we deal with them changes and our ability to talk about them as opposed to hiding them always helps.”

Whenever he encounters someone touched by the details in his work, he is overjoyed. He recalled the moment when businessman Russell Simmons shared that the first black man he saw writing a check was George Jefferson from the series The Jeffersons and it taught him that a black man could have a checking account.

Lear has also heard how victims of child abuse connected to one of his famous story lines from Good Times featuring Janet Jackson as Penny, a little girl who was being abused. Or women who felt an affinity with Maude Findlay when she chose to have an abortion at the age of 47 in the series Maude.

“People were not touched by the glitz of a television show or its ratings, but the details. Some little something in the show was a gift to that person’s life. That is wonderful, and that makes me feel great” said Lear.

While he loves so many of the characters and shows he created, the one closest to his heart, is the one most people don’t talk about.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was the one show from the first moment to the last moment where it was about one thing. What is the media doing to an average American housewife?” Lear says. “From the first episode to the last I couldn’t be prouder of anything.”

The five-day-a-week nighttime soap opera, starring Louise Lasser in the title role, was considered a little out there for its satirical look at how mass media impacts the American psyche, but as time would reveal, it was a prescient topic.

Lear believes we will always be grappling with these same cultural issues in some form but one thing that has changed is the time we have to engage one another.

“If you walk in a restaurant, 30 people could be dining and 26 of them are on their cell phones. That is going to cost us something along the line. It is not evident yet and maybe it will all be viewed as improvement, I’m not condemning it, but it is certainly going to change us,” said Lear.

The relationship turned collaboration he developed with comedian Fred Allen 50 years ago, wouldn’t be possible in our time pressed culture today, he said.

The two men spent hours developing a fantasy life and writing letters to each other as imaginary characters. The letters were eventually turned into a book and left Lear with memories of time spent laughing with a friend.  Life was slower, and finding those afternoon escapes from work and other demands of life was easier.

Lear says putting his life on the pages of his memoir forced him to be honest about himself, warts and all. Then as today, he is living without regrets. “How can I regret anything if it took all of those difficult moments to get here and here is a good place?”

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