I grew up watching his TV shows, but I knew little about him until this week when an interview appeared on ted.com.
"All in the Family,” "Sanford and Son," "Maude," "Good Times," "The Jeffersons," "One Day at a Time.” Everyone I knew watched them. Forty years later, I still remember the opening song for “All in the Family”.
Norman Lear’s shows shaped American culture, “giving the underrepresented members of society their first prime-time voice.” I knew they were successful but didn’t realize he had seven shows in the top ten at one time. Combined, 120 million people were watching his content each week.
I didn’t know he produced and financed movies, including ”Fried Green Tomatoes," "The Princess Bride," "Stand By Me," and "This Is Spinal Tap."
I didn’t know he founded a political activist group called People for the American Way, or bought an original copy of the Declaration of Independence for $8 million so he could show it at schools and museums around the country during a three-year tour.
He was also married three times, and has six children. Such a life. So many chapters.
And yet in the interview, the stories he told most vividly were about his parents, and his lack of connection with them.
He recounts calling his mother to tell her he had been inducted into the newly-created Television Hall of Fame, alongside such names as Lucille Ball, Edward R. Murrow, and Milton Berle.
“I tell her the list of names and me, and she says, ‘Listen, if that's what they want to do, who am I to say?’ That's my Ma. I think it earns that kind of a laugh because everybody has a piece of that mother.”
At 9 years old, his father was arrested for selling fake bonds, and his mother sells the furniture, preparing to move to flee from the shame.
“And in the middle of all of that, some strange horse's ass put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Well, you're the man of the house now.’ I'm crying, and this asshole says, ‘You're the man of the house now.…And men of the house don't cry." And I look back, and I think that's when I learned the foolishness of the human condition, and it's been that gift that I've used.”
Then he tells a charming story about his grandfather, and how he used to write to the President of the United States, and take him to parades. It seems like a lovely memory. Until he says that he has told the story of his grandfather dozens of times and “This will be the second time I have said the whole story was a lie.” A few of the details were true, but
“all the rest of it, is a story I borrowed from a good friend whose grandfather was that grandfather who wrote those letters. And, I mean, I stole Arthur Marshall's grandfather and made him my own. Always.
When I started to write the memoir and I started to think about it, and then I -- I -- I did a reasonable amount of crying, and I realized how much I needed the father. So much so that I appropriated Arthur Marshall's grandfather…I needed the father.”
Relationships with our parents, our siblings, our friends, our mentors. So often it’s the relationships that we remember, that shape us, that frame how we deal with events.
Although I make my living now helping people build relationships, I’m just beginning to see how important, how fundamental, our relationships are to being happy.