This Bill Moyers interview is a behind-the-scenes look at the life and works of the mastermind behind All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and One Day at a Time. Producer Norman Lear discusses idea generation, writing, working with actors and playing the game to succeed in the world of television. This program includes interviews with collaborators Carroll O’Connor, Bonnie Franklin, Marla Gibbs, and others, as well as recollections from Lear himself and his wife.
WATCH A CLIP
BILL MOYERS: The television producer and writer, Norman Lear. In a business where creativity is the exception to the rule, and critics complain of a tiring sameness, he broke the primetime mold. The way he did it is a casebook study of the creative process in television. So our subject this week and next is “The Family Circles of Norman Lear.” I’m Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: Scholars say that collaboration is one of the most vital ingredients of the creative process. Creative people come together to share ideas, perceptions, encouragement, and the net becomes stronger than its separate strands. That’s one of the secrets behind the man in the white hat.
He will tell you that Norman Lear is a pseudonym for many people, an alias for producers, directors, editors, and writers with names like Parker, Hauck, Nicholl, and Ross, Bogart, West, Moriarty and Grant, Benfield, Mannings, and Milligan.
And then there are the performers– O’Connor, Stapleton, Reiner, Arthur, Hemsley, and many more. Together they produced some of the funniest and most original comedy on television. A good joke, after all, is creative.
Not only does the spark of laughter bring physiological and psychological release, but with the unexpected twist, the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated and contradictory points, comes insight into ourselves and our lives. It happened often with Norman Lear and kin.
BILL MOYERS: This was their nesting place, the studios where the collaboration occurred each week. Here were created the characters who still show up on our TV sets almost every night in series’ like One Day at a Time, Good Times, Maude, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and The Jeffersons.
But it was All in the Family that challenged assumptions about primetime comedy by presenting an American in the rough. Inspired by a British series Lear had admired, it first had a hard time finding a place on American television. For tepid primetime waters, where serious issues were not supposed to surface, it was pretty strong stuff.
NORMAN LEAR: I heard this when All in the Family first began. They don’t want to be confronted with their problems. That was a big deal. “Don’t do a subject like the economy, Norman. Don’t talk about Richard Nixon. That’s too topical, Norman. Don’t deal with illness. People don’t want to be involved with that. They want to come home and they want to relax, and they want to be entertained.”
Well if the drama is right, if the acting is superb, as it was in All in the Family, and Maude, and so forth, people do get involved, and they care about those problems.
BONNIE FRANKLIN: He was doing something that had never been done before. He was talking about things on television that had never been said before. He was using words, allowing words to be used on television and fights to be had on television with wonderful characters that had never been done before.
CARROLL O’CONNOR: I thought the uproar would be overwhelming. But it will be a good thing to do the show, whatever. It was about that real, indigenous character, stripped, exposed in his own home, honestly. We all knew there were people who said these things in American homes, but you never saw that on TV.
[EXCERPT, ALL IN THE FAMILY]
MIKE: When the hell are you going to admit that the war was wrong?
ARCHIE BUNKER: I ain’t talking about that war. I don’t want to talk about that rotten, damn war, no more. I’m talking about something else. I’ll warrant you, that was wrong– saying you won’t go. What do you think– the old people of this country can say whether or not they want to go to war? You couldn’t get a decent war off the ground that way. LAUGHTER]
NORMAN LEAR: But then he said, the problem with it is, he said, we may get a couple of shows made. We may even get on the air, but we’re never going to last. They’re never going to take this.
CARROLL O’CONNOR: Well the minute, I thought, the public hears Archie Bunker talking about black people and the Jews, and the Puerto Ricans, and all of that, I thought, the uproar will be overwhelming.
[EXCERPT, ALL IN THE FAMILY]
LIONEL: You feeling all right, Mr. Bunker?
ARCHIE BUNKER: Certainly!
MIKE: Aw, he’s all right, Lionel. He just didn’t expect to see a black man down here giving blood.
ARCHIE BUNKER: All right, if you want to make an argument out of it, I bet he ain’t down here to give blood, at all. He’s down here to do some kind of an odd job, right, Lionel?
LIONEL: (in purposefully intense dialect) Oh yeh, yeh. I sweeps up. I left my broom back there. [LAUGHTER]
MIKE: I need some water.
ARCHIE BUNKER: Get me some water, too, huh.
LIONEL: Poor Mike.
ARCHIE BUNKER: Huh?
LIONEL: They get all confused, don’t they, your goody goody, white liberals. You tell them all men are brothers, you tell them all men come from the same God, right away, they all think we all got the same blood. Ain’t that ridiculous? [LAUGHTER]
ARCHIE BUNKER: I know what you mean. [LAUGHTER]
LIONEL: Yeah, I mean, if they start pumping our blood into you white folks, well, who knows what might happen, you could all turn black.
ARCHIE BUNKER: Well I tell you, Lionel, I think there’s some doubt about that.
LIONEL: You wouldn’t want to chance it, would you?
ARCHIE BUNKER: No! [LAUGHTER]
CARROLL O’CONNOR: I thought of it as a truly American character, and that it would make, probably, the first American character comedy on television, as opposed to situation comedy.
BILL MOYERSNow wait a minute, most people think of Archie Bunker, All in the Family, as a situation comedy.
CARROLL O’CONNOR: Everybody likes to think of all half-hour comedies as a sitcom. It’s become kind of a generic term, but situation comedy is where a bunch of writers get together and think up a goofy situation and put that down on the characters, and then the characters go through that. The sitcom– the goofball situation that never happens to anybody. I mean, Laverne and Shirley are on a train, and they’re working for the CIA. Listen, that’s good comedy, and they did that in a very funny way. They’re not trying to do the things that our show is doing.
That’s not a criticism of them, but that is sitcom. It’s wacky-woo. It’s people laugh, and they love it. We don’t do that. We do something else. We had a character. We had an indigenous American character, who looked at things and lived his life in a very familiar, but funny way.
[EXCERPT, ALL IN THE FAMILY]
ARCHIE BUNKER: This is America, land that I love.
MIKE: Well I love it, too, Mr. Bunker. And it’s because I do, I protest when I think things are wrong.
ARCHIE BUNKER: Then stand beside her. And guide her-
MIKE: The right to dissent is the principle upon which this country was based.
ARCHIE BUNKER: Through the night with the light from above.
MIKE: Listen to me, it’s in the Bill of Rights!
ARCHIE BUNKER: From the mountains–
MIKE: Why do you think we broke away from England to begin with?
ARCHIE BUNKER: From the prairies–
MIKE: Because we disagreed with her.
ARCHIE BUNKER: –to the oceans wide with boats–
MIKE: We demanded freedom.
ARCHIE BUNKER: –wide with boats. [LAUGHTER]
ARCHIE BUNKER: It’s guys like you who don’t listen to reason– I mean you’re not listening to anything.
ARCHIE BUNKER: God Bless America, you dumb Pollack.
MIKE: You’re totally closed-minded. You’re prejudiced.
ARCHIE BUNKER: You’re prejudiced! You’re prejudiced!
EDITH BUNKER: Calm down.
MIKE: Not any more I’m leaving!
ARCHIE BUNKER: [SINGING] God Bless–
MIKE: You’re prejudiced!
ARCHIE BUNKER: [SINGING] –America.
EDITH BUNKER: Archie!
MIKE: Get away from me.
ARCHIE BUNKER: [SINGING] My home sweet home.
CARROLL O’CONNOR: What we all did was get stories that reflected American life and turned Archie loose on these ordinary situations, and what was funny was the way Archie handled these things.
[EXCERPT, ALL IN THE FAMILY]
MIKE: What happened on your first date?
ARCHIE BUNKER: Oh, make believe you don’t hear that.
EDITH BUNKER: Oh! I’ll never forget it. I was at the Puritan Maid ice cream parlor.
ARCHIE BUNKER: Aw, don’t make it a long story, will ya.
EDITH BUNKER: Yeah, me and my cousin, Maude–
ARCHIE BUNKER: Maude!
EDITH BUNKER: Yes. We was having one of their specials– it was called a Steamboat. Oh, it was so delicious– (Archie pantomimes committing suicide, first loading the gunÖ) five different flavors. And Archie was sitting at another table with that fella, Jefferson Pratt, remember him. Anyway, Archie was trying to get my attention, so first, he put two straws in his nose, like a walrus. And then– (Archie pulls the imaginary trigger).
BILL MOYERS: The actors were important, yes. Directors were important, yes. But without that writing, good writing, it doesn’t work. What about writing?
NORMAN LEAR: The ideas just ram up against my– it feels like they’re running up against my eyes. They’re trying to get out through every aperture, and my head explodes with it. Now if I don’t start writing something, anything, and letting them out–
FRANCES LEAR All of the sudden, he gets deeper and deeper and deeper into himself. And he can’t sleep, and he can’t eat, or he sleeps too much, and he eats too much. And the children talk to him, and he doesn’t answer, and he becomes extremely preoccupied. And he says absolutely nothing.
NORMAN LEAR: There’s a correlation between inspiration and creativity and madness. There’s a degree of madness in it all. At least I think so. And one has to suffer the madness in others and in oneself in order to get the inspiration and the creativity.
CARROLL O’CONNOR: The fascination of bringing ideas to fruition and gathering great talent together is very strong,
NORMAN LEAR: I consider myself, basically, a writer and became a terrific collaborator. The results– what you see in All in the Family and Maude and Mary Hartman, and the others, are, of course, the results of an enormous collaboration with a good deal of myself in it.
BONNIE FRANKLIN: The way we work– it’s television. It’s different. It’s situation comedy on television. So it is a collaborative creative effort. It has to be.
NORMAN LEAR:We would sit around this round table with dictating equipment in the center of that table, and fellows would come in who were responsible for the writing of an individual show– I’m talking, now, about when we had five, six, and seven shows on the air.
BONNIE FRANKLIN: It’s called “table,” basically, because we all sit around a table, and we toss it around. And Norman, really, was very instrumental in starting that with All in the Family, and I know that it carried down in all of the shows. I know that Maude did it, and The Jeffersons did it, and we do it.
NORMAN LEAR: The tape recorder would be on, and somebody would be typing from the third minute. Down the hall somebody would be typing what we were saying, so that when the writers left, they had all of their thoughts, my input, my direction of how we were going to go into this particular story on those pages. And the next group would come in, and we would get to work on the next story. Well, everybody was throwing lines of dialogue, 90% of which we would never use, 10% of which was gold. You’d go back and read those pages, and say, my goodness, we have 15%-20% or more of the piece right out of the meeting.
CARROLL O’CONNOR: He had the meetings with the writers and told them what to do. I want this idea. I want to do this idea dramatically, theatrically. Sometimes they would say, but that won’t be funny, Norman. He would say, I don’t care. I don’t care.
NORMAN LEAR: I worked with the best writers– I mean, wonderful men– on that show, who will tell you, if you talk to them, that they didn’t think that could work– that a man could, literally, drown in chicken soup, and an audience would believe it. That’s where my madness comes in, when I say, where is the madness in this melancholy face. That’s my madness.
BONNIE FRANKLIN: He might have had a very shocking idea that might have been a bad idea. I mean, he never said, “I only have good ideas.” It might have been a terrible idea, but it made minds think.
NORMAN LEAR: The magic in it is, that however long you’re at it, and however much you care about it, and however much you think you know, you find out every once in a while, you go right into a door, right into a wall and realize that you’ve blown it, totally. And you don’t know it, and you’ll never have it all together. And there’s such inspiration and such magic in that. You know, how could I make such a mistake? Well the fact is, I can, and it’s terrific.
CARROLL O’CONNOR: A lot of things happened in rehearsal that we wish we could have recorded– the fooling around, the trial, the error, the mistakes. And I used to like to have Norman come down, because he would get ideas from watching what we did.
NORMAN LEAR: The actors would show us what they have done on their feet with the Director’s input and the actors’ input, and I would have another opportunity with everyone in a collaboration to say, I think this, I think that, why don’t we try this, why don’t we try that.
Once more, for the boss. OK, action.
Then the big ape staggered, and he started begging, and I gave him one more shot. Boy, he passed out, and he said, Fella, you’re 10 times the man I was.
[EXCERPT FROM THE JEFFERSONS SHOW]
[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]
V1: And that was it.
V2: Oh George, you really are a hero.
V1: Well, I’m going to go back to my shower.
V2: You did real good, Mr. Jefferson, and I agree with that reporter.
V1: That I was a hero?
V2: No, that you’re a very tiny man.
BONNIE FRANKLIN: Actors, actresses, director, everybody– I mean the prop master could have input if he has an idea. And we’d sit around, and tell how we feel it could possibly be better or how our character would, perhaps, react to something that may be different from the way it was written. And then we’d have a back and forward session. They may not agree. We may feel strongly. We may not feel strongly enough. It may be a compromise. But that is what makes our show, I think, creative.
NORMAN LEAR: Nothing is written in concrete, and there is rarely an intelligent actor who, at least with a question, if not a specific idea, by the raising of that question doesn’t add something, cause you to think about something you hadn’t considered before.
BONNIE FRANKLIN: Norman always said– and we keep trying– you never stop polishing that product.
NORMAN LEAR: The work is always in progress until it’s on the air, and then we’re sorry it isn’t in progress still.
BONNIE FRANKLIN: We make cuts. We make additions. We change lines. We change directions of things.
NORMAN LEAR: And then if it still wasn’t working, rewrite scenes after the audience had gone and keep making it until we had it as right as we could get it.
CARROLL O’CONNOR: Improvements, rewrites– he would come in, sometimes, and say, I think we have to do the whole second act over, or I don’t think we have a plausible finish, or we don’t have a valuable finish to it all. Or what are we doing all this– it’s adding up to nothing– and making a suggestion about what to do.
BONNIE FRANKLIN: So it never stops. And you know, it’s one of the things that Norman did say. You know, it can always made better, so don’t stop. And we’d keep on doing it.
BILL MOYERS: What does he do? Is Norman Lear a writer, a producer, a casting director? What is he?
BONNIE FRANKLIN: I think his most important function was as a tumler.
BILL MOYERS: Tumler?
BONNIE FRANKLIN: Tumler– it’s a Yiddish word. He mixes everything around– what would you know, right? He mixes everything up. He makes this happen. He makes people think and argue and doubt and express themselves. And for us, I feel that that was the thing that Norman did the best. He made us all create.
BILL MOYERS: What makes her a creative actor?
NORMAN LEAR: The answer to that question is one of the mysteries of the world. And it’s one of those things that keeps me fired and excited all the time. I worship at the talent that can do what the performers on these shows do and what she can do. I will never know where it comes from.
BILL MOYERS: Were you always nice to each other, as you seem to be now? Or weren’t you?
BONNIE FRANKLIN: No. I don’t think that we were. I mean, there were arguments, and I mean, I don’t think there was any hate or animosity, because we were working for the same end. I mean, I’ve always loved Norman, and hopefully, the other way around, right? You love me, right?
NORMAN LEAR: Well, you could be a pain in the ass, occasionally.
BONNIE FRANKLIN: I know, see, I did. I mean, I did scream and cry and all of that. And poor man, he didn’t know what to do with me at times.
NORMAN LEAR: No, the disagreements, creative disagreements, were real and they were honest– and I could say this for 99% of all of those situations– they always resulted in something better.
MARLA GIBBS, FLORENCE THE MAID FROM THE JEFFERSONS: The key is listening, listening and being interested in the other performer. That gives you a perspective for what you’re going to say when you deliver your line. It can’t be a mechanical thing. It’s energy that person is giving you.
NORMAN LEAR: You’re not thinking of the line, but you’re listening to what–
MARLA GIBBS: You have to listen. That’s the key word.
SHERMAN HEMSLEY (GEORGE JEFFERSON): You react to what the other person does.
MARLA GIBBS: It’s like life.
SHERMAN HEMSLEY: It’s like life, like I’m reacting to what you just asked me, right.
MARLA GIBBS: I don’t know what I’m going to say until I hear what you’ve said.
[EXCERPT FROM THE JEFFERSONS]
MARLA GIBBS: Besides, I’m singing in the church choir, today.
SHERMAN HEMSLEY: Oh. The reverend must be really happy to have you in the choir.
MARLA GIBBS: Why, thank you, Mr. Jefferson.
SHERMAN HEMSLEY: Well, they ain’t nobody gonna fall asleep while you singing. Hahaha.
MARLA GIBBS: Forgive me for saying this, Lord, I know you made everybody in your image, but you sure struck out with him.
BONNIE FRANKLIN: Norman has something he calls “a wet face.” Translation– a wet face is a face that doesn’t look perfect. To Norman, that means somebody that you can see everything that’s going on. You can see the sadness and the vulnerability and the joy, and it’s all happening in the face. And you don’t have to, really, get through layers of anything. It’s there. And an audience can look at that “wet face,” and say, “oh I understand that, I know what that person’s going through, I want to cry and laugh with that person.”
MARLA GIBBS: For example, I’ll talk about my character. Florence is a maid. I have to sense and feel and care about the person I’m portraying, so that I’m listening to my creative self, my own creative energies, so that the realities and the truth of the lines comes out, which means, sometimes, it’s a matter of just restructuring them so that I feel them when I’m saying them. If I feel them, you feel them. If I don’t feel them, you don’t feel them, because it isn’t there.
[EXCERPT FROM ìTHE JEFFERSONSî]
MARLA GIBBS: And when I’m in church today, I’m gonna pray for you.
Ms. JEFFERSON: And please ask Him to make George a little more understanding.
MARLA GIBBS: I ain’t gonna be there but a couple of hours, not a lifetime.
CARROLL O’CONNOR: Maybe it comes down to this. You, somehow, emotionally, you have to get into the mood of the character. You have to feel his mood as he comes in the door. And you have to feel– somehow, you have to imagine what he has gone through during the day and why he’s way he is as he comes in the door.
ARCHIE BUNKER: [SINGING] Oh, you can easily see, she’s not my mother, because my mother’s 49, hubba ba boo.
NORMAN LEAR: When Carroll O’Connor slipped into the character–
ARCHIE BUNKER: [SINGING] –she’s not my sister, cause–
NORMAN LEAR: He was Archie Bunker.
ARCHIE BUNKER: [SINGING] such a helluva good time.
NORMAN LEAR: Now he didn’t always slip into it. I mean, there’s was a lot of time Carroll could be standing around, fighting slipping into it, because his intellect– the Carroll O’Connor intellect was saying, “I don’t like this, I don’t like that, I’m going to do it this way, I’m going to do it that way.” And when those compromises had been found, always better for him, for me. I mean, we never made a compromise that wasn’t a better way to do it. We did one show in an elevator. We were going to do the whole show in an elevator. We had a group of people that included a Puerto Rican man and his wife, who was pregnant, and we were going to observe the birth of that child on Archie Bunker’s face. We went through a whole Saturday–
CARROLL O’CONNOR: I objected to that, because I really didn’t think I could do what was being asked of me. I didn’t think that I could register this whole thing, mirror this experience that we, obviously, couldn’t show on camera. And I thought I was being asked to do something at which I was going to fail.
NORMAN LEAR: I’m sure that I asked him to do it in ways that were not appropriate and ways he couldn’t handle. But just by constantly keeping at it, and his having to force me to reconsider and rethink it, together we arrived at the way he could do it. It was a way he never imagined he could. It was a way I didn’t understand that he could, but in the collaborative conflict, we arrived at it, and it was absolutely brilliant.
[EXCERPT FROM ALL IN THE FAMILY]
ARCHIE BUNKER: Look at these [INAUDIBLE]!
ARCHIE BUNKER: I hear– ain’t it supposed to cry or nothing?
ARCHIE BUNKER: That sounds kosher.
NORMAN LEAR: When he slipped into the character, finally, nobody could write for Archie Bunker like Carroll O’Connor. The pearls would just flow from his mouth. The mala– nobody could touch malaprops the way he could in character, and never could when he was out of character. It’s magic to have watched it.
[EXCERPT FROM ALL IN THE FAMILY]
ARCHIE BUNKER: And when the world gets population enough, you got enough people in the world to make armies, then God sent down the word that they could invent the gun. I think that German preacher Martin Luger made the first one.
ARCHIE BUNKER: Please, now listen here, here’s a last bequest, here, see– the Reverend Fletcher–
EDITH BUNKER: Felcher.
ARCHIE BUNKER: Whatever. I don’t want that guy saying my last urology over me.
NORMAN LEAR: He’s been able to soak himself, immerse himself, I’d say, slip into that character in a way that cuts out the rest of the world– when Carroll becomes Archie in rehearsal, solidly, Archie– or then in front of an audience on that camera– he is, totally, that character, by some miracle.
[EXCERPT FROM ALL IN THE FAMILY]
EDITH BUNKER: Where did you learn a low class dodge like that?
[LAUGHTER AND SCREAMS]
ARCHIE BUNKER: Give it! Give it! Gimme that! Edith! Gimme that! Come on, come on, Edith! Edith, Edith! I want it!
EDITH BUNKER: No–
ARCHIE BUNKER: Edith, I’ve gotta have it! [LAUGHTER AND SCREAMS]
EDITH BUNKER: You’re an animal.
CARROLL O’CONNOR: The first thing that we shared was an enormous enthusiasm about the character and about doing it– a character like this for the first time ever on television. We were both enthusiastic about that. And that brought us together in a collaborative way. We became friends, of course, over the years.
NORMAN LEAR: Anything that ever, really, touches me, or anybody that, really, touches me sticks with me. And I don’t know why, I just remember those moments that touch me and the people who touch me.
BILL MOYERS: What gives you the most pleasure in being Norman Lear?
NORMAN LEAR: I had a trip, recently, and it was the only nighttime trip that I’ve taken in a great many years– and so, perhaps, that’s why the thought occurred to me only this one time– and to look down at America at night and see lights everywhere and wonder, is it just possible– after all those thousands of half hours and all of those years and the fact that they’re playing so much in syndication– that wherever there’s a light, there’s somebody that something, some part of me, helped to laugh? I love that thought. I love it.
BILL MOYERS: Understandably. This week we’ve looked at the creative process by which Lear & Company turned ideas into the laughter of 60 million people. But where did the ideas come from? We’ll continue next week with “The Family Circles of Norman Lear.” I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 6, 2015.