REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN
Let me say it flat out at the beginning: Norman Lear’s memoir “Even This I Get to Experience” (The Penguin Press, a member of the Penguin Group USA, 464 pages, glossy photo insert, no index, $32.95) is the best show-business memoir I’ve read since I read and reviewed the late James Garner’s “The Garner Files.” (My Nov. 5, 2011 review, which ‘garnered” more comments than any review I’ve written: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/12746). Garner died on July 19, 2014.
There are some similarities between the Connecticut-born (in 1922) Jew, Lear, and the Oklahoma-born (in 1928) Gentile: Both had parents who were troubled: ‘Garner’s father had a drinking problem and Garner’s stepmother liked to beat him with a spatula, until, at the age of 14 he decked her.’ (from my review).
Lear, whose creations — “All In The Family”, “Maude”, “The Jeffersons, ” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son,” “Fernwood 2 Night” — changed TV sitcoms forever — had a distant father, Herman King Lear, who always had a get-rich-quick scheme up his sleeve and served time in prison for attempting to sell phony bonds. During Herman’s absence, his mother left her son to live with relatives. All her life she remained oddly distant from her successful son — the very opposite of the classic Jewish mother.
Both Lear and Garner served their country in the military: Lear enlisting in the Army Air Corps and flying 52 missions in a B-17 bomber squad based in Foggia, Italy during World War II; Garner serving in combat with the army during the Korean War, being awarded a Purple Heart.
Lear, on his life so far:
In my ninety-plus years I’ve lived a multitude of lives. In the course of all these lives, I had a front-row seat at the birth of television; wrote, produced, created, or developed more than a hundred shows; had nine on the air at the same time; founded the 300,000-member liberal advocacy group People For the American Way; was labeled the “no. 1 enemy of the American family” by Jerry Falwell; made it onto Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List”; was presented with the National Medal of the Arts by President Clinton; purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and toured it for ten years in all fifty states; blew a fortune in a series of bad investments in failing businesses; and reached a point where I was informed we might even have to sell our home. Having heard that we’d fallen into such dire straits, my son-in-law phoned me and asked how I was feeling. My answer was, “Terrible, of course,” but then I added, “but I must be crazy, because despite all that’s happened, I keep hearing this inner voice saying, ‘Even this I get to experience.’”
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We learn in this memoir that the character Lear considers closest to his own persona is Maude Findlay, played by Bea Arthur. “Maude” ran on CBS from 1972 to 1978. The show was a spin-off from Lear’s most successful show, “All In The Family.” Maude first appeared on AITF, as Edith Bunker’s upscale, much-married and outspoken cousin.
Lear is very outspoken about his three marriages and the problems he had with the first two. He’s justifiably proud of his six children, aged 68 to 19. He writes that he incorporated events from his life and marriages, appropriately disguised, in his TV shows and feature films. This is only fitting: Writing teachers tell their students to write about what they know!
At their peak, his programs were viewed by 120 million people a week, with stories that dealt with the most serious issues of the day—racism, poverty, abortion —yet still left audiences howling with laughter.
But TV and politics are only a fraction of the tale. Lear’s early years were grounded in the harshness of the Great Depression, and further complicated by his parents’ vivid personalities. The imprisonment of Lear’s father, a believer in the get-rich-quick scheme, colored his son’s childhood. Lear writes that much of Archie Bunker is derived from his dad.
After the war, instead of finishing the last two years of college at Emerson College in Boston, he worked as a publicist in New York City. His show business career built steadily when he arrived in Los Angeles, especially after a powerful agent was in the audience the night Danny Thomas performed a nightclub routine written by Lear.
Not long after, he and writing partner Ed Simmons wrote for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis — and later Martha Raye and George Gobel — making him the highest paid comedy writer in the country. Cult movie fans should be grateful to him: When Rob Reiner, who considers Lear a second father, was looking for financing for his mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap,” Lear personally financed the movie and helped director Reiner find a distributor.
Lear’s memoirs are a treasure trove of stories…I just wish he and Penguin had included an INDEX! (There goes my rant! And there it ends!)
About the author
Norman Milton Lear, born in New Haven, CT, July 27, 1922, is the television producer of such groundbreaking sitcoms as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude. He has received four Emmy awards, a Peabody, and the National Medal of Arts. As an advocate, Lear founded People For the American Way and supports First Amendment rights and other progressive causes.
His website: http://www.NormanLear.com