CHAUTAUQUA - Award-winning television producer, writer and political activist Norman Lear gave the first lecture of the 2012 season in the Chautauqua Amphitheater.
Lear is probably best known as the creator of the landmark television series ''All in the Family,'' in 1971, which is credited with completely changing the way television programs were made. His lecture was the first of the week titled ''Roger Rosenblatt and Friends, on the Literary Arts,'' and attracted nearly a full house to the 5,000-seat Amphitheater.
Lear was a charter member of the Television and Broadcasting Hall of Fame. He has won four Emmies for excellence in television, and was nominated for an Oscar for writing ''Divorce American Style.'' His other awards include the Peabody Award, the Humanist Arts Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1999 he was presented with the National Medal of the Arts, by President Clinton.
Photo by Eric Shea/The Chautauquan Daily
Acclaimed television producer Norman Lear, pictured, speaks with author Roger Rosenblatt in Chautauqua Institution’s Amphitheater.
The event was presented in the form of a conversation, between Rosenblatt and Lear, sitting side by side in the middle of the stage. Rosenblatt mostly asked questions to which Lear replied.
The program began with a short film, shown on three giant screens above the speakers' heads, which showed the titles and brief scenes from a great many of the television series which Lear created, including ''Maude,'' ''Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,'' ''Good Times,'' ''Sanford and Son,'' and ''The Jeffersons.'' The film ended with a written statement which said that Lear took television away from dopey wives and dumb husbands, and put real American people in their place.''
Rosenblatt began by suggesting that a number of the main characters in Lear's writing had prominent, unusual personalities, especially in the cases of Archie and Edith Bunker, the leading actors in ''All in the Family.'' He wondered whether those personalities didn't take over the writing of the series. Lear responded that he and his writers knew the personalities and their characteristics, so they would choose a set of circumstances on which to focus, and then would discuss how those characters would respond to those circumstances.
When ''All in the Family'' was on the air, many commentators suggested that the character of Archie Bunker was dangerous, because he personified the hatred and prejudice of many people in the audience, and could give them a sense of legitimacy. Lear replied that he believes the thing which made the character of Archie so resonant with the public was that he was not driven by hatred, he was driven by fear.
''Archie had lived his whole life without knowing any African-Americans, for example, so when a family of them moved in next door, he was afraid. He didn't know how to react, so he fell back on 'toughing it out,' by calling them names and making insults about them,'' Lear explained. ''Sometimes we got letters saying how right Archie was and what a good person he was, but they always ended by complaining that he was always proved wrong in the end. Clearly the message was being received.''
When asked about the origins of the show, Lear answered that actor Carroll O'Connor, who eventually became fixed in the public mind with the character, was not his first choice to play Archie. He said his original choice to play the character was Mickey Rooney.
However, when he tried to explain the character to Rooney, the actor said that the prejudices and insults would never be accepted by American audiences. He suggested a show about a private investigator who was a blind Vietnam vet, who had a large dog. Lear went on to say that actor Carroll O'Connor knew of a person with a personality similar to Archie's, and he used a voice similar to that person when he auditioned. ''We hired him before he finished the first page,'' Lear said.
The writers on all of Lear's series were assigned to read thoroughly in a variety of newspapers with good reputations, and to closely observe their own families, because he believed that true comedy works because it strikes the audience as something which could easily happen. Although that brought him awards and enormous expense, he said that there were a number of series which he believed were just as good as the major successes which television studios refused to even consider putting on the air.
''TV studios get an executive and they do everything his way for a couple of years, then they dump him and go off in a completely different direction,'' he explained. ''I made the pilot for 'All in the Family' three different times, using exactly the same script, and the only difference was the actors playing Archie's daughter Gloria and her Bohemian husband, Mike. Two executives ash canned the pilot and one bought it.''
At the end of the question-and-answer period which traditionally follows a Chautauqua lecture, Rosenblatt announced that Lear will soon be celebrating his 90th birthday, and he led the audience in singing ''Happy Birthday.''