All in the mishpocha: Norman Lear feted by festival

As the man responsible for “All in the Family,” “Maude” and other classic TV comedies, Norman Lear rarely has found himself at a loss for words. Somehow, winning the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s 2016 Freedom of Expression Award did the trick.

“I don’t have the words to express how much freedom of expression means to me,” the famed writer-producer and liberal firebrand said in an interview last week from his Los Angeles home.

Lear, 93, will be in San Francisco on July 24 to accept the festival award after a Castro Theatre screening of  “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” a new documentary that recounts his life as a Depression-era waif, World War II bombardier and, later, TV legend.

Norman Lear

For die-hard Archie Bunker fans, the moment will surely be, as Archie once said, “stamped inedibly” on their hearts.

Looking hale and hearty, Lear is seen in the film recording the book-on-tape version of his new autobiography, shmoozing with an adoring public (Jon Stewart, Mel Brooks and Amy Poehler are among his fans) and hanging out with his family.

Most fascinating are the clips, including several from early TV variety shows starring Martha Raye, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, shows at which Lear honed his chops as staff writer and occasional on-screen bit player.

Coming out of the somnambulistic world of ’50s and ’60s television, it’s a wonder Lear sold CBS on the idea of an edgy sitcom about an agitated bigot from Queens who rails against the forces turning his America into “a regular Sodom and Glocca Morra” (another Archie-ism).

But Lear did persuade the network to take a chance, and within a year of its 1971 debut “All in the Family” was the most popular, and arguably the most important, show on television.

In the documentary, Lear is seen watching episodes from the show, his eyes welling up in admiration of Carroll O’Connor’s tour de force portrayal of Archie.

“There are moments in the shows, even if I have seen them 300 times, where every time will be like the first time because I get moved the same way,” Lear said.

In his shows, Lear wanted to deliver biting social commentary, tackling bigotry in “All in the Family,” racism in “Good Times” and sexism in “Maude.” He temporarily left television in the 1980s to launch People for the American Way, a nonprofit dedicated to shoring up the wall of separation between church and state.

Lear attributes his progressive impulses in part to his Jewish roots. He remembers as a kid listening with horror to the radio sermons of the rabidly anti-Semitic priest Father Coughlin, an experience that reinforced his budding Jewish identity.

“The Father Coughlin experience was important because it made the civics lessons I was taking so relative to my life,” Lear told J. “I fell in love with the words that guaranteed that these people who hated me because I was Jewish were dead wrong, and that I had the protection of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”

Though not religious, Lear considers himself “deeply Jewish. I care for us culturally, and admire what we have accomplished through the centuries.”

Sometimes, he slipped some Jewish jokes into the mouth of Archie Bunker, who called a kippah a “yamaha,” and referred to a cake as the kind given “to a Jewish kid before he gets circumscribed.”

Lear remains attuned to current events, and finds himself as outraged as ever. He is especially concerned about the rise of Donald Trump, a figure he likens to “the middle finger of the American right hand.”

The San Francisco trip will have to be quick, as Lear is hard at work on a new TV series about three generations of a Cuban American family. As he reveals in the documentary, he is too much a child at heart to grow old.

And, as his immortal creation, Archie Bunker, might have added, he meant that “very sinseriously.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.