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Norman Lear Recalls His Days at Emerson, Work in Television

Norman Lear ’44 can still sing a school song he learned while at Emerson College. And he does. In tune.

“Emerson is marching,

Follow the lead.

Firm friends and classmates,

We will always be as one in work and play.”

Lear, 93, creator of the groundbreaking sitcoms All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, and One Day at a Time, spoke with Emerson College Today about his time at Emerson and his legacy in television. Lear is the subject of a new documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

He went to Emerson because he won a scholarship to the College. Lear entered the American Legion Oratorical Contest (“Can you imagine how long ago it must have been to have ‘oratorical’ in the title?” he asked). Contestants had to give a speech about the Constitution. Lear’s was titled “The Constitution and Me.”

“The reason for that title was I was Jewish, and I had learned there were people who hated people because of their religion…I wondered if the Constitution wasn’t a little more precious to me than someone who didn’t need its protection.”

So Lear came to Boston to study theater, one of “only about seven guys” in the Class of 1944, four of whom stayed at 270 Clarendon St., just a few blocks from the then-Beacon Street campus.

He recalled a speech professor who taught a class in radio broadcasting, a relatively new discipline at the College.

“He taught you how to pronounce ‘Rachmaninoff’ and complicated foreign names,” Lear said, being sure to pronounce “Rachmaninoff” with a rolled “R” and guttural “ch.” “I practice for three minutes every day,” he joked.

He also remembers rehearsing for a production of Two Orphans with drama professor Gertrude Binley Kay.

“She had a Back Bay name…and she talked like this,” Lear said, putting on a high-pitched Brahmin accent. “She wore huge hats.”

He was in Kay’s class when they got news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed on December 7, 1941. Lear enlisted in the Army in September 1942.

The 1944 Emersonian contains a letter from Lear, a newly minted aviation cadet posted at the University of Buffalo, to his classmates (“Dear Gang”). In it, Lear talks about his Army training, his recent marriage to his “girl friend back home,” and how he tried to keep up his work on the stage, even with the aviation training and frequent moves around the country.

The creativity, humor, and intense energy that propelled him through a half-century-long career in groundbreaking television was evident even then, as a 21-year-old Army sergeant.

“I miss normality and Emerson (though I hardly mean to imply the two are in any way connected…),” Lear wrote. “I miss being close to the theater…At the University of Buffalo, where I am undergoing the initial phase of this training, I have been able, in some degree, to keep my interests alive. In other camps I had acted in shows, produced some, etc. … but here I have reached my Army peak. I organized a Band, Orchestra, Glee Club and took over the Detachment Newspaper… So far I have put on two radio shows, and one large G.I. extravaganza, which proved to be a laff-riot. (Also three editions of said paper).”

A legacy of provocation

Most people reading this will be familiar what Lear went on to do after the war, or they will if they watch Just Another Version of You, which is coming to the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge on July 29, and is already playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

Lear said watching a documentary about his life was “utterly unique,” and that he was more concerned with what his family was thinking than what he thought of it. But having seen it four or five times, he’s a big fan.

“They did a fabulous job,” Lear said of filmmakers Grady and Ewing. “I couldn’t be more pleased.”

In the 1970s, when Lear was creating shows that tackled such radioactive issues as racism, poverty, and abortion, he said he was too busy “working my [posterior] off” to ponder how his sitcoms were changing American television and shifting cultural conversations.

“I heard all that, but maybe only recently,” he said. “After the book [his memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, published in 2014] and the film and so forth, I began to accept that it mattered. And that’s true more today than it was 20 years ago.”

If he were making All in the Family today, Lear said, he doesn’t think he’d do much differently. The language would be altered, and they’d be talking about the events happening today, but Archie Bunker would not change.

“Humanity doesn’t change,” Lear said. “The foolishness of the human condition continues, but the details are different.”

Comedy is an effective antidote to that foolishness, he said, because it’s like an intravenous line of ideas. You don’t feel the medicine go down.

“You’re getting information while you’re laughing…” he said. “You take things you might otherwise resist.”

What comedian working in television today does Lear particularly admire?

“Louis C.K.,” he answered with barely a pause, before encouraging a reporter to watch C.K.’s Horace and Pete, a web series about the owners of a Brooklyn bar that The New Yorker called “an exercise in optimism even in its darkest notes.” It stars C.K., Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, and Emerson alumnus Steven Wright ’78.

And for any current Emerson student or recent graduate looking to make their own mark in television, Lear has two pieces of simple advice:

“Make sure you’re in New York, Chicago, or California. Be sure you’re close to where it’s happening,” he said. And no matter how many people represent you professionally, “always represent yourself.”

Note: A photo in an earlier version of this story purporting to show Norman Lear from his 1944 yearbook did not. Emerson College Today regrets the error. 

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