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Emerson Honors TV Legend, Alum Norman Lear

Norman Lear ’44 was the driving force behind groundbreaking TV shows including All in the Family, Maude, and One Day at a Time. He created characters who changed the social and political landscape, openly addressing issues ranging from alcoholism to abortion to the Vietnam War.

But on Oct. 4, it was Lear’s turn to take center stage, when Emerson honored him with a sculpture on Boylston Place and a scholarship bearing his name. The City of Boston also got in on the act by proclaiming it Norman Lear Day.

The 96-year-old producer, dressed in his trademark white, brimmed hat, paused before the unveiling ceremony to recall his early college years before leaving to fly 52 combat missions in World War II. He lived in an all-male boarding house on Clarendon Street run by “Mom and Pop Lawless,” he recalled with a smile — but almost didn’t make it to college at all.

“I didn’t expect to come to Emerson. I didn’t expect to go to college because I was a kid during the Depression,” he said.

His fate changed when he won an American Legion oratory scholarship. The topic foreshadowed his future as a champion of inclusion: As a Jew, he spoke about the Constitution’s importance to minorities.

Fittingly, Emerson’s Norman Lear Scholarship Fund, announced at the celebration, will enable the College to admit and support gifted students from first-generation, underrepresented and underserved backgrounds with a passion for writing.

Television producer and Lear friend Kevin Bright ’76 donated the sculpture in Lear’s likeness. Bright is a television icon in his own right, creating cultural touchstones including Friends and In Living Color. The sculpture is etched with characters from Lear’s shows as well as his own reflections, such as “Laughter is the umbilical cord of connectedness.”

“I never had a day like this, and I can’t believe it now,” he said. “If there’s a luckier person than me in this world, I don’t know who it is.”

There was plenty of laughter at the ceremony.

“I wish I could call my mother,” Lear joked, recalling her reaction to the news that he has been named to the inaugural class of the Television Academy Hall of Fame: “If that’s what they want to do, who am I to say?”

“This could make me feel like a big shot,” he added.

When City of Boston policy chief Joyce Linehan proclaimed it Norman Lear Day, she cited Lear’s service in World War II and championship of First Amendment rights. Emerson College President Lee Pelton — a fan of Lear classic “Sanford and Son” —introduced him as a national treasure.

“That term gets used too often, but today, it’s apropos,” he said. “He continues to write with power and grace, and engage us all in important conversations about our country and the world in which we live,” Pelton said.

Lear welcomed sculptor Peter Schifrin, a longtime family friend, and fellow artist David Duskin.

“Of all the times they’ve unveiled statues of me, this one is my favorite,” he said to applause. “I never stopped being in love with Emerson College.”

His wife and three of his children looked on from the front row.

After the ceremony, Bright spoke about Lear’s prolific, ongoing impact on modern media. Even today, Lear’s career thrives: He executive produces a “One Day at a Time” remake on Netflix and recently released his autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience.

“I think there’s television pre-Norman, and there’s television post-Norman,” Bright said. “Television pre-Norman was strictly entertainment-oriented and was still borrowing from vaudeville and the stage a lot. It was escapist. Norman changed that, writing shows where families were real, they had real problems, they had real issues, they fought about things that families were really fighting about at the dinner table. He brought discussion front and center.”

Bright said that the scholarship would provide guidance and resources to a similarly motivated student.

The celebration continued into the evening at a reception with a stage decorated to resemble the “All in the Family” set. The Emerson community paid tribute in sketches, songs, and speeches, earning standing ovations and a few tears from Lear. Comedians including Denis Leary ’79 and Jay Leno ’73 video-conferenced in for tributes.

“You are now becoming a statue in Boston. Just to put that in perspective, other statues in Boston are Paul Revere, John F. Kennedy, and Bobby Orr,” Leary joked.

Lear took the stage to say goodnight.

“I never had a day like this, and I can’t believe it now,” he said. “If there’s a luckier person than me in this world, I don’t know who it is.”


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