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A Century of Laughs and Breakfast Thoughts: Happy Birthday, Norman Lear!

Illustration of Norman Lear in blue and purple
Illustration/Monica Chu

On July 27, 2022, Norman Lear ‘44, one of Emerson’s most illustrious alumni and the person who arguably did more than anyone else to shape television in the 20th century, turns 100. 

To celebrate, Emerson Today compiled a list of facts about Lear – one for each year of his remarkable life. 

  1. Norman Lear was born on July 27, 1922 in New Haven, Connecticut.
  2. His middle name is Milton.
  1. He grew up in a Jewish household, and had a Bar Mitzvah.
  2. When Lear lived with his uncle in New Haven he read Horatio Alger’s Sink or Swim, which he claims inspired him to overcome difficulties in his life. “And that was my option: sink or swim,” he said. “I was going to swim. I wasn’t going to sink.”
  1. After graduating from Weaver High School in Hartford, Connecticut in 1940, Lear attended Emerson College. He was able to attend, he has said, after he won an American Legion oratory scholarship. The winning speech he delivered, “The Constitution and Me,” detailed what the Constitution meant to Lear as a Jewish person.
  2. In a 2016 interview with Emerson Today, nearly 75 years after he left college, Lear sang Emerson’s school song – in tune.
  3. While at Emerson, Lear lived in an all-male boarding house on Clarendon Street in Boston.
  4. Lear studied theatre at Emerson and was in Gertrude Binley Kay’s drama class when he learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.
  5. Lear left Emerson in 1942 to join the United States Army Air Force during World War II.
  6. While training for the Army at the University of Buffalo, Lear “organized a Band, Orchestra, Glee Club and took over the Detachment Newspaper,” he wrote to his Emerson classmates. “I miss normality and Emerson (though I hardly mean to imply the two are in any way connected).” 
  7. In the army, Lear was part of the 772nd Bombardment Squadron in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. He also was a radio operator/gunman on Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress vehicles.
  8. Lear flew a total of 52 combat missions and was awarded the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters for his service.
  9. After he was discharged from the Army in 1945, Lear pursued a career in public relations. In an interview in 2009, he revealed that his Uncle Jack influenced this career choice. “My dad had a brother, Jack, who flipped me a quarter every time he saw me. He was a press agent so I wanted to be a press agent. That’s the only role model I had. So all I wanted was to grow up to be a guy who could flip a quarter to a nephew.”
Head shot of a young Norman Lear
A teenage Norman Lear in a photo from his Emerson College application. Photo/Emerson College Archives
  1. In 1951, Lear became a staff writer for NBC’s Ford Star Revue, a variety and comedy show.
  2. Beginning in the 1950s, Lear and Ed Simmons, his cousin Elaine’s husband, began writing comedy sketches for Martin and Lewis on the Colgate Comedy Hour, where they each received a record-breaking $52,000 for five episodes of content.
  1. Lear received his first screenwriting credit in 1953 for his contributions to Scared Stiff, a horror movie about a nightclub singer and a busboy who run to a Caribbean island after being charged with murder.
  1. In 1954, Lear began writing for Honestly, Celeste! a CBS sitcom created by Celeste Holm. Although the program was quickly canceled, the opportunity gave Lear the platform to transition to producer of NBC’s The Martha Raye Show in 1955.
  1. At a farewell party at writer Bud Yorkin’s house before NBC’s comedy shows were set to move from New York to LA, Lear, writing partner Ed Simmons, Yorkin, and guests wrote a song celebrating the laying of the transcontinental coaxial cable – the communications system making the move possible. 
  1. One of the first times Lear wrote for a project alone was in 1957, for The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show.
  2. Lear teamed up with Bud Yorkin to found Tandem Productions in 1959.
  1. Lear created his first television series, The Deputy, in 1959. Produced by Revue Studios, the Western series starred Henry Fonda. The show ran from 1959-1961.
  2. In 1961, Lear produced Band of Gold on CBS. This was his first time serving as producer for a TV pilot.
  3. In 1963, Lear and Bud Yorkin produced their first film together, titled Come Blow Your Horn.
  4. In 1967, Lear earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay for Divorce American Style, a film he wrote and produced.
  5. Lear would take his older daughters to dinner dances at the Biltmore Los Angeles, something he sorely misses. “There’s no … ballroom dancing. I say we bring it back.”
  6. Lear received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Emerson College in 1968.
  7. In 1971, Lear made his directorial debut with Cold Turkey, starring Dick Van Dyke. 
A young Norman Lear in uniform
Norman Lear sent this photo of himself in uniform to his Emerson College classmates in 1944. Photo/Emerson College Archives
  1. That same year, Lear and Yorkin produced All in the Family, which premiered on CBS. The show was the top-rated TV show from 1971-1976.
  2. Protagonist Archie Bunker was based on Lear’s own father, Herman Lear. TV Guide would rank Archie Bunker number 5 on its list of “50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time”.
  1. All in the Family received a total of 55 Emmy nominations, winning 22 awards during the entirety of its run.
  2. One of Lear’s favorite moments from All in the Family is when Edith loses her faith and regains it, according to a 2016 interview with Parade.
  3. Two of Lear’s celebrated sitcoms were adaptations of British sitcoms: All in the Family (Till Death Us Do Part) and Sanford and Son (Steptoe and Son).
  4. Also in 1972, Lear created and co-produced Maude, a spin-off from All in the Family.
  5. Most of Lear’s earlier shows were shot on videotape instead of film, but still had a live studio audience.
  6. In 1974, Lear founded the production company T.A.T. (which stands for “Tuchus Affen Tisch,” a Yiddish phrase, meaning “Putting one’s ass on the line”) with Jerry Perenchio. It was around this time he also ended his partnership with Yorkin.
  7.  In 1975, Lear created The Jeffersons on CBS, which, similar to Maude, was a spinoff of All in the Family. The show spawned more spinoffs than any other sitcom.
  8. Also in 1975, Lear received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  9. Lear received the Gold Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement for his work in the entertainment industry in 1980.
  10. In 1981, Lear founded People for the American Way, an organization which stood in opposition to Moral Majority, the Christian right organization.
  11. Lear and Jerry Perenchio bought Avco Embassy Pictures in 1982, merging it with T.A.T. to create Embassy Communications.
  12. Lear produced I Love Liberty, an ABC special, on March 21, 1982 to oppose Moral Majority on television.
  13. Lear made history as one of the first seven industry professionals inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984.
  14. In 1985, Lear and Jerry Perenchio sold Embassy Communications and Tandem Productions to Columbia Pictures in exchange for $485 million in cash and shares of The Coca-Cola Company, which at the time owned Columbia Pictures.
  15. Lear founded Act III Communications in 1986.
  16. He is married to filmmaker and philanthropist Lyn Davis.
  17. In 1989, Act III Communications partnered with Columbia Pictures Television to form Act III Television, which focused on producing TV series instead of managing them.
  18. Also in 1989, Lear founded the Business Enterprise Trust, an informational program aimed at spotlighting innovations and progress in American business. The program ended in 1998.
  19. Also in 1997, Lyn and Norman Lear founded The Lear Family Foundation, a private foundation to fund and support nonprofit organizations across the country. Some of these include, but are not limited to: Ballet Hispanico, Hollywood Health and Society, Rainforest Alliance, The Rape Foundation, and Youth Represent.
Norman Lear in cap and gown standing with other people in regalia
Norman Lear, far right, received an honorary degree from Emerson in 1968. Photo/Emerson College Archives
  1. In 1999, Lear was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton. In appreciation of Lear’s career, Clinton said, “Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.”
  1. In the same year, Lear and Yorkin were awarded the Women in Film Lucy Award for Innovation in Television, for exemplifying the accomplishments “embodied in the life and work of Lucille Ball.”
  2. Lear funded research for entertainment and commerce at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California in 2000. In honor of his endowment, USC created the Norman Lear Center, for future studies in the subjects of entertainment, media, and society.
  1. In 2001, Lear became the owner of one of the first copies of the United States  Declaration of Independence, called a Dunlap broadside.
  2. On July 4, 2001, Lear and Rob Reiner staged a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Some of the readers included Winona Ryder, Renée Zellweger, and Morgan Freeman. It was filmed by Arvin Brown and scored by John Williams.
  3. In the early 2000s, Lear worked on South Park, making a guest appearance as Ben Franklin in the “I’m a Little Bit Country” episode, and consulting on episodes “I’m a Little Bit Country” and “Canceled.” He also attended the South Park writer’s retreat in 2003.
  4. In 2004, Lear embarked on his Declaration of Independence roadtrip, where he visited museums, various presidential libraries, Super Bowl XXXVI, and the site of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
  5. Afterward, Lear founded Declare Yourself, a nonprofit campaign to encourage eligible Americans ages 18-19 to register and vote. Since being founded in 2004, Declare Yourself has registered almost 4 million voters.
  6. In 2005, Lear participated in an interview for the American Comedy Archives at Emerson College, where he discussed his time at the college and how laughter can be used as a vehicle for social change.
Norman Lear in suit sits in replica set from All in the Family
Norman Lear ’44 sits in a replica set of his landmark TV show, All in the Family, during a 2018 Emerson event honoring Lear with a statue and a scholarship in his name. File photo/ C. McIntosh
  1. In 2006, Lear won the Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television presented by the Producers Guild of America for his prolific career in TV.
  1. That year, Lear partnered with industry executive Hal Gaba to become majority shareholders of Village Roadshow Pictures, the media company responsible for The Matrix series, Mystic River, and Happy Feet.
  2. In 2014, Lear wrote and published his memoir, Even This I Get To Experience (Penguin Press). The book details Lear’s life and extensive career in the entertainment industry.
  3. According to an interview in 2014 with The New York Times, Lear rarely has time to watch TV, given his busy work schedule.
  1. Lear is featured as the protagonist of actor and musician Paul Hipp’s “Happy Birthday to Me,” the first single on his 2015 album The Remote Distance.
  2. In 2016, Lear gave a TedTalk in conversation with Eric Hirshberg about how humor impacted his outlook on life.
  3. Lear is the recipient of two Peabody Awards, receiving an award in 1977, and another in 2016 for his contributions to TV.
  4. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady made a documentary about Lear titled Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, released in 2016.
  5. The same year, Lear became the executive producer of One Day at a Time, the reimaginging of his show of the same name which ran from 1975-1984. The 2017 version stars Rita Moreno and Justina Machado, and centers a Latino family. The show led to Lear receiving the Media Icon Award from the National Hispanic Coalition. 
Norman Lear at podium speaking to students
Lear speaks to Emerson students in 1978. Photo/Emerson College Archives
  1. In May 2017, Lear was presented the Woody Guthrie Prize by the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The award was presented to the artist who spoke for the less fortunate and underprivileged in art.
  1. Lear was honored at  the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors, along with Carmen de Lavallade, LL Cool J, Gloria Estefan, and Lionel Richie.
  2. He told the New York Times that he would not attend the White House reception for Kennedy Center honorees in protest of then-President Donald Trump.  
  1. Over the course of his professional career, Lear has won six Emmy Awards out of 16 total nominations.
  2. In 2017, GQ dubbed Lear the “Comedy Godfather of Television”.
  3. In 2018, Emerson College honored Lear with a sculpture in his likeness and a scholarship in his name. During an event to honor Lear and unveil the sculpture in Boylston Place, Lear said, “I never stopped being in love with Emerson College.”
  4. In 2019, Lear received the Britannia Award for Excellence in Television.
  5. Beginning in 2019, Lear’s Act III Communications co-produced Live in Front of a Studio Audience with Jimmy Kimmel. The show included three installments, winning the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Special two years in a row.
  6. That year, at the age of 97, he became the oldest nominee and winner of an Emmy Award after he won as one of the executive producers of Live in Front of a Studio Audience: ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons’.
  7. In 2020, Lear teamed up with Lin Manuel Miranda to produce Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It. The documentary is available on Netflix.
  8. Lear was a longtime friend of comedian and Full House star, Bob Saget, who died in January 2022. The two chatted on Saget’s podcast, Here for You, in 2020 about their friendship, careers, and lives.
Norman and Lyn Davis Lear in front of statue of Norman
Norman and Lyn Davis Lear with the statue of Norman in Boylston Place. File photo/C. McIntosh
  1. Lear took part in the “Intergenerational Compact” sessions as part of the 2021 Century Summit, where he discussed his approach to reaching younger audiences.
  2. In 2021, Lear was awarded the Carol Burnett Award for excellence in television, an honorary Golden Globe Award.
  1. Also in 2021, production conversations began between Lear’s Act III Productions and Sony Pictures TV about developing a show for Amazon TV called Clean Slate, starring Laverne Cox and George Wallace.
  2. Lear sits on the advisory board of the Young Storytellers Foundation, where he supports youth development and arts programs.
  3. Lear is a trustee emeritus for The Paley Center for Media, a nonprofit organization which aims to preserve media history through public and private programs.
  4. Katey Sagal, known for her roles in Married with Children, Futurama, 8 Simple Rules, and Sons of Anarchy is Lear’s godchild.
  5. As of this year, Lear is set to executive produce Juan Pablo Di Pace’s feature directorial debut, For Another Time, with his Act III partner, Brent Miller.
  6. Lear released “Breakfast Thoughts” videos on Facebook, in which he sits in his home and discusses a range of topics, including, but not limited to, politics, voting, and television.
  7. Lear has six children. In order from youngest to oldest, they are: twins Madelaine and Brianna, Benjamin, Maggie, Kate, and Ellen.
  1. Lear is a fan of yoga and does it as often as possible.
  2. He would like to see ethics and civics taught in U.S. schools again, because “if there is any need at all in the world, it is our need for one another.” 
  1. Lear attributes his long, fun-filled life to his children and wife. In his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes in 2021, he said, “At close to 99, I can tell you that I’ve never lived alone. I’ve never laughed alone. And that has as much to do with my being here today as anything else I know.”
  2.  One of Lear’s favorite restaurants in Los Angeles is Crossroads. This was discovered in an interview on To Dine for with Katie Sullivan, where the two ate at Crossroads and discussed Lear’s career and philosophies on life.
  3. Lear bought a farm in Vermont that once belonged to poet Robert Frost.
a life sized cutout, a blown up copy of TV Guide, and four TV consoles showing scenes from Lear's TV shows
A Norman Lear exhibit in the Huret and Spector Gallery in October 2018. File photo/C. McIntosh
  1. One of Lear’s favorite sayings is from his grandmother. She would always tell him “geh vays,” Yiddish for “Go figure.” Lear says this was her way of expressing her gratitude for life and its joys.
  2. One of Lear’s favorite life lessons is ‘Live in the moment.’ In an interview with Insider, he said this lesson has gotten him through many hard times in his life.
  1. Lear supports U.S. Rep. Karen Bass in her run for mayor of Los Angeles.
  2.  He told New York Magazine that his favorite meal is the one he is having at the moment.
  3.  Lear, according to his publicist, still has lunches with his good friend, writer/producer Mel Brooks.
  4.  In 2016 he said his favorite sport was football, and his favorite team was Yale.
  5. Lear eats a thinly sliced bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon for breakfast most mornings. He also loves tangerine juice.
  1.  One of the most important lessons that Lear tries to pass on to younger generations is: “Every man is my superior in that I may learn from him.
  2. Lear considers himself the luckiest person in the world. “I want to know if there’s anybody you know or heard of in the history of humankind more fortunate than I,” Lear asked his Breakfast Thoughts audience. “Can’t think of ‘em can you?”
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