8 powerful life lessons from 93-year-old Norman Lear, one of the most influential people in TV history
It's hard to overstate Norman Lear's impact on the world of television.
That's why Oscar-nominated directors and producers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are exploring the lasting effects of his career in their new documentary "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You."
Lear is the creator of shows like "All in the Family," "Good Times," and "The Jeffersons," programs that not only brought in 120 million viewers a week, but challenged Americans' views on topics like racism, poverty, and abortion.
He's one of the first group of inductees to the Television Hall of Fame and has four Emmys and a Peabody Award, among many other honors.
Today, Lear is 93 years old and as sharp as ever. He spoke with Business Insider last year about his 2014 memoir "Even This I Get to Experience."
Drawing from that interview and his book, we gathered the life lessons that have stuck with Lear after all these years.
Appreciate the absurdity of it allReuters
Lear called his maternal grandmother Bubbe, and he considers her the first person in his life to truly express her love to him. A favorite saying of hers was "Go know," which in Yiddish is geh vays, and is akin to the English phrase "Go figure."
But when his Bubbe said it to him, she didn't mean it as a put-down, but rather a means of "expressing her gratitude for the bounty of the universe, for yet another gift she could not have imagined," Lear wrote.
Whether she was responding with "go know" to the news that the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series (she didn't follow baseball) or that Lear's career had taken off, she was expressing her belief that she wasn't going to understand it all, but that was perfectly fine.
"As life has teased and surprised me over the years, I have taken my grandmother's 'go know' with me everywhere," Lear wrote. "When I've been recognized in restaurants and at airline counters, I have often thought, 'Go know.'"
You can sink or you can swimMuddyRiverAntiques/Etsy
When Lear was 9 years old, he saw his father arrested and brought to jail for selling fake government bonds.
His mother sent him to live with her brother and then her parents in New Haven, Connecticut, while she lived with his sister in Hartford. He remained there for the three years his dad was in prison and says he barely saw his mom and sister.
Lear says that being confronted with this situation forced him to adopt a level of independence well beyond his years.
He's reminded of Horatio Alger book he read as a boy with a title that, despite being a cliché, really connected with him during this time. It was called "Sink or Swim."
"And that was my option: sink or swim," he says. "I was going to swim. I wasn't going to sink."
Lear says that this difficult period shaped his worldview for the rest of his life.
Recognize that you have influence over people's livesTrailers From Hell
Lear told us that his celebrity helped him appreciate the power that everyone has over the people they interact with, and that it has nothing to do with fame.
In 1969 in Greenfield, Iowa, he filmed "Cold Turkey," a satire about the influence of tobacco he considers among his best work. He returned to the town for its 30th anniversary with a few of its stars, and he met a woman who had a bit part in the film when she was 6 years old. She told him how important his selection of her for the part was to her, and he found it sweet.
Lear visited Greenfield once again in 2014 during his book tour and again encountered the woman, now 51, who once again mentioned her bit part. She told him — with tears in her eyes — that she identified with him when she read about his lonely childhood in his memoir, and that the moment Lear picked her for that movie role, she finally felt like she was acknowledged, and had something to offer. "And I got it," Lear said. "I got it."
You can't predict how things will turn outRobert Kradin/AP
Lear wasn't the type who envisioned himself as a star. After serving in World War II, he was inspired by his uncle Jack to become a publicist, so he could work in the entertainment industry he loved without becoming a celebrity himself.
When asked when he realized he wanted to be a television writer, he replies plainly, "I was a young guy with a family, and I wanted to make a living. That's what it was all about at the beginning — just making a living."
"It was the dawn of television," he says. After a single writing credit he and his partners officially became television comedy writers, "and suddenly we were wanted in all directions."
Be true to yourselfAP Photo
Lear is remembered for making black sitcoms part of American life in the 1970s with "Sanford and Son," "The Jeffersons," and "Good Times," as well as using these and other shows as vehicles for edgy comedy on topics like sexuality and crime. But Lear scoffs at the idea that he was trying to push boundaries. He was just writing what he knew, and people responded to it.
"I saw the comedy in life and the foolishness of the human condition, and I was just dealing with what I saw around me," he said. "I wasn't making up anything to break a barrier. What I saw around this culture were the race problems and economic problems and health problems, and so forth."
He adds that the interpersonal issues he gave his characters came from his own life — Archie Bunker of "All in the Family" is a cartoon version of his dad, for example. "I dealt with that because it's what I knew," he said.
And when President Richard Nixon publicly criticized what he perceived as culture-damaging vulgarity in Lear's programs, Lear took it as "a badge of honor."
It's worth putting in effort to balance family with workStephen Shugerman/Getty Images
As Lear considers his first two marriages and how he raised his children during the height of his fame, he sees himself as a "dissociated father." Between his sitcoms and his wife and kids, he had "five families on the air and one on Mooncrest Drive" in Los Angeles.
"On Mooncrest Drive they woke up, they got dressed themselves, I helped them with breakfast, and they went off to school," he says. He says that unfortunately, he was concentrated on his work, not his family — and he doesn't see it as a necessary sacrifice.
"Had I known more at the time, and had I been able to stand off and view it — had I not been dissociated, as I put it — I would've given less time to the shows, and they would've been just fine," he says. And he would have been more present with his family, which he considers entirely different from just being there physically.
Live in the presentAP Photo
This lesson is one Lear learned late in life, but one he wishes he had known when he was younger. He considers achieving this state to be the highlight of his career, because it's allowed him to be happy. It's why he chose the book title "Even This I Get to Experience," a phrase he says he had running through his head when he was in a rough patch financially.
He's learned to savor everything he can from life's ups and downs.
"Success is a moment by moment thing," he says. "So you wake up in the morning, and before the kids go to school, you connect with them. They leave the house feeling they have connected with the parents, and you feel good about having connected with your kids ... What we have to remember in such cases is to pat ourselves on the back figuratively for having had a great moment, and move on to the next moment.
"A successful day is a day in which you're feeling good about yourself and your life."
Never stop learning about who you areJesse Grant/Getty
When asked how he's managed to stay so sharp, Lear replies, "I haven't stopped learning about myself and my life. I think the vertical journey into oneself never ends."
He sees life as a simultaneous horizontal and vertical journey. Horizontal in the sense of learning more about the world, about others, and about a craft; vertical in the sense of learning more about who you really are.
Lear says that the vertical journey "might end at death — and we don't even know that — but it's the deeper and more satisfying journey than the horizontal one." The latter "gets you more information about a lot of things, but the vertical one into oneself is the kicker."
Check out the trailer for the new documentary 'Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You'
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