All in his Family

Norman Lear Selected Press

All in his Family

By Gerry Nadel
New Times July 8,1977

“I don’t want to deal with TV’s same old drivel,” says Norman Lear.  Starting with Mary Hartman, Lear realized he could paint a mural of American life his own way.  Today, increasingly free of network control, he and his team are tripping the light fantastic.  In the process, Lear is becoming the closest thing yet to TV’s first true auteur.

Norman Lear stands at the side of the sound stage, cameramen, prop men, stagehands, surging all around him.  He has just warmed up the audience for Fernwood 2-Night.

It’s almost a superstition, he says, like always wearing the same pair of socks when he flew his 50 missions during WWII: he always does the warm-up, gets the audience energized, at the first performance of each of his new shows.  He’s been doing it almost since he started-selling gags to Danny Thomas, writing the Colgate Comedy Hour for Martin & Lewis, writing the Martha Raye Show, George Gobel’s show, long before he had a show of his own.  Now he’s kicking off Fernwood 2-Night.

Fernwood 2-Night is a talk show-in the same sense that Mary Hartman was a soap opera.  Martin Mull plays Barth Gimble, your genial host, twin brother of the late Garth Gimble who, fans of Mary Hartman will remember, was offed some months back by a Christmas tree.  Barth’s guests tonight include Howard Palmer, “the iron-lung pianist” (he does it with mirrors), Fernwood’s first representative of the Hebrew persuasion, caught running a stop sign passing through town and brought to the studio for a “Dial-A-Jew” phone-in session; a Roman Catholic priest and his parents who want their son taken away from the sect, which has “turned him into some kind of zombie, kneeling down all the time, talking in a foreign tongue, mumbling to himself,” and returned to them for deprogramming; and Dr Robert Osgood, who has just completed a study of the health-hazard potential of polyester fibers and discovered that “in laymen’s terms, leisure suits cause cancer”: the study was done, he says, with two groups of laboratory rats—the main group, dressed for one year in tiny leisure suits, and the control group, which “wore nothing but sports jackets for the same period of time.”

The studio audience loves it, and people are coming up to Lear to congratulate him, to tell him the show has the look of yet another hit. But he doesn’t seem to hear them.  There’s a blank, far-off look in his eyes.  He’s concentrating.  “We gotta fix that bit with the priest,” he says to no one in particular “It’s unbalanced. The priest looks too foolish.”  He goes off, looking for the program’s head writer.

Fernwood 2-Night is a summer replacement, a Monday-through-Friday “strip” debuting July 4, the Monday after Mary Hartman concludes. But the show it’s replacing is not coming back. Mary Hartman is finished. Next season, Lear will present Fernwood USA, a sort of Mary Hartman without Mary Hartman, the continuing saga of the Fernwood characters, with some new ones added—but without Louise Lasser.

“Her talent is extremely precious,” Lear says, “and it was spread out over two years, five nights aweek.  To go on further would be to dissipate that precious talent.” Put less elliptically, what that means is she’s spacey as hell—to the extent that when they taped the first season’s climactic nervous breakdown scene, they had to clear the set for fear, perhaps only somewhat exaggerated, that something might distract her, she’d blow, and in the mood she had worked herself into, she might never come down again. A second season of five shows a week did not improve her psyche.

Lear could have spun off a Charlie and Loretta Haggers show, a prime-time spot for the Fernwood housewife with dreams of Country-Western stardom and her bald “Baby Boy” husband.  “As a matter of fact,”  Lear reports, “a network came to me and offered to put Mary Kay Place and Graham Jarvis in their own television show, a half -hour-a-week television show. But when I mentioned it to Mary Kay Place, she said, ‘Are you kidding, Norman? After this experience, I would never sink to prime.’”

Mary Hartman itself might have been a network show.  Lear offered it to the nets two years ago.  They were afraid of it.  “Too off-beat,” Lear says.  “And I intended to make it as a comedy without an audience and without a laugh track.”  The networks have always been nervous about Norman Lear shows. They test badly, and network executives believe in their tests.  Lear gets his shows on the air only because his track record outweighs the tests. But not enough to get Mary Hartman on a network.  “Three networks told us to get out of their lives,” he says.

So Lear started his own network.  Sort of.  He sold Mary Hartman himself to most of the 128 stations that ended up carrying it. He proved, for the first time ever, that you could produce a national hit outside the three-network system. In the two years since he has been working more and more outside of that system: There’s Fernwood 2-Night set for this summer, Fernwood USA for the fall.  A Little Rascals remake, a series for kids, is on the way.  There are plans for Great Debates counterposing world figures and, somewhere in the future, plans for nothing less than three-and-a-half hours of Saturday night programming weekly for a permanent line-up of stations with, perhaps, MTM Productions (Rhoda, Phyllis) and Lorimar (The Waltons) helping him fill up the time.

But right now, there is All That Glitters.  It’s in trouble. It’s more than half-way through a 13-week run. Renewal by the 43 stations carrying it depends on the ratings, and so far the ratings have been rotten. In New York and L.A., the only two cities for which Lear has any hard figures, there was a drop from a 20 percent share of the audience the week the show debuted in April, to the 10 percent range the next week. People tuned in for the first several shows, then tuned out. At least that’s what the ratings say.

It isn’t surprising.  The show is unquestionably the weirdest that Lear has ever produced—although it didn’t start out that way. He got the idea on a visit to Washington.  “I had visited the Institute of Policy Studies, and I just loved the whole thing. And I thought there was a series in it—a five-times-a-week series: I went to bed thinking about that, and I woke up the next morning thinking what would happen if the male-female equation were changed? What would happen if the women had all the power and all the advantage, and the men had what the women normally would have?”

That’s the All That Glitters premise, its “hook,” as Lear would put it: a world where the sex roles are reversed, where they have always been reversed, ever since God created Eve in Her own image and fashioned Adam out of a spare rib.  It’s a world where the women go to work, head up super-conglomerates like “Globatron,” and the men stay at home, minding the house—like Bert, who complains that Christina, his wife, never comes home for dinner anymore, and then finds out she’s playing around after hours with Dan, the sexy, young secretary.

Christina is not the only Globatron executive with a roving eye. Peg gets her guilty, aberrant kicks cruising bars, looking for men to act out her sadomaso fantasies of male domination.

It’s all played totally straight. The women come on anything but macho: they are beautiful and sinuous. They just do things that we’re used to seeing men do. The men, for their part, don’t camp it up. They aren’t effeminate: They just seem to act more open and vulnerable, softer, more…accepting. All That Glitters isn’t a satire of mannerisms but of attitudes. It’s a show that leans hard on nuance—sometimes only a gesture, like the way Christina hugs Dan to her and puts her hand down his shirt. You have to watch closely, not so much for what the show says, but for the way that it’s said.  Which is a lot to expect from the general run of TV viewers.  They didn’t take the hook.

There has, in fact, been a misreading of the show.  Feminists call it a misogynist vision of what the world would be like with women in charge—when, in truth, it’s a picture of what the world is like now, the roles that we play, the attitudes we’ve been sold.

“What we’re saying is, no matter which role one plays, it isn’t gravy,” explains writer-actor Harry Cauley.  “Either side of the fence, it ain’t easy.”  Cauley is in Norman’s office, seated, just a trifle stiffly, at the long, oval conference table across from his boss.  Tall, with graying hair, wearing the Hollywood-standard aviator glasses, a lavender sweater, white jeans and a pinky ring, he’s come to see Lear for a story conference.

Lear switches on the recording equipment (he’s got the office wired).  “Talking about All That Glitters,”  he dictates. That’s Harry’s cue.

“What we’re arriving at, at the end of the week,” Harry begins, “we’re arriving at the wedding. Marsha’s wedding.”

“Yeah.” Lear is nodding “I’ve been thinking about the wedding.”

“It can be a splash.”  Harry leans forward.  “Do a traditional wedding in reverse.  He’s gonna wear a white tux and carry flowers and throw the flowers out to the guys. It’s a wonderful splash. It could be…”

“Sounds good,” Lear interrupts.

“Yeah, a wedding in reverse.” Harry pauses a moment.  “But the big decision today is, do we introduce that new character, the token guy on the Globatron board?”

Lear thinks about it.  “The only reason for bringing him in is if we can do something with him right away.”

“Right.”

“The minute he comes in,” Lear emphasizes.  “We set up that they’ve picked a guy they think is gonna be easy, an easy token male. He’s not gonna be any problem.  And then we see him walk in and immediately seem like trouble.”

Cauley picks up the idea “I could do a scene where L.W. tells the other board members that she’s chosen this guy from the Duluth plant and he cannot cause any trouble, he’s totally ineffectual.  And then we see the guy come in and he looks like a guy who couldn’t possibly cause any trouble, but you damn well know he will. He’s a thinker. He’s aware.  But, I was wondering…”

“If the guy does something as simple as turn to Dan and say, ‘I don’t like tight sweaters on secretaries,’” Lear suggests.

“Yeah”

“Maybe even say he doesn’t want the secretaries to serve the coffee—everyone will get their own.  You know, just that hint of trouble.”

Cauley likes it.  “He only has to say, ‘Don’t serve it.  I’ll get my own.’”

“Uh huh.” Lear is smiling.  “’I’ll get my own.’”

“In the best of times, our days are numbered anyway, and so it would be a crime against nature for any generation to take the world crisis so solemnly that it put off enjoying those things for which we were presumably designed in the first place. . . I mean the opportunity to do good work, to fall in love, to enjoy friends, to sit under a tree, to hit a ball and bounce a baby.”
—Alistair Cooke

(Framed quotation on Norman Lear’s office wall)

Fernwood Avenue runs behind Metromedia Square, where Norman Lear’s T.A.T Communications Co has its offices and studios.  It’s a tree-lined street, the border between the residential and commercial zones—and, yes, that’s where Lear got the name for Mary Hartman’s town. There’s something about Lear that makes you want to search for origins like that, to look for his sources.  He gives you something to chew on, something that makes you want to figure out where he’s coming from.  There’s a consistency to his shows, themes that run through them all: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Maude, All’s Fair, All That Glitters, All In The Family, One Day At A Time.  There’s a unity of style and of content. You sense something even of a design.  It’s as if Lear wanted to use television—television!—to make a personal statement.  And maybe he does.  Lear may be the closest thing yet to the first, true TV auteur.

Lear doesn’t actually write his nine shows.  He doesn’t have to.  The auteur in television is like the Great Clock-winder theory of God.  He dreams up an idea, creates a concept, sketches it out, then lets others fill it in: producers, directors, story editors, staff writers—a creative extended family that keeps the concept going in the direction he wants it to go.  Sometimes an idea is his, sometimes it’s theirs, but it is always Lear who has the final say on what goes into his shows.  It’s not as if he has some kind of giant lazy susan with nine typewriters set up on it, and he rotates from one to another, one for each show.  He goes from one set of writers to the next set, keeping his eye on them, reading their scripts, making suggestions, supervising, directing, keeping the idea alive. Lear isn’t a writer.  He’s an editor—like an editor with nine magazines.

That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air…on the air…but Lear is too busy to notice.  Like today—he’s on the phone with his New York press agent, Kathie Berlin, still looking for ways to save All That Glitters.  She’s pushing the idea of a New York media screening, something to stir up excitement.

“Listen, Norman, you remember the first day we talked about this?”  Her voice grates over the speaker phone on top of Norman’s desk—a big, blond-wood slab set on two chromium pedestals.  “You said, ‘I don’t hear that talking on the streets I don’t hear that bustling.’”

“Yeah,” Lear calls back to the speaker box.  He is standing in the corner where the walls of windows meet, hands in his pockets, watching the cars crisscross two stories below him where the Hollywood Freeway passes under Sunset Boulevard.  He’s wearing his trademark fishing hat, chewing on a dead cigar.  He’s silent for some moments.  When he speaks again, there’s a defensive edge to his voice.  “You know, in Seattle and Denver and places like that, station managers are calling and saying, ‘Please don’t make up your mind whether you’re going to continue or not based on what’s happening in New York.’  They don’t have ratings books yet, but they say their phone calls, their mail, the word-of-mouth in town, all of that indicates to them that they have a major hit.  So, they’re calling us, begging us, ‘Don’t make up your mind based on the New York ratings’”

He sounds like he’s trying to persuade himself as much as Kathie, to psych himself up.  He’s in a fight.  He’s got a lot at stake.  Part of it is money.  All That Glitters, like Mary Hartman, Fernwood 2-Night and all the other shows he does outside the three-network system, is a stab at getting a better deal for himself—a piece of the action.  The networks pay only a “producer’s fee,” and, even if a show is a hit, Lear has to fight to get a raise from season to season.  But All That Glitters and the Fernwood shows are his own.  He sells them himself—a cash and “barter” deal: stations pay a fee and, in addition, Lear gets one commercial minute per half-hour show to peddle himself on Madison Avenue.  The better his ratings, the more those minutes are worth.  Because of start-up costs, he lost $1.2 million on Mary Hartman its first season, in the same way he’ll lose money on All That Glitters, too.  But in its second season, Mary Hartman’s earnings made up the loss and even produced a small profit.

But it’s not money that Norman is concerned about.  He’s got plenty.  As long ago as the early 1950s, he was making $100,000 a year as a TV writer: He doesn’t talk about money.  He talks instead of how, with Mary Hartman, “we realized we could paint our own mural our own way.  There was no program practices man standing over anybody’s shoulder, and our own taste ruled what we could do and what we would do.”  It’s very different working within the network system: “To do the shows I wanted to do, we went to the wall many times—when I refused to change an ending or take out this line or those two pages.  This year, still, a kid on Good Times couldn’t say ‘shacking up’ until we went to the wall.”

In contrast, on Lear’s own All That Glitters, Globatron chairwoman of the board, L. W. Carruthers, asked how she’ll deal with a rival, could hold up three fingers—the index, the middle and ring—and purr, “Read between the lines”; it was a gesture that told you all you need to know about who screws whom in that society.  Lear would never have gotten it past a network censor, even if he’d “gone to the wall.”

The strangest thing about those fights, if you’re to believe what Norman tells you, is that he didn’t care all that much about the particular issues involved.”  If you’re asking, ‘How much do you care about what a show may or may not be saying?’ my answer is that isn’t what motivates me.  My business is theater.  It isn’t that I don’t care about what the shows are saying I obviously do.  But the only reason I do is that’s what makes good theater—issues, ideas, topicality, content. Drama that provokes. The more you care, the harder you laugh.”

He’s back in his office, sitting in a suedelike sling chair, leaning over his conference table, chin propped in his hand.  “There’s something less than altruistic to this idea of `content,’“ he’s saying.  “When we did the two episodes of Maude related to alcoholism, you know, none of us were unaware of the fact that, in addition to everything else, these two episodes gave us a wonderful opportunity to see Maude and Walter hilariously drunk.”

There’s a mug filled with fresh, yellow, needle-sharp pencils near his left hand. He takes one out and taps the point on the tabletop in front of him.  “I don’t wake up in the morning and say, hey, I wanna do something against handguns.  A story comes in, dealing with handguns.  A group of dramatic moments possible in such a story leap to mind. So we do it. And we make the point. I guess I am hooked by these subjects, but only because they deliver those moments.”  He’s tapping the pencil harder now.  “Look, I’m a fucking entertainer. We’re storytellers. But we think. And the things we think of are much harder to deliver on. It’s a bitch to get it right.”  The pencil keeps tapping.  Discussions like this make Norman uncomfortable. It really bothers him—the way people keep looking for social commentary in his shows. That’s not what he’s about.  Seven years ago, maybe, when he put All In The Family on television, it may have been unprecedently heretical in its view of American life.  But he didn’t do it to comment on social issues. He did it because, as he told the writer from Current Biography.  “I don’t want to deal with TV’s old drivel about the wife burning the roast just before the boss comes home to dinner.”  He was just looking for new material, new sources for theatricality.

The topical gags, the Issues, were the way he dramatized his break with the fifties/sixties sit-com. He doesn’t need them anymore.  They’ve been de-emphasized.  Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times, One Day At A Time—those aren’t Issue shows.  They’ve become character studies.  Sometimes plots happen to hinge on topical material, but that’s incidental.  Even All’s Fair, begun as an exercise in political one-liners during the height of the presidential campaign, became a love story by the end of its run. And Lear’s latest shows—Mary Hartman, the Fernwood programs, All That Glitters, the ones he does outside the three-network system—have veered off into pure fantasy.  When you come right down to it, what is Mary Hartman about? What’s the “content” of Fernwood 2-Night? You could callit a satire of Johnny and Merv and Mike and the rest—but it’s more an abstraction, Lear’s own surreal vision of what a talk show could be, just as All That Glitters is his vision of a world with the sex roles reversed. He is creating total fantasies.  The “world crisis” intrudes less on his shows now because he’s creating a world of his own.

You could watch it happening—the surrealism creeping in, starting with Mary Hartman, reaching an apotheosis of sorts with All That Glitters, and carrying through Fernwood 2-Night.  His network hits are still reality-based, but even for the networks Lear took a fling at pure fantasy—Stick Around, a comedy about life in the year 2055, and Year At The Top, a series about four oldsters who sell their souls to the devil for youth and a year as a superstar rock band.  The networks didn’t buy either show.  But, free of network control, creating his “own mural” on the Fernwood shows and All That Glitters, Lear and his team are painting in the abstract.

Lear’s office door swings open.  His secretary walks in.  “Carl Reiner wants to know, can you play tennis at ten this Sunday?”  Lear nods.  She leaves. He picks up where he left off.  He’s still brooding over the matter of topicality.  “We did a Maude episode three years ago in which Maude’s 26 year-old daughter wanted to have her boyfriend stay over.  They were even going to have separate rooms. Maude said, ‘I have one foot in your generation and one foot in my own, and the foot that’s in my own generation isn’t going to allow it.’  That attitude was mine and the way I expressed it to my own family.  But, in 1977, I have said to my 19-year-old daughter, ‘If you’re going to be with so-and-so at his house, I want you to know I’d rather have you with him in your own house.’  My daughter, who was shocked, said, ‘But, Dad, I can’t believe this is you talking.’  And my answer was, ‘If anybody is going to enjoy your presence in his house, why should it be someone else’s father?’”

He’s a family man.  That’s what he keeps coming back to.  It’s the material he uses the most.  He mines it out of his own life. Archie Bunker is based on his father, Maude (more loosely) on his wife.  He gets plots for One Day At A Time from things he hears his three daughters say. It’s what he leans on, the family, not the topical gags or the Issues—that’s only theater.  Topical gags are ephemeral. Who laughs at Spiro Agnew anymore?  Issues pass away.

Besides, our days are numbered.  “Fifteen years ago, when I turned 40, I remember, I looked at my hand and I said, ‘My God, I’m looking at my father’s hand!”  He used the line, first, in his movie, Divorce American Style.  Then Maude’s husband Walter used it when he turned 51, Maude herself when she hit 50.

Norman does that sometimes, recycles jokes.  The cremation bit turned up three times—twice on Maude and once on Mary Hartman: someone knocks an urn off a shelf and tries to gather up the ashes with a vacuum cleaner.  “A staple of comedy,” Lear says: “Ashes in an urn, variations on.”  Still, it’s a bit he chose to repeat, ashes to ashes, like the line about the hand and that sudden recognition of age and death creeping up on you.

People die on Lear’s shows: Archie’s Uncle Oscar (the first death ever on a network-TV comedy), Maude’s ex-husband, Walter’s boyhood pal.  Their hearts suddenly fail.  They burn to death. They drown in plates of chicken soup.  They’re offed by killer Christmas trees.

Nothing is permanent.  People disappear.  They wander off.  They’re captured by UFOs.  Gypsies steal babies from laundromats and after a few weeks or so no one even seems to miss them anymore.  The Wild Child turns up on your doorstep.  Your auto plant blows up.  Or, in All That Glitters, the world itself turns upside down.

Only the family endures.  Tom and Mary Hartman hold on.  In seven years, only the Bunkers’ living-room wallpaper pattern was changed. The Good Times family Evans, living in their housing project—simple but steady; the Jeffersons, together; Ann Romano, holding on to her daughters, One Day At A Time. The world may be upside down on All That Glitters, but, still, the family holds together—even in reverse.  “The common element in all the shows is love and caring,” Lear says.  “And the opposite of that—the need for love and caring.”

As themes go, it isn’t the most complex. But, for television, it’s a full-fledged apercu—a personal vision, maybe the first in the medium, which runs through all of his shows. The CB bit, for example, which keeps coming back—in Mary Hartman, All That Glitters, and One Day At A Time. Lear says CB “fascinates” him—not just “the language, its lingo”—but the way “people cultivate families of people they never meet.”  Lear cultivates families too. We know his characters as well as our own brothers and sisters.  Maybe better. We certainly see them more often. He creates a world where the family…home…is the only fixed point. But nothing is permanent.

“When I was nine years old, my father took ill.”  Lear is standing by the window, watching the homeward rush on the Hollywood freeway.  What kind of illness?  His face closes up.  “He took ill,” he repeats, “and was lost to me for three years.” He lights a cigar.  “My father was a salesman. His motto was that he could sell refrigerators to Eskimos and shit on a stick as lollipops. He sold anything. Everything. And he was an incredible life force.  No matter how bleak the times seemed to everyone else, he was going to have something important happen in ‘ten days to two weeks.’  That was his expression.  There was always something big about to happen in ‘ten days to two weeks.’ And when I would press him, he would say, ‘Ah, tut-tut-tut. It’s gonna happen.  Ah tut-tut-tut.’ ‘When? You said ten days to two weeks.’  He’d say, ‘Ah tut-tut-tut.’”

Blue cigar smoke hangs around his head: “The night my father had to go away, my home was alive with friends and relatives who were wishing condolences and who were buying the furniture because my mother had to break up the house.  I was being patted on the head and being told, ‘Well, for a while, son, you’re going to be the man of the house.’  At the age of nine.  I knew that the next day I was going to be living with my grandparents, my sister was going to another relative, and I don’t remember what my mother was going to do. And I saw someone, a distant relative, buying my father’s red leather chair in which I used to sit and listen on the radio to the Friday night fights.  Sitting in his leather chair and listening to the fights meant something to me that I can’t describe. When I saw that chair being sold, among all of the other items that represented home to me, I think something about home and family was locked in, some understanding of home and family and its importance.”

He sits down at the conference table, leans forward, over it.  “So, I guess you see that in the shows.  Archie’s chair is his throne.  Now, I don’t remember my father thinking that way about his chair.  But I remember how I felt about his chair.  I remember my bed and I remember my bed had slats in the headboard and it faced the window, and on a summer evening, when I had to be in bed at dusk, I could see the older kids playing outside.  And I used to peek between the slats, playing games.  You know, losing one kid because I moved my eye over a quarter of an inch, and picking up three other kids because the angle had changed.  When I lost that headboard…that headboard meant home to me, that headboard meant comfort to me, that headboard…I never understood until I was about to lose it. I had all of that meaning brought home to me at the age of nine.”

The telephone rings.  “Hello?”  He pushes back his hat, rubs his bare scalp. Someone wants him on the All That Glitters set.  The next moment he’s on his way.

They posted the closing notice on June 9.  The telegram went out from Lear’s office: “We regret to inform you that we are exercising our option not to continue production of…All That Glitters beyond the first 13 weeks. We, however, are still hopeful, and Norman Lear is ever confident, that the audience will find this show, which could be reflected in the last few, or even the last, weeks’ ratings…”  Lear really believed it—that the show would find its audience, that there would be some kind of last-minute reprieve and the show might be resurrected. But numbers are all in television—and with a month to go, they still didn’t add up for All That Glitters.