After Two Decades Away, Norman Lear Has a New TV Show

By
Photo: David Harry Stewart

When legendary sitcom producer Norman Lear kicked off the book tour for his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, the head of production and development at his company, Act III Productions, had a thought. "I wanted to get him back into TV to show people how relevant he still is," said Brent Miller, the Act III executive. "It's something people miss." The idea to revive one of Lear's legacy properties — the 1975 CBS sitcom One Day at a Time — was floated, but with one crucial difference, driven by the results of a marketing survey showing that single Latina mothers are a desirable target demographic: This time, it would center on a Latino family.

Miller met with Sony Pictures Television, which owns the original series, and, after some finagling, the studio green-lit the project. Sony wanted veteran writer-producer Mike Royce, who had a deal at the studio, to be involved. “Once they gave me the yes,” Miller said, “I told Norman, We can't have two white boys trying to tell a Latina story." With the help of Sony senior vice-president of comedy development Lauren Moffat, Miller read the work of several Latino writers. Among them was Gloria Calderon Kellett, a writer-producer with credits on several shows, including How I Met Your Mother and Devious Maids, whom Lear ultimately chose. Royce and Calderon Kellett became co-showrunners on the Netflix remake, which premieres its 13-episode first season this Friday on the streaming network, 20 years after Lear's last TV show, the animated series Channel Umptee-3, premiered.

One Day at a Time pays tribute to the 1975 series in concept and includes a couple of recognizable details, but it’s otherwise a completely original story. Mining stories from Calderon Kellett's Cuban-American upbringing in Portland and San Diego, as well as Royce's family life, the show centers on three generations of the Alvarez family living in an apartment in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. It stars Justina Machado (Six Feet Under) as Penelope, a newly single mother and war veteran, and Rita Moreno as her mother, Lydia, who moves in to help raise Penelope's two children: 14-year-old Elena (Isabella Gomez) and her younger brother, Alex (Marcel Ruiz). In typical Lear form, the half-hour multi-camera sitcom is rooted in social commentary, taking on everything from veterans’ issues to sexuality and sexism, along with themes specific to Cuban-Americans, like the realities that make immigration and exile different experiences.

Last month, Vulture sat down with Lear and Calderon Kellett at Lear's Brentwood estate in the hills of Mandeville Canyon. The following is an edited and condensed transcript of the conversation, and separate interviews conducted by phone and email. In a wide-ranging discussion, they talked about the uncanny timing of Fidel Castro’s death, the lack of multi-camera sitcoms on TV, and why some executives wanted the show to focus on a Mexican-American family.

Why don't we start at the beginning: Why were you thinking of remaking One Day at a Time?
Norman Lear
: I wasn't thinking of any such thing. I work with a young associate who came to me one day, who wondered if I would be interested in a Latino version of One Day at a Time. How could I not be interested in that? Of course I said yes.

Gloria Calderon Kellett: Then Sony brought us together.

Lear: Everybody agreed we had to have a Latin person, preferably a woman. She came into the office and I asked her for her birth certificate.

Calderon Kellett: Yep, I showed him.

Lear: To make sure she was Latina, because you look at her and you never know.

Calderon Kellett: In our first meeting, we talked for an hour and a half. He's very disarming once you get over I'm sitting with Norman Lear.

Lear: Which is about 24 seconds.

Calderon Kellett: It's like 30 minutes. I could not tell you what happened in those 30 minutes.

What was your first conversation like?
Calderon Kellett
: He's so curious. He started asking me all these questions about what my family’s like. We moved away from the show to talk about personal things.

Lear: But that was the show.

Calderon Kellett: Yeah, that's what he said once we started talking. My family's very involved in my life. My grandmother picked me up at school and took me everywhere while my parents worked. Norman asked me to describe my mom. I said she's kind of like Rita Moreno. I always made that joke because they look alike to me. It's such a rarity on television that people look like we look. And everyone feels that way with Rita. She feels like everyone's aunt or abuela. Norman was like, "Oh, I know Rita. I've been wanting to do something with her." It was all so crazy and kismet.

Lear: Kismettian.

Calderon Kellett: It really was. After we got talking, he said, "What would happen if you were divorced?" And I said, "Well, my mom would live with me. That's what would happen."

Lear: I was interested in doing a Latina version because I had tried to do one many years before called a.k.a. Pablo, which was a Mexican-American family.

Calderon Kellett: With Paul Rodriguez.

Lear: Well, we don't want to talk about this.

I do. I want to know why you were interested in this type of comedy.
Lear
: I wanted to do the immigrant experience. We did six or eight shows and it was canceled. So [it was] the kick of being able to do another family with somebody who knew what to do because it was her family.

Calderon Kellett: I had reservations about writing about my family because it's so personal and I've had so many friends who, when they finally did get to write their family, it just gets gobbled. It became so clear in the hour and a half that I spent with Norman that he was going to fight to make sure that did not happen. I felt very safe. And then Mike and I got together and sat in a small office and figured out what that pitch was going to be. We went to Netflix and presented our season, and the rest is history.

From the get-go, the understanding was that you were going to write about your family. It wasn't going to be a Mexican-American family or a more generalized Latino family?
Calderon Kellett
: Yes. It's funny because I said, "They're going to call at some point and say, 'Can they be Mexican?' It's going to happen, Mike. You're going to see it's going to happen." And they did!

Lear: I had forgotten that.

Calderon Kellett: They did! I said, "Listen, it's not that I can't write a Mexican family. I totally can. It's just that it's different. It makes it totally different." I can't have the same amount of fun with it. I can't make fun of a Mexican the way I can of a Cuban. I can make fun of my own family stuff because I'm being specific to my family. The other way, I feel weird about it, honestly. Thankfully, Norman and Mike were there to fight.

Lear: I said, "I think we can go on the air six weeks after Castro dies."

Calderon Kellett: Yeah, he's a soothsayer!

Where were you when Fidel Castro died?
Calderon Kellett
: What's funny is Mike Royce texted me and said, "Castro's dead." I was like every other Cuban: "I've heard it a million times. He's never going to die!" He goes, "No, this is legit. Look it up." I looked it up and it was more emotional than I thought it was going to be. Granted, I'm not in Miami. For me, it also wasn't a celebration because my mom can't even talk about Cuba without bursting into tears. Forty-five years later, it's right there for them. I certainly felt grateful in that moment that, in my parents' lifetime, this oppressor is gone and they would be free from that element of it, but it doesn't make any of that go away.

If there’s a season two, do you think this might come up?
Calderon Kellett
: Oh yeah! There's also the conversation about visiting. A lot of people ask me, "Would you go to Cuba?" That's an interesting conversation to be had. What is it like to go, and how do I feel about other people going? People ask me a lot.

Everybody asks that.
Calderon Kellett
: And it means a different thing for us. But I'm never mad at anyone for that. Until we have the conversations and we educate one another, how can we possibly know? What I'm most grateful about this show is — if I can talk about the election for a moment — I was one of these people that was so surprised. I was so shocked because I do live in an echo chamber. All of my social media supports what I think and feel, and it was very eye-opening to me because I am a writer. I do want the conversations. I do want those fights. From a writer's perspective, I was upset with myself for not being more educated. Television is the one place where we are allowed to see other people fight with each other and have differences of opinion, and that's the place where I think hearts and minds can be changed.

Lear: The big difference is, with Netflix you make 13 episodes and they're all on the air at the same time. You can't be as topical as you could be if you were making it week to week. We couldn't talk about what was going on in the election because we're going to go on after it all. Or we would have.

Was Netflix the first place you went to?
Calderon Kellett
: It was the place that made the most sense. It's a creator's paradise. And look, I've worked with some great network executives, so I don't mean to take a dump on them. But the experience we have had with Netflix as partners has been unbelievable.

Lear: You know the expression is "I don't mean to dump on them."

Calderon Kellett: What did I say?

Lear: Not "take a dump on them."

Calderon Kellett: No, it's both, I think. You're classier than me, Norman.

The pilot centers on the question of whether Elena will have a quinceañera. Did you have a quince, Gloria?
Calderon Kellett
: The story of Elena is my story. My parents wanted me to have quinces. All of my cousins had a quince before me, and I was in a feminist phase. I looked it up and was reading stuff about it, and I was like, "Uh-uh, I'm not doing it!" And they were okay with it. I never ended up having one, but I did promise them that I would have a big wedding in a Catholic church, which I did.

Elena's quince winds up being the framework for the entire season. How did that idea evolve?
Calderon Kellett
: Initially, we just chose to do it in the pilot. I told Norman that story and he loved it. He felt like it was great for the show. As we started talking about it, we saw that with this 13-episode order, it would be a great arc to follow through the series. We had many versions of it. My uncle Ernie was an incredible dancer and choreographer and everybody would hire him. So many of my Sundays would be a bunch of kids coming over and me sitting in the driveway while my uncle Ernie taught them dance moves. And it wasn't just Cuban kids. No one got more into it than the white kids.

Lear: Without giving it away, there is another plotline that runs parallel with the quince, ultimately being the heart and soul of the series. The quince is such an important event in the Latin culture, so it felt like the perfect story line to introduce the world to the Alvarez family.

Penelope is a military vet. What was the thinking behind that?
Calderon Kellett
: That really came from Norman because he's a vet and is very passionate about veteran issues. Initially, it was going to just be the ex-husband as a veteran. We thought, Gosh, if we make it her, we're going to spend more time with her and speak about the female military experience, which is not something that's often talked about. That could be really cool. Then it's really a veteran family. We also get to portray many different types of veterans on the show, which felt responsible.

What about the rest of the family? You didn't feel like you had to stick to the story lines in the original show.
Lear
: No, no. We made an early decision. We didn't go near the scripts because we were dealing with a new life in America — a Latino life. And Cuban. This is a brand-new show that uses the same title. And this is three generations as opposed to two last time.

Why did you decide to keep the neighbor character, Schneider?
Calderon Kellett
: That's an homage.

You even kept his name.
Calderon Kellett
: We went back and forth on that. It was an homage to the original. The set is very similar to the original set. The number on the door is the same apartment number. In talking about what would be an interesting foil, we found that a well-meaning, 40-year-old, rich liberal guy who had everything but didn't have the love of family [could be it]. It also seemed like a great place for more of these great Norman Lear conversations.

Lear: But Gloria and Mike and [actor Todd Grinnell] supplied a lot of it. The Schneider he's playing, they found.

I heard it was the hardest part to cast.
Calderon Kellett
: Absolutely.

Lear: The hardest and most fun.

Calderon Kellett: In the original series, people obviously loved the mom and the family, but they remember Schneider so distinctly. Pat Harrington was iconic. The cigarettes and the vest and the whole thing. Any version that was close to that felt like a poor imitation.

Lear: We auditioned several women for the role.

What was it about Todd Grinnell?
Calderon Kellett
: I've worked with him for such a long time, and he's just so likable. He's funny. Doing multi-cam is such a specific skill set, and he's a theater actor. As they all are, really. Justina and Rita, these are theater actors. That's what they're doing. They're performing a play in front of a live audience.

Did you ever think about doing it single-camera?
Calderon Kellett
: No.

Lear: No.

Calderon Kellett: I'm a theater lover. I love that interaction, and I love what that means and the audience supplying such energy. To be able to do the multi-cam format seemed perfect, and it's what Norman's known for.

Why do you think multi-cams are so rare now?
Lear
: I don't know. They're harder to write, I think. To work in a set, you can't move around as much. But I don't know if that's the reason.

Calderon Kellett: I think these things are cyclical. When the original One Day was ending, multi-cam comedy was in a rut for a few years until The Cosby Show. It has ebbs and flows.

Lear: I think that's right.

Calderon Kellett: It's a hard thing to do, and then when somebody does it correctly, all of a sudden everybody wants to. Time is also an issue because on network television it's 20 minutes. And we get 30.

Lear: We get 32 if we have to.

And no commercial interruptions.
Calderon Kellett
: No interruptions, and you can just have a little bit more of those quiet moments that you can't have with 20 minutes. That's the stuff you cut when you're doing a network show.

Tell me more about casting. Rita Moreno was first?
Lear
: There was no question about her. There's only one Rita Moreno. And Justina Machado, oh my God, she's fabulous.

I have a soft spot for her from Six Feet Under.
Lear
: So many people have said that to me.

Calderon Kellett: What's funny is she's the first person Norman saw. Mike and I had been seeing people, and it was the first day Norman was going to see some people, and Justina came in first. Mike and I hadn't seen her yet. I'd obviously been a fan of hers for a long time, as had Mike. She did this amazing audition, and then Norman's like, "Wow, we're off to a really good start." And we're like, "No, no, no, that's it!" It was undeniable.

What did you like about her when you saw her?
Lear
: Everything. I worship talent. It's just the most amazing thing to see somebody come in. You don't really know what the character is until the actor inhabits it. Casting in that way is just a miracle for me.

What about the kids?
Calderon Kellett
: A lot of these girls would come in and it didn't seem natural. It felt like somebody had written words that an actor was saying. With Isabella [Gomez], it felt like she was saying those words, and that's what she was thinking. We really wanted somebody who was a girl that girls could say, "She's just like me." And we were like, "God, she's so pretty. Are people going to relate?" We threw some glasses on her, and she found the love of the nerdiness. She is a proud nerd. And Marcel [Ruiz] was an open casting call. They did a nationwide search.

Lear: It was either Sony or Netflix who didn't want him.

Calderon Kellett: Yeah, because he had never really done anything. But it's exactly what we were all picturing. He came in and was so charming and threw out these one-liners like a dream.

Lear: The families of both kids are like Gloria's family. They all come to the show every time.

Calderon Kellett: Everyone's families are all there and we all hang out. We all had a Cuban dinner. It feels like a very warm environment. And [co-showrunner] Mike [Royce] is one of my best friends. I talk to him three times a day. We're not working on the show anymore — we just are in each other's lives because we care about one another.

What is the writers room like?
Calderon Kellett: Our writers room is 22 to 94, you know. [Laughs.] And we're Puerto Rican and Mexican and Salvadoran and Jewish and Irish and English.

How many writers total?
Calderon Kellett
: Twelve, and two are LGBT. Half our staff is female. The conversations we would have in the room were glorious. All of us feel such ownership for it. We would have veterans come. My parents came. My mother had never spoken about Peter Pan. [Operation Pedro Pan, or Peter Pan, was an organized mass exodus of children from Cuba in the early '60s.] It's not something we talked about in my house. I'd get things here and there from a cousin or a tío or something, but she'd never really talked to me about it. And the writers asked if they could interview my mom. I was like, "I don't know if she's going to want to talk about it." I asked her, and she at first said no. My dad was like, "I'll come in, if you want." Because my dad was a Peter Pan kid, too. And then my mom asked, "When these veterans come and talk to you, talk to the room, do they cry?" And I said, "Yeah, the whole room's crying." And she was like, "And they tell their war stories?" And I said, "Yeah." And she goes, "If they can tell their war stories, I can tell mine." And she came. She told us about the day she left and what that was like. We were all bawling, the whole room.

How old was she?
Calderon Kellett
: She was 15 and with her sister, who was 16. They hollowed out the heels of their shoes and put jewelry in there. Castro's guys had just come through a few days before with machine guns in the house, and the school shut down, and they started sending the boys to Russia. And that was it. My grandfather decided, "We're going to send the girls." My grandparents, both sets of grandparents, came over a year later on the freedom flights. So my grandparents did get out, but their siblings didn't.

Where did your parents meet?
Calderon Kellett
: In Florida City. They were in a camp there for a year. Then it was like, "We're not going back, so what can we do?" They started dispersing the Cuban kids throughout the country, so a group went to Portland, Oregon. All the people I grew up with were Pedro Pan kids.

And they've been together ever since?
Calderon Kellett: Oh yeah. They really like each other. [Laughs.] They're a real love story, my parents.

Why did you choose to set the story in Echo Park and not Miami?
Calderon Kellett
: I didn't grow up in Miami. I'm a West Coast Cuban. I'm liberal. The amount of fights I get in with my Miami Cubans, cousins and stuff, who own guns and are Republican — I couldn't speak to the Miami experience, I just couldn't. It's foreign to me.

And Echo Park is where Cubans in L.A. first settled.
Calderon Kellett: Echo Park was a Cuban stronghold. I grew up in Portland, but when I came to L.A., there's pockets. When we were doing our research, we knew there was a stronghold in Echo Park, and we thought Lydia might have moved there.

What is the secret to landing this kind of show? It's very specific to the Cuban-American experience, but I also feel like any Latino could relate to it — or any American family.
Calderon Kellett
: I feel like it is specificity. When I watch Master of None, which is a great show, they did an episode where Dev [Aziz Ansari] and Brian [Kelvin Yu] were both talking about their immigrant dads. That resonated with me perfectly, and I'm not an Asian man. What happened with the Latino shows is that because we're so different and divided, when people are programming for Latinos, they want to homogenize it a little bit to cover everything. The specificity goes away, and when that goes away, you lose something.

Lear: The interesting thing about that specificity is, it's recognized as our common humanity. It's real. They're not pretending they're more American or something. They're Cuban-American, and they're real. People relate to that reality. They see that, they feel that. You feel it more keenly because you're Cuban, but listen, you've heard me rave about Justina because she makes me laugh and she makes me cry. It's because she's 100 percent. They're 100 percent who they are, who they're portraying. There's no pretense. No acting for the sake of acting.

In Norman's tradition, you also tackle heavy, topical issues. When you were writing the fifth episode, "Strays," which covers illegal immigration and deportation, were there hot debates in the writers room?
Calderon Kellett
: That is an interesting one. I think a lot of people don't know that Cubans can't be deported. Right? Because it's a different situation for us. I also think it is the conversation I've had with my parents about doing it the right way. Well, we did it the right way. But what's the right way?

Right. Cuban exile is not the same thing as coming here from, say, Mexico.
Calderon Kellett
: Not to say you're lucky to be in exile, because you had a terrible experience, but in a way, you were welcomed. That's not to say that once they got here, they didn't work hard and have a heck of a go at it. But it's different. Penelope is such an amalgam of Justine and I. A lot of times, I'll just get up and monologue and that's what we use. I cannot not acknowledge my Latina privilege — that my parents got to come here and got to work legally and I got to go to school as a result of that.

It never enters our minds that we might be sent back.
Calderon Kellett
: Nope. It's a different thing. So we'll talk about those things in the room. People have their different points of view and we'll duke it out and we'll find the point of view of our character. Now that we've had this conversation, how can we filter that into these characters? And how does it come out of their mouths in the right way?

What about the role of Spanish in the show? There have been other shows that don't use subtitles, but it's rare to not have any kind of translation in the dialogue. Here, if you didn't catch it, you didn't catch it.
Lear
: But you understand it.

Calderon Kellett: In the room, we would say things and half of the people don't speak Spanish. So if they are still able to get it, if they laughed, I would ask, "Why did you laugh?" And they're like, "Well, 'cause I got it." There were times where we cut out Spanish because it was too much — it was either interfering with the joke or we didn't need it. It usually came from a place where it seemed natural. When I'm talking to my mom, it's back and forth. It has no rhyme or reason to it.

What have you learned from each other during this process?
Calderon Kellett
: How much time do you have? He doesn't need to learn anything.

Lear: You never stop learning if you're paying attention. I love the commonality of the human experience. I talk about that all the time. And I learn about it more all the time. We are all humans, so to speak. We're a species. We relate to each other if we're paying attention. And I love the way I learn more and more and more. Last night, I was with the Kellogg Foundation and they're doing this racial healing thing. There were about 500 people there. I was on a panel. It was largely black, but some Hispanic. It was fun to be in a room where the whites were in the minority.

Not many would agree these days.
Lear
: We're going through it. Or we're beginning to go through it. Maybe we'll get it all sorted out as a result. But I love dealing with that, learning more about myself as I go along. There will be a lot of learning on the part of the people who watch these 13 episodes. And it comes through entertainment and reality. When it happens, it's wonderful.

What about you, Gloria?
Calderon Kellett: Oh my, so much. His curiosity about people. He really cares. He really does. That is a great gift that he has given me: to always be curious and care about your fellow man.

*An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Gloria Calderon Kellett was America's first-ever Latina showrunner.