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Norman Lear on Reintroducing the Classics

Photo: David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Like most Gen-Xers, Jimmy Kimmel was introduced to the world of Norman Lear — and sitcoms in general — courtesy of local afternoon TV. Before Nick at Nite and TV Land launched in the 1980s, Kimmel says, “I remember coming home from school and watching these shows in syndication back-to-back on Channel 5 Las Vegas. It was just part of my day. I’d come home from school, and I had a very busy schedule of TV shows to watch.”

Forty years later, in addition to being a TV star in his own right, the ABC late-night host is now a regular collaborator with Lear; the two teamed up to produce the Emmy-winning Live in Front of a Studio Audience for the Alphabet Network. After taking last year off because of COVID, the franchise, which re-creates episodes of sitcoms such as All in the Family and Good Times with contemporary celebrities, returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET with stagings of NBC’s Diff’rent Strokes (1978–86) and its spinoff, The Facts of Life (1979–88). Among the actors scheduled to appear: Kevin Hart, Jennifer Aniston, Damon Wayans, Kathryn Hahn, Gabrielle Union, Allison Tolman, Ann Dowd, and Jon Stewart. Several surprise cameos are also promised.

Unlike the shows featured on past editions of LIFOASA, Lear wasn’t actively involved in the creation of either of tonight’s series. Instead, he was head of the independent studios behind them. (For the TV nerds keeping track at home, those would be Tandem Productions for Strokes and T.A.T. Communications/Embassy for Facts, both of which were ultimately absorbed into Sony Pictures Television.) But while Strokes and Facts never got the critical love and Emmy wins of past Lear shows, they were both extraordinarily successful, turning cast members into cultural icons of the 1980s — four words: What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis? — and enduring for decades in reruns.

Vulture caught up with Lear and his longtime production partner Brent Miller to talk about the newest installment of LIFOASA, where tonight’s shows fit into the Lear filmography, and how Kimmel’s friendship has been key to the whole effort. We also chatted about some of Lear’s lesser-known productions and how a 1981 ABC special called The Wave has taken on new urgency in the era of Trumpism.

Diff’rent Strokes was a massive hit and beloved by viewers, but it’s very different from the kind of critically acclaimed stuff you did in the early and mid-1970s. What was going on in your career, and in TV in general, in 1978 that led you there?
Norman Lear: I certainly remember what was going on with us, but I don’t remember the landscape. It wasn’t like I looked at a lot of television. I was working all the time, so I wasn’t seeing a lot of the other shows. I was dealing with what we were doing, and we were working our asses off and having a great time. We didn’t have in mind how a career would look or what the history books would show.

Do you recall any specifics about how Strokes came to be?
NL: We made a pilot based on the characters in The Little Rascals, and the show didn’t work. But I fell in love with one of the kids on it and learned his name was Gary Coleman. I said, “Get that kid back here. There’s magic about him.” And Bernie Kukoff and Jeff Harris created a show around him. I can’t believe he’s not with us now. But I adored him.

And then, exactly a year later, you spun off Charlotte Rae’s character into The Facts of Life.
NL: The fact that Charlotte Rae was in our lives, and was as talented and funny as she was, was a big part of creating the show.

By 1978, when Tandem launched Strokes, you were at a very different place in your career. You’d had almost a decade of success and weren’t as hands-on with every project, right? 
NL: These were shows I wasn’t personally involved in on a daily or perhaps even a weekly basis. I had a lot to do with casting, but I was not working hard at the shows week to week. We were building a company. Other brilliant talents were involved in making those shows. I was probably at every taping and enjoying it, pretty much like a studio head.

When I first heard about the casting for this edition of Live in Front of a Studio Audience, I had two reactions at once: “Wow, those are some big-name actors” and “Yikes, is it a good idea to have people over 40 playing kids and teenagers?” The last two editions worked because they were tributes. Was there any concern that this could veer into parody?
Brent Miller: I was worried in the very beginning when Jimmy said this was the conceit he wanted to go with. But after seeing the two table reads and a run-through, I’m no longer worried. I’m just excited.

NL: We’re in the hands of Jimmy Burrows, who spent a career getting ready for this.

BM: And when you bring that kind of talent together, they themselves don’t want to see anything fail, so you can see how they feed off each other. I think everybody will be pleasantly surprised.

You’ve struck up quite a professional relationship and a real friendship with Jimmy. He has a reverence for you and your work that is quite genuine.
NL: None of this would be happening if Jimmy hadn’t said “Let’s.” It was his idea, and he’s a gift. He’s got a kind of creative enthusiasm, or enthusiastic creativity, that is all but hypnotic.

BM: And it should be known that he’s not just a celebrity attaching his name. He’s been very much involved throughout the whole process as we’ve been developing these specials. He takes it seriously. We shouldn’t leave out Kerry Washington as well. The first one she was acting in, the second one she came on as an executive producer, and in this third one she’s also an executive producer. And she too is not just throwing her name in for a credit.

NL: They’re hands-on.

BM: We’re on a text chain, all of us, and it’s a daily thing while producing this.

I’m also curious how you work with Brent when it comes to running your company, Act III. You have the busiest development slate of anyone in their 90s. 
NL: I wait for Brent to call. He carries the load. That’s the fact of it at this time.

How did the two of you get together?
BM: It started almost 16 years ago. At the time, I had my own company doing event production, and Norman was turning 85, his wife was turning 60, and they wanted to do a big celebration called 45 Years of the Lears. They had a party they were doing here in L.A., and Norman reached out to a woman I was working with and asked her to find someone to work directly with him for the next six months. We’ve been together ever since. It was more on a social level and then it transitioned to coming into his world. At that time, we were still touring the Declaration of Independence that he owned. That was my introduction to the world of Norman Lear — a copy of the Declaration of Independence and traveling it around the country.

Your first big TV project together was the Netflix reboot of One Day at a Time, and you’re now working with Netflix on an animated remake of Good Times that was announced last year. Any update on it?
BM: We have almost ten scripts under our belt. We’re very excited about it. Animation takes much longer than live action. It looks like it’s probably going to be closer to 2023 as a premiere, as opposed to 2022, because of the time it takes for animation. But we’re definitely in the thick of it. It was actually Steph Curry’s company who came to us. We share offices on the same floor here at Sony, and he and his team approached me and said, “What do you think about doing this?” And of course, after Norm and I talked about it, we thought it was a great idea.

I was so happy when Sony announced its deal with Amazon to put a bunch of your shows on Prime Video and IMDb TV. But it’s frustrating how so many of your smaller, less commercially successful projects remain hard or impossible to find. I’m thinking of Hot l Baltimore; All That Glitters; a.k.a. Pablo; and Hello, Larry. Some of them are available in other countries, like Canada. 
NL: Well, as you just listed them, it amazes me that I haven’t spoken about them or tried to do anything with them in a number of years. I had nothing but pleasant memories around all those shows, and they’re all worth being seen again.

Does that include Hot l Baltimore? When we spoke seven years ago, you basically told me all your shows except that one deserved to be seen again. Maybe you were joking?
NL: I adored that show. I’m not sure we got it as good as it deserved. I loved the show and all the characters in it. That was Charlotte Rae’s introduction to television, and I loved the play it came from. It was a Broadway play before we optioned it for television.

All That Glitters was quietly revolutionary in that it had one of TV’s first trans characters, played by Linda Gray before Dallas. It was also a departure for you because it was very high concept in imagining an alternate universe where women ran the world.
NL: I think it would be a big success today. It was before its time. It had women in charge, and the guys were at home taking care of the kids. Barbara Baxley was dynamite in that show. And Linda Gray — I loved her.

You didn’t do a lot of directing in your career, but you did some early on. I didn’t realize until just recently that you directed episodes of Martha Raye’s comedy variety show, which you also wrote for. 
NL: I did. I remember that show exceedingly well. She was hilarious. And her — what’s the Italian word for boyfriend? Goombah! Her goombah was Rocky Graziano, who was a major middleweight champion. Oh my God, [Singing to the tune of the All in the Family theme] “Those were the days!”

I was reading about her career recently after seeing her on Alice, and I really think Act III should make a documentary or limited series about Raye. She was a trailblazer and doesn’t get talked about much anymore. And there was a lot of drama in her life too. 
NL: I agree with you totally. How would you cast it? You have anybody in mind?

I don’t know. She was so larger than life.
NL: Maybe Ann Dowd? Not a look-alike at all but funny in the same way.

This fall marked the 40th anniversary of a special you did for ABC called The Wave, which showed how easy it would be for Nazi fascism to come to the U.S. You’ve always been outspoken about threats to our civil liberties, but after the rise of Trump and the January 6 insurrection, I’m curious what you think Americans need to do to make sure The Wave doesn’t become a reality in our time. 
NL: That’s a heavy question. [Laughs.]

I know. I saved it for the end.
NL: I mean, first of all, we need leadership that helps the American people understand what’s at stake and what is possible and how tender our democracy is. There’s nothing more important than helping the American people understand how important their vote is.

Are you worried right now about the future of America?
NL: Well, I’m not worried about it where I am concerned, at my age, but when I think about my kids and grandkids and their kids to come? The country needs a lot of help.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Norman Lear on Reintroducing the Classics