Hollywood, Calif. -- Tanned and fit, and looking a good decade younger than his 68 years, legendary TV producer Norman Lear is seated on this routinely bright California afternoon in his small corner office at Sunset-Gower Studios. The room is suprisingly unadorned. There are no photos from his "All in the Family," "Maude" or "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman"; no Emmy statues; nothing that underscores the title bestowed on Lear last year of the most significant producer in the first 50 years of television.
About the only items that seem to reveal anything about Mr. Lear is a wall sculpture aping Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam," with an arm reaching out of an easy chair to receive life from another arm outstretched from a television set -- and assorted inspirational books, including "The Book of Job" and "Tao Te-Ching." The books most of all point up the fact that these days, Mr. Lear is looking within.
It's been 13 years since Mr. Lear left the grind of weekly television. His career began in the '50s with an apprenticeship in live TV; in the '60s he wrote and produced films, and in the '70s he revolutionized television comedy. The '80s brought a detour. In 1980, he founded People for the American Way, a freedom watchdog group that touched off his "spiritual bent," and his 1987 marriage to Lyn Davis "nurtured" it. Now, in the '90s, he returns to series television, a reflective contemplative man intent upon asking: What's it all about?
Indeed, that's the theme of "Sunday Dinner," his first TV effort in seven years, which debuts tonight. A domestic sitcom, it involves an intergenerational marriage between a spiritual 30-year-old woman (who talks aloud to God) and a slightly disillusioned 56-year-old widower (who has three grown children and a quasi-fundamentalist sister). God is addressed, religion debated and the meaning of life is asked. Mr. Lear intends "Sunday Dinner" as "nourishment for the soul."
Q: What made you want to do "Sunday Dinner" at this time in your life and your career?
A: I gave a talk to about 10,000 teachers at a National Education Association [meeting] last July. I told them that if I were president, I would consider that the greatest need would be to meet the unmet spiritual needs of the American people. I think that we've developed a culture that has totally ignored the inner man, the inner woman.
We are the only animal that enjoys any understanding of (or) has any capacity for awe and wonder and mystery -- and any capacity to [imagine] even that there's something higher than ourselves. There's nothing that happens in the culture to nourish that.
We've seen the influence of the church diminish. We have seen (( the influence of the family diminish as the family has splintered in this culture. There is no influence by way of civil authority. There are no heroes in politics or much anywhere else outside of sports.
There's a deep need to talk about this. In the '70s, there was -- and there remains today -- a need to talk about racism and sexism. The country was triggered into a lot of conversation by the fact of an Archie Bunker. My hope here would be that ["Sunday Dinner"] would provoke a national dialogue about these things.
Q: You've said you would like this to be discussed not only on TV but also in schools. Can this "national dialogue" be infused into school curricula?
A: Oh, I think so. That was the thrust of my talk, and these teachers went crazy for the message. I thought it might be a little unpopular. It's just so difficult to talk about
these things. But they just went crazy.
I just think that this is the issue of our time. And it isn't that I think homelessness isn't and war isn't. But they are attached to this. . . . If we had a better understanding of what I'm talking about, we would understand the Arab mentality a good deal better [for instance] -- rather, we would care to understand it. If we cared to understand, we would deal a lot better with it. There might not have been a [gulf] war.
But teachers are buffeted, because you've got the religious right and the irreligious left which do not want these things discussed in school. And that's an impossible situation. . . . If one were to look at a 1,000-mile stream, one would find flora and fauna growing along the banks of that stream of varying stripes. Look at it as religions growing along the sides of the stream. What we can discuss and must discuss is the stream that nourishes all of it. That's awe. That's wonder. That's mystery. Why can't we discuss that?
Despite your success in the '70s, do you find that you are meeting the same problems all over again now?
A: You know, the biggest problem still is writing -- getting the good scripts. The other [problems] are frustrations that go with the territory. . . . Get past those and now you have nothing to do but make the shows. That's where the real, the joyous struggle begins.
Q: Are you surprised at how relevant and popular "All in the Family" still is today?
A: No. Most of the problems are still there. Racism hasn't gone anyplace. We certainly didn't dispense with it with our little half-hour -- the Judeo-Christian ethic hadn't done it in a couple thousand years.
Q: Do you think you've done with your career what you set out to do?
A: I started in variety with Martin and Lewis [on the "Colgate Comedy Hour"], "The George Gobel Show," "The Martha Raye Show." I loved combining outrageous comedy and story and heart. I don't know that I had any long-range goals -- other than to write and to grow.
Q: Why do you do what you do?
A: The reason I chose to do what I do is because I am a serious person. And I'm a responsible person. But that doesn't make me any less eager to be funny if the genre is comedy. I began to realize that the more you had an audience crying, and then ask them to laugh, the harder they would laugh. Or cry. All of that is the stuff of drama . . . so it was very natural for somebody of my temperament to gravitate to things that are real.