(TNS) CHICAGO - None of the 200 or so people who showed up at a late October luncheon in Chicago was as old as the guest of honor: Norman Lear, age 93. And few, if any, would have been as lively or as smart or as charmingly opinionated.
"This country does not handle aging well," Lear said. "Aging is treated like a disease, and it is not. It is just another phase of life, a part of living."
Lear is certainly enjoying this current phase of his life. He was in town from his home in California for a series of events that included the luncheon, a book talk at Northwestern University, a party hosted by businesswoman Mellody Hobson (who is also the wife of Hollywood mogul George Lucas), a couple of TV interviews, another talk at the Art Institute and a pair of private gatherings. All were in celebration (and promotion) of the publication of the paperback version of his recent memoir, "Even This I Get to Experience."
Lear is most famous for having created and produced some of the most popular and, dare it be said, influential television shows in that medium's rocky history.
Here are some of them: "All in the Family," "Sanford and Son," "One Day at a Time," "The Jeffersons," "Good Times" and "Maude."
These shows, all known as situation comedies, dominated the 1970s and, many would tell you, changed forever the face of television. (There were other Lear programs, such as "Who's the Boss?" and "Silver Spoons," but none had the cultural impact of those ‘70s shows.) "My view," Lear writes, "is that we made comedy safe for reality."
Still, how easy it would have been for Lear to write the sort of boldface-names book that gave us the funny and fluffy anecdotes we have come to expect from those who have led star-studded lives. He does a bit of that, for how could he ignore such characters/friends/colleagues as Carroll O'Connor, Redd Foxx, Jean Stapleton, Louise Lasser and all the rest?
But what distinguishes this book and makes it among the most compelling and forthright memoirs to come out of that vapid land known as Hollywood, is Lear's ability to look back honestly at what he calls his "multitude of lives."
Here's an example: "In those Brooklyn years preceding and following my bar mitzvah, I felt less alone when I was by myself in my bedroom than when I was with my family."
Let that sink in.
"Yes, writing this, which I did because my family wanted me to, was psychologically difficult," Lear said. "But it was as well the most rewarding thing I have ever done."
He had a lot to cover, because there was a life before and after "All in the Family," a life that that included growing up during the Depression, flying 52 bombing missions during World War II, writing jokes for Danny Thomas and Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin, making movies, political activism, philanthropic endeavors, family … It is a full 400-some pages.
If there was a seminal moment in his life (and it can be argued that there were a few), I think the most moving came when he was 9 years old and his father got tossed in prison for selling phony bonds. It was at that moment, as he was told by an adult, "Remember, Norman, you're the man of the house now," that Lear realized "the foolishness of the human condition."
He elaborated: "And that realization was at the heart of my best shows, the notion that in the deepest tragedy you can find humor." He went on to explain how his father's character helped inform Lear's most famous creation, Archie Bunker, the conservative family man and "lovable bigot" on "All in the Family."
Lear has made a great deal of money from TV and his other endeavors, and he has used some of it to found the advocacy organization People for the American Way and to support various and many First Amendment, voting rights and progressive causes. He has been attacked by such people as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart. He wears the liberal label proudly and pays close attention to politics.
Asked if any of the "stars" of the current presidential campaign sitcoms appeal to him, he thought not a second before saying, a twinkle in his eye, "On a level that touches me deeply in my heart, Donald Trump and Dr. Carson."
The luncheon audience offered a collective chuckle as Lear continued: "Yes, they make me laugh too. They remind me of Archie and George Jefferson."
But in the next few minutes, he expressed admiration for a Republican, former President Dwight Eisenhower. "It is stunning to me that that no one, left or right, ever mentions his name, ever," Lear says. "He was my commanding general, a two-term president, built the interstate highway system. He was not perfect, but he was a grand man, but his name is never mentioned. Why?"
And so it went, during an hour of talking onstage and then sitting at a table autographing copies of his book. A few people, waiting in line, were reading what he wrote at the end of its preface, about "having looked back with new eyes on all the lives I've been fortunate to have led."
But he continues to look forward.
"I have been asked by a network to do something, a situation comedy," he said, unable to share specifics until the ink has dried on the contracts.
He was also excited about being honored at the New York City Veterans Day parade; a new edition of the estimable PBS documentary series "American Masters" devoted to his life and set to air next year; and more ideas and projects.
Most of all he was looking forward to Thanksgiving.
"We will, the family, be together for Thanksgiving," he said, smiling. He has been married three times and has six children. "The youngest are 20-year-old twin boys and their eldest sister is 68, and they all seem to like the book. But even better, much better, is that they like each other."
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