Norman Lear was to television comedy what Jerry Bruckheimer and Dick Wolf are to procedural crime drama. With the CSI and Law and Order franchises, these men created an entirely new model of storytelling that everyone now copies.
And rightly so.
Lear did the same for the face of the sitcom, and managed to accomplish what too many Millennial and Gen Z writer/producers fail at: make you laugh out loud, while imparting a lesson or a new concept. Lear’s classic “All In The Family” managed to hit cultural hot button issues like race relations, feminism, abortion, and rape without making you feel as though you were being hit over the head or lectured to. With “All In The Family”, Lear left a legacy masterpiece which also spawned a ton of spinoffs, including “The Jeffersons” and “Maude”, two of my personal favorites. I was also a huge fan of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”, which barely gets a mention for its genius.
Writer-producer-developer Norman Lear, who revolutionized American comedy with such daring, immensely popular early-‘70s sitcoms as “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son,” died on Tuesday. He was 101.
Lear’s publicist confirmed to Variety that he died at his home in Los Angeles of natural causes. A private service for immediate family will be held in the coming days.
“Thank you for the moving outpouring of love and support in honor of our wonderful husband, father, and grandfather,” Lear’s family said in a statement. “Norman lived a life of creativity, tenacity, and empathy. He deeply loved our country and spent a lifetime helping to preserve its founding ideals of justice and equality for all. Knowing and loving him has been the greatest of gifts. We ask for your understanding as we mourn privately in celebration of this remarkable human being.”
Being a journalist and having worked in and around the entertainment industry for most of my career, there is little illusion about who many of these people are. To be honest, a good majority are self-important douchebags who, if not working with them or writing about them, I would avoid like the plague. So, I am by no means a fan-girl. But Norman Lear was a standard bearer of the industry, so getting a chance to briefly meet him was quite an honor; and it occurred in the most Hollywood of fashions.
In 1992, on a turbulent trip (both on the ground and in the air) from Chicago back to L.A., my seatmate struck up a conversation. I LOVE redeye flights, and look forward to putting my seat back and falling asleep—yes, I am one of those rare birds who sleeps like a baby on a plane. Can’t translate that on the ground, but that’s a story for another day.
The turbulence was so bad, that the flight attendant made me put my seat up and fasten my seat belt. I was not happy about missing a long nap, but the guy next to me was having a worse time and asked for another drink. Normally I don’t really want to talk to anyone on the plane, but he was smart and funny, and found me equally entertaining, so we hit it off. His name was Greg Cope, and as is the case flying bi-coastal (five hour flight folks), I found out his life story. Greg lived in Los Angeles and worked for… Norman Lear. At that time, Lear was executive producing, “The Powers That Be” (1992 – 1993), a political comedy with John Forsythe (“Dynasty”) and Holland Taylor (what hasn’t she been in? She ranks up there with Alfre Woodard and Stockard Channing for her acting versatility and genius). Guess who were the showrunners? None other than David Crane and Marta Kauffman (remember a little series called “Friends”? This was one their first forays out the gate before they hit the big time.
Greg and I exchanged information—this was the days before smart phones, so business cards were a thing, and he invited me to come to a taping of the show. This was during my screenwriting days. I was getting my Masters at USC in screenwriting, and working on the 20th Century Fox lot as an assistant. In other words, soaking up the industry atmosphere and taking every opportunity that I could to learn things. The main job of anyone who wants to be in entertainment, aside from honing their craft, is networking; suffice to say I was on this opportunity like white on rice. Working on the Fox lot, you get to attend tapings quite a bit. But unless you’re involved in the production, it is neither a thrilling nor a fluid process—frankly, it’s right up there with oral surgery. Like I said, I’ve never been a fan-girl. So, the main reason you go to these things is to support friends and make connections.
And connect I did! Greg was exceptionally gracious, and after the taping he took me backstage. I met Holland Taylor (gorgeous woman) and then the man himself, Mr. Norman Lear. He was a regular guy: soft spoken, gracious, affable, and exhibited the hallmark of really good writers: he asked about me and actually listened to my responses. He didn’t necessarily give me any advice, just treated me like a peer and encouraged me to keep writing. That’s really the best piece of advice anyone can give you, because unless you do that, the rest is academic.
Greg and I kept in touch a bit after that, and he even read one of my screenplays and gave me some great notes. As tends to be the case in Los Angeles, our lives went different directions, and I ultimately stayed around the periphery of entertainment and then left it altogether. But I still watch the shows, check out the trades, and cheer on associates, colleagues, and friends who achieve their goals and dreams. So, it’s lovely to see that Greg’s work with Norman Lear has paid off handsomely. Now known as Greg Cope White, he has gone on to a great entertainment career as a producer, actor, and writer of both screenplays and books. The fact that Norman Lear helped to nurture and support Greg’s talent is another testament to the type of person he was. The road to Hollywood is paved with the broken dreams of the aspiring at the hands of the established. Despite the brief glimpse and opportunity, I count it a blessing that I got a chance to brush up against television greatness, and even better that he turned out to be a great human being as well as a great talent.