Directors Suzanne Hillinger and Brent Miller seem almost desperate to avoid having their portrait of long-time TV producer-writer Norman Lear—who was instrumental in creating “All in the Family” and a raft of other ground-breaking network sitcoms of the 1970s—fall into a conventional mode. With the able collaboration of a veritable team of cameramen (Ronan Killeen, Sam Levy and Jenna Rosher) and editors (J.D. Marlow and Enat Sidi), they include the usual elements—interview segments (newly filmed and archival) along with montages of clips from Lear’s shows. But they integrate them with artsy shots of Lear watching from an otherwise empty auditorium as a nine-year old version of himself (Keaton Nigel Cooke) appears onstage in Lear’s trademark hat, all to the accompaniment of a jazzy score by Kris Bowers. (This, incidentally, is Cooke’s second recent onscreen appearance: he also plays Remi in Todd Solondz’s “Wiener-Dog.”)
Those man-and-boy scenes are designed to hammer home one of the film’s basic ideas—that much of the now 93-year old Lear’s ultimate worldview grew out of his childhood experience, and particularly the arrest and conviction of his father for fraud when Norman was nine. It led to his being sent to live with relatives and develop attitudes that formed the empathetic philosophy—of dealing with serious issues through comedy—that animated his later work. (Archie Bunker, Lear reveals, was fashioned to some degree after his memory of his father, and Edith after his mother.) Later, Lear recalls, it was hearing the demagogic Catholic priest Charles Coughlin talking disparagingly of Jews that made him realize the full meaning of anti-Semitism (and prejudice more generally) and led both to his determination to enlist after Pearl Harbor and to what became his focus in life after the war.
“Just Another Version of You”—a slogan Lear says is on his bumper-sticker—covers his personal life nicely but compactly, particularly his last two (of three) marriages; we hear from his wives (the second, Frances, on whom Maude is sometimes said to have been patterned, in archival footage) and children.
But of course it’s Lear’s career that gets the lion’s share of attention. His work in television and film through 1971 is dealt with surprisingly summarily (with one clip when he appeared on screen with Jerry Lewis dominating a speedy montage), but when “Family” enters the scene, the coverage becomes fuller. Along with clips from individual episodes (which make the watching Lear laugh or, in some instances, tear up), there are excerpts from interviews Lear and Carroll O’Connor did with, among others, Dick Cavett and Mike Wallace, and rehearsal footage that shows how full Lear’s plate was at the time. Fights with CBS censors also get heavy treatment, and there’s quick mention of his winding up on Richard Nixon’s enemies’ list.
From that point other shows receive nimble treatment—“Maude” (with emphasis on the abortion episode), “Good Times” (with telling observations by John Amos and, in archival footage, Esther Rolle, and coverage of its excoriation by the Black Panthers), “The Jeffersons,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” But then, we’re told, Lear bowed out, leaving the shows to others, and turned his energy to direct activism with the creation of People for the American Way, a response to the so-called Moral Majority of televangelists like Jerry Falwell that brought him both praise and censure in approximately equal measure.
This is an awful lot of material for a film to cover, but though the treatment of some details is rather skimpy (Lear’s purchase of the Declaration of Independence for public exhibition is barely mentioned toward the close, for example) it ends up, despite the occasionally intrusive bouts of visual artiness, as an engaging portrait of a likable and influential player in television history.