Norman Lear has the most active dander in television. It goes up at the drop of a rating point. His latest crusade has him at full tilt with the windmills that rule the mighty networks. It isn't the first time for either of them.
Lear wants the networks to be less ruthlessly competitive, which is like asking them to donate their profits to the Prickly Heat Foundation. Lear may be the most influential. Lear may be the most influential independent producer in TV, but on this issue he hasn't much of a prayer. Still, he does cart grievance well.
"It's the intensity of the competition that's getting worse by the day," Lear grumps in his sunny office overlooking the Hollywood Freeway. "And it isn't any kind of long-range competition. It's just 'How can we get a half hour on Tuesday that beats the other fella's half hour on Tuesday?"
Lear says the competition is so crazed that it has inflated network executives with "fear" and that they are "not equipped" to receive new ideas from him or anybody else because they're so panickly over last night's Wall Street's reactions to last night's ratings, and talent raids from other networks.
The rancor sounds sincere and spontaneous until you realize Lear is instantly replaying a speech he gave the day before. True skeptics, further, might speculate that all the agitation is born not out of the comparative ill fortune befalling what was once a formidable Lear empire. "Maude" is in serious ratings trouble. The syndicated "Forever Fernwood" will probably go off to eternity on March 31 (and be replaced with Lears "Lears "America 2Night"). And Lear himself has ordered cement shoes for "All in ther family," the television classic with which he revolutionezed TV comedy in 1970.
CBS Entertainment President Robert A. Daly says in his Kennedyesque accent that he spends "25 percent" of his time trying to keep "Family" on the air for at least another season, but Lear is adamant that the show be laid to rest. He does leave the door open, however, for some other series featuring the Archie and Edith Bunker characters (Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner, who play Gloria and Mike, have announced they're leaving at the end of the season).
"CBS has the right to the title 'All in the Family," Lear says when asked if the network could simply do the show without his approval signing the stars on its own. "But it's fairly unlikely they would do it. They have a lot of other things they need from me and come to me for."
Archie and Edith could return in a new setting. "We could do something next year with Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton, called 'Archie and Edith,' let's say, and it would still be an end to 'All in the Family,' because 'All in the Family,' is that whole group, that house in Queens, that opening song, the whole texture of the show. Creatively, if CBS wants to do it, they could take them out of Queens, put them in another life, up against other experiences, other confrontations.
"And if everybody wants to do that, who am I? I can't stand in everybody's way. They have everybody's way. They have every right to do it. My advise is, 'Don't."
Episodes that conclude "All in the family," the way "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was concluded, are now being written. Lear is mum on what sort of conclusion this will be, but promises that none of the four central characters will be killed off.
" A change will take place in the basic structure of the relationships," he says, vague on purpose. 'And the audience will understand that if it were to continue, it wouldn't be 'All in the Family.' Life will change for the four of them. It's nothing horrible at all, but something that does happen to many families. There are horrible things like death but we're not doing that.
"Maude" may die, however, as a series, unless proposed changes can bolster the old girl up. The last three episodes of the current season will find the feisty Tuckahovian moving to Washington to take over the House seat of a friend who dies. If the show makes it into next season after these changes, Maudie's neighbors, played by Conrad Bain and Rue McClanahan, will be jettisoned and a new crop of associates introduced. Lear says his appetite for a show set in Washington was piqued with "All's Fair," a flop he concedes wasn't done very well.
McClanahan, meanwhile, will star in one of the pilots Lear's company is trying to sell for next season. This one, to be called "Apple Pie, will star McClanahan as a semi-wealthy woman living in the Depression. She's lonesome for a family so she adopts one advertising for it in a newspaper. "Its a family-of-man type of thing," says be Lear. "I liken it to 'Hot 1 Baltimore,' the kind of failure I would rather have had than a number of other successes."
Uncle Norman is so grand and con be so grandoise. But he isn't just another show-biz blowhard. At 56, he remains a moralist and optimist, which makes him a freak in Freakywood to be sure, and he has an air of avuncular but genuine. The image of the ever-rebounding showman is enhanced by a wizard of-ozzly apprearance -- a face ringed in tiny concentric lines but topped with a ballon smooth bald dome encircled with angleic tufts of polar-white hair.
He has the unmistakable vitality of a benign zealot.
Other projects on Lear's drawing board include "Wild Oats," which Lear says is restoration comedy for television in commedia del'arte style -- "and what century was that? I never can remember what that century was called."
But Lear's and Joseph Papp's "American National Theater of the Air" will not be seen on any network. Or probably anyplace else. Lear and Papp wanted 18 months to prepare this weekly series of TV dramas, new ones and classics, and a non-cancellable 24-week guarantee so that the show would have a chance to find an audience. NBC's Paul Klein remarked recently, "I told Norman it was a wonderful idea and that I would love to program against it." The three networds live in a row on New York's Sixth Avenue, with NBC's offices the farthest south. Says Klein: "I told Lear to go north. I told him that since ABC was No.1 in the ratings, they could afford to gamble with something like that."
Lear smiles and puffs a cigar that has come from a gigantic lacquered humidor on his desk.
"Yeah, when I mentioned that to Fred Silverman, while he was still at ABC, Fred said, 'We are No.1 -- why should we take the chance?'" Silverman spent three hours at Lear's house the weekend before he decided to leave ABC for the top spot at NBC. Lear thinks changes in broadcasting will be minimal as a result of this cataclysm. "I don't believe Freddie's going to schedule that network," he predicts. "He not going to come to California all the time and look at shows. I think it'll be more a matter of riding herd over everybody else.
"As far as the Silverman things goes, it lit up the town for a night, and the next day, it's business as usual."
For all his frustrations in dealing with network executives, Lear retains a stbborn enthusiasm for the meduim. He's had his share of conquests as well as setbacks and more than once shaken the industry up with something as unorthodox in style and content as a "Mary Hartman."
And television is an industry where the movers far outnumber the shakers. Norman Lear is important to television, because most producers either sit back and take it and get by on the proven acceptable, or they get out altogether and go into a respectable line of work.
Lear talks of returning to movie production himself, but not at the expense of deserting TV. For all the battles, for all the quirks ofthe economic system it operates by, Lear remains a TV man, and so much the better for us.
"I have other friends, movie directors, who do a good picture, but it takes them 2 1/2 years to make it, and then they says, 'You know, this would have been great two years ago; it's just after its time.' But in TV, you can avoid that. That's the great joy of television -- to read something in a newspaper and comment about it or reflect it eight weeks later on the air.
"That is incredible joy."