"I hate the word 'message,'" says Norman Lear. But the producer who sent America messages in hit shows like "All in the Family" is about to show up at the door with another one, this time in partnership with Alex Haley, the author of "Roots." The project that brought these powerful names together is "Palmerstown, U.S.A.," premiering tonight on Channel 9 at 8.
The message in this case has to do with brotherhood and the way one generation transmits its own inherited prejudices and beliefs to the next. "Let's not say 'message,'" notes Lear, sitting in hs comfortabel Brentwood, Calif., home. "But there's a subliminal lesson in there. We're all born with ability to love and to receive love so purely, and without complication. It makes you wonder, what on earth happens in a society to bring that to an end?
"If people think about that when they watch the show, terrific," Lear said. "If they don't, they'll still be entertained."
"Palmerstown" is about life in a small southern city in an unidentified state starting in 1935, when two 9-year-old boys, one white and the other black, try to maintain a friendship despite discouragements from the society around them. The message is delivered quite painlessly and some times even beautifully; there are moments that depict nuances of human relationships not usually dealt with no television.
In the two-hour premiere, conflict arises over the matter of $3.20, half a week's pay for the town smithy, powerfully well-played by Bill Duke. The local grocer (Beeson Carroll) insists the man owes him the money, the man insists he doesn't. Their two sons, close friends up to that point, get caught up in the dispute, which feeds on itself and almost becomes a bona fide racial incident for the city.
The pace is pokey, even for television, and some of the exposition is maddeningly repetitious -- probably the result of padding. There's also too much obvious parallelism; the white father is giving his son a whupping at the same time the black father is giving one to his son. At times like this, the message gets about as heavy as a 10-ton truck.
But then there are scenes in which nuances of behavior are pinpointed and dramatized in fresh, impressive ways, and there is the heartbreaking moment when the friendship between the two boys finally seems to break down completely; they fight, and for the first time, words like [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] "white trash" are used. [WORDS ILLEGIBLE].
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The program isn't onlyabout racism. But when it is, it tends to deal with it more realistically and subtly than the usual hysterical melodrama about drooling rednecks perpetually high on hate.
"It's not a fresh illumination of bigotry." Lear says. It illuminates the eay people in a culture are forced to act out a kind of bigotry, why it is that they will do things that are against their better nature. We're just throwing another light on that."
Lear peppers his praise for Haley with gushes of the stories are based on Haley's childhood experiences growing up in Henning, Tenn. The first show is two hours, to be followed by six one-hour shows, and then a wait to see whether the program will be picked up as a weekly series by CBS for next fall. Lear would prefer that it be picked up and that it run for five years.
"I just got back from touring a few cities with Alex," says Lear, who rushes as quickly as possible froma conservative gray suit into his trademark porkpie white cap and botton-shouldered blue sweater. "And you know, it's such a meaningful statement, just to see the two of us, a black man and a white man standing there together and working on something like this."
Lear and Haley did a Phil Donohue segment for the Today Show during which some blacks asked what right Lear had to make this show. "They said, 'What do you know about this?' and I said, 'Well, what does Gore Vidal know about Aaron Burr?' It's all research. My research walks and talks and tells the best ancedotes in the world. Alex told me about something called 'an old sister,' a woman leader chosen in a small community maybe every 20 years, and I would say, 'There's a story in that!'"
Haley also told Lear how his boyhood best friend, a white boy named Kermit, told him chillingly near his 13th birthday, "It won't be long before you'll be calling me Mister." And Lear recalls Haley telling him, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] these two best friends [WORD ILLEGIBLE] reduced nearly to exchanging [WORD ILLEGIBLE] nods on the street. And that's how this series will end, too."
Haley has said that incidents in the program are fictional, not autobiographical, but there is obviously something of the environment in which he grew up. He has also said, in concurrence with Lear, that the two men hit it off at once: "We like each other instantly," he told a reporter, "and we got to talking about our boyhoods."
Lear recalls of their first meeting, "In all my time in Hollywood, it's the first time somebody said 'Let's have lunch' and meant it and said 'I'll call you' and did."
Not all of Lear's messages are delivered successfully. An experiment in syndicated TV, "The Baxters," will end after one season. Lear produced the first 11 minutes of each show, in which the Baxters tore at a current social problem, and local stations that bought the show were to produce follow-up discussions. "Our average was only okay," Lear says. "And the average at the station marking the second half had to be much better than okay. But usually it wasn't."
Not all of Lear's messages are colorfully wrapped in entertainment, either. He's just started taking out full-page newspaper ads in states holding political primaries, to ballyhoo the presidential candidacy of John Anderson. Lear even re-registered as a Republican in California after 36 years as a voting Democrat. The Carter administration is "a complete disaster," he says.
Lear went to the White House last year to shake Carter's hand when Archie and Edith's chairs from "All in the Family" were presented to the Smithsonian Institution. Lear says Carter impressed him as "a blank, opaque, a cipher" and that he thinks him a "religious" man but not really a "spiritual" one.
When people blame television for our current national indigestion, Lear says they should instead be blaming the quality of leadership in the White House. Does he mean then that if we get a better president, we'll get better TV? "I mean that to the bottom of my toes," Lear says. "That office influences everything that happens in the world. The right leader with the right spiritual qualities could move us, move us out of ourselves and that would take us away from television right there."
In the strange case of the great Norman Lear, one may quibble with the message, but should never doubt the passion and sincerity of the messenger. He's one of a kind, and so is "Palmerstown, U.S.A."