TELEVISION can't be all bad if Norman Lear is coming back to it, and he is. The producer and writer who set the agenda for TV in the '70s with "All in the Family," "Maude," "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," "The Jeffersons" and "One Day at a Time" officially ends a five-year absence from series TV this Tuesday night on ABC, when his new comedy, "a.k.a. Pablo," makes its ebullient debut.
Lear has projects under way at other networks, too, and tonight he appears on a taped NBC special as one of the first seven inductees into "The Television Academy Hall of Fame," which honors broadcasting trailblazers, living and dead. Lear is the only living honoree born after 1920; he will be 62 in July. "I felt like the kid on the block," he says of the event; he still has the zip and bravado of the kid on the block, too. Lear's citation praises him for, among other things, "paying much more than lip service to the values that made America great."
During his absence from weekly TV, Lear added to his empire, acquiring Embassy Pictures and renaming his domain Embassy Communications. He has a mansion in manicured Brentwood, Calif., an attractive activist family and millions in income from reruns of his hit shows. You'd think that this man would need the aggravation of weekly TV like a hole in the hot tub.
But he does need it. That's part of what makes Norman Norman. When he returned to work in Embassy Television's little corner of the Universal lot there was a palpable aura of nervous danger. Norman was back.
"From my point of view, I didn't leave anything," Lear says. "There's a thing on my wall, it's Aristotle's definition of happiness: 'The exercise of your vital abilities along lines of excellence in a life that affords them scope.' I thought that was the best piece of philosophy I'd ever read. I would assess my vital ability to be communicating, and that's one-on-one or writing and then getting that out to 30 million people via television or 20 people in a little theater, whatever it is."
Putting together People For the American Way, a group formed to counter what Lear sees as threats to freedom by the Moral Majority and others of that ilk, was "an enormous exercise in communicating," Lear says. He compares it to making a mini-series. The effort included a poorly rated TV special, "I Love Liberty."
On this particular morning in Washington, after a Capitol Hill huddle with Mark Hatfield, whose reelection bid Lear will support this year, Lear meets with Tony Podesta, executive director of People For the American Way. When they part Lear gives Podesta a big hug. Not a Hollywood hug; a sincere hug. Lear is a hugger. If he could, he would hug the whole world. And expect to be hugged in return.
"I looked at motion pictures, and spent a few months there because we had in the interim bought Embassy," Lear says, "and I liked that well enough but I'm too impatient after years in television. It takes four to six years to get any movie going--any movie going--and that's an exercise in patience, not vital abilities. Patience is not my vital ability. Where else but in television can you have an idea as a dramatist that you're excited about on the first of October and then share it with 30 million people in the middle of December?"
For good luck, Lear did the opening studio-audience "warm-up" for the first two taped episodes of "Pablo." He hadn't walked onto a TV soundstage for this purpose in six years. "It felt exactly the same," he says. "I thought, 'Oh, wait--this man at 61 is walking a little differently, his voice sounds a little different, something is different.' But it didn't feel different.
"It felt terrific."
Television, however, is not the same. It has grown more breakneck and cutthroat, and network executives have leaner and hungrier looks. ABC ordered only six episodes of "Pablo," Lear notes, "despite the fact that it's supposed to be a big deal that I was coming back to television and everything else. Five years ago that would have been 13 shows. Four years before that it might have been 22 shows. Now it's six. And you know that if it's not rating well, the decision to jettison the whole show is probably made after two or three ratings come in. So God forbid anything should be an acquired taste. There's no chance for the public to acquire a taste because they yank it so quickly. There are no villains at the networks; that's just the name of the game."
Lear sees this mania for instant success as symptomatic of a national attitude, not just a television predicament. "As a result of America's fixation with, and obsession with, short-term thinking, everything suffers," he says. "In every business, we innovate less and experiment less because of the need not to diminish a current profit statement but to have one that exceeds the last. Wherever we look.
"The pressure is to deliver quickly. Television is very, very interesting in terms of its profile in this sense. Since ratings relate directly to dollars, when we look at television we are looking at a medium that the country observes in terms of how it makes money half-hour by half-hour. No other industry in America, if you look at ratings as dollars, is watched as closely in terms of how many dollars it's making. Half hour by half hour, seven days a week, 18 hours a day. I mean, that's an incredible statistic. So to those network program executives, the need to deliver a winner Tuesday night at 8 o'clock is the paramount thing on their mind. And that's antithetical to risk-taking and innovation."
Lear reiterates that he does not see "villains" in those executive suites, many of them occupied by baby moguls many years Lear's junior. But still . . .
"I think we now have a generation of network program executives that were weaned on television; it may be the first generation weaned 100 percent on television," Lear says. "My fear about these young people who were weaned on television and now are responsible for all those choices is that they don't know human behavior from television behavior, because they have seen so much television behavior.
"So, that's a change."
Upon being elected to the TV Hall of Fame, this is what Norman Lear said about the future of television:
My hope for the future of television is that it will take itself as seriously as it is taken, that the time will come when all of us, all of us including networks, will look to our creative and our human instincts to create and to program, instead of following the dictates of flow charts, and research, and overnight ratings, and the pursuit of instant success.
They cheered that. And Norman looked surprised by the cheers. He shouldn't have been.
Not everyone will cheer Lear's return to television. Because his domestic comedies threw out the burnt-pot-roast plots for social realism, Lear was regularly attacked by one pressure group or another. When Maude had an abortion, a good deal of hell broke loose. The Rev. Jerry Falwell is among those who have characterized Lear as a corrupter of American decency, and People For the American Way has made a point of citing Falwell in its warnings about imperiled civil liberties.
Lear does not like to talk about those who hate him.
"Falwell has called me the greatest enemy of the American family in our generation," he says after a contemplative pause, "and I find that just too difficult to take seriously. It seems to me that the bulk of what we've done is a celebration of family. They're all families that hang together, they all love one another, they go through the ordeal of life but they come out on the other side of that ordeal connected. Together. And so it's hard to take these people seriously. I don't think there are that many. That's a hardcore far-right with religious-moralistic overtones."
Lear sees "a.k.a. Pablo" as another affirmation of family and its importance in American and human life. Superficially the story of a young Mexican-American comedian (played by Lear discovery Paul Rodriguez)--a character not modeled after Freddie Prinz, Lear says--"Pablo" is really the story of how the young man's success affects his large family in good ways and bad. In a time when mean-streak comedies seem to be proliferating ("Buffalo Bill," "Empire"), Lear's positivism is refreshing.
"The heart of the show is dealing indirectly with everybody's need for connection and belonging," Lear says. "My feeling is that everybody is going to want to be a member of that family. Who wouldn't want to be surrounded by 15 people who cared for you that much? All of us, four billion people walking the face of the planet, are aching for that. And some few have it. And here they are.
"I think there's a great hunger--everybody uses the word 'nostalgia'--for the past. The greatest part of that hunger is for that large family. We read a good deal about the disintegration of the nuclear family and so forth. Quite true. When I was a kid, the vestige of that large family still existed. We had maybe a dozen huge events that mirrored the size of the family. And then, in my lifetime, that vanished. And the telephone and the airplane that were supposed to have made the world smaller, really made the world a helluva lot larger.
"Because you dip in and out of each other's lives by plane. So Thanksgiving is an afternoon, where 30 years ago, or 50 years ago, if you had to travel three days to get there, you spent four days before you traveled three days to get home again. Now we dip in and out and it's over. In the Mexican culture, they still have large families; they're still intact. They may live across the street or down the street, some of them, but they're basically together a great deal."
Lear says the program will also be about that much-investigated topic of the '80s, The Media (shudder when you say that, pardner). Paul Rivera, a.k.a. Pablo, goes on "The Merv Griffin Show" in one episode and makes jokes about members of his family. He's a huge hit until he gets home and finds not all members of the family amused. He returns to the show to apologize and is goaded into getting laughs at his family's expense all over again.
"And he gets a little merciless," Lear says. "Because I've wondered for years, all of those Phyllis Dillers and Joan Riverses and Alan Kings talking about wives and children--what do the wives and children and husbands feel about all of this? And what gives these comedians the right to make specious and sometimes derogatory jokes about members of families, and what's happening at home through all of that?"
"Pablo" went through a long gestation before making it to production. At one point it was actually considered as a vehicle for the footloose Suzanne Somers, who was under contract to Embassy. If it had been "a.k.a. Suzanne," or whatever, it would have been a show about a woman who played a dumb blond on TV but knew this was compromising her womanhood in real life. This never came about, but then when Lear saw Rodriguez performing in a club, he said to himself, as he now recalls it, "Oh boy, what an opportunity to do that show!" He is just the sort to say "oh boy" to himself.
Another Lear project has even more to do with mass media: "Good Evening, He Lied," a series in development for NBC about a young Harvard MBA who arrives at a sleepy TV station determined to rev it up into competitive hysteria. At any cost. Also in development at NBC is Lear's "P.O.P.," which stands for P. Oliver Pendergast, a character to be played by the Oscar-nominated Charles Durning. Pendergast, says Lear, is "another hunk of my father that wasn't in Archie." Not that Lear's father was a bigot; just that some of Archie Bunker's mannerisms were taken from Lear's memory of his own dad. Durning will play "an utterly charming, mildly larcenous salesman who could sell s--- on a stick for lollipops, which was my father's favorite way of describing himself," Lear says.
A two-hour Lear movie, "Heartsounds," from a 1981 novel by his first cousin's wife Martha W. Lear, will star Mary Tyler Moore and James Garner, be shot in May and air next season on ABC. And Lear is also peddling what he calls a "bawdy restoration comedy" titled "The Education of Harry Bellair," written by playwright Terrence McNally ("The Ritz") and originally developed for Showtime, a pay cable network, but not picked up for production. CBS recently said no to it as well.
Lear has commitments for two CBS projects but he's still angry with the network for the clumsy and rude way it canceled "Archie Bunker's Place" last season. Carroll O'Connor, the brilliant actor who made Archie a national institution, wanted to continue with the program and entreated Lear to return and revitalize it personally. "I could not say no to my company and to Carroll, and we did have a plan, a new way to go," says Lear.
Wedding bells for widower Archie? "No. A May-December romance, a younger woman coming into his life. But no, they were not going to get married; that was the network plan. The network thought that that's what should happen and I convinced them otherwise. But they really didn't let us know they were not going to pick it up. They allowed me to talk with them and give them thoughts and they had already decided they were not going to go with it. CBS didn't handle it well."
A Lear show on ABC seems a little incongruous. He hasn't been represented on that network since the short-lived "Hot l Baltimore" in 1975. Lear says ABC executives were alarmed that, except for an opening teaser scene, the title character of "Pablo" does not appear until the very end of the first act of the premiere. They pleaded with him to adjust that.
"One could have made a lot of mistakes listening to them," Lear says. "By the same token, any of them can raise questions or register complaints that make you think a little deeper, and suddenly, as a result of somebody's innocent question or idle remark, you change something and make it infinitely better. That happens all the time."
A good man. A fair man. A rich man. But a man who hasn't lost links with the real world in which people work, struggle and worry about making ends meet. Lear's ends are in no danger of not meeting, but then he doesn't seem the worrying type anyway. He is not worried about possibly tarnishing his golden reputation with new shows that people may compare unfavorably to the old. He'll take his chances. "Of course it crosses my mind," he says, "but if you're sufficiently busy, you don't think about it. And I am sufficiently busy."
The sufficiently busy Norman Lear, his parallel furrows of facial wrinkles allying themselves for a confident smile, also declares, "I wake up every morning of my life hopeful, and I believe in the possible." Norman, you are quite a guy. Consider yourself hugged.