By Deborah Grau
The name Norman Lear may not be well-known to the millennial crowd, but just a few decades ago he was synonymous with groundbreaking network television. He created sitcom hits that used humor to shine a light on issues previously thought too taboo for TV.
Shows such as "All in the Family," "Maude," "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times" — each week, the themes were about racism, civil rights, class struggles, homophobia, women's liberation and more — challenged the way Americans viewed each other and the world around them. In 1999, President Bill Clinton honored Lear with the National Medal of Arts. "Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it," Clinton said.
Now at 92 years young, Lear reflects on his life and career in his first autobiography, "Even This I Get to Experience." He opens up about growing up during the Depression with his father in prison, and he tells backstage tales of his classic shows that redefined television sitcoms.
"I didn't set out to write in television. I went to California to become a press agent, met Ed Simmons who wanted to become a writer," Lear says. "We wrote together — one evening. We sold it for 35 bucks. And my half of that was what I made in three days — selling door to door at the time. So we started to write and then got lucky."
Lear went on to write for the legendary duo of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis for the "Colgate Comedy Hour," but it wasn't until 1971 that Lear had his groundbreaking hit, "All in the Family."
"I got the idea for 'All in the Family' in the simplest way. It was somebody else's idea," says Lear. "I read about a British show that was a huge hit called 'Till Death Us Do Part.' It was about a father and son-in-law or a father and son ... who fought about everything under the sun. And that was my dad and me." Lear's life became the inspiration for the show each week. "Everything we were all living through was grist for our mill."
"All in the Family" held the No. 1 spot from 1971 to 1976 in the Nielsen Ratings, and it was called the fourth-greatest TV show of all time by TV Guide. It earned 22 Emmy Awards, including four for best comedy series.
"All in the Family" was followed by a succession of other TV hit shows, including "Maude," "Sanford and Son," "Good Times," "The Jeffersons," "One Day at a Time" and "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."
Watch the interview with Norman Lear to learn more about the making of "All In The Family" and find out which show he was the most proud of and which scene still makes him tear up decades later.
Watch the complete interview: