Norman Lear: Climbing the Magic Hill

"I was never good at taking 'no' for an answer." Which is probably why there are over two dozen television series and a handful of movies with the name Norman Lear attached as writer, creator, developer, producer or executive. There are the ground-breaking shows of All in the Family, Maud, Sanford and Sons and The Jeffersons; the delightful off-road series like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and Fernwood Tonight, and the short-lived AKA Pablo, 704 Hauser, and Sunday Dinner -- shows that are a bit opaque in memory.

But first, a little context: The late 1940s through the early 1960s is called the "Golden Age" of television primarily because of live dramatic series like Playhouse 90, Studio One, The Philco Television Playhouse and comedians including Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and producer Sheldon Leonard's Danny Thomas, Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke shows.

If those were TV's golden days, the 1970s might rightly be called the "Platinum Age," due in good measure to Grant Tinker's MTM productions and the man who has had more comedy series on the air than anyone else -- Norman Lear. Not all hits, to be sure. But sheer productivity makes Lear the Lou Gehrig of television.

The output also makes clear the man knows a good story when he sees it. He also knows how to tell his own in his new book, Even This I Get To Experience, a narrative about life in a business where rejection is foundational. If the title feels a bit self-actualized, it is. Lear, the storyteller is also Lear, the social activist and a man with an evaluative eye on his inner life.

Success was a long shot for a Connecticut kid whose upbringing was less than supportive. He writes that his early years were devastating. His parents were "monsters." At age 9, his hustler father is hauled off to prison. Soon after, his anti-nurturing mother abandons him and moves away with his only sibling. That's just Act One.

Act II kicks off with chutzpah. After his time as a WWII bomber radioman, the young comedy writer makes a bold, cold call to powerhouse TV producer, Danny Thomas, sells him a song parody he and his partner had written and from there his career takes flight -- a flight not without considerable turbulence.

In business, All in the Family's dyspeptic star, Carroll O'Connor continually clashed with Lear and his producers. As did Esther Rolle and John Amos over how African Americans were portrayed in their hit series, Good Times. As so often happens, a secondary character broke out, dominated the story lines and discombobulated the two leads who were not pleased with the focus on Jimmy Walker and his catch phrase, 'dyno-mite."

Turbulence at home centered on parenting three daughters with his wife Frances who struggled with a significant mental health issue.

Act III of this book deals with Lear's considerable social and political activism including his People For the American Way and his nationwide tour of the Declaration of Independence, an original copy he and his third wife, Lynn bought.

Good stories are found in the details, the dots that connect the larger picture. Lear does details -- perhaps a little more than you want to hear: he takes you through the discovery of his penis, the details of what he did with it at age 12 and how much fun it all was. He calls it "climbing the magic hill."

But the nub of the book is this: Even This I Get To Experience should be assigned listening/reading for anyone in business. It's a primer on what ingredients it takes to succeed in any line of work. And because the only one who can give the right voice to Lear is Lear himself, the audiobook is the best choice. (19 hours)

In spite of a horrendous childhood, Lear developed the necessary elements for success. Yes, he's a talented writer, producer and executive. He is also a master salesman. As a mid-level development executive in his Embassy Productions, I witnessed the executive Lear in action. You wanted to work with, and do well for this man. And he was surrounded by people who also wanted to do well by him. And there-in may lay the core ingredient to his success. His devastating childhood is core to it all. As Lear tells it, trying to get through to his horrendous parents is where "I developed a talent for herding ideas and selling them."

Lear is now in his nineties. With this new book, it appears he is still herding and selling.