Anyone who didn’t grow up watching Norman Lear’s TV shows—All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons among them—may not understand why Lear is the most influential producer in the history of television. But the affectionate documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, shows the impact and longevity (on and off screen) of the 93 year-old legend.
Lear, in his trademark hat, describes his life as a “striver.” He reveals ow his father, who left him at age 9, was a model for his most famous fictional character, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). He discusses growing up with various uncles and grandparents, and having three jobs at Coney Island, as if to foreshadow Lear’s later success at having six of the top ten shows on the air during his heyday in television.
When he went out to California, Lear wrote some sketches for the Colgate Comedy Hour that led to a series of jobs before he struck it big with All in the Family, an American adaptation of a British series about a conservative father and a liberal son-in-law. The show addressed many social issues during the Vietnam era, and became a lightning rod. President Nixon put Lear on his enemies list for activating the liberals. All in the Family ran for eight seasons because it had a heart under all the bigotry Archie spouted. As Lear says in the documentary, “Comedy was our business, but there was something on our mind.”
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You shows how that “something” was essential to the success of his subsequent shows, like Maude, about a feminist (played by Bea Arthur) during the height of the women’s movement. In one of the episodes that generated some of Maude’s highest ratings—and gave the Program Practice Department (network censors) headaches—the title character considers an abortion.
As the film recounts Lear’s trials and tribulations mounting Good Times, the first show to feature an African American family on television, John Amos, interviewed for the documentary, and the late Esther Rolle, seen in archive footage, talk about the battles they had in depicting the characters honestly.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You may talk about sensitive topics, but the film doesn’t delve too deeply into them. The shows are the primary focus, but there is attention paid to Lear’s wife Frances, and his second wife, Lyn; his withdrawal from television industry; and his activism against Rev. Jerry Falwell and moral majority, which involves buying a copy of the Declaration of Independence. These are interesting moments, but at times seem glossed over.
There are also scenes of Lear with Jon Stewart and Amy Poehler, who fawn over him, and of Lear and his contemporaries, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, who still joke with one another.
It may be that the directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady wanted to make a respectful portrait of their subject—and they have. But some of those viewers who grew up watching Lear’s shows, might expect a little more feistiness from Lear, because that was the quality that made them laugh and think.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.