By FRAZIER MOORE, AP Television Writer
NEW YORK (AP) _ From the moment Norman Lear began writing his memoir, he knew what the first line would be:
“When I was a boy I thought that if I could turn a screw in my father’s head just a sixteenth of an inch one way or the other, it might help him to tell the difference between right and wrong.”
Lear’s father Herman _ by turns flamboyant, loutish, charming and downright criminal, and an inspiration for his tragi-comic hero, Archie Bunker _ occupies an overarching presence in Lear’s “Even THIS I Get to Experience” (Penguin Press).
The 92-year-old Lear, still full of pep and new projects, reigns as a filmmaker, humorist, impresario, activist, TV pioneer and, of course, unrivaled sitcom titan with a portfolio of hits in the 1970s and `80s that included “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “One Day at a Time” and the show that started it all, “All in the Family,” whose patriarch would make famous Herman Lear’s own habitual demand that his wife “stifle it.”
“I wanted to run as far as I could from anything he stood for,” says Lear, his voice choking as he recalled life with his father in Connecticut and Brooklyn during a recent interview. “But at the same time, I wished to make him everything I wanted him to be. My favorite way of thinking about him was as a rascal, and not _ I have a hard time saying it even now _ as a thief.”
The book, published Tuesday, became a reckoning for Lear. But it is no dirge. This is an entertaining, penetrating celebration of a richly lived life, as well as a show-biz chronicle kicking off in the late 1940s when Lear, after being fired as a press agent pitching publicity items to such gossip columnists as Dorothy Kilgallen and Walter Winchell, landed a writing job on NBC’s “Ford Star Revue,” one of TV’s original variety shows.
“It was so early in the (TV) game that after a couple of weeks we were considered veterans,” laughs Lear, speaking of himself and his partner at the time. “We had cachet.”
Jobs followed with such `50s TV headliners as Martha Raye, George Gobel and Tennessee Ernie Ford, not to mention the superstar team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
By the 1960s, Lear had moved into writing films including the Frank Sinatra comedy “Come Blow Your Horn” and “Divorce American Style,” starring Dick Van Dyke, both directed by his production partner Bud Yorkin.
In 1971, the duo’s TV ascension began with “All in the Family,” adapted for CBS from a British sitcom about a blue-collar bigot locking horns with his liberal son.
Why did Lear choose such a show to retrofit for U.S. viewers?
“Because it related to me,” he declares. “My father would call me the laziest white kid he ever met. Then he would say I was `a meathead _ dead from the neck up.’ That was his expression.”
Thus was Lear able to craft a TV version of his own upbringing through the characters of Archie Bunker and son-in-law Mike (”Meathead”) Stivic.
With that explosive success, Lear soared as a champion of TV diversity (”Good Times,” “Sanford and Son” and “The Jeffersons” had predominantly or completely African-American casts) while confronting cutting-edge social issues that ranged from war, sexuality and abortion to poverty and how a toilet-paper roll should be placed in its bathroom holder (overhand or underhand?).
In 1981, Lear turned activist for real by founding People for the American Way, whose mission statement speaks of respecting diversity and combating bigotry.
But Lear insists he didn’t launch his comedies to change the world, nor was there any master plan behind the empire he and Yorkin built.
“We were just really having a good time,” he says.
They were breaking new ground in authenticity (an early episode of “All in the Family” found Archie’s wife Edith facing menopause) while battling the network over things as picayunish as the sound of a toilet flushing off-screen.
Meanwhile, they were tangling with the talent, notably Carroll O’Connor, who played Archie and contested nearly every line of dialogue they wrote for him.
“My God, that was difficult!” says Lear. “But it ended up every (darn) week with 240 people in the studio audience roaring with laughter. How do you NOT have a good time with THAT?”
How restorative it must have been for Lear to hold sway over Archie Bunker, his father’s surrogate, and to deal from a position of strength with the actor who brought Archie to life _ not to “turn the screw a sixteenth of an inch,” but to process the bygone relationship with his father while entertaining millions.
“I was dealing in the human condition in a way that interested me,” says Lear, summing up his career gratefully. “How lucky is that?”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore