Norman Lear — Even This I got to Experience

Title: Even this... Image: Norman Lear stands slightly facing and looking at the camera in his pink shirt and cream colored Fedora had

On a foggy morning in Bel Air, California, ABILITY’s columnist, actress Geri Jewell and interviewer David Zimmerman, found themselves driving through a gated property and down a long driveway to a sprawling home redolent of royalty… Hollywood royalty, that is: the home of legendary TV producer and writer Norman Lear. The creator of groundbreaking sitcoms All in the Family, Maude, One Day at a Time, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Mary Hartman, Lear also recently penned a memoir, Even This I Get to Experience.

Lear greeted the duo warmly, giving his longtime friend, Jewell, a loving hug.

Entering the home, they were greeted by a beautiful woman named Monica who asked if they would like a cappuccino to start the day. As the camera crew busily set up lights and sound, the trio sat down to reminisce about their history together, their shared joy of making people laugh, and Lear’s early days in Hollywood. By all accounts, it was “all in the family” time.

Geri Jewell: Thank you for this interview, Norman.

Norman Lear: Even this I get to experience.

David Zimmerman: Geri and I interviewed musician Chris Hendricks from Sedona.

Lear: Oh yes, yes, yes.

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Zimmerman: He said, “Please give Norman a hug.” And he said, “I keep on thinking about singing “Imagine” that evening.”

Jewell: He is such a cool guy. I’m wearing one of his shirts—“Define Normal.” I wore it because I saw it in my closet and thought, “Define Norman.” (laughter)

Lear: That’s funny!

Jewell: I put in a new hearing aid battery for you. (laughter)

Lear: I’m pleased that you put in a new battery for me. When you put in a new battery, do you hear well?

Zimmerman: Do you hear yourself sometimes?

Image: Wide view of Norman Lear's living room, camera people and equipment in the foreground, Geri Jewell, Lear and Zimmerman in the background with walls of windows.

Lear: No, it tells me when it’s working.

Jewell: And when it goes dead, it goes boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, which means you have ten minutes to change the battery.

Zimmerman: Does it speak to you? “Dear Geri, you have 10 minutes to replace me?”

Lear: Mine talks. It says, “Battery low.”

Jewell: Oh, you’re lucky. You have a talking hearing aids.

Zimmerman: Can you change the voice? It could say, “Battery low.” (Speaking in a lower register)

Lear: I don’t know. It does change the input, three ways.

Jewell: They’re working on hearing devices that will translate languages. When somebody is speaking Spanish and you know English, you put your hearing device in and it will—

Lear: Oh my God. Next thing you’re going to tell me is that people will get… heavier than aircrafts and fly.

Jewell: Very interesting if it happens!

Zimmerman: So this is family here—the two of you.

Lear: This is family. And the crew is family. It’s the human family.

Zimmerman: I read your book. Actually, I heard your book on CD.

Lear: Yes?

Seated in a triangl of chairs, Jewell and Zimmerman laugh as Lear (center) munches on a whole cheese cake with his hand.

Zimmerman: I loved it, because my father passed away about 13 years ago, so to hear your voice and to see your face brought him back to me. Thank you for that.

Lear: Oh, how sweet.

Zimmerman: I was listening to it, and all of the terminology— especially the Bar Mitzvah—and I was reliving my life, in a way, while I was listening to you.

Lear: Well, all of our lives connect. I have a bumper sticker that reads, “Just another version of you.” We’re versions of one another.

Zimmerman: Right. One of the things about your book was that you have lived your life fully.

Lear: Not yet. (laughter)

Zimmerman: There was something about how you lived it. You didn’t seem to have fear. You went through the fear. Some people just sit there and go, “Aaah, I don’t know, can I move my foot?”

Lear: Well, I dealt with the fear. It wasn’t that I didn’t fear. It was that I chose to move ahead, I guess. I don’t know how to… I didn’t let the fear overcome me. I didn’t necessarily overcome the fear, because it was there. But I moved on anyway.

Zimmerman: And I remember you said you had joyful stress.

Lear: Oh, yeah, when we had a number of going, people used to say, “God, it must be very stressful.” And having thought about it, I’d say, “Well, more like joyful stress.” Of course we were, but we were all working hard. We had the joy of doing something we cared about; the joy of seeing it score and hearing people laugh. Oh God, the joy of hearing people laugh!

Zimmerman: Yeah.

Jewell: Yes.

Lear: Now you do standup.

Jewell: Absolutely.

Lear: So who knows better than a standup what that joy is all about?

IMage left: Lear offers a handful of cheesecake to Zimmerman. Image Right: Jewell opens wide as Lear gestures to feed her a handful of cheesecake.

Jewell: Yeah, it’s a high, and there’s no comparison. I mean you cannot get that comedy high when you walk off stage. There’s nothing else like it.

Lear: There’s nothing like it. And all the stress it took you to get there is gone, and you leave on a high.

Jewell: I read your book, too. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I intend to. But your book inspired me all over again. I mean, I thought I knew you pretty well, going way back to 1980. And I learned a lot of things about you that I didn’t know before.

Lear: Name twelve. (laughter)

Jewell: You know what got my attention? Your vulnerability. When you think about successful people, you think they’re not vulnerable anymore. And you’re so real. You have maintained that throughout your life.

Lear: I think I learned early that it’s hard to be a human being. I don’t care what the circumstances of one’s birth, it’s hard. If life hasn’t made mischief for us, we’ll make it for ourselves. But that’s the game of life. We pay a lot of money for these fancy games of all kinds. It requires us to compete and engage and beat that game or this game. And the game of life we don’t think of that way, and perhaps we should. It’s tough. Telephones ring when you don’t want them to— (Phone ringing in the background)

Jewell: Part of the human experience. And the title of your book—Even This I Get to Experience. I have to say, one thing that stood out immediately—and you wrote about it very early on—was that you met Charlie Chaplin.

Lear: Oh, I didn’t meet him. I sat behind him.

Jewell: Yes, yes, and I was like, “Oh my God, Charlie Chaplin?”

Lear: My first night in California.

Zimmerman: Your first night?

Lear: Yes. We drove across the country—my wife and my not-quite-two-year-old daughter Ellen. I had $30 in hand and came out in an old beat-up convertible. We were eight or nine or ten days on the road. We were staying in a motel on lower Sunset Boulevard. It was a Saturday night, and I went out to get a Sunday paper that was printed on Saturday night, to look through the ads for a place to live. I’m driving off of Sunset Boulevard, and I come across a little theater that had been a home. It’s on El Centro, a stage theatre. “Opening tonight—Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara,” maybe my favorite piece of literature. And a guy is sweeping up in front of the theater. He turns out to be the fellow running the place. I get out of the car. When he hears that I have a wife and daughter in a motel and that I want to be a press agent—which was what I told him I had come to California for—he said, “You know, we have someone working for us, and we don’t pay him. But I’d love to introduce you. Maybe you can help us. We can’t pay you, but you’ll meet people.” And I was fascinated by that. My first minutes in California. He said, “By the way, if you want to see the show tonight, opening night, I have a ticket for you.”

Jewell: Wow.

Lear: Imagine having to call my wife in a motel, after 11 days or whatever the hell it had been, driving here, alone in this cheesy motel. “What are you doing?” “I’m going to the theater.”

Zimmerman: “I’m here. Might as well start.”

Lear: I had to. There were three seats in front of me, taped off. And as the lights were going down—it was only 90 seats or maybe a few less—in walks Dame somebody, a great British character actor, and Charles Chaplin. He sits immediately in front of me. I’d been in California an hour and 20 minutes. How’s that for an omen?

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Zimmerman: If that’s not a sign. When I was listening to your book, I felt so close, like family. Like the time you got the dog.

Lear: Minsky.

Zimmerman: Yes, Minsky. And how it related to your film.

Lear: The Night They Raided Minsky’s

Foreground: Camera and Photographer films as Jewell, Lear and Zimmerman talk in a blurred background.

Zimmerman: Yeah, I loved that story. How you were happy your daughter got the dog, but you also felt sad about the other children who wanted the dog as well.

Lear: Oh yeah, I was able to spend $100, and everybody else there… We had seen this dog at the pound, and they told us it was going to be auctioned off on a Sunday morning, I think. So other people had been there and fallen in love with the dog. So there were a dozen and a half of us, all wanting that little dog. So $2, $4, $8, $12, and $30. At $30, it was painful. And maybe it had gone to $40 or $50 or something, and I said $80 or $100, and I could see a crestfallen kid and his mother who had hoped to get the dog. But my little girl wanted the dog. So it was a joy to have it for her, but it was tough to walk out of there.

Zimmerman: What do you want the most at this moment in your life?

Lear: Days that turn into weeks that turn into months that become years. I’d like a lot of years. And I don’t care how selfish that sounds.

Jewell and Zimmerman: (looking at one another) We don’t either.

Zimmerman: And then “That’s Cousin Geri!” (looking over at Geri) That’s what you said at the Media Access Awards. It was so groundbreaking that she was the first performer with a disability on TV.

Jewell: A visible disability.

Lear: Amazing how long it took me.

Zimmerman: And listening to your book, going through it, you did that with everything. You did it with gay, with transgendered—

Jewell: On All In The Family.

Zimmerman: Black, white…

Lear: You know, we were a group of people just making a living. A good living, but working our asses off, supporting families and so forth. With show business, with all of the bullshit glamour and all of the success and the money and everything else—that comes a great deal later. It starts with people working their asses off to make a buck to support a family. Now, as we did that, we were dealing with the language of our time and the subjects of our time. There wasn’t anything—whether dealing with menopause or the economy or bigotry or the language Archie used—it wasn’t anything that wasn’t familiar to us, as we lived. Nothing that you wouldn’t hear in a schoolyard. It was the stuff of life we were living. Yes, I suppose you could do a show around a family whose worst problem was that the roast was ruined and the boss was coming to dinner.

Zimmerman: And how you had to fight it. It seemed like everything was an uphill battle

Lear: Nothing has changed. With all the political stuff I’m watching on television now, and there is some glorious stuff like Veep. I haven’t seen much funnier than Veep. But they’re not dealing with the problems people face in their homes. They’re dealing with big international things or murders or sex and what not. I like those everyday things, and I like live audiences. And we’re going to do it again.

Lear sits at desk writing on a legal pad with a back drop of his computer and a counter full of framed photographs.Zimmerman: Good. You’re going to do a live show?

Lear: I’m working now on doing a Latino version of One Day At A Time.

Zimmerman: I love that.

Jewell: Oh wow. Do they need a maid with cerebral palsy? (laughter)

Zimmerman: I could just imagine. “Here’s your water. Oh, I’ll clean that up.”

Jewell: “I don’t do windows.”

Zimmerman: “I don’t do windows—they do me.”

Jewell: That’s wonderful. You know, Norman, you changed society.

Lear: No, we reflected society. We didn’t change it.

Jewell: No, but you know how you changed it? You added humor to something very painful and very hostile— the hatred and prejudice. And you allowed us to laugh at ourselves—at our own ignorance. I can remember my dad laughing hysterically, watching All In the Family and hearing Archie, and laughing at his ignorance and bigotry. Today you don’t see that. There’s so much hatred and so much prejudice. But we’re not overcoming. You helped us to overcome our own disabilities, if you will, with humor. That for the most part is pretty much gone. And then there’s Maude.

Lear: I go back to the same thing. We were working hard. I think about life. Why that should be such a surprise, at that time, for a 54-year-old man…?

Zimmerman: I used to watch it with my mother every week. It was her favorite show.

Lear: I loved it. Bea Arthur made me laugh in places I didn’t know I had.

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Zimmerman: Talk about ability. You have used your abilities and are using them to the fullest, and you’ve opened the door for others to use their abilities.

Lear: Well, that’s what we’re supposedly about.

Jewell: Yeah. I think that goes back to your vulnerability. You allow yourself to feel. I read in your book of your struggle and pain with the relationship with your Father. You took something that was extremely painful and motivated yourself to create something beautiful in life.

Lear: And what would you know about such things, with your cerebral palsy? You know, going through life, carrying on like this?

Jewell: Yeah, okay, except I really don’t have cerebral palsy. It’s an act. (laughter)

Lear, Jewell and Zimmerman arm in arm with the golden lighted backdrop of Lear's living room.

Lear: Well, to know you well and spend a lot of time with you, one could almost believe it, because of your spirit. And if ever there was an example—which you are attributing to me—but a life example, visible 100 percent of the time, it’s the way you’ve handled your situation.

Jewell: Well, thank you.

Lear: When I really mean something, I find myself having to say, “f#cking.” What a real f#cking way of expressing what you’re talking about. A lifetime of living your life the way you live it.

Jewell: Well, I went after what I wanted, just like you did.

Lear: I marvel at it just the way you’re thinking about my book. So what do you know about that?

Jewell: Because I wrote my autobiography, I want to know how you could remember everything? I was able to go back, because I moved a lot. And every time that I lived in a different place, I knew that this was going on in my life because I lived in this apartment, or I lived in that apartment, or I lived in Las Vegas. How did you keep the chronological order of such an incredible, full life?

Lear: I do have a good memory. (A woman comes into the room with a cake) There are so many things that I’ve forgotten totally. Only I would know how much I’ve forgotten, while others wonder at how much I remembered. There’s a woman standing there with a cake and candles? That’s Monica.

Zimmerman: We know that your birthday is coming up this month, so we had to do a little birthday celebration. (Zimmerman and Jewell sing Happy Birthday. Lear grabs a piece of the birthday cheesecake with his hand and shoves it into his mouth.)

Lear: The man will do anything for a laugh. Thank you. Oh God, it’s good, too!

Zimmerman: I remember you talking about Lindy’s cheesecake, and I got as close to that as possible: Canter’s cheesecake.

Jewell: Did you make a wish, Norman? Because we can bring it back again.

Lear: You know, something? I’ve made the same wish since I was nine years old. You can’t tell what the wish is, can you?

Jewell: No, you can’t. Or it won’t come true.

Lear: That’s a good question—if I should ever express that. I thought about it when I was writing the book.

Zimmerman: Right. But you want to keep something for yourself.

Lear: But there’s some unwritten rule about you keeping that wish to yourself.

Zimmerman: I understand that. You’re so open in your book. There are so many rollercoaster rides. It’s like the man is revealing everything. But it’s good to have that little something for yourself, I think.

Lear: I know. I’m wrestling with it at the moment, but you don’t disclose that. But it’s the same wish always.

Jewell: Well, I was flattered that you acknowledged me in your book. I didn’t expect that at all, and I was blown away. Geri Jewell in Norman Lear’s book? Oh my God.

Lear: I wish I were writing that chapter again, because I’d expand it. There’s so much for all of us in you, in your story, and the way you’ve handled your life.

Zimmerman: I have to say, Geri, you have brought me so much joy. And one of the things in my life that I live for is to see moments like this. I love to see love and connection. When we walked in today and the hug? It’s just the whole connection. It makes my life worth living for, seeing others happy. One of my happiest moments in life is to see people smile.

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Lear: I think it’s wonderful that you express it. I think that represents what most people feel. They can’t think to say it, and they don’t have the ability to speak it, but it’s there. That we all matter and do little things that we don’t understand why we’re doing that pleases the next person. We all do that.

Jewell: And we’re all connected, and life is magical if you let it be. You know, we’re connected in another way, through Ed Simmons, a writer that you worked with. Your writing partner, correct?

Lear: And you and his daughter, Erica, are great friends.

Jewell: Yes. What are the odds?

Lear: The odds are 6,247 to a third…

Jewell: She beats the crap out of me in Scrabble once in awhile.

Zimmerman: Did she do it this morning? In the car, she was playing Scrabble.

Jewell: I did make a move with Erica this morning!

Zimmerman: Did you? That’s funny. Yeah, we were waiting, before we came into your house, and I look down and she’s playing Scrabble, and I said, “Oh, is that your morning meditation?”

Jewell: I didn’t even think about it. I was playing Erica. Oh, how funny.

Jewell: (Looking at Norman) I love this man.

Lear: That schmuck you were married to— (laughter)

Jewell: Yeah, the schmuck. Well, nobody’s perfect.

Lear: Is he still in your life?

Jewell: He’s living in another state. I haven’t seen him in years.

Lear: And that’s in the state of what?

Jewell: No, but you know, the schmuck kept me on my toes. Seriously, even schmucks, because he challenged me. He kept challenging me not to be intimidated and to respect my own intellect. I think my biggest disability in life has been the low intellectual expectations that so many people place upon me. They don’t think I’m capable of having this intellectual, perceptive mind. I’m very well read and I’m intelligent, but I don’t get that from—

Lear: You are?

Jewell: I know it’s hard to believe. Because I have dealt with such low expectations my entire life, a part of me believed it too. He challenged me, because he pushed me. “Geri, you can walk away from it, or you can show them how bright you are. It’s your choice.” The lessons that I learned about self-esteem were the silver lining that I may not have learned otherwise.

Lear: I’ll never call him a schmuck again.

Jewell: Yes, so when I speak in public, giving keynote speeches, his voice comes into my head. “Geri, show them what you’re about. Show them who you are.” The reminder is a gift from the schmuck!

Lear: I love you. I hope the camera caught all of that. There’s a message in that for the world.

Jewell: But YOU always believed in me. You never had low expectations of me, because if you did, you would have never put me in I Love Liberty. He believed in me from day one. And I just heard my father’s voice. My dad has tears in his eyes. I can feel his presence. He loves you, too. His name was Jack. He just said he was so thrilled when you took my hand. Wow. That’s my dad.

Lear: Write another book.

Jewell: And you never got to meet him. I don’t think you met my father.

Lear: No.

Jewell: You met my sister Gloria, but I don’t think you met my parents.

Lear: I never met your parents.

Jewell: Bummer, both ways.

Lear: Are they still with you?

Jewell: No. My Mom’s a killer whale now. (laughter)

Lear: My wife just swam with her. She swam with a whale.

Jewell: Oh, how funny. I bet she was swimming with Mom! Thank you, Norman.

Zimmerman: Thank you all.

Lear: Thank you. That was really nice. And you know, all truth. No bullshit. No exaggeration at all.

Zimmerman: (Looking at Geri’s shirt) I’m going to always see that shirt as—“Define Norman.”

Jewell: If you could define Norman in three words?

Lear: Just another version.  (Norman Lear Part 2)

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