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Norman Lear credits his television success to early childhood trauma

Eric Hirshberg, left, interviews Norman Lear at TED2016. In his career, Lear has had seven shows in the top 10, attracting over 120 million viewers a week at one time.

Bret Hartman

Norman Lear helped raise a generation of North Americans – or at least raise our consciousness. The creator of so many TV juggernauts, beginning with the sitcom All in the Family, Lear broke boundaries while telling great stories – about Archie Bunker, George Jefferson, Maude and many others. So it's no surprise that at the TED Conference in Vancouver this week, Lear was like a magnet. At 93, the American TV legend always obliged fans who approached looking for a selfie or autographed copy of his memoir, Even This I Get to Experience. And not just the run-of-the-mill, pedestrian TEDsters, but super A-level fans. As we headed to a quiet room for our interview, we could hear someone calling from behind, chasing him down. It was Al Gore.

"You were great," the former U.S. vice-president declared, referring to Lear's on-stage interview at the conference. "It was out of the park."

Lear was more than a maker of great television; the impact of his many shows was enormous. At one point, Lear had seven shows in the top 10, the TED Conference heard; there was a time when his shows attracted 120 million viewers a week. Over a glorious career, he has written, produced, created or developed dozens of series and more than a dozen films.

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But he has come to realize that his creative success was the result of early trauma.

His mother was a "world-class narcissist" and his father a con man who "lied and stole and cheated and went to prison."

When he was a child, his father was arrested in spectacular fashion, after a flight home from Oklahoma. That night, newspaper photographers swarmed the house, the place was littered with people, his mother was selling off the furniture – including his father's beloved chair. In the middle of this, Lear – crying and clutching onto the roll of "Norman M. Lear" labels that were to be stitched into his clothing for overnight camp that summer – felt a hand on his shoulder. "You're the man of the house now," a strange man said, adding that men of the house don't cry. Lear was 9.

"I think that was the moment I began to understand the foolishness of the human condition," says Lear, who never did get to go away to camp. He called it a gift, a springboard – even if he didn't understand it then.

For one thing, Lear gave Archie Bunker many of his father's characteristics – including a chair that served as a sort of TV-facing throne.

Lear's mother sent him to live with relatives. He wore a blue and grey sweatshirt that brought him comfort.

In 1969, he shot the film Cold Turkey in Greenfield, Iowa. It included a few seconds of a six-year-old girl crossing the street. During a visit on his book tour to Greenfield in 2014, the woman – then 51 – told Lear his decision to cast her was her version of his childhood sweatshirt.

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"In that sweatshirt, you felt taller and stronger and better," she told him, citing his memoir. "You were my blue-and-grey sweatshirt."

The impact of Lear's work can't be overstated. On programs that included All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, Sanford and Son and One Day at a Time, Lear guided prime time into previously no-go areas such as racism, divorce, even abortion.

TV before that was different. "The biggest problem an American family faced was that the pot roast was ruined and the boss was coming to dinner," he says. He didn't set out to insert a message in his work; he just wanted to reflect reality. The message was there, "but not to break ground," he says. "But to do well – by telling the truth."

There's a story Russell Simmons, co-founder of music label Def Jam, told during a special about Lear's impact on hip-hop culture. "He saw George Jefferson write a cheque on The Jeffersons. And he never knew that a black man could write a cheque," Lear recalls. "And he says it just impacted his life. So it changed his life."

Like the choice of the girl crossing the street, it was such a little thing, Lear says – evidence that a tiny gesture can have a huge impact.

"We all don't know what we do in the course of a day. That particular day that I did choose [that girl], I might have had 2,000 decisions to make on location in a strange place with a crew of 100 or something. Saying 'her' was the least of it. So the great lesson to me is that all of us are responsible in the course of our days for the little moments that help somebody else that we're just not aware of."

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If he has, late in life, made the connection between his difficult early years and his creative success, I ask him: Would he trade the success for a happy childhood?

"I'm sitting here, invited to talk about myself at the TED Conference," he responds, wearing his trademark white hat. "My firm belief is that if I am happy this moment, content this moment, every split second it took for me to get here is worth it. I wouldn't change one split fucking second."

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TED (and the affiliated TED Fellows program), offers an endless parade of speakers with "ideas worth spreading." Here are four standouts on the arts front from this week:

Sanford Biggers

In response to police brutality against African-Americans, this New York-based artist (who himself has been held at gunpoint by police) took African statues (some authentic, some knock-offs), dipped them in brown wax to erase their facial features and "sculpted them" – at a shooting range, with firearms. Two have been cast in bronze. He's naming them for victims: For Michael, For Sandra.

Amit Sood

Sood's Google Cultural Institute allows people to view thousands of artifacts from museums around the world online. Zoom in to view obscure details or, say, Vincent van Gogh's brush strokes. Sood demonstrated the platform's ability to group art by date, location or subject matter. The show stopper was the portrait matcher – where you can digitally match your own stance and appearance with art world portraits.

Nicole Amarteifio

Tired of the recurring themes around the African experience – war, poverty, famine – and a big fan of Sex and the City, Amarteifio created her own Web series. An African City chronicles the dating escapades of five successful women wearing fabulous clothes in Accra, Ghana. Says Amarteifio, who was born in Accra and raised in New York, "We will no longer tolerate the single narrative of Africa."

R. Luke Dubois

Dubois makes art using data. A More Perfect Union paints a portrait of U.S. romantic proclivities. Dubois joined 21 dating services, downloaded 19 million dating profiles, sorted the information by zip code, and created a work of art that mapped cities based on frequently used words in the profiles – happy, lonely, kinky. "I grew up somewhere between 'Annoying' and 'Cynical,'" explained Dubois, who is from New Jersey.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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