Variety was on hand for exclusive interviews with Lear and his starry guests as they made their way into the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel earlier this month for the filming of the show, “Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter.”
Lear, who turned 100 on July 27, has famously credited laughing as the key to living a long life. He also told me that staying in the present is equally as important. “We don’t pay enough attention to the words ‘over’ and ‘next,’” he said. “When something is over, it’s over and we’re all onto the next. If there was a hammock in the middle, that would be the best description I could offer for living in the moment.”
Below, Lear’s friends and the stars of his most famous sitcoms recall meeting the icon for the first time.
Mackenzie Philips recalled meeting Lear while auditioning for “One Day at a Time.” “I went in to meet Norman Lear in this enormous conference room with a big round table and I feel like he was the only one there,” she said. “He said to me, ‘Mackenzie, close your eyes.’ And I closed my eyes and here’s what he said to me: ‘Your face in repose is magnificent.’ It’s my first memory of him.”
Philips arrived to the taping of the ABC special with her “One Day at a Time” co-star Valerie Bertinelli. “I was so nervous meeting him,” Bertinelli said. “It was my fourth call back and it was just down to me and three other girls. I thought for sure there was no way I was getting this because there were two blondes and a redhead and I said, ‘Brunettes never get the job.’ I had only done a few commercials. I was very, very green. I was nowhere near good enough to be on the show. But he saw something in me. I looked like his daughter Maggie and he thought I was something he could work with. And thank god he did.”
James Burrows was six episodes into the first season of “Cheers” when he and the sitcom’s co-creators, Glen and Les Charles, received what he described as a “fan letter” from Lear. “He said he loved our show and he wanted to meet us,” Burrows told me. “He took us to the Brown Derby on Vine. This was 1982.”
What did he think when the letter arrived? “I had to change my underwear,” Burrows deadpanned. “Are you kidding me? I was in awe.”
Jimmie Walker was a stand-up comic when Lear chose him for his breakout role as J.J. on “Good Times.” “They fly me out to L.A. and I’m sitting at the table, and I see Norman Lear but I don’t know him because I’m working at night and I never see TV shows,” Walker said. “They were doing a table read and I didn’t know what a table read was, so they read a line and everybody starts laughing. I go, ‘What are you laughing at? That’s not funny!’ There’s a guy sitting next to me and I’m like, ‘That’s not a joke. That joke sucks.’ And the guy was Norman Lear. Norman and his producer buddy were like, ‘A lot of people work very hard on this stuff, and we think we have a proven track record now with shows like ‘Maude’ and ‘All in the Family’ and we appreciate your opinion but please keep them to yourself.’”
Todd Bridges was 11 years old when he auditioned for “Different Strokes”: “ When I first met Norman, he said, ‘Are you ready to have fun on the show?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He told me what I was going to have to do, I was the straight set-up guy for Gary [Coleman] and the rest is history.”
Kim Fields may have become a household name when she played Tootie on “Facts of Life,” but she and her family were already close to Lear long before then. In fact, Fields refers to him as “Uncle Norman.” “My mother [actress Chip Fields] did an iconic groundbreaking series of episodes on ‘Good Times’ that dealt with child abuse, so I first met him at that point,” Fields said.
“Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson performed in the live television adaptation of “All in the Family.” “When ‘Black-ish’ came together, Kenya Barris and I talked about the shows that influenced us—‘All in the Family,’ ‘The Jeffersons,’ ‘Good Times,’ ‘Maude’ and ‘Facts of Life,’” he said. “That was the magic of what he created — all of those shows that still have a place in today’s society with their social commentary and whatnot. All of them stood out and still stand out today.”
Barris recalled Lear making a surprise visit to the “Black-ish” writers’ room. “I walked in and I saw him and I was like, ‘What the fuck is happening?’” he said. “It was amazing.”
The line-up for the special also includes Tom Hanks, Octavia Spencer, Jennifer Aniston, Justina Machado, Kelly Rowlands, Laverne Cox, George Wallace, Phil Rosenthal, Emily Hampshire, Rita Moreno, Al Franken, Tony Danza, Marla Gibbs, Tracee Ellis Ross, Rob Reiner, Gloria Calderón, Lisa Welchel, Christopher Lloyd, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Kimmel and Ms. Pat.
“Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter” airs on ABC on Thursday, Sept. 22 at 9 p.m. ET. It will be available on Hulu the next day.