- Carol Burnett Award
Golden Globes 2021: Norman Lear Awarded the Carol Burnett Award
If ever a visionary was worthy of a lifetime achievement award, that individual has to be Norman Lear. Not only did he change the face of American television but through his political activism and philanthropy, he set an example for all America.
The television pioneer and political activist and philanthropist will become the third-ever recipient of the Carol Burnett Award and will accept the honor at the 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards on February 28.
“Norman Lear is among the most prolific creators of this generation,” said HFPA President Ali Sar. “His career has spanned the Golden Age and the streaming era. His progressive approach addressing controversial topics through humor prompted a cultural shift that allowed social and political issues to be reflected in television. His work revolutionized the industry and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is honored to name him as the 2021 Carol Burnett Award recipient.”
Chosen by the HFPA Board of Directors, the Carol Burnett Award is presented annually to an honoree who has made outstanding contributions to the television medium on or off the screen. As the television landscape continues to evolve with more thought-provoking programming, diverse roles, and best in class content, the HFPA established the Carol Burnett Award to celebrate the medium’s new Golden Age. Equivalent to its motion-picture counterpart, the Cecil B. deMille Award, the top honor was first introduced at the 76th Globes. Previous recipients include Ellen DeGeneres (2020) and its namesake, Carol Burnett (2019).
From lowly beginnings, Lear struggled to find himself. After briefly attending Emerson College in Boston. He dropped out and enlisted in the United States Air Force where he flew 52 combat missions for which he was awarded the Air Medal. Rather than going back to college on the GI Bill, he chose a career in public relations, inspired by an uncle who was a press agent. He relocated to Los Angeles where he partnered with another cousin (by marriage) Ed Simmons to write comedy material. The two of them were successful in selling comedy sketches to comedy teams Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Dick Rowan and Dan Martin. By 1953 they were earning $52,000 each for writing for the Colgate Comedy Hour, eventually becoming the chief writers for The Martin and Lewis Show, which ran for three years.
After that there was steady work for Lear himself salvaging shows, eventually assuming the job of producer on The Martha Raye Show and Henry Fonda’s The Deputy, neither of them world-beaters. In 1958 he teamed with director Bud Yorkin to form Tandem Productions. He tried his hand directing feature films (Cold Turkey) and producing them (Divorce American Style and The Night They Raided Minsky’s), again without much distinction, but then he had that eureka moment when he latched onto the idea of combining sitcom conventions with social activism.
Even though his two greatest successes, All in the Family and Sanford and Son, were both inspired by two British TV series, it was Lear’s reworking them that made them groundbreaking.
Not that it didn’t take persistence on his part. Selling the concept of a bigoted blue-collar family was not easy, but reluctantly ABC ordered two pilots, Justice for All and Those Were the Days, neither of which sold. It was CBS who picked up a third pilot, this time known as All in the Family, and the rest is history.
Although at first it was not smooth sailing: as he told the HFPA recently, “On the very first episode of All in the Family, we told a very slight story so we could get 360 degrees of Archie in it, and that little plot line concerned Archie and Edith’s 25th wedding anniversary. It was a Sunday and they were at church. Mike and Gloria were making a surprise brunch for them, and when they found themselves alone in the house, which was rare, Mike induces her to go upstairs with him. They go upstairs, close the bedroom door, and no sooner than they do, the front door opens, and Archie and Edith walk in. He had hated the sermon and didn’t like the minister, so they left church early. They see balloons, they smell food cooking, but then they realize what’s going on. Mike and Gloria also heard the door, and they are rushing down the stairs. They are buttoning up, and it’s Archie who has the first line, which was, “11:30 on a Sunday morning?”
CBS insisted the line had to come out.
Recalling the incident, Lear didn’t want to appear a martyr, knowing he had a three-picture deal pending in case the show failed. “I knew I was going to be alright,” he told us,” but I also knew if I gave into what I thought was patently silly, it would ultimately ruin what the show was all about. So I said ‘No. If you take that line out of the show, I won’t be here tomorrow morning.’ And as I was about to leave to go home to watch the show I got a call that they left the line in. That’s how close I came to leaving the show over nothing.”
Ironically, the show’s first season had mediocre ratings, but then after winning several Emmy awards including Best Comedy Series, it did well in summer reruns, and by 1971 it was the top-rated show in America and enjoyed that standing for five years even though the comic exchanges between Archie and his liberal son-in-law “Meathead” explored many of the most-loaded topics of the day, from civil rights to the Vietnam War.
After it ended its run it was reincarnated as Archie Bunker’s Place, retaining only Carroll O’Connor of the original four players, even though all the others later achieved success beyond their wildest dreams. Of course, Lear had a special regard for O’Connor, recalling the day he auditioned for the role. As he told us, “That is the great miracle of our business. Archie Bunker, yes, I wrote Archie Bunker, and I loved the character. But I had no idea that he would be Carroll O’Connor. I had auditioned some guys and I didn’t think any of them worked until Carrol came in and read half a page, and it was nothing like what I had in mind. I think that is such a miracle when the actor puts on your words, and suddenly the role is alive.”
The second of Lear’s British inspirations was groundbreaking Sanford and Son the first TV show with African American characters who were not stereotypes. It was an instant hit rivaling the success of All in the Family. After that Lear created a cottage industry of spinoffs from both shows, allowing a supporting character to become the protagonist and so we had Maude, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, Good Times, all top ten rated shows.
Through Lear’s subtle influence, America became more liberal, more tolerant, a better country. When asked about making a difference, he told us, “I am reminded of a moment in an evening that I can never forget. It was a couple of years ago and it was at some theater, and I was asking myself, ‘What does a 92-year-old Jew and the world of Hip Hop have in common?’ And speaking of Common, he was on the stage; in fact, everyone except me was Black. And Russell Simmons, I will never forget what he said, he was watching The Jeffersons and George Jefferson was signing a check. He was nine at the time, and he had never known that a Black man could write a check. And when he said that, and the way he said it, I have never been able to forget that moment, how it had mattered so much in his life that one of his race could write a check.”
Lear’s producing partner Bud Yorkin, who had parted company with him in 1975, joined forces with him two years later and with Jerry Perenchio they formed T.A.T., a name derived from a Yiddish expression which means “putting your ass on the line.” They produced the award-winning TV movie The Wave which hypothesized how Nazism could infiltrate American schools, as well as the cult TV favorite Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which the networks deemed too controversial for middle America.
Now fearful that the good he had done in liberalizing America was being threatened, he founded People for the American Way, to counteract the emergence of the Christian Right organization Moral Majority. His financial good fortune continued unabated. He and Perenchio had acquired Avco Embassy Pictures to form Embassy Communications and hired Alan Horn to run the company. Eventually, it was sold to the Coca-Cola Company for $250 million, a princely sum.
After the cancellation of his last TV hit Different Strokes, he ventured back into movie producing and financed Rob Reiner’s classic films The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, and The Princess Bride. Reiner of course had graduated from playing Meathead, to becoming a major film director.
Retired from the industry, he has dedicated his time to promoting the values of freedom, fairness, and opportunity for all Americans. Equally important for him was defending First Amendment rights; so along with other wealthy Angelenos, they funded the legal defense of Daniel Ellsberg (The Pentagon Papers) subsidized the struggling liberal magazine The Nation, and formed the Energy Action Committee to oppose Big Oil’s powerful lobby in Washington.
Now in his 99th year, he continues to work tirelessly for these causes. At the HFPA “TV Gamechangers” symposium he was asked if he could recall the first thing he ever wrote. Discursively he responded” ”One of my earliest writing experiences was writing for Tennessee Ernie Ford. I was trying to write his opening monologue, which was like two and a half, three minutes long. And I had writer’s block. At the time I was in therapy and after spending two days trying to write this two and a half minute thing, at eleven o’clock at night I was on the phone with my shrink crying, carrying on. But it was not he, but somebody else who gave me the best advice I ever heard for a writer. He said: ‘imagine, Norman, you got 50 people in a theater and one small door, and somebody yells fire, and everybody rushes to the door, but they don’t all get out.’ He then added, ‘Think of your ideas that way. There’s no time to let the short people out first and the blonde people and the men and the women and all that. Think of your ideas the same way, get them out all out the door, it doesn’t matter the order. You will sort them in the order you want them when they are out of the door.’ And it was a mind-blowing opening for me. From that moment on I started to dictate my thoughts, and the next week I had the first hundred and fifty pages of Come Blow Your Horn, which was the first thing that I had dictated.”
Currently, Lear serves as the Chairman of ACTIII Productions. He served as executive producer to the critically acclaimed reimagining of One Day at a Time, which ran for four seasons and was the first Netflix series to be renewed for network television. Lear executive produces and co-hosts “LIVE in Front of a Studio Audience …,” alongside Jimmy Kimmel; the specials set record ratings for ABC and won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Special for two consecutive years. In addition to the upcoming feature I Carry You With Me, Lear is executive producing an animated reimagining of Good Times coming to Netflix in 2021, as well as the American Masters documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, which premieres at Sundance this week. Lear’s memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience,” was published by Penguin Press in 2014.
After awarding dozens of Golden Globes to his programs throughout the decades, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is honored today to announce the third Carol Burnett Golden Globe to Norman Lear for outstanding contributions to television