“No one had to sell us or motivate us to turn our lives over to the service of our country,” wrote 94-year-old, WWII vet, and TV/film producer Norman Lear in a USA Today op-ed last Friday. “There is even more for me to love about America now than there was when I dropped out of college to join the war effort.”
The piece urged readers to vote in Tuesday’s election, and embodied Lear’s fierce love and loyalty for the country - exhibited by his military service, career, and political activism.
Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1922. His father’s family was from Russia and his mother emigrated from Ukraine. At age 9, his father was imprisoned for selling fake bonds. (Lear later said that the character Archie Bunker of “All in the Family” was inspired by him).
After graduating high school, Lear attended Boston’s Emerson College, but dropped out after Pearl Harbor to enlist in the military. He served as an Army Air Force gunner, flying 52 combat missions in the Mediterranean theater, and was awarded the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters.
He also served alongside the famed Tuskegee Airmen, whom he still praises vigorously. “They protected like nobody’s business,” he said. (In 2015, Lear was a special guest of the New York City Veterans Day Parade, and reconnected with Tuskegee Airman Roscoe Brown to share their World War II experiences.)
In 1945, Lear left the military and began his immensely successful career as a TV writer and later, a producer. His iconic show “All in the Family” debuted in 1971. It aired for nine seasons, earning four Emmy Awards for Best Comedy series as well as the Peabody Award in 1977. He continued to produce more hits like “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” and “Maude.”
His shows touched upon pressing topics in American society, such as class, racial, and gender divides. “All in the Family” has been praised as one of the most influential comedies in history due to its portrayal of issues previously deemed too controversial for television, such as homosexuality, racism, women’s rights, religion, and the Vietnam War.
In 1999, President Clinton bestowed upon Lear the National Medal of Arts. “Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society,” the President said. “And changed the way we look at it.”
Norman Lear shares World War II memories with Bob Friend of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Lear wrote in USA Today that when he entered the military, “I don’t think I fully grasped at the time just how many Americans were being…systematically denied access to equal opportunity and justice.” But he cites his experience working with the Tuskegee Airmen as helping open his eyes to such issues. “I came home from Europe in one piece thanks in part to the Tuskegee Airmen… And yet after this extraordinary patriotic service, they returned to a country where many people treated them as less than equal.”
Driven by a desire to address inequality and injustice, Lear has worked as a political activist and First-Amendment rights advocate. In 1980, he founded “People for the American Way,” a progressive nonprofit, to defend the Bill of Rights and advance secularism.
In 2001, he purchased a Dunlap Broadside, one of 25 original published copies of the Declaration of Independence, and spent three and a half years traveling with the document as part the “Declaration of Independence Roadtrip.” He exhibited it to the public at events like the Super Bowl and The Salt Lake City Olympic Games, thinking of it as the country’s “birth certificate” and something Americans should see.
As part of this passionate patriotism, Lear believes vehemently in the power of voting. “There is nothing more important to this 94-year old American than his vote. Next to that comes your vote… ‘What’s one vote?’ It’s a gift from our Founding Fathers, that’s what!” Lear urged voters in his USA Today piece. “It’s the legacy of countless Americans — those who fought and those who participated in nonviolent struggles — to preserve that precious right for you.”
Lear now lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife. He has six children and four grandchildren and was most recently featured in the 2016 documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.
Photo Credit: Louise Palanker, https://www.flickr.com/photos/louisepalanker/16973185780