The saddest words anyone who ever worked in television, or at least was entertained by it, scrolled across my timelines early yesterday morning:
BREAKING NEWS: Norman Lear Dead At 101.
For most of yesterday, the reaction to those words was omnipresent; virtually every industry and world publication devoted some sort of story to him. Norman’s work in politics and activism was as prolific and arguably more impactful than even the thousands of hours of award-winning comedy, drama and documentaries he produced in his remarkable seven-decade career. An awful lot of people I personally know, many of whom had the pleasure of working longer and more prolificly with him than I did, posted loving remembrances and personal photo ops. Somehow, I can’t seem to locate mine, or perhaps was too dumb to have requested one. I seemed to think there would always be another chance to grab one and considering Norman was active in developing shows still to premiere until very recently, he gave every indication he’d live long enough for that to happen. Yes, I’ve been mentally kicking myself all day.
As you hopefully have read elsewhere, to have even known Norman casually was special; he had an uncanny way of being inviting and inclusive to everyone, regardless of age, position or lot in life. His talent often considered him a second father, and that list was as demographically broad as the appeal of his programming. His own children ranged in age from late 20s to nearly 80, and his fan base mirrored it. I previously wrote about his allliance with Jimmy Kimmel that produced three memorable LIVE IN FRONT OF A STUDIO AUDIENCE specials; to see the live reaction to modern-day actors recreating with both reverence and brilliance the words Norman originally had written a half-century earlier, with many of those who had survived along for the party, was as memorable an experience as I’ve ever had. I was fortunate enough to have a significant role in marketing the first two of those specials, attending many meetings and events with him.
And when he turned 100 a year and a half ago, I was so excited by that event that I effectively regurgitated the same story about my chance to teach him modern research techniques that I had already shared in that December 2021 musing. Thank goodness for all of us Norman had far more different stories to share than I have.
And he never missed a chance to do so. Whenever we’d look across the Sony commissary while standing in line for their world-famous salad bar, we’d feel that much better if we saw his unmistakable hat among the sea of executives with expense accounts enjoying the only two really decent meals on the menu: the matzo ball soup or the lemon picatta chicken with linguini. That usually meant we’d get a warm hello, or a hug, or merely a smile, from a true legend. And I’m really, really proud to say my last days on the lot were spent working in a building with his name on it. It had been renamed after previously being known as the Harry Cohn Building, so named after one of the brothers who founded Columbia Pictures. Ever read about Harry Cohn’s legacies? Here, go ahead. Believe me, I felt much, much better about working in a building named for someone far worthier of it.
So no, I won’t make the same mistake of redundancy a third time. But I will share one more about how in spite of all of the accolade, the history, the honors, and yes, his tremendous financial success, Norman Lear wasn’t beneath being a good enough sport to give away pastelitos and besitos because someone actually thought that act might make Ted Sarandos and his team see his show more favorably.
When the third season of the rebooted ONE DAY AT A TIME was about to debut on Netflix in 2019, Norman and his business partner Brent Miller had attended a debriefing at the Netflix offices. They shared with me in confidence a side meeting where they had learned that Netflix was privy to an awful lot of what they saw was negative data about the show’s inability to appeal to Spanish-language countries in South America, especially Brazil, which tended to be less interested in a storyline about a Cuban-American family in Los Angeles. We knew it was a problem, and one that ultimately Netflix used as part of their rationale to eventually cancel the show soon after that third season dropped.
As Sony was expert in doing, quiet discussions with other potential outlets to keep the show afloat had already begun to occur, and it was clear our best shots would be with more domestically-centered entities. Hence, the braintrust I worked for was urged to help promote and grow the show in heavily Latino cities in the U.S., with Los Angeles being the lowest-hanging fruit. Grassroots marketing was deemed as the most cost-effective solution, and the idea for a branded food truck seemed to pop from the numerous whiteboards our team of experts had prepared. We smartly partnered with the world-famous Porto’s Bakery, an iconic Cuban-run location that offered some absolutely delicious cheese balls and guava pastries. But because our search for a new home needed to be stealth, and because some besides Brent and Norman still somehow held out hope that Netflix might have a change of heart, we plastered the truck with Netflix logos and, indeed, gave away a lot of those treats to the lower-level Netflix employees we were dealing more directly, most of whom were oblivious to that fact that the show’s fate, at least there, was already a fair d’accompli.
And there, across the street from the property that housed Norman’s Embassy Communications and served as the taping venue for an awful lot of his body of work, on what was now the Netflix-branded lot at Sunset and Van Ness, and at a few other stops along the way outside it for good measure, if you happened to be walking around on this grey, damp February day, you too could have gotten a free appetizer or dessert from Porto’s, served up, among others, by Norman Lear.
We did get a great deal of coverage for this event; after all, the sight of a 97-year-old legend handing out breakfast was newsworthy enough to attract several local morning news shows and print outlets. Especially since all you needed to see was the hat to know it was Norman. It just so happened the new head of the Pop network was watching. And while I’m not as naive as some of my one-time colleagues may have been to think that was what prompted the negotiations that ultimately lead to the groundbreaking move of an original streaming series and its library to move to a linear network–one that ultimately saw those episodes wind up on CBS itself during the fall of 2020, I’ll cop to the likelihood it didn’t hurt.
And it did provide one more opportunity to look at a TV listing somewhere and see a weeknight comedy lineup with a Norman Lear title in it.
THAT was a good day. Today, not so much. The fact that Norman is really gone, while inevitable, still hurts my heart, and millions of others he touched directly or indirectly. But as his widow Lyn urged in a message read at last night’s Sentinel Awards, an event honoring impactful comedy writers which his foundation championed, Norman “would want us to laugh”. As many stories about him over the years reminded, such as this one from CBS SUNDAY MORNING in 2021, the soundtrack of my life has been laughter.“
Fortunately, there’s enough of his work to keep us laughing for centuries to come. And the hat–wherever it winds up–will serve as a reminder that so many of us did get the chance to experience him, and it will never be forgotten.
Until next time…