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Norman Lear turns 99: The legendary 'All in the Family' producer's best quotes over the years

·5 min read

Norman Lear, the creative powerhouse behind "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons" and many other influential sitcom hits, turns 99 Tuesday.

Lear, who began writing and producing TV shows and movies in the 1950s, has remained busy in his late 90s, serving as an executive producer of "One Day at a Time," a recent reimagining of his 1970s sitcom; the Epix documentary series "America Divided" and Jimmy Kimmel's Emmy-winning, all-star recreations of his classic comedy scripts for ABC.

Lear, a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors (2017) and the Golden Globes' Carol Burnett Award, changed television and American culture by introducing real-life issues that had been taboo, including race, sex, war – and even flushing toilets – to a comedy genre previously rooted in silliness and escapism. The volatile mix of deadly serious topics and humor drew howls of opposition and of laughter, along with a bounty of awards and ratings.

More: Norman Lear's hits gain new relevance in era of TV remakes

Norman Lear, who turns 99 on July 27, is responsible for some of TV's most influential television series, including "All in the Family," "Maude," "The Jeffersons," "Good Times," "Sanford and Son," "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and "One Day at a Time."
Norman Lear, who turns 99 on July 27, is responsible for some of TV's most influential television series, including "All in the Family," "Maude," "The Jeffersons," "Good Times," "Sanford and Son," "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and "One Day at a Time."

Lear, whose other gems include "Maude," "Good Times," "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and the movie "Cold Turkey," linked work to longevity when the Paley Center for Media honored a group of comedy legends in 2019.

"There's nothing I believe more than this, that laughter adds time to one's life," he said, figuratively tipping his trademark porkpie hat to fellow honorees Burnett, Bob Newhart, Carl Reiner and Lily Tomlin. "Had I not laughed with them and at them and for them and about them, I may have been too deceased to pick up this award tonight."

To celebrate the New Haven, Connecticut, native and World War II veteran's 99th birthday, we have a birthday gift, but it's from him to all of us: A collection of wit and wisdom the maestro shared with USA TODAY over the years. Happy birthday, Norman!

More: TV legend Norman Lear isn't resting on laurels

Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), left, and his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) are standout characters from Norman Lear's most talked about comedy hit, "All in the Family."
Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), left, and his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) are standout characters from Norman Lear's most talked about comedy hit, "All in the Family."

On groundbreaking 'All in the Family' and bigoted Archie Bunker

"I would get mail by the tens of thousands. Whether they agreed with Archie or disagreed with Archie, what they all said was, 'My father ... my mother ... my sister ... my family ... we argued about this, that and the other thing,' " Lear said in 2009. "I think conversation about those issues is what our democracy is all about."

On embracing hot-button issues

"I was interested in family, and we were dealing with what families deal with," Lear said in 2009. "I don't think I consciously thought that anything we were doing was controversial."

More: 'Those were the days': Celebrating Norman Lear's TV classic 'All in the Family' at 50

On whether 'All in the Family' helped improve race relations

"If 2,000 years of the Judeo-Christian ethic hasn't seemed to help, I would be some kind of fool if I thought my little half-hour sitcom was having that kind of effect," Lear said in 2009. "What I do know is people talked. That's always good."

On reimagining 'One Day at a Time'

The characters and circumstances in the "One Day" remake (2017-20) were substantially different from the original (1975-84): The newer version centered on three generations of a Cuban American family in Los Angeles. Lear welcomes demographic and location differences, but focuses on universality.

"I emphasize the common humanity. To laugh at them and live with them for a half-hour is to share in their humanity," he said in 2017. Issues change over the decades, too, but humor remains a shared response, even in difficult situations, "because the foolishness of the human condition is a constant. It doesn't go away."

More: Famous cast sticks live-TV landing in Norman Lear's 'All in the Family,' 'The Jeffersons'

On President Trump and the Kennedy Center Honors

In 2017, Lear announced he would boycott the traditional White House reception that accompanies the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony because of then-President Trump's policies relating to the arts. Dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade also planned to boycott before the reception was canceled.

Lear, an outspoken critic of the former president, explained his decision. "Because he's made me feel it's not my White House," he said in 2017. "But I've gotten over that. It is my White House. It oughtn't to be his."

On the relevance of his comedies today

"As I sift through in my mind the problems we dealt with, nothing's gone away. The (problems are) still there," he said in 2009.

He offered a more condensed assessment in 2016: "Very little changes in human nature."

Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford in "The Jeffersons" (1975-85), which was spun off from "All in the Family."
Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford in "The Jeffersons" (1975-85), which was spun off from "All in the Family."

On the thrill of producing a show with a studio audience

"There is nothing like a live audience and actors who live off the reaction to the last thing they said," he said in 2019. "It's a chemistry that one can't find any other way."

On new experiences

After so many career highlights, Lear experienced a new one at 94: Hosting his own podcast, "All of the Above." It "allows me to gab. I like talking, I like listening, I like interactions," he said in 2017.

New assignments challenge him: "I like going to bed with something on my mind for the next day. I like waking up to that."

On whether he prefers the good old days

"I'm having more fun because it's now," he said in 2016, when asked which version of "One Day at a Time" he most enjoyed. "Then is a memory. Today is the moment."

Contributing: Jefferson Graham

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Norman Lear, TV legend behind 'All in the Family,' is 99: Best quotes

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