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  • Eric Hirshberg: So I assume that Norman doesn't need much of an introduction,

  • but TED's audience is global,

  • it's diverse,

  • so I've been tasked with starting with his bio,

  • which could easily take up the entire 18 minutes.

  • So instead we're going to do 93 years in 93 seconds or less.

  • (Laughter)

  • You were born in New Hampshire.

  • Norman Lear: New Haven, Connecticut.

  • EH: New Haven, Connecticut.

  • (Laughter)

  • NL: There goes seven more seconds.

  • EH: Nailed it.

  • (Laughter)

  • You were born in New Haven, Connecticut.

  • Your father was a con man -- I got that right.

  • He was taken away to prison when you were nine years old.

  • You flew 52 missions as a fighter pilot in World War II.

  • You came back to --

  • NL: Radio operator.

  • EH: You came to LA to break into Hollywood,

  • first in publicity, then in TV.

  • You had no training as a writer, formally,

  • but you hustled your way in.

  • Your breakthrough, your debut,

  • was a little show called "All in the Family."

  • You followed that up with a string of hits

  • that to this day is unmatched in Hollywood:

  • "Sanford and Son," "Maude," "Good Times,"

  • "The Jeffersons," "One Day at a Time,"

  • "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,"

  • to name literally a fraction of them.

  • Not only are they all commercially --

  • (Applause)

  • Not only are they all commercially successful,

  • but many of them push our culture forward

  • by giving the underrepresented members of society

  • their first prime-time voice.

  • You have seven shows in the top 10 at one time.

  • At one point,

  • you aggregate an audience of 120 million people per week

  • watching your content.

  • That's more than the audience for Super Bowl 50,

  • which happens once a year.

  • NL: Holy shit.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • EH: And we're not even to the holy shit part.

  • (Laughter)

  • You land yourself on Richard Nixon's enemies list --

  • he had one.

  • That's an applause line, too.

  • (Applause)

  • You're inducted into the TV Hall of Fame on the first day that it exists.

  • Then came the movies.

  • "Fried Green Tomatoes,"

  • "The Princess Bride," "Stand By Me,"

  • "This Is Spinal Tap."

  • (Applause)

  • Again, just to name a fraction.

  • (Applause)

  • Then you wipe the slate clean,

  • start a third act as a political activist focusing on protecting the First Amendment

  • and the separation of church and state.

  • You start People For The American Way.

  • You buy the Declaration of Independence

  • and give it back to the people.

  • You stay active in both entertainment and politics

  • until the ripe old of age of 93,

  • when you write a book

  • and make a documentary about your life story.

  • And after all that,

  • they finally think you're ready for a TED Talk.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • NL: I love being here.

  • And I love you for agreeing to do this.

  • EH: Thank you for asking. It's my honor.

  • So here's my first question.

  • Was your mother proud of you?

  • (Laughter)

  • NL: My mother ...

  • what a place to start.

  • Let me put it this way --

  • when I came back from the war,

  • she showed me the letters that I had written her from overseas,

  • and they were absolute love letters.

  • (Laughter)

  • This really sums up my mother.

  • They were love letters,

  • as if I had written them to --

  • they were love letters.

  • A year later I asked my mother if I could have them,

  • because I'd like to keep them all the years of my life ...

  • She had thrown them away.

  • (Laughter)

  • That's my mother.

  • (Laughter)

  • The best way I can sum it up in more recent times is --

  • this is also more recent times --

  • a number of years ago,

  • when they started the Hall of Fame to which you referred.

  • It was a Sunday morning,

  • when I got a call from the fellow who ran the TV Academy of Arts & Sciences.

  • He was calling me to tell me they had met all day yesterday

  • and he was confidentially telling me they were going to start a hall of fame

  • and these were the inductees.

  • I started to say "Richard Nixon,"

  • because Richard Nixon --

  • EH: I don't think he was on their list.

  • NL: William Paley, who started CBS,

  • David Sarnoff, who started NBC,

  • Edward R. Murrow,

  • the greatest of the foreign correspondents,

  • Paddy Chayefsky --

  • I think the best writer that ever came out of television --

  • Milton Berle, Lucille Ball

  • and me.

  • EH: Not bad.

  • NL: I call my mother immediately in Hartford, Connecticut.

  • "Mom, this is what's happened,

  • they're starting a hall of fame."

  • I tell her the list of names and me,

  • and she says,

  • "Listen, if that's what they want to do, who am I to say?"

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • That's my Ma.

  • I think it earns that kind of a laugh

  • because everybody has a piece of that mother.

  • (Laughter)

  • EH: And the sitcom Jewish mother is born, right there.

  • So your father also played a large role in your life,

  • mostly by his absence.

  • NL: Yeah.

  • EH: Tell us what happened when you were nine years old.

  • NL: He was flying to Oklahoma

  • with three guys that my mother said,

  • "I don't want you to have anything to do with them,

  • I don't trust those men."

  • That's when I heard,

  • maybe not for the first time,

  • "Stifle yourself, Jeanette, I'm going."

  • And he went.

  • It turns out he was picking up some fake bonds,

  • which he was flying across the country to sell.

  • But the fact that he was going to Oklahoma in a plane,

  • and he was going to bring me back a 10-gallon hat,

  • just like Ken Maynard, my favorite cowboy wore.

  • You know, this was a few years after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic.

  • I mean, it was exotic that my father was going there.

  • But when he came back,

  • they arrested him as he got off the plane.

  • That night newspapers were all over the house,

  • my father was with his hat in front of his face,

  • manacled to a detective.

  • And my mother was selling the furniture, because we were leaving --

  • she didn't want to stay in that state of shame,

  • in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

  • And selling the furniture --

  • the house was loaded with people.

  • And in the middle of all of that,

  • some strange horse's ass put his hand on my shoulder and said,

  • "Well, you're the man of the house now."

  • I'm crying, and this asshole says, "You're the man of the house now."

  • And I think that was the moment

  • I began to understand the foolishness of the human condition.

  • So ...

  • it took a lot of years to look back at it and feel it was a benefit.

  • But --

  • EH: It's interesting you call it a benefit.

  • NL: Benefit in that it gave me that springboard.

  • I mean that I could think

  • how foolish it was to say to this crying nine-year-old boy,

  • "You're the man of the house now."

  • And then I was crying, and then he said,

  • "And men of the house don't cry."

  • And I ...

  • (Laughter)

  • So ...

  • I look back, and I think

  • that's when I learned the foolishness of the human condition,

  • and it's been that gift that I've used.

  • EH: So you have a father who's absent,

  • you have a mother for whom apparently nothing is good enough.

  • Do you think that starting out as a kid who maybe never felt heard

  • started you down a journey

  • that ended with you being an adult

  • with a weekly audience of 120 million people?

  • NL: I love the way you put that question,

  • because I guess I've spent my life wanting --

  • if anything, wanting to be heard.

  • I think --

  • It's a simple answer, yes,

  • that was what sparked --

  • well, there were other things, too.

  • When my father was away,

  • I was fooling with a crystal radio set that we had made together,

  • and I caught a signal that turned out to be Father Coughlin.

  • (Laughter)

  • Yeah, somebody laughed.

  • (Laughter)

  • But not funny,

  • this was a horse's --

  • another horse's ass --

  • who was very vocal about hating the New Deal

  • and Roosevelt and Jews.

  • The first time I ran into an understanding

  • that there were people in this world that hated me

  • because I was born to Jewish parents.

  • And that had an enormous effect on my life.

  • EH: So you had a childhood

  • with little in the way of strong male role models,

  • except for your grandfather.

  • Tell us about him.

  • NL: Oh, my grandfather.

  • Well here's the way I always talked about that grandfather.

  • There were parades,

  • lots of parades when I was a kid.

  • There were parades on Veteran's Day --

  • there wasn't a President's Day.

  • There was Abraham Lincoln's birthday,

  • George Washington's birthday

  • and Flag Day ...

  • And lots of little parades.

  • My grandfather used to take me

  • and we'd stand on the street corner,

  • he'd hold my hand,

  • and I'd look up and I'd see a tear running down his eye.

  • And he meant a great deal to me.

  • And he used to write presidents of the United States.

  • Every letter started,

  • "My dearest, darling Mr. President,"

  • and he'd tell him something wonderful about what he did.

  • But when he disagreed with the President, he also wrote,

  • "My dearest, darling Mr. President,

  • Didn't I tell you last week ...?"

  • (Laughter)

  • And I would run down the stairs every now and then

  • and pick up the mail.

  • We were three flights up,

  • 74 York Street, New Haven, Connecticut.

  • And I'd pick up a little white envelope reading, "Shya C. called at this address."

  • And that's the story I have told about my grandfather --

  • EH: They wrote him back on the envelopes --

  • NL: They wrote back.

  • But I have shown them myself,

  • going way back to Phil Donahue and others before him,

  • literally dozens of interviews in which I told that story.

  • This will be the second time I have said the whole story was a lie.

  • The truth was my grandfather took me to parades,

  • we had lots of those.

  • The truth is a tear came down his eye.

  • The truth is he would write an occasional letter,

  • and I did pick up those little envelopes.

  • But "My dearest darling Mr. President,"

  • all the rest of it,

  • is a story I borrowed from a good friend

  • whose grandfather was that grandfather who wrote those letters.

  • And, I mean, I stole Arthur Marshall's grandfather

  • and made him my own.