ABC is celebrating Norman Lear’s 100th birthday with a television special on September 22nd.
diversity was there for exclusive interviews with Lear and his high-profile guests as they headed to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel earlier this month to film the show “Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter.”
Lear, who turned 100 on July 27, famously described laughter as the key to long life. He also told me that staying in the present is just as important. “We don’t pay enough attention to the words ‘before’ and ‘next,'” he said. “When something is over, it’s over and we’re all on to the next one. If there was a hammock in the middle, that would be the best description I could offer for life right now.”
Below, Lear’s friends and the stars of his most famous sitcoms reminisce about their first encounter with the icon.
Mackenzie Philips recalled meeting Lear when he was auditioning for One Day at a Time. “I walked into this huge conference room with a big round table to meet Norman Lear and I feel like he was the only one there,” she said. “He said to me, ‘Mackenzie, close your eyes.’ And I closed my eyes and he said this to me, ‘Your face at rest is magnificent.’ It’s my first memory of him.”
Philips joined the taping of the ABC special with “One Day at a Time” co-star Valerie Bertinelli. “I was so nervous to meet him,” Bertinelli said. “It was my fourth recall and it was just me and three other girls. I was sure there was no way I was going to get that because there was two blondes and one redhead and I was like, ‘Brunettes never get the job.’ I had only done a few commercials. I was very, very green. I wasn’t nearly good enough to be on the show. But he saw something in me. I looked like his daughter Maggie and he thought I was something he could work with. And thank God he did.”
James Burrows was six episodes into the first season of “Cheers” when he and sitcom co-creators Glen and Les Charles received what he called a “fan letter” from Lear. “He said he loved our show and he wanted to meet us,” Burrows told me. “He took us to the Brown Derby on Vine. That was in 1982.”
What was he thinking when the letter arrived? “I had to change my underwear,” Burrows said dryly. “Are you kidding me? I was in awe.”
Jimmie Walker was a stand-up comic when Lear cast him for his breakout role as JJ on The Good Times. “They fly me to LA and I’m sitting at the table and I see Norman Lear but I don’t know him because I work nights and never watch TV shows,” Walker said. “They did a table read and I didn’t know what a table read was, so they read a line and everyone started laughing. I say, ‘What are you laughing at? That’s not funny!’ There’s a guy sitting next to me and I’m like, ‘This is no joke. This joke sucks.’ And the guy was Norman Lear. Norman and his fellow producer said, “A lot of people work very hard on this stuff and we think we now have a proven track record with shows like ‘Maude’ and ‘All in the Family’ and we know your opinion appreciate it, but please keep it to yourself.”
Todd Bridges was 11 when he auditioned for Different Strokes: “When I first met Norman, he said, ‘Are you ready to have fun on the show?’ I said yes.’ He told me what to do, I was the right set up guy for Gary [Coleman] and the rest is history.”
Kim Fields may have become a household name when she played Tootie on Facts of Life, but she and her family were close to Lear long before that. In fact, Fields refers to him as “Uncle Norman”. “My mother [actress Chip Fields] I did an iconic, groundbreaking series of episodes on ‘Good Times’ that dealt with child abuse, so that’s where I first met him,” Fields said.
Black-ish star Anthony Anderson appeared in the live TV adaptation of All in the Family. “When ‘Black-ish’ came together, Kenya Barris and I talked about the shows that influenced us – ‘All in the Family’, ‘The Jeffersons’, ‘Good Times’, ‘Maude’ and ‘Facts of Life’. ” he said. “That was the magic of what he created – all these shows that have a place in today’s society with their social commentary and stuff like that. They all stood out and still stand out today.”
Barris recalled that Lear made a surprise visit to the “Black-ish” writing room. “I walked in and I saw him and I was like, ‘What the hell is going on here?'” he said. “It was wonderful.”
The lineup for the special also includes Tom Hanks, Octavia Spencer, Jennifer Aniston, Justina Machado, Kelly Rowlands, Laverne Cox, George Wallace, Phil Rosenthal, Emily Hampshire, Rita Moreno, Al Franken, Tony Danza, Marla Gibbs and Tracee Ellis Ross, Rob Reiner, Gloria Calderon, Lisa Weel, Christopher Lloyd, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Kimmel, and Ms. Pat.
“Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter” airs Thursday, September 22 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC. It will be available on Hulu the next day.
https://variety.com/2022/scene/columns/norman-lear-100-tv-special-abc-kenya-barris-mackenzie-phillips-1235378751/ Norman Lear Receives 100th Birthday Celebration in TV Special