Norman Lear's Career in Photos
The prolific writer and producer has been making audiences laugh since the 1950s
Norman Lear was born on July 27, 1922, in Connecticut. He dropped out of Emerson College in Boston to enlist in the Air Force, fighting in World War II. After he was discharged in 1945, he became a publicist, settling in California.
According to his official bio, Lear began his television writing career in 1950 with business partner Ed Simmons. The two wrote for Jack Haley's The Ford Star Revue, then moved on to Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin's Colgate Comedy Hour. From there they went to The Martha Raye Show, before Lear went solo for The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show and The George Gobel Show.
Lear struck pop culture gold with the creation of All in the Family, the CBS sitcom that ran for nine seasons beginning in 1971. The show tackled some touchy subjects for its time — racism, sexuality, anti-Semitism and women's rights — which made ABC pass on the series and some Americans skip the show despite its No. 1 rating.
"It wasn't a question of whether it was funny or not," Lear told PEOPLE in 1999. "They peed in their pants. But they were afraid."
"These were not new subjects to the American people," he continued. "They just happened to be subjects that television had not touched." The series earned 57 Emmy nominations and 22 wins.
From 1956 to 1985, Lear was wed to Frances, with whom he has two daughters, Kate and Maggie. After the pair's split, Frances launched a women's magazine called Lear's and penned a book about her life, The Second Seduction, though wrote little of her ex, with whom she said she remained cordial.
However, she did write that "the name and face and voice and character and personality of a Hollywood wife-of are so often unnoticed, not listened to, not admired, that in time she feels she does not exist,'' giving a glimpse into how she felt while married to her producer husband during those early years of his fame.
When the pair officially divorced in 1986, Frances walked away with a $112 million settlement.
Lear's first marriage, to Charlotte Rosen from 1943 to 1956, also ended in divorce and produced one child, daughter Ellen.
All in the Family led to a string of television mega-hits for Lear, including Sanford and Son, Maude, The Jeffersons (right, celebrating its 200th episode), One Day at a Time and Good Times.
In 1980, Lear pressed pause on his television career and created People for the American Way, a non-profit designed to "educate, energize, and equip Americans to build a country that more fully reflects the values of freedom, fairness, and opportunity in a diverse democratic society," according to its website. The organization was formed in part to push back on the "divisive rhetoric of newly politicized televangelists," per Lear's bio.
As part of his work with PFAW, Lear produced an influential, star-studded political television special, I Love Liberty, in 1982. Though he continued to write and produce through the later '80s and '90s, the pace of his work slowed.
In 1987, Lear wed current wife Lyn Davis (pictured with the producer in February 2020). Together they have son Benjamin and twin daughters Madeline and Brianna.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton (with First Lady Hillary Clinton) presented Lear with the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to artists by the government.
"Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it," the president said in his remarks.
Lear joined LL Cool J, Lionel Richie, Gloria Estefan and Carmen de Lavallade at the 207 Kennedy Center Honors. Lear, an outspoken critic of then-President Donald Trump, didn't plan to attend the event, though ultimately joined his fellow honorees in Washington, D.C., after the president and first lady announced their decision not to attend.
The producer — the oldest honoree ever — was lauded by J.J. Abrams, George Clooney, Dave Chappelle and longtime friends Rob Reiner and Rita Moreno.
On Father's Day 2018, Lear posted a tribute to his six adult children, calling them the "reasons Father's Day has such meaning for me." He also has four grandchildren.
Still rolling at the age of 95 in 2018, Lear arrived on the Golden Globe Awards red carpet with Moreno by moped.
One year prior, Lear jumped back into the writing and producing game with One Day at a Time, a Cuban-American reboot of his original '70s show. Moreno and Justina Machado were among its stars, and when the series was canceled by Netflix in 2019, Pop TV picked it up after outcry from fans.
Outside of Hollywood, Lear has kept busy by founding other non-profits including the now-defunct Business Enterprise Trust — which aimed to spotlight "exemplary social innovations in American business," according to its website — and the Norman Lear Center for research and public policy at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. He and wife Lyn, along with entertainment executive Alan Horn and his wife Cindy, also created the Environmental Media Association in 1989.
Lear famously purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence in 2001, touring it around all 50 states for people to see in the 10 years he and Lyn owned it.
He continues to host a podcast, All of the Above with Norman Lear, and released a book about his life, Even This I Get to Experience, in 2014.
At the 2021 Golden Globe Awards, Lear will be honored with the third-ever Carol Burnett Award for Achievement in Television.
On continuing to work at age 98, he told the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, "I've had as good a time in this business as anybody has ever had in any business ever I think in the history of humanity. And I love it. There is no greater spiritual experience than watching 200 people laugh when they come out of their seats and roll forward in a big laugh, belly laugh. And I love it. It's enhanced my life. Every minute of it."
"Norman Lear is among the most prolific creators of this generation," Ali Sar, president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, said in a statement ahead of the Globes. "His career has encompassed both the Golden Age and Streaming Era, throughout which his progressive approach addressing controversial topics through humor prompted a cultural shift that allowed social and political issues to be reflected in television."
Sar added, "His work revolutionized the industry and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is honored to name him as the 2021 Carol Burnett Award recipient."