Norman Lear’s secret to longevity? Always being curious about others.

Norman Lear’s secret to longevity? Always being curious about others.

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The older he got, the more Norman Lear became the symbol of something he never agreed to be, but nevertheless was, up until his death Tuesday at age 101: the infinitely thoughtful, creatively productive, intelligently outspoken, most-elder citizen of the great American ideal, always open to what’s next, what’s happening, what’s now.

“I don’t wake up in the morning to be old,” Lear told me during an October 2017 day I spent with him for a Washington Post profile. “I wake up to do the things that were on my mind when I fell asleep last night.”

At the time, he was 95. He had been out the night before, very late, watching Dave Chappelle and others at a comedy club. He said that once he turned 90, he noticed that people applauded his presence alone, regardless of the occasion or work at hand. He was still learning to be gracious about that — the beloved, good-humored old man in the trademark white boater hat. Walk into any room, and they all stand and smile at you.

End of carousel

His advanced age had become yet another feature of a person whose influence on television and cultural life was already part of history, and still part of its present: He had finished work on a second season (of an eventual four) of Netflix’s “One Day at a Time,” a funny and remarkably modern reboot of one of his 1970s sitcom classics. That afternoon, he would take a call from a producing partner on a series he was eager to make about getting old, tentatively titled “Guess Who Died?”

A couple of years later, ABC and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel dabbled in a completely unnecessary yet engagingly irresistible experiment: live prime-time reenactments of memorable episodes of Lear’s sitcoms (“All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons”), with Lear himself occupying a center seat of honor in the show’s studio audience. Applauded, again, for still being here, still being Norman Lear.

It was fun, yet there was also something subliminally wistful about the whole affair, some mutual acknowledgment that Lear’s style of sitcom — unabashedly topical, emotionally raw, empathetic yet hilarious, filmed with multiple cameras before a studio audience — had become a revered artifact. (The new “One Day at Time” got rave reviews and yet lived its short life entirely under the cancellation ax.) Archie Bunker, Maude Findlay, George Jefferson. The actors who originally played them were by then all dead. It was hard to avoid wondering how Lear truly felt about all this retro reverence.

He was sentimental (about his childhood, about his World War II service, about his country, about his kids), but not overly nostalgic. He loved the present, with all its attendant problems. He spent his life in the moment (the television moments, the political moments, the cultural moments), to such a degree that it’s difficult to think that he’s actually gone. Hardly any of us will get to our old age the way he did, and yet we seem to believe it’s widely possible, in no small part because a fair number of our celebrities, including the pioneers of TV (Lear, Betty White, Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, et al.), have made it look so effortless.

It’s not. The wellness industry, AARP and so many others try to sell us the dream of the optimally fabulous old age — even as TikTok fills up lately with millennials in their late 30s complaining about back pain. (Imagine.) Lear was all the proof anyone needs that a charmed life is both charmed and earned, and when it came to aging, his response to it fit neatly with what his TV shows taught us all along: Life is not easy. Life is not fair. But how people live it is fascinating, and perhaps the secret is to remain deeply curious about how life goes for other people.

In his memoir and interviews, Lear talked about being a boy in New York and wondering, on elevated subway rides, what was going on in each and every apartment and house the train passed: What’s for dinner? What are they talking about? Early television’s attempts to answer this were overly sweet, ordered and White.

Lear and his collaborators came along and suggested that the manners within the American household could be loud and rude and fraught with divides over almost any issue (politics, class, race, gender, religion, sex, money — the biggies), and tangled up in personal biases and the wounds of the human condition. Love could and should exist in there, too, and all of this could also be, in a perfectly placed swerve of comic timing, hilarious. The only way to understand the lives of these fictional other people is to eavesdrop from the fourth wall and accept them as they are, to the point where their responses and behaviors adhere to a formula that fits into 22 minutes of TV.

On this side of the fourth wall, we have the luxury of not having to wrap up our personal crises at the half-hour mark and at least the delusion that our lives do not hew to formula (when they so often do). Watching those sitcoms, America became like Lear on those train rides — desperate to look in and, in so doing by the millions, experience an electronic togetherness.

Another word for it is empathy. And another thing to remember, which was very important to Lear, was that in World War II he had been the one to open the bay doors of a B-17 and watch bombs descend on towns below, also filled with houses filled with families at dinner tables, also having conversations, also filled with stories he longed to know.

Empathy was a constant in Lear’s work and in his public life, as founder for People for the American Way, in which the principles and points of view evident in his television shows (Is it possible to reason with a bigot like Archie Bunker? What’s life like for a self-made Black businessman who moves with his family to a deluxe apartment in the sky? What options are available for Maude during an unplanned pregnancy?) apply to a political and social sphere: What if our decisions were based on acceptance and bridging our differences? What if we could truly and honestly relate, instead of siphoning ourselves off into niche audiences and markets?

By 2017, Lear had experienced the gall of watching Americans cruelly disregard one another’s experiences, backgrounds and beliefs in a tidal shift of populist politics. Television itself was deep into its own fragmentation process of streaming services offering hundreds of new TV comedies and dramas, which had a way of undoing communal experience. (Hence Kimmel’s fond desire to re-create old-fashioned sitcom broadcasts, if only for a night or two.)

Lear talked to me about his nightly habit of getting in bed and watching the entire MSNBC lineup for fresh outrages coming out of Donald Trump’s Washington.

I asked Lear whether it was sometimes all too much for a nonagenarian to bear? Did he envy the many friends and loved ones who had already passed and were therefore spared what, on some nights after too much Rachel Maddow, had begun to look like the end of everything decent, constitutional and free — the things he held dear.

I had absent-mindedly brought my hand to my mouth as I listened to his answer. He laughed. Why would anyone want out?

“I’m much more involved with the wonder or the acceptance as a kind of miracle that you just put your hand up and put your finger near your lip,” he said. “It took you every f—ing split second of your life to get to do that, and several seconds more to hear me say what I’m saying, and it took me every split second of my life, 95 years, months, weeks, hours, days to say what I’m saying now and to shake my head yet again. So, does that say something about the moment and the importance of the moment? We’re living in a world where everyone, all the billions of them, lived so we can sit here and have this conversation.”

That moment faded into my past and his, but the lesson was clear — Norman Lear wasn’t planning to go anywhere soon, and he had left me with what felt like his best advice: Stick around and see how the show ends, for as long as it’s airing, and never stop wondering about the world around you and the feelings and interactions of the human characters in it.

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