Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

‘Everything that Norman did was influenced by humanity’: Friends and fans remember Norman Lear ‘44

Courtesy/Emerson College
Norman Lear ‘44

If there’s one thing to know about Norman Lear, it’s that he valued giving others the spotlight.

“He wanted to listen to you and wanted to know what you had to say,” said Kevin Bright ’76, a television producer, director, and longtime friend of Lear’s since the ‘90s. “He wanted to learn something from you.”

Surrounded by family, Lear ‘44 died peacefully at the age of 101 in his Los Angeles home on Dec. 5. A Hartford, Connecticut native, the television writer and producer spotlighted real-world issues he believed deserved representation. His groundbreaking sitcoms like “All in the Family,” “Maude,” and “The Jeffersons” highlighted families who dealt with poverty, racism, and prejudices. 

“Everything that Norman did was influenced by humanity,” Bright said. “That’s what he wanted to show.”

But his political and social advocacy began long before it was broadcast on American television. 

Lear attended Emerson in 1940 on a scholarship he earned in an American Legion oratory competition. His speech, entitled “The Constitution and Me,” foreshadowed his work with inclusivity.

“The reason for that title was I was Jewish, and I had learned there were people who hated people because of their religion … I wondered if the Constitution wasn’t a little more precious to me than someone who didn’t need its protection,” Lear told Emerson Today in a 2016 interview.

The “Godfather of the Emerson spirit,” as Bright would say, Lear cherished his time at Emerson despite leaving early to join the United States Army Air Force during World War II. 

“We got together when he was 100, and he still knew the Emerson alma mater,” Bright said. “I’ve never been able to memorize the Emerson alma mater, and there he [was], somebody who didn’t even get to walk down the aisle, and he knew it until the day he passed.”

Lear also made it a priority to contribute to the Emerson community as well. In 2018, he started an Emerson scholarship in his name for exceptional students from first-generation, underrepresented, and underserved backgrounds interested in pursuing a career in writing for theatre, television, film, or other genres. 

Arthur Mansavage

The college and its alums who personally knew Lear, including Bright, strive to constantly pay tribute to him and his outstanding career to this day. In 1968, the college awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. Additionally, to honor his close friend, Bright donated a sculpture of Lear located in the Boylston Place alley, which was unveiled on “Norman Lear Day,” in October 2018.

“Knowing that he started at Emerson, what he became, and much more importantly, what he did for the world besides television, he was just always so giving throughout his life,” Bright said. “He wanted to make the world a better place. He wasn’t just the show business guy, he was a world guy. That should be inspiring to every Emerson student that walks by [the statue].” 

The college also created a class called “Topics in Comedic Studies: Norman Lear” that teaches students about his work and influence on American entertainment. The class was taught by adjunct media studies professor Tripp Whetsell ‘94, who wrote a biography about Lear titled, “Lear: His Life and Times,” which will be released in 2024. Lear attended the class via Zoom twice in 2020 to talk to students and answer questions. 

“It’s been my honor to teach this class at Emerson and hopefully I can continue teaching it for many years to come because I think that everyone who is studying television or a career in comedy needs to know about Norman Lear,” Whetsell said. “He changed the face of television.”

Lear’s work highlights the power comedy has to open hearts and minds and spark social change, said Martie Cook, professor and founding director of Emerson’s Center for Comedic Arts who interviewed him for her book titled “Write to TV: Out of Your Head and onto the Screen.” 

“It’s really important to me that in the Center for Comedic Arts and the BFA in Comedic Arts, we teach students in a Norman Lear-like fashion,” Cook said. “… I hope students will write comedy that’s about something and that can actually change the world because I think comedy can and I think Norman Lear shows proof of that.”

Although the class was not taught this semester, Whetsell plans to bring it back in the near future.

“I hope everybody will take that class because I think that class is going to be very enriched now, holding up the light that Norman held for so long, and passing it on to students at Emerson,” Bright said.

In 2019, Lear was honored with an Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety Special (Live) for his work as executive producer of Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” which recreated episodes of the sitcoms with new casts. He became the oldest person ever at the age of 97 to win an Emmy. He won the same Emmy for Live in Front of a Studio Audience: “All in the Family” and “Good Times” the following year.

In addition, Lear has six Emmys, 16 nominations, and was inducted into the Emmys Hall of Fame in 1984. He was honored by the Kennedy Center and received a Peabody Award in 2017 for his contributions to television and culture. At the 2021 virtual Golden Globe Awards, he was presented with the Carol Burnett Award for “outstanding contributions to the television medium.”

Lear also holds four Writers Guild of America Awards, an American Comedy Award, a GLAAD Media Lifetime Achievement Award, an International Documentary Association Amicus Award, an International Emmy, and a Television Critics Association Award, among many others. 

For fans and dear friends alike, Lear will be remembered for what he gave back to the American entertainment industry and the world. Amid the pain and hatred in the world today, Bright said, Lear would hope people would seek kindness.

“I think the solution that he would want is to just give each other some kindness and stop and listen to each other, and believe in humanity, believe in that first,” Bright said.

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About the Contributor
Hannah Nguyen
Hannah Nguyen, Editor-in-Chief
Hannah Nguyen (she/her) is a senior journalism major from North Wales, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in publications like The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, North Penn Now, Cambridge Day and AsAmNews. Outside of reporting, she enjoys thrifting and painting her nails. (see: https://linktr.ee/hannahcnguyen)

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