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Prolific producer Norman Lear reflects on his career, making "controversial" TV

This piece originally aired Dec. 20, 2017. 

George Jefferson and Archie Bunker are two of the most famous characters created by Norman Lear. He's one of TV's most influential producers, and now part of the newest class of Kennedy Center honorees. Lear's classic shows, like "All in the Family," "Sanford and Son," "Good Times," "Maude," "The Jeffersons" and "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" revolutionized comedy. At the age of 95, Lear is still producing. He recently launched a remake of yet another hit, "One Day at a Time," on Netflix.

"CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King went to Lear's home to talk to him about his career and the personal challenges he conquered.

"I promise you, we were not trying to be controversial, it turns out because we were serious, we were controversial," Lear said of his show "All in the Family."

What may have been uncomfortable territory for some, would become a trademark for Lear as a producer. His iconic shows changed the landscape of television.

"The biggest problem a family faced in the years before 'All in the Family' was that the roast was ruined or the boss was coming to dinner," he said. "Well, I lived through more serious problems."

Gayle King and Norman Lear CBS News

Lear drew inspiration from his own life experiences. One of the most formative was in 1931, when his father was convicted of fraud. 

"When your father's going off to jail, your mother is selling the furniture and the red leather chair that you and your father lived in to hear sports and comedy and so forth is being sold. And the guy she's selling it to puts his hands on your shoulder and says, 'Well, Norman, you're the man of the house now….And I was nine years old."

"You have to begin to understand something about the foolishness of the human condition," he said.

Lear says his dad inspired "All in the Family's" Archie Bunker.

"He was described as a lovable bigot and I always hated that term because I think, is a bigot lovable?....Your intention?" King asked.

"The intention was to show there's humor in everything. And I never thought of him as a hater. So much as a fearful man of progress," he said.

Norman Lear on casting Archie Bunker 01:54

The show won 22 Emmys over its nine season run, but behind the scenes Lear and Carroll O'Connor, who played Archie Bunker, struggled to see eye to eye on the subject matter.

"He bore the responsibility of carrying that character and that was a heavy responsibility, somebody who was as unpleasant in the eyes of so many people. But I knew that Carroll's face and personality and soul would make him loveable," Lear said. 

Lear created "Maude" as a spin-off of "All in the Family" in 1972. "Good Times" came two years later and while a hit, suffered a lot of turmoil among its cast.

"Esther Rolle and John Amos, who played the first African-American parents family – heavy responsibility. The country had not seen this before. They were the people representing their race to the rest of America. So we had to understand, that was really difficult for them," Lear said.

The show faced accusations of promoting racial stereotypes, even prompting an in-person protest from the Black Panther party.

"They were very upset….Why does the only black man on television, he had two jobs, he had taken a third to make the living he required," he said. "That was a great question."

He says that was part of what moved him in the direction of "The Jeffersons," which quickly became another hit spinoff. Sherman Hemsley played George Jefferson.

"The Jeffersons"

"You were fearless in terms of the topics that you tackled. Bigotry, sexism, abortion, racism," King said.

"Everything you have just listed....Nothing was unfamiliar to every family in America, not one subject," Lear said.

Lear was fearless both in and outside of his career. As a World War II combat veteran, he continues to take a stance for what he believes in. Politics is one of the many subjects Lear discusses in his new weekly podcast – yep, he's got a podcast.

"Who do you think is getting it right when it comes to TV today?" King asked

"Well, if I want to be sure of a laugh, I will go to 'South Park.' And I do believe laughter adds time to your life. And I have hundreds of times....Stood behind an audience, and when they belly laugh, and you will find them – they come a little bit out of their seats, they go forward like this and they come back like this in a huge laugh," Lear said.

"I don't know a more spiritual moment than a belly laugh," he said. "Music to my ears and time to my life."

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