Watch CBS News

What makes Norman Lear, at 98, still tick?

What makes Norman Lear, at 98, still tick?
What makes Norman Lear, at 98, still tick? 08:53

"It's another day," said Norman Lear. "How about it? Another day to wake up and look around and see life!"

Even at breakfast, Lear – always the producer – knows how things should stack up. "Onion underneath the smoked salmon," he announced.

CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jonathan LaPook asked, "Does it matter whether the onion is underneath the smoked salmon or on top?"

"It matters a very great deal, because the onion has a tendency to break apart and to fall off. The salmon holds it down!"

Norman Lear demonstrates the proper way to prepare onions and salmon. Take it from this 98-year-old.  CBS News

Lear revealed this culinary secret to LaPook, his son-in-law (having married his daughter, Kate Lear). After recently quarantining for 14 days, LaPook and his wife spent the next two weeks with Norman in his Los Angeles home ("And I am so happy and grateful you're here," Norman said upon their arrival), hugging him up as much as possible, and making a home movie like no other.

His screening room holds leather-bound scripts from the groundbreaking situation comedies he co-produced: "The Jeffersons," "One Day at a Time," "Maude, "Good Times," and of course, "All in the Family." The series starred Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton as the narrow-minded, working-class loudmouth Archie Bunker and his kind-hearted, adoring wife, Edith.

Edith: "I ain't 'over the hill'!"
Archie: "Well, you can certainly see the top of it." 

"All in the Family" premiered 50 years ago this month, ran nine seasons on CBS, and was #1 in the ratings for five consecutive years.

On the set of "All in the Family." CBS

Lear said, "There was an expression about 'water cooler moments,' where people met at the water cooler and talked. And on Monday they talked about Saturday's show, 'All in the Family.'"

La Pook said, "There were people on either side of the political spectrum who saw something in it for them."

"Yes. I like to think what they saw was the foolishness of the human condition."

Lear's insistence at breakfast that the onion must always go under (never over!) the smoked salmon tickled a memory of pure foolishness from the show – a classic scene O'Connor and Rob Reiner (as Archie's son-in-law Mike Stivic) had improvised during a rehearsal. "One of the greatest gifts in my entertainment career!" Lear laughed.

Archie: "Hold it, hold it, hold it: What ya' doin' here?"
Mike: "What?"
Archie: "What about the other foot? There ain't no sock on it!"
Mike: "I'll get to it!"
Archie: "Don't you know that the whole world puts on a sock and a sock, and a shoe and a shoe?"
Mike: "I like to take care of one foot at a time."

Lear said, "To be able to laugh in a rehearsal at something you hadn't expected, and then to stand to the side or behind an audience laughing, and watch them, their bodies – a couple of hundred people as one –  when something makes them laugh, I don't think I've ever seen a more spiritual moment than an audience in a belly laugh!

"The soundtrack of my life has been laughter," he said.

"And laughter, for you, is a kind of medicine, isn't it?" asked Dr. LaPook.

"Well, I happen to believe it has everything to do with a long life."

And Norman Lear has lived quite a long and remarkable life. He was born 98 years ago in Hartford, Connecticut. When he was nine, his father went to prison for selling fake bonds, and his mother sent him to live with his grandparents.

During World War II, Lear flew 52 combat missions over Germany and Italy. "My tail gunner passed, and I'm the last member of the crew," he said.

LaPook asked, "One thing that's amazing that I've noticed over the years is you're just as interested in people who are absolutely not well-known."

Producer Norman Lear. CBS News

"Because I fell in love, as a young man, with a statement: 'Each man is my superior in that I may learn from him,'" he said.

That philosophy led Lear, a lifelong liberal, into a pen pal friendship with President Ronald Reagan. LaPook asked, "Right now, this country is so divided. What's the lesson in that relationship you had with him for us today?"

"We are in this lifetime together," he replied. "And maybe it's possible to appreciate the other guy for the way his mind works, even when he's not working your way."

Kate added, "He is fascinated with everybody he meets, and I think that has built a very, very rich life."

When asked what makes him tick, Lear said, "I have six children and four grandchildren. They all make me tick. Having finished this sentence, and heard me say 'make me tick' makes me tick!" he laughed. "I like the way my shoes and socks are feeling. Makes me tick!"

"So, the pandemic comes along and that does what to your life?"

"Well, the first thing it does is imprison me. Basically, that's the way I feel. I can't leave the house, or I am advised not to leave, and I don't. I'm hungry to go to the office. I'm hungry to see the people I work with.

"And I mean, there's no business like show business …!"

And for Lear, pandemic or not, the show must go on. He's still producing, still pitching shows to networks with his partner, Brent Miller. 

Lear's wife of nearly 35 years, Lyn Davis Lear, has suggested he might slow down a bit: "Oh God, yes. But that's just not possible. He's not the retiring type. He loves that office and he's got, what? Six shows possibly coming up? I mean, it's crazy!"

And, as with many of us, following the rules of the pandemic can be a challenge. Consider his 98th birthday party last July, when family members were keeping a safe distance from each other.

"I could not be more amazed at my boundless stupidity at times!" he laughed. "They bring me the cake. And, of course, there are candles on the cake. but this fool went … (blows)!

Not wise during a pandemic!   Family Photo

Sadly, the cake had to be tossed. 

LaPook asked, "Looking back, do you have any regrets?"

"I don't believe in regrets," he replied.

And looking forward, Norman Lear says he doesn't want to miss a thing.

"When thinking about death, I don't mean the going, it's the leaving that is the problem for me," he said. "Going, who knows what's out there? It can't be all bad. But leaving, I can't think of anything good about leaving."

For more info:

Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Lauren Barnello.

See also: 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.