Norman Lear celebrated the dawn of his second century on the planet by probably accomplishing more than you did in the past month. Not only did he gather with family and friends, but Lear also published an op-ed in The Washington Post, warning of the erosion of voting rights in America, and TBS sealed a deal to develop a new version of his iconic 1970s late-night soap “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”
“How about that,” said Lear, on the phone from New York. “I can’t overstate how exciting I find that.”
Brent Miller, who runs Lear’s Act III production company, credited Sony for “for really pushing through in the way they have. To make sure that we could close that [TBS] deal right on his birthday was a nice gift.” The updated show is set to star Emily Hampshire (“Schitt’s Creek”) in the title role; Hampshire and Jacob Tierney (“Letterkenny”) are writing and executive producing.
“I feel like there’s been a lot of announcements for Norman’s birthday, which have been great,” Miller added, pointing to the recent news that Amazon Prime and IMDB TV have started streaming several shows from Lear’s library, including “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son.” “Strategically you can’t really hide that that’s also a great birthday present to give to Norman as he’s entering that 100th year.”
Added Lear: “I can’t hear that without laughing… I’m so awash, I think I would like to turn 99 many times. The quantity and quality of the love I’ve been getting, couldn’t be more exciting. And unusual, but then, 99 is unusual.”
Lear said he spent his July 27 birthday at his farm in Vermont, “and we were all there, all my kids and grandkids, so it was fabulous and then the phone never stopped ringing, and I loved every call. And loved hearing from you guys.”
Many of those grandkids are just now discovering some of Lear’s old shows, thanks to the streaming deal. “It’s a real kick,” he said. “I wish I had my mother to call. I’m always reminded of her reaction when I called her when I learned that they were starting a Hall of Fame, and I was among the first inductees. And I called her excitedly to tell her that with Lucille Ball and Milton Berle, the people whose names she knew so well. And I said I was being inducted with them. And she said, ‘Well, if that’s what they want to do. Might as well.’”
In the Washington Post piece, Lear wrote, “I am proud of the progress we’ve made in my first 99 years, and it breaks my heart to see it undermined by politicians more committed to their own power than the principles that should bind us together. Frankly, I am baffled and disturbed that 21st-century Americans must still struggle to protect their right to vote.”
Asked about the editorial, Lear — a World War II veteran — said he’s deeply concerned about what he now sees happening in the country, just as he was back then. “I feel as close to losing what is most precious,” he said. “It seems so impossible that I could feel threatened again in the same lifetime. That we could lose what is most precious about our democracy.”
But that doesn’t mean that he has lost hope: ” I’m one of those people who I don’t want to wake up in the morning and have no hope. So if I sound like I’m not hopeful, then I’m miscommunicating. Because I am hopeful. This is America, and we’ll get through it. But it’s as tough a time as I have ever seen.”
Beyond “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” Act III is also busy on an animated version of Lear’s “Good Times,” which has been picked up to series at Netflix. “We are cooking. We’re very excited about progress we’re making,” Miller said of that series, which is being led by showrunner Carl Jones. “We’re deep into all 10 scripts, all 10 episodes. We’re first obviously writing all the scripts and then we’ll go into the actual animation part of it. I think that people are going love the authenticity.”
Act III is also developing the comedy series “Clean Slate,” starring Laverne Cox and George Wallace, for IMDb TV, and is working with Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland on the anthology series “Notes on Love,” for Netflix. Lear is writing an episode with Aaron Shure. Plus Act III has the Heidi Ewing film “I Carry You with Me” and the Rita Moreno doc “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.”
“And I’m opening at the Copacabana, I’m doing standup,” Lear quipped.
Meanwhile, among those celebrating Lear’s birthday: Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux; here’s an exclusive look at the tongue-in-cheek birthday video they sent the TV legend: