The professor emeritus of the American sitcom is returning to television after a 13-year absence. This time around, he's got God on his side.
He looks less like a powerful Hollywood mogul than a kindly Jewish shrink, which on this day happens to be exactly how he's behaving. On the phone with Mickey Rooney, he chuckles at the actor's jokes and silently endures a rambling monologue before ever-so-gently proposing a part for Rooney in his new TV series. During a lunchtime meeting in a colleague's office, he subtly chastises his host for neglecting to provide food by producing a container of pasta salad. Now he's off to conduct auditions for another of his series. Most of the candidates are former TV luminaries who've never been required to read for a role, and their embarrassment shows. Sensing their discomfort, he accords each performer-no matter how atrocious-his most enraptured attention, then ushers them out with the same gracious farewell: "That was wonderful, just great. Thank you for coming in." All exit with slightly dazed smiles. All, as they used to say in the trade, have been "Leared."
Break out some more confetti. Another Norman is coming home - only this one returns to the scene of his conquests. On June 2, precisely 20 years after he redefined television with "All in the Family" and 13 years after he abandoned it to "stretch other creative muscles," Norman Lear will unveil a new sitcom. Fittingly, CBS is giving "Sunday Dinner" the Bunkers' old Sunday-at-8 slot. But the most salubrious timing belongs to the show's creator. Never in memory have the networks hungered more desperately for a hit. Not only does Lear make big ones, he makes them by taking even bigger risks. And what, pray tell, could be riskier than a situation comedy about spirituality?
Though no TV producer has drawn his art more directly from his life, "Sunday Dinner" represents the last word in Lear's autobiographical inclinations. Just as Archie Bunker was inspired by his inventor's irascible father and Maude Findlay by his acerbic second wife, this sitcom's lead character embodies-it was only a matter of time-Lear himself. Ben Benedict is a mid-fiftyish patriarch who becomes engaged to a 30-year-old lawyer (Lear, now 68, is married to a woman 25 years his junior) and quickly discovers that his three grown children disapprove (Lear's own three children were also unenthusiastic about his May-December match).
Now for the tie that really binds. Ben's fiancee harbors an intense spiritual bent, which only sharpens the hostility of his two daughters, son and grandchild-respectively, a devout atheist, a New Age faddist, a grasping materialist and an apprentice agnostic. Guess what? Lear, too, has embarked on an intense spiritual quest. It's a fascination he not only shares with his third wife, a psychologist whose doctoral dissertation examined spiritual issues, but one he's determined to promulgate via television. "After so many years of moving in a totally secular direction, there's a hunger in America resulting from our neglect of the spirit," says Lear, who researched "Sunday Dinner" by consulting dozens of religious scholars. "That will be the subject of this decade and the subtext of this series. I'm having a ball talking about it and learning about it."
Of course, spiritual awakenings don't necessarily equate with professional success: just check out Darryl Strawberry's post-born-again stats. As entertainment alone, "Sunday Dinner" offers a decidedly mixed treat. The otherworldly young female (Teri Hatcher) periodically talks to God, whom she refers to as "Him," "Her," "the Ultimate Whatever" and, most often, "Chief" This sort of thing invariably draws droll barbs from the cynics in her vicinity. They include her worshipful fiance (Robert Loggia), who, like Lear, is initially skeptical of the spiritual but comes to see the light. "Why don't you talk to Martians the way normal people do?" he cracks. If the show is proselytizing a religion, it's strictly disorganized, a kind of blissed-out love affair with love. Call it Learicism. The problem is, you gotta give' em laughs to keep' em inside the sitcom tent, and "Sunday Dinner" could use a lot more of those. Even Lear himself seems to agree. "I'm very proud of what it is," he says of the show. "It just isn't what it can be if it's allowed to grow."
Lear's own growth curve hasn't escaped some dips. Upon leaving television in 1978, he confounded an entertainment company that became so successful syndicating old shows it eventually sold for $485 million to Coca-Cola. Next, Lear launched Act III Communications (named, he explained, for the third act in his life), a multimedia conglomerate of TV stations, movie theaters, trade publications and a film-making operation. After five years of rapid expansion, Act III's publishing division began ringing up heavy losses. Lear sold or folded several magazines and downsized the company through layoffs. It was a rare slap to his ego and, perhaps, one explanation for his return to the more familiar climes of TV. All the man himself concedes is that "we blew a lot of time, money and energy on a misguided publishing venture."
None of that, though, has deterred Lear from continuing to support People for the American Way, the organization he founded a decade ago to combat the political influence of the religious right. It was then, say friends, that his interest in spirituality-what he calls "the fertile, invisible realm that is the wellspring of our morality" - took root.
Lear's private life seemed serene enough until 1987, when his 29-year marriage to Frances Lear (currently the founder/ editor of Lear's magazine) ended in divorce after a lengthy separation. The settlement, estimated at $112 million, bumped him off Forbes's list of the 400 richest Americans. Shortly afterward he married Lyn Davis, an ebullient psychologist he had met three years earlier at a PFAW fund-raiser and who has since borne him a robust blond son. The Lears live lavishly-collecting high-priced art and-a few months ago, moving into a $15 million mansion set on 10 acres. He claims to see no conflict between any of that and his frequent (and public) condemnations of materialism. "There's nothing in anything I say," he told the Los Angeles Times, "that would suggest a portion of my hard-won [earnings] can't be used to pleasure myself."
Shrewdly, Lear isn't basing his entire reconquer-the-tube strategy on spiritually inspired yucks. He's always displayed a remarkably broad range, from jivey black sitcoms ("Sanford and Son," "The Jeffersons") to brilliantly loopy sendups of soap operas ("Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman") and talk shows ("Fernwood 2Night"). The same eclecticism infuses his current lineup of series in development. One sitcom, titled "Love Child" and costarring Linda Hunt and John Forsythe, is about the illegitimate daughter of a U.S. senator who shows up on his doorstep after discovering he's her father. Another, called "Ball$', and probably starring Raquel Welch and Robert Klein, features a family of wealthy eccentrics who own a sporting-ball factory in 1890s Manhattan. The new-model Lear is even gearing up a children's variety show.
Nonetheless, it's "Sunday Dinner," perhaps Lear's most personal comedic statement, that will provide the clearest clue to whether his touch remains golden. In light of the series' cosmic theme, it seems appropriate to pause here for some words of wisdom from a renowned theologian. "God," Archie Bunker once observed, "don't make no mistakes. That's how he got to be God." That's also how Lear got to be king of television. Yet virtually no one in the medium has displayed a more daring willingness to set off in new directions. If he has indeed made a mistake this time, he's certainly earned the right-along with yet another rating of PG (for Plenty of Guts). Welcome home, Norman.