5 Life Lessons From Norman Lear, the Legendary Producer of ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘One Day at a Time’

Lead Photo: Norman Lear and Gloria Calderon Kellett on set of 'One Day at a Time.' Photo by Michael Yarish. Courtesy of Netflix.
Norman Lear and Gloria Calderon Kellett on set of 'One Day at a Time.' Photo by Michael Yarish. Courtesy of Netflix.
Read more

I must admit, I was in a bit of a funk. I’m a Latina television writer trying to make it Hollywood by telling our stories. Yet, despite the numerous television pilots bought by networks each year featuring Latino leads, can you guess how many were green-lit to series this pilot season? Zero. Which means less opportunities for Latino talent in front of and behind the camera (hence the funk, ya feel me?)

When I was invited to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s (CHCI) evening honoring Norman Lear, the creator and producer behind such groundbreaking hits as All In The Family, The Jeffersons and One Day at a Time (both the original and the Latino remake) and a champion of diversity in television before it became popular, I jumped at the opportunity to speak to this living legend in order to reignite the fire within.

I was also intrigued by the host organization. What did the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute have to do with diversity in television? Congressman Joaquin Castro, a rising star in the Democratic Party and the evening’s host, gave me some background about the organization, which he chairs. “There are young Latino children who watch television, go to the movies, never seeing themselves on screen and never seeing their stories told. We want to be a small part in changing that,” explained Castro. Amen to that, hermano. He went on to explain that CHCI, which has dedicated the last 40 years to bringing young Latinos to work in Washington in order to increase representation on the Hill, hopes to play a role in increasing Latino representation across all industries, including entertainment.

While Castro was the host, Norman Lear, ninety-four years young, was the star of the night which brought together the stars of Netflix’s One Day at a Time: Rita Moreno, Tony Plana, and Justina Machado; comedian and star of Lear’s 1984 series AKA Pablo Paul Rodriguez; along with congressional leaders. Attendees were there to listen to, celebrate, and swear like sailors with a man who has continued to create opportunities for people of color on TV over the course of 70 years, even as his colleagues have retired to the golf course or in most cases passed on.

Here are the top five gems I learned from the Brooklyn-born, Jewish nonagenarian.


Write Your Story

When I asked Norman the best advice he ever received he said one word: “Write.” Sure, we have a long way to go when it comes to representation, Norman argued, hence the need to write your own story. No one can tell it as well as you. If we want to change the perception of Latinos in the mainstream, even when doors are slammed in our faces or jobs we want don’t come through, you have to keep writing. Not only will you refine your craft, but you will make your story undeniable and in the process, universal. Norman recounted how the ODAAT remake was based on showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett’s family, explaining, “It’s so clear with every moment that what she’s lived through with her Cuban heritage is in some way what we’ve all lived through. We share a common humanity.” So, Latinx familia, keep writing and eventually the powers that be will catch on.


Follow Your Passion

Norman quoted his business partner of many years who had “10 rules for the road.” Norman shared his favorite: “Follow your passion. I think that’s great advice.” Norman, who despite his father being incarcerated during his youth, went on to experience incredible creative success also recounted a period when his business was failing and he was faced with having to sell his own home. Living a life filled with passion and purpose allowed him to remake himself time and time again. He reminded me money will come and go, but passion will fuel your career and life like no other.


Live in the Moment

Norman, whose autobiography is entitled “Even This I Get To Experience,” shines with optimism, gratitude, and possibility. When I asked him how he does it, he responded: “I am as aware as I could be that it’s taken me every split second of my life, in my case 94 years, some months, some weeks, some days, just to get here, watching you hold that iPad, talking to me and asking me questions, every second of my life to talk this bullshit! And it’s taken every second of your life to get to this conversation too. I appreciate every second of that journey. I hope you do too.”


We Are Everyday People

Having created a comedy series about working-class Latinos myself, I was shocked when I was told by executives that my characters weren’t aspirational enough. Translation: they weren’t upper class visions of whom audiences wish they could be. When I asked Norman about that trend in television, he explained that it was not his life experience. “We’re all everyday people, some people forget that, unfortunately. We want to see ourselves represented honestly and fairly…our moods and our aspirations. That’s what the show ODAAT is all about, especially the Latino version.”


Be Humble

While Norman was the star of the night, his humility won the Oscar. He joked that all day long he thought CHCI was honoring the show, ODAAT, and didn’t understand why they were making such a big deal about him. Yet, every member of the panel recounted how, despite the advances that have been made with Latino representation in the media, without Norman Lear they wouldn’t be starring on a TV show. Rita emphasized, “It takes people like Norman to help us open the door, we can’t do it alone.” Paul Rodriguez described Norman as a “fairy godfather” who helped him get his first check with more than one zero. Norman responded, “Enough already. Talk about yourself…Talk about the show. Don’t talk about me, I’m tired of hearing Norman Lear.” But Rita wouldn’t have it, she quickly interrupted, “I know you don’t want me to talk about you, but fuck off! I love you so much, if I could I would dip you in bronze like they do baby shoes and make you a forever. That’s what I feel about you.”

Me too, Norman, me too.