Photo of Norman Lear

A controversy-prone TV mogul’s life is examined in Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (photo courtesy of Music Box Films)

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, TV newscasts were dominated by the Vietnam War and other controversies that were tearing American society apart. Meanwhile, TV’s fictional offerings stuck to relatively benign topics such as Sister Bertrille (Sally Field) and her amazing ability to defy gravity in The Flying Nun.

Then, on Jan. 12, 1971, everything changed. That’s when an outspoken bigot named Archie Bunker first saw the light of day in the debut of All in the Family.

The singular individual who brought Archie to life is the subject of the new documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. Co-directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Freakonomics), it gives us some insight into a man whose refusal to play it safe allowed him to dominate network television until the day when he suddenly walked away from it all.

Most documentaries are a familiar blend of talking-head interviews and archival footage. Taking a more creative route, Ewing and Grady tie everything together with the recurring image of young Norman (Kenton Nigel Cooke), a silent, boyish figure who already wears the rumpled hat that has become the balding Lear’s trademark.

The approach makes sense, as Lear is eager to explain the childhood experiences that shaped his whole life. In a re-creation of an early memory, the young Norman is shown listening to his crystal radio as bigoted on-air priest Father Coughlin rails against Jews.

“It never left my mind,” says the Jewish Lear. He suggests that his resulting anger led him to give up a college deferment and join the armed forces as soon as World War II broke out.

A more central childhood memory apparently played a role in his greatest creation. Though All in the Family was modeled after a British series, Archie himself was inspired by Lear’s own father, Herman, right down to his habit of telling Norman’s mother to “stifle” herself.

George Clooney, one of several celebs who appears in the documentary, says one thing that continues to set the now 94-year-old Lear apart is that he doesn’t follow the older generation’s tendency to “stop asking questions.” Evidence can be seen in Lear’s decision to go into therapy in his 80s in an attempt to finally come to terms with such childhood traumas as his father’s disappearance from his life after Herman Lear was arrested for a crime that was never explained to young Norman.

After All in the Family became a surprising hit, Lear went on to launch other groundbreaking series such as Maude and Good Times. As the documentary explains, things didn’t always go smoothly.

Maude, starring Bea Arthur as a middle-aged liberal and feminist, ran up against threats of network censorship when the title character contemplated obtaining an abortion.

Over at Good Times, the trouble tended to brew behind the scenes. Because it was one of the first series to depict African-American life, senior cast members were adamant that it avoid promoting what they considered demeaning stereotypes. They became irked when the breakout star turned out to be Jimmie Walker’s young J.J., a strutting character who regularly earned peals of laughter with his trademark line, “Dy-no-mite!” “It grates on my nerves,” series star Esther Rolle admits in a vintage interview.

Though the documentary is mostly complimentary toward Lear, he doesn’t come off particularly well in its explanation of the Good Times controversy. After scripts were met with weekly complaints from the cast, Lear finally laid down the law and insisted that, even though he wasn’t black, he knew what he was doing because he related to the characters in other ways.

But perhaps he redeemed himself when a complaint from a Black Panther led him to create The Jeffersons, a series that turned stereotypes on their head by depicting an upwardly mobile black couple.

Even more than its examination of such TV milestones, Ewing and Grady’s documentary is rewarding for its examination of the personality behind the hits. In a vintage interview, Lear offers the opinion that human beings are “just a little foolish.” “That knits us all together,” he says.

This feeling of solidarity with the rest of humanity can also be seen in the bumper-sticker slogan that gives the movie its subtitle: “Just Another Version of You.”

Maybe that explains why Lear was able to turn a man who spewed hateful bigotry into a character most people found lovable. When it comes to foolish imperfections, he feels, we’re all Archie Bunkers under the skin.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (unrated) will be screened at 7 p.m. Aug. 12 and 13 at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High St., Columbus. For ticket information, visit

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