By Judy Kurtz - 10/10/11 11:38 PM EDT
While the rest of us working stiffs might dread the daily grind, constantly hitting the “snooze” button on our alarm clocks, Norman Lear is just happy to see the sun come up.
“I’m one of these people who really enjoys waking up in the morning,” says Lear. After all, he’s been doing it for 89 years.
Lear credits two things that led him to start the First Amendment-rights organization in 1981 — a deep love for his country instilled in him by his immigrant grandfather, whom Lear says wrote letters to the commander in chief and addressed them, “Dearest darling Mr. President,” and the growing influence of televised evangelists at the time, including Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart.
Calling it a “born-again American moment,” the TV legend, who began his career as a writer for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in 1950, was suddenly dipping his feet in the political sphere. Celebrities quickly joined the advocacy group; star-studded members Alec Baldwin and “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane are on its board of directors.
Actress Kathleen Turner, whom Lear calls the “heart and soul” of the organization, has served on the board for more than 20 years. The “Peggy Sue Got Married” star says she admires Lear for his “extraordinary sense of right and wrong, not for his own agenda, but a sense of moral rightness, I suppose, which would be universal.”
People for the American Way helped torpedo a 1984 constitutional amendment that would have mandated prayer in public schools. It also lobbied in 2009 for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Lear doesn’t hide his agenda, proclaiming, “I am a liberal,” but personal attacks can be stinging. One reader comment on a FrontPage magazine article, titled “Lies of ‘People for the American Way’ Exposed,” called the organization a “euphemism for socialism and communism.”
Lear says such attacks are “part of what’s wrong in this climate,” before conceding, “Well, [expletive], I guess I do it too. What we’re doing, more than articulating our own point of view, is trying to scapegoat the other guy. There’s so much name-calling in the country, it’s just terrible.”
Turner, 57, says her alliance with the civil-liberties groups has sometimes played a role in her acting career, claiming that Hollywood types questioned whether to “risk” hiring her “because of a known association with these liberal ideas.” But the film and theater performer’s response to those critics is: “I say rubbish. If you want me for my work, that’s great. If you don’t, too bad.”
While religious figures aren’t dominating the airwaves as they did in the ’80s, the plain-talking producer is still in the game. In the middle of ITK’s interview, Lear took a call from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). And he argues the need for People for the American Way is greater than ever. Lear says, “Much of what concerned me then concerns me now.”
Despite his role as dad to his six kids, and living a comfortable life in both New York and Los Angeles with his wife, Lyn, after nearly nine decades, Lear says he has no plans to get a bit of shut-eye. So why does he continue to work for People for the American Way at the age of 89? Says Lear, “Because I got up this morning. And I’m going to get up tomorrow morning. There’s always something to do. I will be stopped, but I won’t stop. I will have to be stopped.”
This story was corrected to reflect that Lear lives in both New York and Los Angeles.