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Norman Lear celebrates America

Norman Lear, among the most influential television producers of all time, says his best production is yet to come. It won't be a TV show, though. It's a gift from the heart.

"I am building a show," Lear said. "It's a revival, a red, white and blue revival . . . that will get people to their feet, witnessing to the fact that they realize they matter as Americans."

The words, images and ideas tumble out of Lear with an energy and enthusiasm that appear to give lie to the fact he turns 80 today.

The man who gave America All in the Family now wants to share with Americans their Declaration of Independence. He and a partner bought a rare copy of the 1776 document two years ago for $8.14-million. The broadside forms the centerpiece of a traveling tribute (on the Web: independenceroadtrip.org).

"This is the birth certificate of the United States," said Lear, who says he cried when he first saw the copy he eventually bought.

Lear explains his plans by saying: "I start every day with hope. I start every day saying, "Here is a day; what are you going to do with it?' "

He has done plenty.

His career as a producer, director, comedy writer and screenwriter has brought him four Emmys, a Peabody, induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame and the National Medal of Arts, given in 1999 by President Clinton, who said Lear "has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it."

Lear's legacy also includes Sanford and Son; Maude; Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; and The Jeffersons, which provided unvarnished views of people and issues not previously seen on network television. He created Archie Bunker, an outspoken, blue-collar bigot, and raised such issues as abortion, homosexuality and anti-Semitism.

However, a thread of nostalgia ran through All in the Family, as evidenced by the opening theme, Those Were The Days, a thread that also has been woven throughout Lear's life and connects him with the future.

"I am of that generation that had far more appreciation for America and American values than I see today," he said in an interview at his summer home.

"My grandfather used to write the president all the time," Lear said. "I remember picking out of the bronze mailbox a little white envelope that said "White House' on it.

"There was everyday proof that America worked. My grandfather felt that he mattered. He felt it enough to write the president, and he mattered enough to get an answer."

That connection to country is what Lear seeks to rekindle with the touring Declaration of Independence. He acknowledges it will be a tough task.

"We are a country of great excess," he said. "That defeats an awful lot of the stuff that has made us great."

Today finds people of all political stripes condemning corporate misdeeds, but Lear has been sounding warnings about such a possibility for more than 20 years, primarily through two organizations he founded: Business Enterprise Trust and People for the American Way.

"The name of the game over a great many years has become "Give me a profit. I must have a profit this quarter larger than the last,' which always comes at the expense of other values.

"There are no villains. Nobody invented this. This is something that grew up in the free enterprise system."

He watches little television these days, although he thinks HBO's Six Feet Under is brilliant and praises the hundreds of choices viewers have.

"People ask me what's the golden age of television, and I say this is the golden age of television," he said. "Whatever you want is there over that vast array of channels."

Much of Lear's time is devoted to his family: He has twin 7-year-old daughters and a 14-year-old son at home from his 1987 marriage to Lyn Davis, as well as three grown daughters from two previous marriages.

He no longer works the 16-hour days that were required during the frantic 1970s, but no one would characterize him as retired.

His summer home, where poet Robert Frost once lived, is no remote retreat. The multibuilding estate on a hillside in southern Vermont includes offices, a gym, a screening room, as well as spacious living quarters decorated in an American flag theme. Phone lines blink and intercoms buzz as Lear's business interests track him down.

Sitting comfortably in the expansive living room, wearing his trademark white sailor's cap as groundskeepers busily prepare for the weekend birthday celebration, Lear is asked how he would like to be remembered.

He knows he'll always be known as the producer of All in the Family, but he has a more basic wish.

"I would like to be remembered as being grateful," he said. "Grateful for a great life."

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