That headline is what legendary television producer Norman Lear says about ageing. He will be 94 on the 27th of this month, one of the top examples we have right now for fighting entrenched ageism for two reasons:
- He is as productive as he was when All in the Family et al dominated prime-time television.
- He has been on the receiving end of Hollywood ageism for at least the past several years.
Given his many successes in the genre, no one can deny that Norman Lear is the master of sitcoms. Five years ago, he began shopping a script for a new one titled, Guess Who Died? set in a retirement community and he has gotten nowhere with it.
“I heard from everybody," he told an an audience at the Austin Film Festival last fall. "They laughed, thought it was funny, but didn’t have a problem saying, ‘It’s just not our demographic.'”
Further on that topic at the Festival:
“As I got upwards in my 80s and into my 90s, the networks behaved like one Betty White covered a whole demographic. I love Betty White, but she is not the entire demographic. They are in retirement villages across the country.”
For those who believe ageism is unimportant, that it can be dismissed as a few derogatory words or jokes that are not worth paying attention to, consider this: the only difference between Normal Lear trying to find work and any other 60- or 70- or 80- or 90-year-old in the same situation is that Lear happens to be famous. It is so ubiquitous even a man who was one of the biggest money makers in Hollywood is ignored.
Although still without a contract for the show, Lear decided to hold a casting session for Guess Who Died? anyway. Film producers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were there to make a short video of it for The New York Times. As one of them wrote:
”...we were mesmerized by the parade of actors that came through the door to audition. Mostly septo- or octogenarians, none of them exhibited the nerves or the vanity we’ve come to expect from hopeful thespians. Instead they read their lines with a humor and emotional nuance that was deeply felt and wonderfully lived-in.
“Suddenly, there in that casting room, I saw my grandmother again, then my favorite uncle and my chatty neighbor down the hall — all real people who walk among us, have so much to offer and are ready for their close up. All we need to do is look.”
Now you take a look and particularly note Norman Lear's commentary at the end:
Let's not allow that important, short speech at the end float off into the ether. Here it is in writing:
“Aren't you expected to grow? Learn more about yourself? About the world? You are when you're young. Why would you be less expected to grow when you're 80?
“The culture dictates how you behave and maybe the elderly buy into it the way they grow old. My role here now is to say, 'Wait a minute. That's not all there is. There's a good time to be had at this age.'”
Which is exactly what I've been trying to say here for the past 12 years.
Lordy, would I like to see that Guess Who Died? sitcom. Remember how sharp and relevant All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude and the rest of Lear's shows were? Imagine if he were allowed to bring that talent and expertise to a show starring old people.
The Mses Ewing and Grady have also produced a full-length documentary titled, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. Here is the official trailer:
The documentary has not been widely distributed but may be playing in a few theaters around the U.S. now. In October, you can watch it on the American Masters program on PBS and it will be available on Netflix beginning in November.
Even in his frustration with ageism in general and in getting Guess Who Died? produced, Norman Lear brings a joy to his old age. Everyone should.