PALMERSTOWN, U.S.A. - getTV Interview with Norman Lear
Norman Lear is, quite simply, an American icon. Recent recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, he is best known for his work producing popular television shows of the 1970s and 80s such as All In The Family, Sanford And Son, and Good Times (all currently on getTV) as well as The Jeffersons, Maude, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The series he created both reflected and contributed to our ever-changing culture while also being incredibly entertaining.
getTV is proud to bring another of Lear's productions to the channel - Palmerstown, U.S.A. Co-produced by Lear and Alex Haley and based on Haley’s own childhood, Palmerstown is the story of two boys who become best friends in the Depression-era South despite having different racial backgrounds. It features a young Michael J. Fox among its regular cast members and includes great guest stars such as Oscar winners Morgan Freeman and Louis Gossett Jr. in very early roles. The series hasn't really been seen since it originally aired in 1980-1981, and we are thrilled to bring it back to television and share with a new audience.
We recently sat down with the charming Mr. Lear to discuss some of his memories of Palmerstown, U.S.A., his friendship with Alex Haley, and how his car's bumper sticker says it all.
Thank you for talking with us about Palmerstown, U.S.A.!
You are welcome!
How long has it been since you’ve talked about Palmerstown?
Last week there was a phone call about the show because you guys are running it, so there was some brief conversation about it. But it’s been a lot of years since there was any real conversation about Palmerstown.
I loved [the series]. I just loved it. I loved Alex Haley and everything about it.
You must have fond memories of Alex and the show.
Here’s the most recent thing I got the biggest kick out of. I have in my office here a wonderful photograph of Alex and me. He has the white kid from [Palmerstown] on his shoulders and I have the black kid on mine.
Oh, you sent that to us - it's a black and white photo? [The photo is included here with this interview]
Yes, it’s black and white. It’s a wonderful photo. I just love it.
Well, I was on a book tour a year ago and I can’t remember immediately what part of the country I was in – it was somewhere in the Southwest – and I talked and I took some questions from the audience. One guy stood up and said, “Mr. Lear, do you still have that photograph of you and Alex Haley? You had a black kid on your shoulders and he had a white kid on his?” And I said, “Yes!" He said, "Well, I’m the black kid on your shoulders.”
Oh my god, that’s incredible.
It was the dearest moment.
Wow. And then did you arrange to take an updated photo? [Laughing]
[Laughing] Yeah, he got on my shoulders…
He was about a head and a half taller than I am.
How did you meet Alex in the first place?
Well, Roots was enormous. My friend [David Wolper] produced it. I think I met Alex at [David's] home some social evening and we hit it off…we became friends. And Palmerstown grew out of a luncheon conversation we had where he was telling me about his best friend when he was 8, 9, 10, 11 years old - this white kid. The two of them were so close, so friendly, that their families were joined at the hip. But their families were very unpopular with the rest of the town – it was a white town – because they didn’t like those families being connected. But the kids were so close that the families said the hell with it and they stuck together. That was a big thing in the community.
But all of that started to diminish when girls came into the picture. [The boys] were 13 and it strained the relationship and ultimately diminished it. It was that story that made me say, "Alex, we’ve got a television show here. That’s a television show." And that’s what we were trying to do with the show.
You clearly have a voice as a creator and producer – you are attracted to projects that speak on another level. Is that part of your process for choosing projects – is that the most important thing?
Well, my bumper sticker says it all. It says, “Just another version of you.” And that’s who I think we all are – versions of one another. An infinite amount of them because we are all together, each of us, unique.
I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but does the longevity of shows like All In The Family, Good Times, Sanford And Son, and Palmerstown surprise you? Aren't they eerily almost more relevant now?
Well, yes. It was about the human problems we live with, that we do encounter, and that we have to ultimately survive over them. They don’t go away, they don’t change. So we still live with them because we haven’t beaten them back sufficiently.
When you were working on Palmerstown, did the cast realize that this story was important to tell?
It was a wonderful cast. They were very close. And when you talk about the cast, I’m reminded of a two-parter we did that I thought was wonderful with - what’s his name?
Yes, Morgan Freeman. I was going to say the actor who’s as close to God as you’re going to get.
[Laughing] He is God.
Who is God, yes. We did a glorious two-parter that I’ve often thought should run as a movie some place.
And Scatman Crothers is in that episode as well, right?
Oh, Scatman Crothers! I forgot about that!
Michael J. Fox of course had one of his earliest roles in Palmerstown. What do you remember about him as a young man?
I think that we got him his green card. So that he could work in this country. [Michael J. Fox is Canadian] And to my memory it was his first job – first steady work.
Yes, steady. I think he had other bit parts before, but this was his longest one.
If I remember correctly, it was that job and our legal team that got him the green card.
That’s terrific. And we were just talking about Morgan Freeman and Scatman Crothers. Your guest stars on Palmerstown are phenomenal. I mean, Danny Glover’s in it, Alfre Woodard, Louis Gossett Jr…. And they were early in their careers, too. Do you remember working with them?
Well, we were all early in our careers. [Laughing]
Yes, that’s true.
It was a long time ago.
I’m a child of the 80s – I don’t think of it as that long ago. [Laughs] Do you remember working with them?
It went very smoothly. They cared a lot about what they were doing, and what brought them together. The story was very unusual.
Do you have any favorite moments from the series and the message it conveyed?
I particularly liked that two-parter that Morgan Freeman starred in because it said so much about the way these communities lived together. This black [baseball] team in a bus traveling through a community that they would never play - [the white teams] would never play blacks, they just wouldn’t do it. But the way the story went, there was some money that was going to be won or lost and they were confident after watching the black team play poorly, which they were doing deliberately, [that the white team would win]. Oh, I love this story as I tell it and talk about it now. I mean these were two really terrific episodes.
It’s not unlike the magic that’s going on right now with [my new series] One Day At A Time. When actors are collectively doing their best work and people are reacting to it, I mean there is a family dimension and feels like it can’t be done another way. Everybody’s full involvement brings them so close together. And that [Palmerstown cast] was a great family.
What was the response to the series at the time? Clearly this was wayyyyyyy before the days of social media, so how were you hearing the audience’s response to Palmerstown?
A lot more slowly. [Laughing]
Just people in the grocery store coming up to you? Saying hey there… [Laughing]
They didn’t have that many people in grocery stores – or if you did, you’d hear it 6 months later. Well, I’m thrilled you’re showing it now.
Oh, I'm so glad. Is there anything in particular you want people to take away from watching it?
Well, the world seems to have forgotten Alex Haley. He was a lovely man and fabulous writer. And Roots was a great contribution to our culture. It’s surprising about how little is known – I view that show as one of the most important shows…well, ever. And it’s really not remembered, it’s really not part of our culture.
Which is incredible because I was only 5 at the time it came out and even I remember the impact it made. I mean, it was HUGE when it was on. Huge. So you had just finished All In The Family and Good Times when you started on Palmerstown, is that correct?
If you’re saying it, it must be so. Nobody's going to quarrel with you.
And now all of these shows - All In The Family, Good Times, Sanford And Son, and Palmerstown - are all on getTV.
Oh I love it! I think it’s great. Great. I love it. Those shows I have people coming to me saying – they’re in the 50s, in their 60s – and remember back to when they saw it with their parents. I love hearing “We saw these shows as a family.” That isn’t happening a lot today.
It’s so true. We get a response through social media when people are watching these shows now and it’s interesting to hear from the younger generation who are seeing it for the first time. I mean, they think it’s super provocative. And of course it was provocative when it was on the first time, but…
Yeah, for some reason the mass of television, and the streaming and so forth, are not dealing with the average everyday problems that families face. Those serious problems they face.
You're very good at allowing your characters to experience those problems, such as those they face in Palmerstown. Any last thoughts on working on it?
Just how wonderful it was to work with Alex Haley – what a glorious character he was. In a sense, we became the two kids [from the series]. It was about he and his buddy, and that resulted in the show, but I look back on our relationship and we were friends like his initial friendship with the white kid.
How special for both of you.
Just another version – all of us.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Norman. We really appreciate it.
You couldn’t be more welcome.
You can watch Palmerstown, U.S.A. Sundays at 12:30 pm ET on getTV. And Good Times, Sanford And Son, and All In The Family air each weekday starting at 5:00 pm ET.