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You might think there wouldn't be much of an audience for a documentary film about a 93-year-old whose most famous work took place 40-plus years ago, in a medium that is perpetually being declared on the brink of death -- but Norman Lear is not your average nonagenarian
Lear, the creative genius behind iconic and controversial television hits of the 1970s like "The Jeffersons," "Good Times," "Maude" and "All In the Family," is not only coming off of a well-received memoir amid a resurgence of nostalgia for his programs, but the country is also faced with the prospect of electing a man that some believe in the real life-incarnation of his most iconic fictional character -- the 'lovable bigot' Archie Bunker -- president of the United States.
The supposed similarities between the racially insensitive, loudmouthed Bunker and Republican presidential nominee Trump have not been lost on Lear himself. Last month, the still-sharp legend reportedly told a Writers Guild audience: “He is Archie Bunker,” adding, “I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of the American right hand.”
However, Rachel Grady, who co-directed the acclaimed new film "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You" with Heidi Ewing doesn't think people should take her subject's quip too seriously.
"I don't think he thinks Donald Trump and Archie Bunker are the same person," Grady told NBC News on Wednesday. "Archie Bunker is three dimensional, he is ignorant in a lot of ways and terrified of progress but he is true to himself and he has his real beliefs that he has a lot of conviction about, and Trump will just turn any which way to get attention."
Grady has enjoyed introducing the cantankerous Bunker, and many of Lear's other classic characters, through her film to whole new generation who hardly see anything anymore unless its streaming for free.
"They watch ‘Breaking Bad’ but ‘All In the Family’ drops their jaw," she said.
"All In the Family," with its politically incorrect language and clashes between races, genders and ideologies, was groundbreaking, not just because it tackled taboos (creating palpable anxiety within the corridors of the Nixon White House), but it became a huge commercial success while doing it.
In television's modern, fragmented atmosphere it is likely impossible for any modest form of entertainment to have the same kind of reach as Lear's slate of topical shows. At his peak, Lear was running six of the top 10 shows on television and is now often regarded as “the most influential producer in the history of television.”
To a certain extent, Lear credits his success for bringing more complex, realistic characters to the small screen to providing the somewhat predictable sitcom format with something it had always lacked: authenticity.
“I chose to entertain with what I consider real people,” Lear says in the film, while putting an emphasis on the fact that “human beings are just a little foolish ... that knits us all together.”
This, of course, does not mean that all his work received universal praise. For instance, "Good Times" broke ground as one of the first American television sitcoms to center around a black family, but some of the cast-members were troubled by and eventually quit over some of the stereotypical behavior and dialogue they were expected to perform.
"Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," which features glowing testimonials from A-list stars like George Clooney, Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart, does not gloss over the cast conflicts on that show, nor Lear's attempts to present a more nuanced portrait of African-American life on "The Jeffersons." But from Lear's perspective, all of these projects were worth the risks in order to reap the reward of bridging divides.
"I think he is someone who looks forward a lot, he’s not someone that lives with a lot of regret, he thinks that’s a waste of time," said Grady.
Lear's intent, Grady believes, was to navigate the "sweet spot of progress, which is truth without malice."
"It's hard to say and hear things that make you uncomfortable and accept things about yourself that are not appealing," she added. "I think any sign that there can be productive dialogue is soothing to people right now, because it feels like there is no conversation that can help at all."
Ideally, "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You" will be a conversation starter. It's currently playing in select cities and, perhaps fittingly, will be opening in the nation's capitol this week.
"We have been traveling around the country, with the film, with Norman, for the last six months and people are turning to him and his position is, ‘I need leadership,’" said Grady. "You look at someone like Trump I think it tells a lot."
She and Ewing hope that audiences will walk out of their film with what Grady describes as a "simple formula" for living a substantive and fulfilling life: "Just care -- care about more than yourself, care about your legacy as a human, and keep caring, be vigilant about it, and you'll live to be 94."