At 99, Norman Lear and a 13-Year-Old Friend Discuss Life

This friendship of mutual respect may inspire you to forge more intergenerational relationships, professionally and personally.

By Eleanor O'Sullivan

They were just two pals swapping ideas and opinions — except that 86 years separated them, and that one was a famous TV writer and producer, and the other was an 8th grader.

The older of them was Emmy Award-winner Norman Lear, creator of more than 100 TV shows, including the indelible sitcoms “Maude,’’ “All in the Family’’ and “Sanford and Son.’’ He was born July 27, 1922.

“At the age of 99, do you find it challenging to think about reaching audiences who are decades younger, generations younger?’’ Lear was asked by Ken Stern, chair of the Longevity Project and moderator at the recent 2021 Century Summit.

Their conversation was part of the “Intergenerational Compact’’ sessions held in the middle of the three-day summit, a collaboration between the Longevity Project and the Stanford Center on Longevity.

“I don’t really, I’ve not been concerned about that,” responded Lear. “The human nature hasn’t changed all that much. The times have changed, interests have changed, things are new. Yesterday is old!”

“But I wake up every morning to enjoy a new day. I go to sleep excited about tomorrow. I don’t mean without problems entirely. Like I got this guy sitting next to me, Eli Bergthold, and I haven’t seen him in a couple of months. And I don’t like that; I’d rather see him three times a week, or six times a day,’’ Lear said looking at Bergthold, 13, who attends the Episcopal School of Los Angeles.

Unlikely Pals

How did such an unusual friendship come about?

“Well, we know each other because my mother used to work for him. I met him long before I was born. And you were there at my birth, right? And ever since we’ve been good pals. We’ve been together through all these events, and it’s always been fun to share moments with you,’’ Eli said.

Lear said the feeling was mutual, perhaps because he didn’t feel much older than 15 or 16. “As much older as I am, it feels like I’m sitting with a buddy too,” he said.

At Eli’s age, Lear said, he and his family were living through the Great Depression, a time of deprivation and sacrifice.

“When I was a kid in the Depression, the longest conversation we might have had at the dinner table was who could afford sneakers next month. We were broke,’’ Lear said.

Overcoming the Generation Gap

Stern also asked Lear if it makes him feel younger to have relationships with people of younger generations, and whether it gives him renewed energy.

“It certainly gives me more renewed energy to be with somebody I care for as much and somebody I’m interested in as much,” said Lear. “I loved listening to him answer your question. We’re all unique, but this is one of the most unique people of my ken on this planet.”

Stern then asked, “So Eli, when you’re 99, sometime in the 22nd century — actually even hard to imagine that — what do you think you’ll want to remember about your relationship with Norman?”

Eli said shared values helped Lear and him overcame the generation gap.

“I’ll probably remember that when I was young I had such an important relationship with someone who shared so many values with me and shared so much important perspective to the world’s past,’’ Eli said, “and I guess what we can achieve as a people.”

Lear and Eli said they enjoyed knowing that their friendship impressed others.

“Obviously, it’s kind of like a brownie point thing that I know someone who’s lived to 99,’’ Eli said.

“It’s a brownie point thing on this side too, to know this guy at 13, and remind myself of me at 13,’’ said Lear, who recalled sitting at 13 on the fire escape in Brooklyn with his family. “I was Bar Mitzvahed at 13,” Lear added. “It is an amazing memory, the series of events that led to it and followed it.  And we’re told in this faith that we’re entering manhood at 13.”

Mutual Respect and Interest

Of Eli, he said, “I continue to marvel at the acuity and maturity that this guy has mustered in 13 years. I don’t hear as much maturity in a lot of people I know in their 30s, 40s and older.’’

Stern asked Eli what specific historic events he wanted to know more about from Lear, who dropped out of Emerson College in 1942 to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Forces, and engaged in 52 combat missions, earning the Air Medal. The friends spoke on the day after the 80th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, marking the entry of the United States into World War II.

Eli asked Lear what his experience was like dropping bombs and “what it was like to know that you were taking life for your own country and also for a future that was uncertain.’’

Lear replied, “I can’t believe that you’ve asked me that, because I think it was just this morning something reminded me of the war and service and so forth. I was a radio operator/ gunner so I was closest to the bomb bay and I was the guy who looked over to be sure the bomb bay was empty.

“I often imagined the family sitting at dinner and a bomb striking their kitchen. And I remember saying screw them at that moment,” said Lear. “I had that degree of anger that allowed me to do that at that time. And thank God, I believe I’ve never been tested to see if I would mean that later on.’’

Archie Bunker Today

Stern asked Lear if real versions of his TV creation, angry arch-bigot Archie Bunker existed today.

“I think Bunkers exist today and the content of their arguments is about what is happening in their culture. We had a show on the air, ‘One Day at a Time’ about a Hispanic family dealing with the same subjects. Times change, the experiences change, but they are very much related to each other.’’

The Power of Loving and Laughter

Besides turning 100 in July 2022, Lear is looking forward to more chats with Eli.

“Having people you care about in life, and loving, I’m convinced it adds time to one’s life, as does laughter.’’

                                                                                                 —Norman Lear

“I want to love this guy a good deal more for a longer time. I have six kids. I could say that about each of them,” said Lear. “Having people you care about in life, and loving, I’m convinced it adds time to one’s life, as does laughter.’’

In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.


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