When Norman Lear Raises the Flag, Nearly Everyone in Town Salutes

updated 03/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

In Hollywood, clout is measured by the speed of "callbacks," and when producer Norman Lear telephones, he normally doesn't have to wait long. It helped a bit, of course, that the cause he was promoting—his I Love Liberty TV spectacular—celebrates such traditional American virtues as life, liberty and the pursuit of prime-time exposure. But, even for the TV producer who gave the world both Archie Bunker and George Jefferson, the onstage diversity was extraordinary. In a single night Lear brought to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena 10,000 spectators and a political and cultural polyglot that included Jane Fonda and Barry Goldwater, Burt Lancaster and Christopher (Superman) Reeve, Jack Lemmon and Big Bird.

The success of the Feb. 22 event (taped for an ABC airing March 21) was guaranteed, in Hollywood's liberal community at least, after the Rev. Jerry Falwell attacked it as a threat to his Moral Majority and demanded equal time. That suited Lear, who helped found People for the American Way, a nationwide organization to counter the idea that right-wing groups have a monopoly on patriotism. "Our thrust is to attack the climate of fear and divisive-ness they are creating," Lear explains. After producing a series of TV commercials, the organization decided to engineer a more extravagant production. "We first wanted to have a rally, a big gathering at some place like Madison Square Garden, where we could get together to reaffirm traditional American values and talk about our diversity," says Lear. "When we started getting excited about the idea, we realized that perhaps the whole nation would be interested in taking part in this rally. So we took it to ABC." It didn't hurt that Lear offered up, in addition to bands, balloons and baton twirlers, a talent parade running from Bonnie Franklin and Kristy McNichol to Walter Matthau and Dick Van Patten.

Patriotism, it turns out, is not the last refuge of scoundrels only. "Two thousand people have participated in this program," Lear says. "Its co-chairmen are Walter Cronkite, President Ford and Lady Bird Johnson. It isn't a matter of politics to discuss liberty." There are in fact many touching moments in the two-and-a-half-hour show (cut to two hours for TV). Barbra Streisand sings a powerful America, the Beautiful, Rod Steiger defends homosexual rights, Burt Lancaster portrays Judge Learned Hand and Australia-born Helen Reddy (a naturalized American) delivers a rousing Liberty Calls.

Lear hopes that the impact of I Love Liberty will transcend prime time. In conjunction with the show, schoolchildren across the country will be asked to write and draw on the theme of liberty. Another fringe benefit of his campaign, Lear believes, will be to excite passive TV viewers to action. "When Starsky and Hutch was on the air, there was one scene when they got in their car and used their seat belts," he says. "Within the next six days maybe 100,000 people bought seat belts. When Fonz on Happy Days went in and got a library card, something like 500,000 people went in and got library cards. Television is very powerful. I hope we can use it constructively."

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