Norman Lear remembered as champion of Latino actors and content

As news broke of the death of Norman Lear, at 101, condolences poured in from across the entertainment industry. Among those paying tribute to the legendary television producer were many Latino actors and activists — as Lear was a champion of Latino talent, writers and causes. 

“Norman Lear was doing nontraditional casting and promoting diversity before it was cool to do it,” said Gloria Calderón Kellett, an executive producer on the updated version of Lear’s “One Day at a Time,” which aired between 2017 and 2020. “In trying to get disenfranchised communities on TV, he was ahead of his time.” 

It took courage, Calderón Kellett said, for Lear to create controversial characters, such as Archie Bunker and Maude Findlay, and then showcase discussions of race and social issues. “He wrote with such humanity, and wanted his characters to have the difficult discussions that we all need to have, even now in this divided country,” Calderón Kellett said.

In a 2021 interview with NBC News, Calderón Kellett described Lear as “really, really sweet, very caring and … just a wonderful, curious human being.”

Calderón Kellett recalled that, during the filming of the “One Day at a Time” pilot, people often went to Lear first with important questions. “He would tell them to ask me; he used his influence to shine a light on other people — and he changed the course of my life,” Calderón Kellett said.

Best known for his long-running hits “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” in 1984 Lear produced “a.k.a. Pablo,” a sitcom with an all-Latino cast.

Long before representation and inclusion became industry buzzwords, in the 1970s Lear was casting Latinos and other actors of color on his hit shows.

“Norman came to see me do my stand-up act, then we had a meeting, and then he asked if he could come visit my family’s house,” said comedian Paul Rodriguez, who played Pablo in the ABC series. “He was very gracious, my mom made him some enchiladas, and then he got some ideas for the show from that visit.”

Rodriguez believes that no one has done more to advance Latinos on television than Lear. “I think Norman saw, way before anyone else did, how important Hispanics were going to be to the U.S. He was someone very special to me, he took me out of obscurity and anonymity, and he helped me, my family and my career. I’ve always had great love for him,” Rodriguez said.

Liz Torres was already a working actor and singer when a chance meeting with “All in the Family” actor Carroll O’Connor on “The Tonight Show” led to her joining the cast of “All in the Family.”

“At first, I was very intimidated by working with Norman Lear,” Torres recalled. “But he was the most charming and funny person, very giving — and he was used to working with comics.” 

“I owe Norman such a huge debt of gratitude,” Torres said. “He (was) a marvelous man.”

A legacy of recognition

Perhaps Lear’s greatest legacy for Latino performers was his role in the creation of the Imagen Awards.

In 1983, Lear met with Helen Hernandez, who then worked for his company. “We were concerned about the lack of positive Latino representation on TV, and Norman said that you get more with honey than vinegar,” said Hernandez, president and founder of the Imagen Foundation. “Norman encouraged us to start an awards program, and he said he would provide seed money and staff.”

Four decades later, the Imagen Awards are a Hollywood tradition that recognizes Latinos in film and television. “No other awards show truly honors our talent and our community,” Hernandez said. “The Emmys don’t, the Oscars don’t — and Imagen does, so thank you, Norman Lear!”

Even late in life, Lear stayed active with Latino-themed projects. In addition to the acclaimed reboot of “One Day at a Time,” which centered on a Cuban American family, he served as an executive producer for “I Carry You With Me” (2020), a Spanish-language drama about two gay men in Mexico. He was also an executive producer on the documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” (2021).

Besides his television work, Lear was a prominent progressive activist. In 1981, Lear was one of the founders of People for the American Way, an advocacy organization dedicated to opportunity and justice for all. The group’s many social justice and action campaigns have included issues important to Latinos, from protecting immigrant communities to defending voting rights. 

Over six election cycles, the group’s “Latinos Vote!” campaign has run bilingual media ads in swing states where the Latino vote could be significant. In the 2021 Georgia runoff election for the U.S. Senate, for example, People for the American Way ran Spanish-language TV ads supporting Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. 

Lear was also a former board member of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a national Latino legal civil rights organization, during the group’s early years.

In 2017, the National Hispanic Media Coalition gave Lear its Media Icon Award. That same year, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute honored Lear with its inaugural Pioneer Award, in recognition of his long-standing commitment to diversity and representation in television.

“Norman Lear (was) the real deal. He taught me that people’s voices matter, and that one person can make a difference,” Hernandez, of the Imagen Foundation, said. “He has always been for what’s right. People need to know and understand the gift this man has been to our community.”