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Interview With Norman Lear

Aired July 3, 2003 - 20:51   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Mel Gibson, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas and many other celebrities are all art of a patriotic national tour -- there's Mel. It is the brainchild of Norman Lear, who produced some of America's most popular shows, from "All in the Family" to "The Jeffersons." His list of high-powered celebrities is taking the backseat to the real celebrity of the tour, a rare, original copy of the Declaration of Independence, which he bought at auction in 2001.
And I spoke with Lear about what the document means to him and to the nation it created.


ZAHN: So let's talk a little bit about what this set you and your wife back. You spent over $8 million for this document. What compelled you to do that?

NORMAN LEAR, PRODUCER: Well, first the realization that it's absolutely priceless. There's no figure you can put on one of 25 known to exist copies of that country's birth certificate, our country's birth certificate. That's the first thing that occurred to me when I saw it. And I thought, my wife, Lynn, and I do not collect. We wouldn't hang it any place. If we could own it, we would travel it and find the support to see that it traveled across the country.

ZAHN: And as part of this tour, you get to see some of Hollywood's biggest hitters read portions of the Declaration of Independence, and we're going to listen to a little bit of that right now.


MICHAEL DOUGLAS, ACTOR: These united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states.

WINONA RYDER, ACTRESS: That they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG, ACTRESS: And that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved.


ZAHN: So, Norman, you've got to be honest about this from a producer's point of view. We can just imagine the clash of egos involved in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. What did it take to marshal all of the egos in the room that day to deliver this pretty profound rendition of the Declaration of Independence?

LEAR: You cannot believe how -- how easy it was, relatively easy. Everything -- you know enough ability our business, film, television, it's all hard. But in a relative sense, getting these people to Philadelphia -- because that was read in Independence Hall -- there were 11 major people. They worked until 5:00 in the morning because that's the only time we could shoot in Independence Hall. So they worked all night and it was -- it was the last thing Conrad Hall, the great cinematographer, shot before he passed on. We couldn't have be more proud of it. I

ZAHN: Yes.

LEAR: But it was easy to get done.

ZAHN: Well, I'm happy to hear that. And it was really quite powerful. And I'm wondering, at the same time, how distressing this might be for you after you've made this enormous investment when you hear statistics that a recent survey of high school students showed that half of them couldn't even distinguish the Declaration of Independence from the Constitution. How troubling is that for you?

LEAR: Well, it's very troubling. But more troubling than anything is the fact that as a result of what you've just said, Paula, kids -- and they're not alone because their parents and neighbors and teachers, too, are not voting in the numbers they should. So everything we're doing with the touring of the Declaration of Independence is to help kids understand the importance, the opportunity of the vote they have as they turn 18. We want to make a right of passage of that turning 18 and achieving the vote as equally as important as at 21, the right to drink.

ZAHN: Yes. Well, once again, that's a laudable goal, but it still has to be a little bit depressing when you confront the statistic that there are 20 percent fewer young people voting today than 20 years ago. Do you really think this can help encourage the people to vote?

LEAR: Well, there's something going on in our country called the spoken word movement. Young poets in 50 states. And we're harnessing the group of those young poets and they will hit that nail that you're talking about directly on the head, with the help of some major music and so forth as we start touring in 2004 to the November election, from January until the November election, my bet -- I hope you will have me back, I'll pay off or collect, but my bet is that we have moved that and we see more young people and through them possibly more people than the young vote.

ZAHN: Well, I hope you're right. And once this tour wraps up, I want to know where you're going to place the Declaration of Independence?

LEAR: I'm hoping we will find the support -- along the way, the Home Depot, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) And the U.S. Postal Service came along and helped us mount this huge -- it's really a huge exhibit. And we'll find the support, I hope, between now and November 2004 to travel it forever and perhaps abroad, too, since it's the document that inspired everything from the French Revolution to Tienamen Square.

ZAHN: Well, good luck. Norman Lear, thank you very much for sharing your story with us tonight. And best of luck as your tour continues.

LEAR: Thanks.



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