How Tuskegee Airmen and Buffalo played parts in Norman Lear's life

May 29, 2018

He is best known to most Americans as the developer of classic television shows including "All in the Family," "Sanford and Son," "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times." Before that, during World War II, Norman Lear was part of a B-17 crew that ran missions over Germany. What many may not know is his Buffalo connection and how the war influenced his TV career.


Norman Lear was one of numerous veterans of the U.S. Army Air Corps featured in a documentary titled Bagels Over Berlin, which celebrates the Jewish-Americans who enlisted and served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

Television developer and producer Norman Lear, seen here in the World War II documentary Bagels Over Berlin.
Credit courtesy Alan Feinberg

Buffalo's roles in the war effort included the manufacture of aircraft by Curtiss-Wright. But Buffalo native and producer of the documentary, Alan Feinberg, said fewer people may know that servicemen were also stationed at the University at Buffalo, where they underwent training.

"Who knew people trained in the University at Buffalo?" said Feinberg. "We knew about Curtiss-Wright but did people train here? We didn't know that."

Lear was one of those being trained in Buffalo. Although the story of how he got married in Buffalo was not included in the documentary, audio outtakes provided to WBFO by Feinberg offer Lear's own words about the night he was out on a date at the Circus Bar atop the Statler and how he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to get married.

It was not to the woman with him on that date.

"I'll never ever know what motivated me this. Maybe fear, going overseas shortly, but I walked to a phone booth and dialed a number I knew well, person-to-person," Lear said.

The call was to a woman in West Hartford, Connecticut named Charlotte Rosen. She was a woman Lear previously dated up until about a year before.

"And the way she said it. I said hello and she said 'Norman!' I was so flattered. It had been a year, she heard two syllables and she said 'Norman!' I hear myself saying, two minutes later, 'I'm in Buffalo. You want to come up and get married?'"

That's exactly what happened two weeks later, when Rosen's parents and his traveled to Buffalo. The wedding, he recalled in the interview, took place in the Statler.

Lear served as a radio operator and gunner aboard a B-17 with the 772nd Bombardment Squadron, 463rd Bombardment Group of the Fifteenth Air Force. Within the documentary Bagels Over Berlin, Lear recalled losing a friend during a combat mission. He also recalled how his confidence gained when his squadron was flying along with the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-African-American squadron of combat pilots and bombers.

Norman Lear offered high praise for the Tuskeegee Airmen, who sometimes joined Lear's squadron during World War II missions. Lear revealed in the documentary Bagels Over Berlin that the all-African-American pilots influenced the characters he later developed for television.
Credit courtesy Alan Feinberg

"When we saw those red tails, I was just delighted," Lear said, referring to the tails of Tuskeegee Airmen planes. "They flew a little closer and they had red tails. You knew it was the Tuskeegee guys when you saw the red tails.

"They kind of danced in the sky. They were different than their white brothers."

Lear never forgot the Tuskeegee Airmen. Feinberg learned that during the interviews he conducted to prepare his documentary.

"I didn't know him, he didn't know me. He was gracious enough to accept (my invitation). We spoke about the war. It wasn't about his fame and fortune, it wasn't about his career," Feinberg said. "But the one time we touched on Hollywood was when he said he was very beholden to the Tuskeegee Airmen. That's why he felt the attachment and created those programs with black casts."

Three of the shows Lear is best known for developing featured African-Americans in leading roles and centering story lines around the lives of African-American families: "Sanford and Son," "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons." "Sanford and Son," like Lear's other creation "All In The Family," were adapted from British comedies. Through the character's run in "All In the Family" and later "The Jeffersons," African-American businessman George Jefferson slowly builds a successful chain of dry cleaning shops. In the latter series, his success allows him to move to a Manhattan East Side apartment.

His success, Lear admitted, is inspired by the success of the Tuskeegee Airmen.

"I like to think that's why there was a show called "The Jeffersons," a show called "Good Times" and a show called Sanford and Son. I was devoted."

(Bagels Over Berlin will be broadcast by WNED-TV Friday, June 1 at 2 a.m. and again at 2 p.m.)