In the mid ’90s, when I was 23 and living in Hollywood, I made a trip to the post office to get my passport. Next to the FBI’s most wanted list was a flyer with a number to call if drunk and in need of a designated driver. Ed Asner, television’s “Lou Grant,” was one of the friendly faces on the flyer. Everybody knew “Lou Grant.”
He’d had been on television half my life at the time. In fact, Lou showed up on television two years before I was born. Not long after I learned to talk, I described a bald head with hair on the sides as a Lou Grant. In my head, men walked into the barber shop and said, “Hey, can you give me a Lou Grant?” Nobody was confused when I said this, so I never called it anything else.
I tugged at my husband, and said, “I want Lou Grant to pick us up.” Lou Grant was picking up drunk people and I wanted in. But I didn’t drink, so I needed my drinking husband on board. So I persisted. “What do I have to do to get “Lou Grant” to pick me up at the bar?” That husband had a knack for ignoring me. He just kept filling out the form.
After a few moments of silence, he said, “I know Matt Asner.” I couldn’t tell if he was bragging or answering the question.
My eyes got wide. “You do? Why isn’t he at our house every day? Can we drive by his house?”
“Yeah, I used to pick up Matt at his house in Bel-Air, and Ed would be gardening.” Lou Grant had a green thumb. I never thought I would need that information, nor did I think I’d be fact checking it, but sure enough, both Matt (he has a twin, Liza, and a sister, Kate, and another brother, Charles) and the green thumb are mentioned in this People magazine article from 1978.
Although those designated driver flyers are long gone, I found evidence of that, too. Maybe not exactly the evidence I wanted, since I found no mention of his actually driving drunks home, but it was all my imagination in overdrive: “Lou Grant” was somehow involved in driving drunk people around, even if he was just lending his voice-over talent for radio spots and not his driving skills to an organization that brokered the service.
Of the lovable curmudgeon he played on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Asner, who died Sunday at the age of 91, once said he feared being relied upon for laughs: “Not that I couldn’t do an initial spark of humor, but I didn’t know how to maintain it. I was afraid of not being able to maintain it.” But then, he didn’t have to carry the laughs in the show. He was the straight man to one of the best ensemble casts ever: Mary Tyler Moore, Ted Knight, Gavin McCloud, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, and Betty White. With steadfast adherence to quality journalism, Lou Grant, along with Mary, trussed the debauchery in the newsroom. And about the funny business, surely he was kidding. There is no better moment in television comedy than:
Lou, to Mary: “You’ve got spunk.” Beat two three four. “I hate spunk.”
After The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended in 1977, after seven seasons, a remarkable thing happened. Lou Grant got spun off into his own show. But it wasn’t a comedy, it was an ensemble drama set in a daily newspaper’s newsroom, where Lou was the editor. In the history of spinoffs, this might be the only time that a character jumped not only to another show but to a completely different genre. And the jump was successful: Of the seven Emmys that Asner won, five were for his role as Lou Grant—three for the Mary Tyler Moore version and two for dramatic Lou.
You could argue that for more than a decade, Lou Grant was as much the face of American journalism as Walter Cronkite, and Cronkite had the overwhelming advantage of being a real person. Somehow Hollywood got it right: Ask any journalist, and they’ll tell you that at some point in their career, they worked for someone a lot like Lou Grant.
Credit his scriptwriters for some of that, but ultimately it was Asner who wowed us, with his homely everyman looks and his cynicism always checked by his humanity. He was such a good actor that he disappeared entirely into the role, so much so that we forgot all about Asner as soon as Lou Grant showed up on screen. Drunk or sober, who wouldn’t want to cop a ride home from him?
Flat out, Lou Grant was more real to us than Ed Asner. Asner was merely an actor, maybe a bad husband (he left his first wife after copping to fathering a child out of wedlock), and a very outspoken liberal. But none of that affected how we felt about Lou: When Asner, then the president of the Screen Actors Guild, started sounding off about U. S. involvement in El Salvador, the brass at CBS suddenly cancelled Lou Grant after its fifth season. Maybe some advertisers got cold feet over Asner’s candor (Charlton Heston called him a commie). But the public didn’t seem to care at all. They certainly didn’t blame Lou Grant. In its last season, the show that bore his name had consistently high ratings, and in its last month it stayed stuck firmly on Nielsen’s list of the top ten most popular shows. Lou was lovable to the end.
Ed Asner was born November 15, 1929 in Kansas City, Missouri to Lizzie (nee Seliger) and Morris Day Asner, both Russian-Jewish immigrants. He was raised Orthodox Jewish and attended Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, and later attended the University of Chicago. He started his professional acting career at the Playwrights Theater Company in Chicago, then moved to New York City, where he performed both on and off Broadway.
Prior to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, he was a character actor in more TV shows than his mother could remember, including Mission: Impossible, The Outer Limits, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. His second film appearance was in Kid Galahad (1962), starring Elvis Presley. He was the voice behind the short-tempered albeit tenderhearted Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s Academy Award-winning film Up (2009) and played Santa Claus in Elf (2003) and Warren Buffet in HBO’s Too Big to Fail (2011). He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from November 3, 1981, to June 20, 1985.
In a six-part interview with the Television Academy, Asner was asked how he felt about his lifetime of achievement in television. “It’s nice to be inscribed in the good book life,” he said. On how he’d like to be remembered: “as a good actor.” Way ahead of you, sir.