By the dawn of the 1970s, as he turned 40, Ed Asner had built a career as one of the solidest character actors in Hollywood. That’s no small deal.
Then he met Lou Grant, and by the time he turned 50 Ed Asner had become one of the best-known and well-liked actors on television.
That’s a bigger deal.
Asner would continue working pretty much right up to his death Sunday, at the age of 91. He played a slaveship master, a pope, Warren Buffet and an owl. He played Santa Claus more times than Santa has reindeer.
He got all those roles because he could play almost anybody. He could play funny, he could play mean, he could play goofy, he could play menacing, he could play happy, he could play disturbed, he could play smart. He was all the reasons “character actor” is such an underappreciated profession.
But he was also Lou Grant.
Few television actors have owned a character the way Ed Asner owned Lou Grant, whom he played from 1970 to 1977 on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and from 1977 to 1982 on the cleverly titled Lou Grant.
For The MTM show, Lou was the news director at fictional TV station WJM in Minneapolis, overseeing a staff that included Moore’s Mary Richards and an off-center bunch of colleagues that included pompous anchor Ted Baxter and mildly cynical writer Murray Slaughter.
As The MTM Show was a comedy, focusing on Mary Richards and outside matters like her love life and her friend Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), Asner often played Lou for laughs. He divided his time between being exasperating and exasperated while keeping his tie loosened at the collar and somehow managing to remain matter of fact.
Lou: I haven’t been this mad at anybody since…1944. Yeah…1944. That was the last time I let it all out.
Mary: Did anything. . . much . . . happen?
Lou: Huh? Oh. I captured a town in Germany.
Through it all Lou personified the gruff, irascible boss whose professional demands were deadly serious, but who also quietly loved the people who drove him nuts. The velvet glove coming in every day dressed as the iron fist.
Lou Grant, the show, moved Lou to Los Angeles, where he edited the fictional Los Angeles Tribune. While he still had a few zany characters around him, Lou Grant the show traded most of its one-liners for dramas revolving around the hard, tense and complicated world of the world.
Lou confronted questions that eventually challenge and baffle everyone in real-life journalism. When should a developing story be written and released? What does a reporter owe the accused? How does a newspaper balance official pronouncements with its own instincts about the truth? When does an incident become a news story? What’s fair?
Lou Grant didn’t suggest Lou or his staff always got it right. What endeared the show to real-life journalists is that it portrayed them as people almost always devoted more to accuracy than an agenda.
Ed Asner, who off-camera had outspoken and sometimes controversial opinions on socio-political issues, made Lou Grant into a boss and an editor who aimed for the truth even as he understood that’s an elusive and moving target.
Ed Asner’s Lou Grant made journalism look important and, at its best, honorable.
In a mild irony, Asner always contended that CBS cancelled Lou Grant, despite top-10 ratings, because Asner’s outside activism made network executives nervous.
The cancellation dropped an abrupt curtain on the character who would define Asner’s public image for his last four decades, despite the fact he played hundreds more roles.
Fans who like to find familiar faces in guest spots on other dramas could make a career out of Asner spottings, since he guested on every show from The Untouchables, The Defenders, Mission: Impossible, The Fugitive and Here Come the Brides to Criminal Minds, Hawaii Five-O, ER, Blue Bloods and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
When he wasn’t on cameras, he was talking behind them, as a voiceover in, among others, SpongeBob SquarePants, Spider-Man and WordGirl.
Lou Grant was never overtly cuddly. He showed and received affection through respect, and the unspoken message from those who worked for him, starting with Mary Richards, was that “you’re not fooling anyone, ya big lug.”
Ed Asner, on the other hand, spent seven impressive decades making us believe he belonged in hundreds of different pairs of shoes.