Closeup/Television

The trials of Lou Grant

It isn’t easy—ask Ed Asner—making it on your own

David Cobb February 20 1978
Closeup/Television

The trials of Lou Grant

It isn’t easy—ask Ed Asner—making it on your own

David Cobb February 20 1978

The trials of Lou Grant

Closeup/Television

It isn’t easy—ask Ed Asner—making it on your own

David Cobb

It was touch and go there for a while. The early gnomic revelations from Great God Ratings had not been promising for Lou Grant: one of the season’s most highly touted new offerings, it had been bouncing around the perilous 40 mark in the national Nielsens. Indeed it looked very much as if CBS would cancel it after just 13 shows. Instead, holding its breath against nervous gas, CBS prolonged the program by just four shows rather than the nine which would have rounded out the season—an act of faltering faith that only increased the tension on the Lou Grant set. Came the day, shortly before Christmas, when the Nielsens showed that Grant for

the first time had beaten its competition on both ABC and NBC... but perhaps you had to be there to understand the awful joy produced in ordinary people by the vagaries of a rating system that determines from a mere 1,200 U.S. homes what North Americans will view, which performers will be bestowed with riches beyond avarice. In the fervid fens of commercial prime time it is not enough that your show win; the others must be shown to fail.

And so Edward Asner, the immensely likable actor who plays city editor Grant,

did his share of jumping up and down when the news was phoned to him on the set, out there on the lot where Mack Sennett, Canada’s own, used to film the Keystone Kops. The pressure on Asner, after all, was greater than on anyone else: he’d played Lou Grant for seven years already, of course, but as a second banana on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Now it was his show. It was an hour, it was drama, he was going to see if he would be the first major character in TV history to make the switch from comedy successfully. Small wonder that he was bouncing off the walls, slapping fellow-actors and crew on the back— the euphoric side effects from the antidote of one good rating after a succession of poor ones.

A little later the same day came the news that CBS, newly fortified in its faith, had renewed the show for the remaining five slots of the season. A tremendous roar went up from the cast and crew. “But to tell you the truth,” Asner allowed, “ratings are more indicative to me of life’s sustenance than the news that we were picked up.”

In the weeks since then, life’s sustenance has been handed out to Asner, 48, in increasing amounts—in the New Year Lou Grant has begun to figure in the Top Twenty. This was good news for the executives at Mary Tyler Moore Enterprises as well, since the other shows under the MTM banner—only two years ago the blue chips of television—have been having a lousy season. One recent week when Lou Grant was rated eleventh, the other MTM shows were scored thirtieth (Tony Randall), thirty-first (Bob Newhart), thirty-second (Rhoda), and fifty-ninth (The Betty White Show, last seen January 9 on CBS ).

If its precipitous drop down the ratings was a puzzlement for fans of the bright and funny Betty White Show, the manner of its cancellation by CBS was an outrage for the MTM brass. Perhaps panicked, after ruling so much of the ratings roost for two decades, by its eclipse at the hands of upstart ABC, CBS dumped Betty White with almost indecent haste soon after the season began—when its ratings in fact were better than Lou Grant's. “We just didn’t think’ Betty White was going to build,” a CBS spokesman said at the time.*

*I/CBS is in trouble, spare a prayer for NBC, subsidiary of mighty RCA and oldest of the networks at 52. Of the Top Twenty in the latest available Nielsens, II were ABC shows, eight (including two sports specials) were CBS, and precisely one was NBC. To pile insult on insult, it was a Movie of the Week, and it was thirteenth. Hence the current Q&A: What’s the difference between NBC and the Titanic? The Titanic had an orchestra.

The fury and hurt raging through the corridors of MTM Enterprises, which had swollen the CBS coffers by many millions over the previous seven years, might have fueled an alternative heating unit for a family of four through several Canadian winters. “We did have a track record,” says Allan Burns, one of the creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a senior MTM

executive, “and I think CBS might have given us more of a shake. Everything takes time to build. Look at Mary: it didn’t do too well at all when it started in 1970.” Indeed, Time magazine called it “a disaster” and Asner’s Lou Grant “a drunken clown.”

However, Betty White's eccentric, satiric wit was finding ever smaller audiences; just as Phyllis—Cloris Leachman’s earlier spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, with an unparalleled depth of comic char-

acterization—had died last year after barely limping through two seasons. The fact that both shows went down the tube, and off it, says something still about viewers’ attitudes to women. Both White and Leachman characters were perceived as not vulnerable and therefore—since they never smiled bravely through tears—not feminine: in White’s case, altogether too

acidic; in Leachman’s, too much a featherbrain (like the character Georgia Engel made famous as Ted Baxter’s wife, only Engel plays her warmly). Audiences accept that kind of self-centred toughness all the time from male actors, but apparently not, in starring roles, from female ones. Let such characters not get too uppity, let them stay in supporting roles; even better, like

the late Judith Lowry as Phyllis' Mother Dexter, wait to play them in your eighties.

But one of television’s superstitions is to be wary of shows too highly touted, especially if they’re your own. Grant and Mary Tyler Tinker, chairman and president of MTM, have that etched on their hearts by now: under the sign of the meowing cat, Friends And Lovers (with Paul Sand) and Texas Wheelers (with Jack Elam) also collapsed despite enormous expectations; and when Lou Grant started to get early praise from press previews that exceeded in fervor all the others, the Tinkers quailed. The Washington Post, which uncovered Watergate, revealed that as well as being the best new TV show of the season, Lou Grant was “not only what television needs, but what America needs.” Let’s pray, thought Tinker devoutly, that it’s what America wants.

To begin with, it didn’t look as if it was. Sure, it generally got good marks—and continues to earn them—for presenting a newspaper’s newsroom, and some of its concerns, faithfully. Previous efforts at journalistic series—Kingston (Raymond Burr), The Reporter (Harry Guardino) and the recent Andros Targets (James Sutorius)—made the fatal mistake of presenting the reporter as supergod of the keys, which God knows he ain’t. In Lou Grant, nobody’s a saint, nobody has yet yelled “Stop the presses!” or “Get me rewrite!”; some of the subplots have struck particularly sensitive journalistic nerves (item: a recent conflict between the Tribune's news demands and those of its ad department), and anyone who has worked on any newspaper anywhere has known a Rossi, the sharp, unscrupulous, bylinehungry, fallible smart aleck embodied to a mackintoshed T by Robert Walden.

Whether anyone has ever come across a city editor like Lou Grant is another matter. A father confessor with a heart of marshmallow, who spends an incredible amount of time away from his desk, is not the kind of city editor who leaps instantly to the journalistic mind as 1) recognizable, and 2) very likely to keep his job. Other demurrers have come from press photographers, a feisty bunch, who have complained that the only Tribune photographer we see, known simply as Animal and the sort of guy you wouldn’t want to get too close to for fear of attracting insect life, is ... well, just not real enough.

No matter. Lou Grant deserves points for searching out some kind of authenticity and, with the professional help of the Los Angeles Times, finding it. Remember the first show, Lou arriving in the Trib’s newsroom from Minneapolis (where he’d been fired, with everyone else but Ted, from the TV station)? Looking about him, desks in vibrantly seedy disarray, Grant the former newspaperman mutters: “It’s like making love to a woman who doesn’t shave her legs—you may not like it much, but it’s real.”

Still, even qualified authenticity doesn’t

guarantee success, and as the season picked up speed, Lou Grant, after a promising opener, seemed to lose it. As its ratings hovered close to the basement it looked as if the only people getting off on the show were journalists, and they’ve never figured highly among Nielsen’s sacred 1,200.

Among the people working for it there were plenty of quick excuses. CBS, they explained, had slotted them on the wrong night, opposite ABC’S Family, with which it had to compete for the same type of audience, and various blockbusting specials from NBC. Besides, they added, it takes time for an hour-long show to find its audience—and on top of that, viewers were nonplussed when they tuned into a show called Lou Grant and heard no laughter from a studio audience. Old Grant fans were even more upset when the early shows tried to combine comedy and drama.

“I’d no idea so many would say, ‘Why can’t he stay just the same as before?’” Asner remarks as one day’s shooting draws to a close. “And to take a second banana and make him a top banana, out of a half-hour sitcom into an hour-long drama—that’s asking a lot of the viewer. Hell, it’s asking a lot of me.” The eyes disappear in the Lou Grant grin. “Tell you the truth, I didn’t know what I was doing, the first few weeks, and I was finding the desk the bottleneck for Lou’s character. The writers have done a tremendously inventive job of getting me away from it—I’ll defend each and every one of my absences from the city room.”

Asner, of course, is not out of the wood yet. Late in January his show was moved to CBS’s Monday night schedule. Not being on Monday nights at the start of the season was one of the main reasons cited by MÎM Enterprises for Lou doing so poorly: now that it’s doing so much better they have another fear—will its newfound Tuesday audiences switch with them to Mondays? If they don’t, and if the show fails to do respectably on its new night for the rest of the season, CBS may decide that one season of Lou Grant is all it’s worth: hour-long dramas costing $350,000 an episode will be expendable if they don’t draw enough viewers—and if the network can only find something to plug the gap.

Asner recognizes this but he is hardly an overnight success, and unlikely to look for the leak in life’s gas pipe if the show is not retained. He grew up in Kansas City, helped himself through early acting days around Chicago with jobs in auto plants and steel mills, moved to the New York stages 20 years ago, then to Los Angeles in the Sixties where he made a name as a character actor in films and TV dramas long before the comedy of The MTM Show made Lou Grant the best-known lovable grouch in North America. I recall a conversation not long ago with another well-known second banana, who had said the fninuses of

TV fame were hardly outweighed by the pluses: Asner has no truck with the notion.

“I’ve been so graced, so fortunate,” he says, “how dare I talk about minuses? Often I feel I’m drowning in people, my face aching with smiles. . . but if we could all rise to the top, making increasing amounts of money, having the kind of clout to get tables in full restaurants, good seats in packed theatres, chauffeured limos you never have to park, without being besieged in supermarkets, or for charity, or for political services you can’t in good conscience refuse—yes, that would be ideal. But it doesn’t work that way.”

Not for Edward Asner, in any case, the

man Robert Walden calls “the Spencer Tracy of TV, the rock on whom we all depend, the most generous actor I’ve ever worked with.” Plainly the Asner conscience is alive and well. The following day was a Saturday, the only day of the week he could be home with his wife and family (two daughters and a son). In the morning he brushed the dogs, drove off to rent a tux, returned home to rehearse his lines for a CBS special to be telecast live the following day; in the afternoon he hosted a meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union; in the evening appeared on a charity telethon. How much of that would real city editors manage before crying -30?