BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Oh, Mr. Grant!
Edward Asner, the irascible Lou Grant to a generation of TV viewers and aspiring journalists, recalls his 1970 preliminary audition for The Mary Tyler Moore Show:
“I hadn’t done much comedy on film. Didn’t have much confidence in myself,” said Asner, then a struggling actor from the Midwest who read for MTM producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns.
“They said it was a very intelligent reading,” says Asner, who replied, “You mean it’s not funny.”
Right. Next time, Brooks and Burns told him, do it “wild wiggy, all-out crazy.”
“I read it like a meshuga,” Asner says. “They laughed their asses off. They said, ‘Read it just like that with Mary.’ ”
The next week, Asner auditioned with star Mary Tyler Moore. “I read it wiggy wacky,” he said. “She stared at me in disbelief.”
“Are you sure?” she said to Brooks and Burns, who replied, “That’s your Lou Grant.”
Throughout Asner’s 1970-82 run as the gruff newsman (first on MTM, then on the succeeding drama, Lou Grant) he won five Emmy Awards as the character. He also won Emmys for roles in the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) and Roots (1977).
Asner, who trained in the late ’50s and early ’60s as a performer with The Second City in Chicago, is known for his ensemble work. In August, he goes into rehearsal opposite Paul Rudd for a Broadway comedy-drama, Grace.
Nothing tops his glory days on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran seven years Saturday nights on CBS.
“We always felt we were top of the roost,” says Asner, who confides that in 1970, “there wasn’t a lot of confidence by the brass of CBS in Mary.”
“I guess they were fogies,” he said, adding that the network originally planned to air the show on Tuesday nights opposite ABC’s hit The Mod Squad.
Asner describes his MTM co-stars, who each had successful stage and TV careers after the series ended in 1977:
- Moore (Mary Richards): “I was enchanted by her, naturally.”
- Valerie Harper (Rhoda Morgenstern): “She was perfect. Wide mouthed, wide assed. Jewish girl from New York.” Harper actually was raised Roman Catholic.
- Cloris Leachman (Phyllis Lindstrom): “Loose cannon. And a delight.”
- Gavin MacLeod (Murray Slaughter): “The sweetest pussycat in the world.”
- Betty White (Sue Ann Nivens): “She was wonderful. She’s a trouper. She doesn’t make problems.”
- Georgia Engel (Georgette Franklin): “There’s not a mean bone in her body. She’s her own boss. She’s not a patsy for anybody.”
- Ted Knight (Ted Baxter): “The funniest man I had ever seen. ... He was very paranoid, too, when I was busy winning the awards in the first and second year.” Knight won his Emmys in 1973 and ’76.
Asner says he and Knight were best friends until 1982. “He was questioned at a press conference on the cancellation of Lou Grant. He said it was a boring show. Never liked it. He felt that I was being used and stuff like that. I never talked to him again , until he lay dying.”
Just before Knight’s death from cancer in 1984, Asner visited him. “He was out of it. ... He was babbling. I tried to get through his babbling to make him think he was still my brother, and I still loved him and all that.”