Learned today that Ed Asner had died. And Lou Grant, along with him. A purist has left us.
I first met Mr. Grant, on tv, while working as a reporter for WBNS-TV, in Columbus, Ohio. I hadn’t paid any attention to the Mary Tyler Moore Show before Columbus, but when I got there and noticed everything in the newsroom either slowed or stopped when the “MTM” show came on, I too, started paying attention and laughing along with everybody else.
Often times, the buffoonery the show portrayed was close to the truth of what went on in America’s tv newsrooms. Sometimes, it was right on target. Uncomfortably so, for some of us in the business.
The second time I met Lou Grant, it was at a fundraiser for a youth symphony orchestra in Los Angeles, and he was playing Ed Asner. We were in what was serving as a “green room” for celebs. I knew who he was and was surprised when he knew who I was as well, and for some reason, maybe because he had played a tv newsman and I was a tv newsman, we hit it off and started talking about the news business.
It was his contention, that the news business was done. That it was dead, and that it wasn’t coming back. For my part, I argued that like everything else, the news game is cyclical, and while the trend toward “infotainment” may have taken us down the wrong path, surely it would not last. Surely, the pendulum would eventually swing back in the direction of journalism being primary and infotainment being secondary. I pointed out that we had previously gone from the “yellow journalism” of William Randolph Hearst, to the excellent product the New York Times and CBS News were putting out in the 1960’s, with Walter Cronkite on the news desk. “Not gonna happen,” he said. And that was that. Lou Grant in the person of Ed Asner, had spoken. Or maybe it was Ed Asner, speaking for Lou Grant. For just a minute there, as the conversation got a little heated, I wasn’t sure.
I never bumped into him again, at least not that I can remember. If you’re in Hollywood long enough you meet so many celebrities so many times that you forget who you met when or how often, and I was there for more than 30 years. What I can tell you is that I’m not sure Asner wasn’t right in his conviction that the golden era of American Journalism is over and that it won’t be coming back. At least, not like before. Not like it was when Lou Grant was City Editor at a major paper in Los Angeles, working for a family that cared about their reputation in the community as opposed to a corporation that cares only for the bottom line. I just don’t know. I do know from following his political causes that Ed Asner, was a purist. A great actor who gave life to the characters he portrayed and believed in the purity of the causes he supported like the United Farm Workers and the Screen Actors Guild, where he served two terms as president.
His death leaves a big hole in who we are. Regardless of what you might have thought about his politics. Perhaps I feel this way because I spent a lifetime in the news business. Or maybe it’s because Ed Asner was just that good at bringing to life the character of Lou Grant, and the ethical, principled and fair, old-school news business he represented.
He may have been art representing reality, but it’s a reality we all desperately need.