Updated August 29, 2021
A few scribbles on the topic of Yitzhak Edward Asner (b. 1929), who has just passed away. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Asner grew up in Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas, served in the army, attended the University of Chicago, and became one of the earliest alum of the theatre company that would evolve into Second City. This strongly midwestern background, combined with a naturally gruff exterior, made him ideal for the Minneapolis newsman Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), and later his own eponymous series (1977-82). And though Asner’s played scores of roles before and since, do any of these ever spring to mind? Not for me!
Lou Grant was innovative for all sorts of reasons. The most notable one was it took the extremely unusual step of plucking a character from a half-hour TV sitcom, and placing him into a one-hour drama. And it not only worked, it was exceedingly good, winning top ratings and several Emmys. (A couple of years later Trapper John, M.D. would become one of the few shows to ever successfully repeat that formula)
On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Grant had been Mary’s boss, a local TV producer with an intimidating manner but a secret heart of gold. In the new show, the character returns to his newspaper roots, taking a job at a prominent Los Angeles paper. The new show owed a lot to All the President’s Men, I think, with its romanticization of crusading journalists out to bring down bad guys — and the dilemmas they sometimes face in the process. Familiar face (and voice) Mason Adams played Lou’s managing editor, and (most rewarding of all to recall), Nancy Marchand, now best remembered for playing Tony Soprano’s mom, played his publisher, a character loosely based on the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham (most recently portrayed on screen by Meryl Streep in The Post). Robert Walden, who’d actually been in All the President’s Men) played one of his lead reporters; and, this being the 70s, Linda Kelsey played the requisite tough, independent lady reporter. (Naturally there had been female reporter characters in film and broadcasting going back for decades prior to this, and feminism was on the rise in the ’70s, but not yet to such an extent that we could take having lots of women for granted. It was still just the one token character).
Other things we took for granted in those rosy old days: 1) The now apparently radical idea that journalists who brought down the powerful were not only competent and heroic, but actually existed. Thanks to the erosion of the American mind by Fox News and many politicians, some appalling percentage of the American populace now has the cynical, not to say delusional, idea that the “liberal mainstream news media” just makes up its stories, and, that being the case, what the media should actually do is parrot the pronouncements of the right wing as an instrument of propaganda. We now live in an environment where the President browbeats the media daily, and, his followers commit acts of violence against it, as happened in June at the Capital Gazette, and in the recent mailbombs.
Which is all bad enough. But we also took for granted: 2) The existence of print media at all. There was once an ocean of it. It has been evaporating to the extent we are surrounded by a few puddles. Here in NYC, the Village Voice (which I used to write for) finally winked out of existence a few months back; and the NYC Community Media papers I had been writing for most recently, have been swallowed up by another chain and consolidated. The process has been going on for decades, and the future of the existence of print at all is not promising.
Now I’m not going to lay this all at the feet of Ed Asner (!), however this headline from TV Guide in the late ’70s, I think points to a moment that leads to the sea change:
Ego? Hubris? As we wrote in this earlier piece, Asner and many of his brother and sister actors did not endear themselves to a significant portion of the American populace by holdings themselves up to be the saviors of mankind. And Asner went further than most. He was openly, outspokenly, card-carryingly socialist in a time when almost no one else even dared use that word (“Liberal? Yes. Progressive? Yes. Socialist? Don’t libel me with the epithet!”) Even in the Hollywood of the 1970s, Asner was farther to the left than most. In 1981 he became President of the powerful Screen Actors Guild, giving him a still louder bullhorn for his views. In fact, his became one of the most prominent voices of dissent in the nation against a former president of that same union, who had now become President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. When Lou Grant, which was still top ten in the ratings, was cancelled in 1982, Asner was vociferous in propagating his belief that the cancellation was for political reasons. And it’s true, the timing of his cancellation doesn’t pass the smell test, given the show’s level of success at the time.
I think one may however overstate the extent the degree to which the animus was against Asner having left-wing opinions, as opposed to having opinions at all, though. Television, even television drama, is theoretically an entertainment medium, one supported by corporate advertisers and underwriters. I’m not going to have a heart attack if I learn such people don’t want to sponsor a platform for a socialist spokesperson, nor (it may distress you to know) do I question the logic or rightness of a private corporation parting ways with a prominent employee calls into question their very existence. Actors have their rights; the stockholders have theirs. While it’s certainly doleful that private capital has dominated American media for so long and to such an extent, it’s still not a First Amendment issue when a company pulls the plug for whatever reason. That being the case, other private resources need to be found to get your message out.
At any rate, far from having been blacklisted, Asner went on to play hundreds of other roles after Lou Grant, and starred or co-starred in no less than ten series subsequently (more even than McLean Stevenson): Off the Rack (1984-85), The Bronx Zoo (1987-88), The Trials of Rose O’Neill (1991-92), Hearts Afire (1992-93), Thunder Alley (1994-95), The Closer (1998), Center of the Universe (2004-05), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007), The Line (2009), and Working Class (2011). He also had recurring parts on many other series, and regular voice-over roles on still more. The most inevitable of which was perhaps J. Jonah Jameson on an animated Spiderman series (1994-98). Iconic late roles included Santa in Elf (2003) and the Old Man in Up (2009). Asner was acting up right until his death, with numerous projects in the can yet to be released. That’ll learn ’em!