These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.
Even more than the slightly more famous line that follows it in the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “You know what? You got spunk” is given perfect, character-defining spin by Edward Asner. In his introductory scene as Lou Grant, the news producer at Minneapolis television station WJM, Asner spars with the star of the show, conducted a job interview filled with legally forbidden queries and accompanied by a pour of desk-drawer scotch. After Moore, playing Mary Richards brusquely decalres she doesn’t appreciate the inappropriate questions, Asner offers the observation about spunk. It’s an inversion of countless movies and television shows where the heroine dazzles with her moxie. Asner could have set up the joke by playing the fake-out compliment sincerely, duping the audience before the pivot to snarl, “I hate spunk!” Instead, he exaggerates the praise just enough to signal to anyone paying proper attention that he’s making a mockery of the very spunkiness he’s citing. Asner acting is terrific precisely because Lou’s acting is mediocre. Right from the start, Asner was working on more levels than sitcoms usually allowed.
The series makes haste to get to the splendid contradictions within Lou. The first portion of the episode showcases the gruff newsroom boss, barking orders and insults. In the second half of the show, Lou pays a visit to his newly hired employee, Mary. He’s inebriated and feeling lovelorn because his wife is out of town. He seeks Mary’s help in typing out a love letter to his wife. It’s disarmingly sweet, establishing the softie inside of the brash broadcast journalist.
Across the seven seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Asner took those initial stakes set as the distant poles of the character and filled in the whole spectrum in between, doing it all with crack comic timing. As the series went on, he was also afforded opportunities to take Lou into more purely dramatic moments, many of them revolving around his dissolving marriage to the wife he woozily tapped out a letter to on Mary’s typewriter. Priscilla Morrill was eventually cast to play Lou’s wife, Edie. Morrill, as seasoned stage actor, brought a gentle gravitas to many of her scenes, and Asner responded in kind, infusing deeply felt humanity into the role.
It was presumably those scenes, rich with downbeat vulnerability, that suggested to James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, an orthodox avenue to follow in concocting a spin-off series for Asner’s character at the conclusion of the sitcom’s run. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had already spawned two companion series, Rhoda and Phyllis, both conventional half-hour comedies. Working with Gene Reynolds, an original executive producer of M*A*S*H, Brooks and Burns decided Lou Grant could carry a drama series. The character, ousted from WJM-TV in the series finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, takes a job as the city editor of a Los Angeles daily newspaper.
“The subsequent transformation of Lou from a situation-comedy foil to a serious journalist dealing with complex issues was one of the more impressive entertainment miracles of the last decade,” John O’Connor wrote in The New York Times, upon the air of final episode of Lou Grant, after a five-season run. “Much of the credit, of course, must go to Mr. Asner, a superb character actor who clearly recognized the rich possibilities of the single role.”
It’s a measure of Asner’s skills that he didn’t transform his performance so much as temper it. Lou Grant took its foundational premise as impetus to address the issues of the day, usually from a standpoint that leaned in direction of Asner’s personal politics. (It definitely didn’t skew as far left as Asner, though, bless his agitator soul.) Largely freed from the tyranny of punchlines, Asner brought a sharp intelligence to Lou in the drama series. If The Mary Tyler Moore Show was bolstered by Asner’s presence, Lou Grant was given true authority and powerful direction from it. Asner won three Emmys playing Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and two more during his time heading Lou Grant. To date, he’s still the only person to win acting Emmys for the same role in both comedy and drama series categories for two different series. (Uzo Aduba has also won both comedy and drama series Emmys for the same role, but that’s because Orange Is the New Black did some category roaming during its time as an awards favorite.)
When Lou Grant was cancelled following production on its fifth season, Asner insisted his outside politics were a factor: “For the word is out that if you’re a dissenter or a doubter or even, heavens forbid, a Democrat, you are also disgraceful, disingenuous, disloyal, and just downright un-American,” he said.
He wasn’t wrong. The Reagan White House stealthily organized an ad hoc group called the Caucus of Conservative Consumers. They were hellbent on punishing Asner and mounted write-in campaigns, including highly aghast letters to local newspapers, insisting his radical views poisoned the program. After CBS announced the cancellation, the group was quickly and quietly dismantled. By then, Asner had played Lou Grant for twelve years, and his legacy was secure. In the annals of television, few sustained performances can compare in range and authority. There are a wall of trophies with Asner’s name engraved on them that attest to it.