Ed Asner was Lou Grant, the nation’s favorite newsman for more than a decade. It didn’t matter if fans were laughing with his character or following along on major news stories.
First, as Lou Grant, he directed the breezy, funny, WJM-TV news operation on The Mary Tyler Moore Show from 1970-77. And then he got serious in his own show, a The Mary Tyler Moore Show spinoff. Lou Grant was a drama, with Asner starring as a city editor at the Los Angeles Tribune newspaper.
Lou Grant was one of three Mary Tyler Moore spinoffs, but was the only drama. They were all named after their characters — Lou Grant, Phyllis and Rhoda.
Although the focus of the shows differed drastically, they all were written and created by the same people. So there was consistency, across the board. Still, show creators were taking a chance with the audience. Would viewers like and watch Ed Asner as Lou Grant in a serious drama? There was only one other example. The character Trapper John from M*A*S*H was the focus of the medical drama, Trapper John MD.
But Wayne Rogers played Trapper John in M*A*S*H, the comedy set in the Korean War. Pernell Roberts, who played Adam Cartwright on Bonanza, was Trapper John, the noted San Francisco doctor in the drama. The show ran from 1979-86.
Lou Grant was a network mainstay from 1977-82. And it was one of the best shows on TV.
Ed Asner, In Lou Grant, Went Back to His Newspaper Roots
In the show, Ed Asner as Lou Grant went back to his roots. WJM-TV fired him at the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He landed as a city editor for a major Los Angeles daily.
In an interview with Closer Weekly in 2019, Asner said he knew the spinoff would be successful. The writing sold him.
“That show definitely had the stamp of approval,” Asner said. “It was a good show. I can remember when we first started out and the rest of the cast, the other guys, were saying ‘Will we make it? Will we make it?’ What I said is, ‘I don’t give a s–t. If I just keep doing scripts this good, that’s all I care about. Whether they cancel us or not isn’t important. The fact that we’ve got this good stuff to do is all that matters.’
“I think that quality work is more important than anything. People talk about the show in terms of a revolution for television, but I didn’t think in those terms. It’s just that it was well done. You just need to do good work. Of course, you never know that so much as when you’re doing good stuff and then that’s over. Then the s–t comes in.”
Collectively, Lou Grant won 13 Emmys, including two for best drama. And Asner accomplished something unique, thanks to his character. Previously, he won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy for playing Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And he won Best Actor for playing Lou Grant in the drama. He did that in 1978 and 1980.
“I grudgingly accepted this new ensemble,” Asner said of the Lou Grant cast. “I was looking to see how merited they were, and as time went on, I realized that each in their way was as valuable, if not more so, than anyone on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. When you look at the cast of Lou Grant, it was a brilliant ensemble.”
Asner now is 91. The original cast of The Mary Tyler Moore was pretty brilliant, too. He’s one of three members of the cast who are still with us. Gavin MacLeod, who played Murray, is 90. And Betty White, who was Sue Ann Nivens, is 99.