“Speaking Freely” show recorded Oct. 24, 2002, in Baltimore.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and the arts. I’m Ken Paulson. Today, we’re joined by one of the most honored men in television history, Mr. Ed Asner. Welcome.
Ed Asner: Thank you.
Paulson: Ed, that is not a false compliment. It’s absolutely true. You’ve been honored virtually more than anyone else. From “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Lou Grant Show,” to “Roots.” Over and over again, people have recognized your work. How many Emmys have you won now?
Asner: I just happen to remember.
Paulson: And it all began really in a big way for you when you joined “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Paulson: How did that come about?
Asner: I had avoided comedy. In those days, you got discovered by doing the drama shows as a guest star. So, I had just come off my worst two years, then had, amazingly, my best year. And fortunately, I was called in to read for “Mary Tyler Moore” right after my best year. So I had the experience of starvation, and I had the experience of rescue, and I could equate the two. And I went in, and I read. As I say, I had avoided comedy. Could always do comedy, but I was afraid of it. I read, and the two genius producers, Allan Burns and Jim Brooks, said, “That’s an intelligent reading, but when we have” — that’s a kiss of death — “when we have you back with Mary, we want you to do it really crazy, crazy, crazy.” I didn’t know what they meant. I started to say, “Okay.” Walked out, and I said, “You know, let’s not — I don’t know what you’re talking about, but let me try it that way, and if I don’t do it, don’t have me back.” So I read it that way. They laughed their ass off. They had me back, after I read with Mary, trying to remember how crazy I had been, and left, and she turned to them and said, “Are you sure?”
Paulson: Did you have any idea how special a show that was going to be?
Asner: All I knew was that we were guaranteed on the air for 13, that I — in my nine years in Hollywood up to that point, I’d not had scripts or a character like that, and I didn’t care whether the show went into the toilet after the 13 or not. I would never have a chance to do that kind of writing again.
Paulson: And it got better and better, and your role really grew.
Asner: Yeah, yeah. Twelve years of doing that role.
Paulson: Well, that’s it, and — what was so extraordinary about after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” goes off the air, there you exit the air in a group hug, and no one is sure whether they’ll ever see Lou Grant again. I think most people didn’t necessarily expect to see Lou Grant again. And then the next time we see you, it’s on a plane. That character’s on a plane into Los Angeles to apply for a job at a Los Angeles newspaper. What a creative risk that was. No one took a sitcom character and put them in a drama before.
Asner: It’ll never be done again. It was a two-year nightmare for me.
Asner: Nobody associated with it had ever done an hour series, I mean, as a recurring character, writer, producer, director. Nobody knew the unbelievable sea change between doing a three-camera live comedy to a one-camera filmed drama. It’s an enormous — it’s a hugely — never been done before and will never be done again. I was constantly told by the two producers — I was able to get Allan Burns and Jim Brooks to be my producers and our director Jay Sandrich, who directed most of the comedies — “OK, now, we’re not going to be down on the set with you, so you got to remember who Lou is, who Lou is. You got to keep that spirit of Lou.” Well, I kept trying to keep that spirit of Lou with no laughs, because it’s a filmed drama, but making sure that when the jokes were there, that, you know, I was telling everybody it was funny, you know. So finally — I was in therapy at the time. And after the show opened — and that’s the one thing I got out of that therapist. I asked him if he had seen it, and he said, “Yeah.” I said, “What’d you think?” “Why do you grimace so much?” “Oh, God.” So finally, middle of the season — even though the first shows were good — middle of the season, I said, “I can’t keep trying to do that Lou. I’ve got to read these scripts, do the man that’s written there, and forget all those.” I finally settled down.
Paulson: That show started relatively slowly in the ratings, didn’t do very well.
Asner: Oh, yeah. Well, the first two weeks in TV Guide — I don’t know if it was CBS’s fault or TV Guide’s — they listed it as “Lou Grant, a comedy.”
Paulson: Well, that would be a rude surprise for the audience, because it’s got its funny moments, but —
Asner: They thought they’d tune in and see some of the old “Mary” gang.
Paulson: Yeah, that’s right. But the funny thing that happened with the show is that the critics loved it and wrote about it in very positive terms. And it was a time in television when they would give a new show that had lousy ratings a chance if somebody saw some merit in it.
Asner: Well, there was that, plus that fact that CBS had been such a top dog up to that point. They really didn’t have a replacement for us, so they couldn’t yank us that quickly. And in those days, they didn’t yank quickly. Now it’s a nightmare. It’s a nightmare. The first show I did after “Lou Grant,” they yanked after six shows. Now some shows don’t even have that.
Asner: So they didn’t have anything to replace it, and it had gotten such critical acclaim because we were, we were a sitting duck for the fourth estate.
Asner: So we lasted, and when we got all the honors that year, it would have looked foolish for CBS to cancel us.
Paulson: I would think that “The Lou Grant Show,” the newspaper show, would have been a really good fit for you. I mean, you’re a man who cares about issues, and that show said something. Was that a satisfying part of the job for you, despite those two tough years?
Asner: Well, it was nowhere near the fun that “Mary” was.
Paulson: The show actually drew about 20 to 25 million people a week throughout its run. Always a popular show, but not necessarily number one or two. It was —
Paulson: — it was not the kind of giant hit that “Mary Tyler Moore Show” was.
Asner: Well, that’s what I was trying to say before, that “Mary” was fun, because to have a live audience and get those laughs and have them at the same time recorded on film is a wonderful, wonderful pleasure, dying and going to heaven. “Lou Grant” was grinding out, grinding it out, and, dealing — so that the process was not the fun, because I was doing that same character, doing the very limited opportunities of acting but it was the mission we were on. By that mission, airing the issues that we dealt with, and at that time, we were probably the only show that took on those issues. At the time, I also said, we probably wouldn’t deal with bussing, gun control, and I guess, abortion. Everything else we got into pretty good.
Paulson: You know, we know you’re a fine actor. You’ve established that over your career, but there’s a journalist in there somewhere. Because — that role was so recognizable — those of us who worked for newspapers, we knew city editors like Lou Grant. And that newsroom was so authentic.
Asner: I researched the hell out of it. Really. We had two guys from the L.A. Times always sitting around telling us what was right, what was wrong.
Paulson: I also understand that as a young man, you were a features editor at a newspaper.
Asner: I was — actually, I never made it to the big spot, but I was, I was the feature page editor of the Wyandotte High School Pentagram — the only editor who was an editor and played football at the same time. And I really knew how to cut corners.
Paulson: Right brain, left brain, both working the same time. The cancellation of the “Lou Grant” program is a story unto itself. You had become visible. You were talking about Central America, El Salvador. You held a press conference in which you announced humanitarian aid, Medical Aid. And then everything broke loose. Can you talk about that period, that decision to hold that press conference and what happened after that?
Asner: It was the promulgators — the guy who conceived of Medical Aid to El Salvador was the same guy who created Medical Aid to Indochina. And he has led some of the big dope initiatives in California and has succeeded, Bill Zimmerman by name, and he’s been very effective. I had first joined on to the El Salvador thing when a nun showed me pictures a Belgian photographer had taken of the atrocities being done by the death squads. I said, “We’re giving them military — all kinds of military help? And this is what’s going on there with government approval?” So I began to speak out, and then I joined Medical Aid. Well, we went to Washington to announce it: Ralph Waite, Lee Grant, there was another actor. I can’t — oh, Howard Hesseman. And somehow or other, because “Lou Grant” was the leading show at the time, I became the spokesman. I read the preamble of the group, so to speak, and then became the live target of the assembled press. And there was a cable guy out there, and he asked me the question, “Mr. Asner, you say you’re in favor of a democratic government, of free elections in El Salvador. Well, what if those elections turn out a communist government?” And, I mealy-mouthed some kind of answer, and I said, “Ooh, this is what it means to do this talking out.” And I gave some mealy-mouthed answer and went on to the next question, and then — and all the time I’m answering the next question, I’m saying, “Did I make this decision, did I come all this way to be a chicken?” And I said, “It’s sink or swim now.” So I finished that question. Then I turned back to that cable guy, and I said, “I wasn’t happy with my answer to you. My answer to you is that if it’s the government the people of El Salvador choose, then I say, ‘Let them have it.’ ” About as simple a statement as you could make. Well, at that point, I knew that my — I felt that my career was over, that the stuff would really hit the fan. And it never hit the fan on that particular remark. But I felt it was the basis forever afterwards for whatever happened to me, including the cancellation of the show.
Paulson: Immediately there was an outcry, people critical of you, people calling for boycotts of advertisers. How did the advertisers hold up under the pressure?
Asner: Kimberly-Clark had two factories in El Salvador. They withdrew their sponsorship. Vidal Sassoon, that great liberal, pulled their sponsorship and Cadbury chocolates. Everybody else stayed in, and they supposedly had people to fill their places. There were two different congressional proposals for blacklisting the show. And of course Charlton Heston was conducting his campaign against me at the same time, because the union was about to bring in the extras, about 1,500 of them. So he was the spearhead of the stuntmen, the day players who protested it. And two referendums, and it was voted down. But those two combined, created a swell of angst about me and eventually resulted in the cancellation of the show.
Paulson: Now, after the negative publicity, the ratings did take a bump as well. And the network said it was just about the ratings, but you don’t buy that?
Asner: No. No. “Cagney & Lacey,” which replaced us, did the same bump. We were cancelled with a 27 share. You would — you couldn’t buy that now, so I think we were the harbinger of the descending ratings in television, and it just happened to be — I mean, for instance, the lowest rating we had was a show on the atomic bomb and a burn victim, a little girl on a bus who gets horribly burned and is treated at the Sherman Oaks Burn Center, a very great center in L.A. And you’re taken all the way through the work done on her. At the same time, you’re showing the city going through an atomic bomb defense alert and the various departments, you know, that are trying to meet the crisis and answer it. And then finally these two very divergent pieces meet at the end, when it’s discussed how many thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars went in to save that little girl and that in the case of an atomic bomb attack, that there would be 100,000 such little girls and the money it would take to try to do that same thing for those people. It was a brilliant show. Got the lowest rating ever on the show.
Paulson: And they don’t make television shows like that anymore.
Asner: No. No. It’s been a real dumbing down process.
Paulson: In what year was your first professional work?
Paulson: Fifty-three, the height of the Red Scare.
Paulson: You didn’t learn anything about McCarthyism that would serve you well later? Did you keep your mouth shut early?
Asner: Yeah, yeah, it’s one of the reasons why when these obscenities arose — I always kept saying, “No, not yet, not yet.” I would contribute to all the best organizations, but I wouldn’t become a spokesman. Even during Vietnam, I mean, you had so many people speaking out there in terms of Hollywood. I said, “They don’t need me.” So I waited. “I’m still not big enough. I’m still not big enough.” Finally, with “Lou Grant” and what was such a miscarriage of justice as El Salvador, I said, “If not now, when? If not [me], who?”
Paulson: And you were big enough.
Asner: And I certainly didn’t think that I was waving any red flag. I thought I was speaking out on a humane — calling attention to a humane problem. And that’s how it was cloaked in my mind — not the American people’s mind.
Paulson: Was your career damaged from that point on?
Asner: Yeah, there was a — you know, I’m not going to pussyfoot around anymore. There was a blacklist. I got my own blacklist.
Paulson: You got your own?
Asner: And I only, I only have — you know, work dried up, and the outcry — there were even bomb threats. There was this, there was that, personal threats. But I discovered two incidents in which — for instance, right after the show was cancelled, and the producer said — it’s a liberal producer — he said, “No, I think he’d be a political liability.” And when I heard that, then it all began to fall into place for me that when there’s a blacklist, everybody falls into line, no matter what they call themselves. They could call themselves a communist, and they’d fall in line if it was blacklisting a communist, because it’s business. It’s all business. The other occurrence was, I was hired to do a — narrate a documentary in the Boston area, a national documentary. And just prior to that, I had been on a radio interview out of Washington, in which I said that when you’re on the list — if the conservatives blacklist you, it’s, you know, because you’re liberal. If the liberals — blacklist you, they never do it consciously. They’ll do it because, you know, “Oh, he’s too bald,” or “he’s too fat; he’s too, he’s too this; he’s too that.” And that way, their consciences are salved. Well, I — the first day I showed up for this documentary, the producer took me to lunch, and he said, “Remember that interview in Washington you gave?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “Well, that caught my attention. That’s why you’re here.” I say, “What do you mean?” He says, “Oh, about six months to a year ago, I had another documentary, and I put your name on the list for narrator, and your name came back with a red line crossed through it, and I knew what they meant, and I didn’t do anything about it.”
Paulson: Hmm. And yet, you were burned by this and continue to speak out. It didn’t chill your speech in any way.
Asner: Well, yeah, I —
Paulson: You’ve got opinions on everything.
Asner: Well, opinions sometimes are worth more than money. But the fact of those two different examples, I felt, “Well, if I know of those, then there must be a mountain below them.”
Paulson: But you’ve been out there — a number of causes you’ve enlisted in, including some things that are pretty innocuous. Humane Society, you’ve helped out. I mean, you’re somebody who follows through on —
Asner: You can’t do a humane society for people. You can do it for dogs; you can’t do it for people.
Paulson: I’m curious: you were on this extraordinary show that depicted journalists in a heroic light at a time when people bought journalists as heroes. And yet there seems to be a little bit different take on the news media today. Could there be a “Lou Grant Show” today?
Asner: No. No. It’s too cerebrally involved.
Paulson: I know you care a great deal about civil liberties. Your old rival, Charlton Heston, has from time to time mounted a campaign in which he has said the Second Amendment is the most important in the Bill of Rights because, without a gun, you can’t defend the other freedoms. What would you say is the most important amendment in the Bill of Rights?
Asner: Is this a trick question?
Paulson: It’s a trick question coming from the First Amendment Center. We’ll cut off the lights and the cameras, but, —
Asner: No, it’s — we have the First Amendment is the most precious, and yet it’s meaningless to people because they don’t have the guts to practice it. And I would say that your average Englishman, your average Frenchman who probably doesn’t have that amendment, your average Norwegian and Swede — and here in this country, they went to the trouble of creating this amendment so people could speak out, and nobody uses it.
Paulson: You think people are afraid to use it?
Asner: Of course. I mean, look at all the whistleblowers who have bitten the dust. And I use these examples. I mean, at the time my show was cancelled, I said, “You only need a blacklist once or twice in a century when you show what happens to people who do this or do unpopular causes and show how they are thinned out.” That’s all everybody else needs to know. That’s very obvious. “Keep your mouth shut. Get along; go along.”
Paulson: I know you’ve normally been associated with liberal causes. Is there anyone on the conservative side in the entertainment business whom you respect, may not agree with, but you say, “You know what, that’s somebody who’s taking a stand”?
Asner: I seem to think that Robert Stack was somewhat of a conservative, but he was a well-tempered one. One of my first observations when I came to California was that — without knowing who I was, I found the conservatives sweeter and nicer than a lot of those, a lot of the overblown liberals who could be sons of bitches. But Lee Grant said the best thing. She said, “I was married to a communist. I was married to a fascist. Neither one took out the garbage.”
Paulson: I have to believe that there are any number of highlights in your career. What are the most precious moments, though, as you look back?
Asner: Most precious moments? Well, certainly winning that first Emmy. I never thought I’d be up there in anywhere in my wildest imagination. Never. Lasting, and now, you can’t define that into a moment. But lasting is always a miracle. It’s even more of a miracle when a woman does it. It is a delicious, wonderful society to be in best expressed for me by Ben Hecht in Child of the Century when he was asked what did he think of actors. And he said, well, if he were to die and go to heaven and find it populated by actors, he would not be unhappy. So it gives you some idea of the press. I would say that the press has probably more betrayal, more backstabbing even than showbiz because it’s even more imperiled than showbiz. In showbiz, we know that we’re going to be gypsies, that we’re going to be kicked out of the church and have to perform in the streets. We’re always ready for that. But the press, you sign on with those, those wonderful ideals and as soon as you sign all those wonderful — you begin feeling these jabs in your back. What the hell’s — ? That’s another practitioner of these high ideals. And he’s trying to either down you or remove you. It’s a — there are many great societies, and I, you know, I — when I was in high school and was that feature page editor and I was thinking of journalism, there was the University of Missouri with its School of Journalism, its vaunted School of Journalism. And I was considering doing that, and my journalism teacher, who I revered, came along one day, saw me at my desk, and he said, “Are you thinking of journalism as a career?” And I said, “Yeah.” He says, “I wouldn’t.” And I was very crestfallen. I said, “Why not?” He says, “You can’t make a living.” And not being able to make a living has enormously decreased since 1947 when he told me that. There is no real research going on. The vast amount of journalism is taken off the — as wire copy. I mean, there are those times when you find the award-winning stories. But they’re so rare.
Paulson: I’ve got one final question for you. You said you devoted 12 years to being Lou Grant.
Paulson: You have to have an enormous investment in this character.
Paulson: Is it an alter ego from time to time?
Asner: Oh, yeah. I’m greeted as Lou on the street almost all the time. And when I am, I say (Smirks and nods head) — and bear the chagrin of, of — I don’t even have chagrin anymore. From the first, I said, “This is such an honorable character that they’re labeling me. How could I feel badly?” So I’ll gladly, I’ll adopt Lou as my middle name if necessary.
Paulson: Thank you so much for joining us today.
Asner: My pleasure.
Paulson: Thanks for watching “Speaking Freely.” Join us again next week for another look at free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson.
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