Seeing Lou Grant
I wrote on my calendar for May 15 that I was going to see Lou Grant.
And so we arrived at the Bergen Performing Arts Center to see Ed Asner in his cross country, long running presentation of his one-man show, "FDR." As the largely elderly audience was still settling in, Asner abruptly took the stage in a wheelchair, and then stomped about on a pair of canes and presented a very compelling characterization of the polio-crippled President who forcefully led the country through the crises of the Great Depression and World War II, despite formidable political foes and the howling hounds of the press.
As the" FDR" show wrapped up to a big round of applause, I was still looking for Lou Grant—the curmudgeonly, get-that-story, and get-it-right newspaper editor Asner played on television in the 1970s and early 1980s. That TV character was perhaps the biggest influence on my then-budding career as a journalist.
In Lou Grant’s world, journalists suffered crises in their own lives, but still got out there and pinned down the facts of events, on deadline, that were important for the public to know about. “The series frequently delved into serious societal issues, such as nuclear proliferation, mental illness, prostitution, gay rights, capital punishment, child abuse, and chemical pollution, in addition to demonstrating coverage of breaking news stories such as fires, earthquakes, and accidents of all kinds,” a Wikipedia description astutely noted.
“The Lou Grant show ran from 1977 to 1982 and became the most popular newspaper drama ever broadcast on television,” noted a review in Booklist of “Lou Grant,’ a book about the show. “Journalists at the fictional Los Angeles Tribune strove to question authority while covering issues as thoroughly as possible. … often reflecting real news of the day, from Vietnam vets and inner-city school violence to political corruption and homosexuality … For five seasons, Lou Grant and his colleagues delivered a weekly dose of dramatic realism …”
And then CBS abruptly cancelled the program. “In the later years of the series, Asner became known for speaking out on numerous social and political topics, especially in opposition to the U.S. involvement in Central America. The show was canceled in 1982, reportedly due to poor ratings, while some—including Asner—have speculated that the actor's activism may have influenced the decision to end the series,” according to biography.com.
The Lou Grant show roughly coincided with my first stint as a daily newspaper reporter. After getting laid off in 1980, in the wake of writing an investigative series about Vietnam veterans’ emerging health concerns about Agent Orange and other chemicals used in the war, I had more time at home to study how Lou Grant’s savvy newsroom covered controversial issues.
Then, getting involved in grassroots activism with a local peace group addressing the Reagan Administration’s nuclear missile-rattling with the Soviet Union and military moves in Central America, I appreciated Asner’s outspoken stance on these and other issues. This provided additional inspiration in my life.
Three decades later, I heard Ed Asner was coming to do a show in a neighboring town. What I felt was that Lou Grant was coming to town.
Turns out that my partner, Paula Rogovin, knew Asner through her family’s network of activism. So we were invited to meet him backstage. So was a bunch of other people Asner had meet over the years, including a family that knew him growing up in Kansas City, Missouri. Herded up into a bare dressing room in the old vaudeville theater in Englewood, NJ that was saved by a civic campaign, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Amid a flurry of greetings, snappy recollections, cell phone photos, suddenly I was being introduced to Ed Asner. Still hale at 84, leaning on a cane, he gripped my hand hard and looked directly into my eyes, recalling a mutual campaign from years ago. And I felt, yep, very glad to finally shake hands with Lou Grant.
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