Tonight, PBS airs “Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration,” an exploration of the legendary comedienne’s career and a testament to her influence from power players, including Oprah Winfrey, who famously freaked out when Moore surprised her on her show, and Tina Fey. But while Mary Richards, who rises from secretary to full-fledged news producer, inspired countless women, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” had a broader legacy, including the character of Lou Grant, Mary Richards’s sexist boss-turned-friend and champion, and the feminist transformation of Ed Asner, the actor who played him.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was one of Asner’s first experiences as a comedic actor, and he was surrounded by an ensemble full of comediennes with highly distinctive styles, from Betty White, who played man-eating domestic expert Sue Ann Nivens; Cloris Leachman, who played Mary Richards’s landlady Phyllis Lindstrom; Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary’s neighbor; Georgia Engel as Georgette Franklin, the girlfriend of dim newsman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight); and, of course, Mary Tyler Moore herself.
“I’m afraid I’m not a conscious learner. I observe and probably soak in and steal from everybody. By the time it gets through my extensive corporeal being, it’s been transmuted into my own personal stuff,” Asner explained of the influences his colleagues had on him. “The instant response to an inanity, I’m thinking of Betty White and the way she’d respond to whatever accusations were made to her, and how blithely she was able to respond and answer. Georgia with her vapid stare, and you thought, this is the biggest dummy that ever came down the pike, and then out of her mouths came her simple truths and you realize you’d been had. I don’t know how to explain what went on there. Cloris exhibited insanity, and got away with it. Valerie was displaying the street smart chick. And got away with that.”
The way the female characters busted out of the acceptable standards for female behavior created a safe space for Asner as an actor and Lou Grant as a character. And Asner managed, in Grant, to create a man whose attitudes about gender were out of step with the changing world around him without becoming a cartoon villain, or even necessarily an antagonist for Mary Richards to defeat.
“I certainly felt I was always correct, in the right. And only until, well, partially anyway, demonstrating that I was wrong could I even begin to think there might be a point on the other side,” Asner said of Grant’s attitudes. “I’m thinking of [a storyline] when she came in, and I had promoted her to a new position, and she says, ‘Well, that’s wonderful, but why am I getting this much and he got that much?’ And I very patronizingly explained to her that he was married and he had a couple of kids and blah blah blah and that’s why he got what he did…. I think it made the impression to the audience, he made the point with the audience, but it did not get resolved on the show. ‘That’s the way it is is’ is a common refrain. ‘That’s the way it’s always been.'”
Asner credits Ethel Winant, who was the casting director for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and advocated hard for Asner to be cast as Lou Grant, and female writers, including Treva Silverman and Susan Silver, with helping the series find distinctive perspectives for both Grant and the women characters. Having a female executive advocating for the show–Winant became a CBS vice president in 1973–“certainly relaxed the women. I think it relaxed the producer-writers as well,” Asner said. And the fact that they brought in women writers as quickly and as often as they could meant a great deal to projecting to the world who Mary Tyler Moore was…. They didn’t dominate, no. But they certainly were a presence, and they were encouraged, that I know. Silverman seemed to become the doyenne for the women writers.”
That concern with who gets to write and make other major decisions on a show followed Asner into the real world, where he campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, and to “Lou Grant,” his spin-off from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “On a more personal level,” notes Jennifer Keishin Armstrong in “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted,” her history of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “his agent added a clause to his ‘Lou Grant’ contract that required progressive hiring practices on the show.” Asner gives full credit to that agent, Freddie Fields, for the demand. But he also suggests that it would be a difficult thing for him, or any other actor, to insist upon today because Hollywood is a project-based industry, and actors rarely build up the power to change hiring practices even on a single show or movie.
“If they’re in a position of power,” actors have a responsibility to try to bring about change in the workplace, “yeah, but how many actors are in that position of power?” Asner asked me. “We’re all waiting to get a job. I’m waiting to get a job right now. You cite to me a contractual provision from ‘Lou Grant,’ but that’s ancient history.” Today, he suggested, it would be exceptionally difficult for him to tell a potential employer “You have to have a provision giving the girls a fare shake or I won’t sign.” But any actor who “can find the means for doing that realistically, then more power to you.”