Writers strike: Something to be thankful for

Just as things were looking particularly bleak heading into the weekend, the emails arrived, one right after Lougrant the other. And for a change, the AMPTP and then the WGA West were saying basically the same thing: Talks to resume Nov. 26. Whoo-hoo! (‘Whoo-hoo’ added for emphasis.)

This joyous news reached my BlackBerry while I was taking in the “Lou Grant” reunion at the Paley Center for Media. The reunion was a hoot, as these things go. They’re all much grayer than they used to be in the Trib newsroom — even Animal, aka thesp Daryl Anderson. But they’re still feisty, particularly Ed Asner. When asked by a frothing super-fan type whether there was any hope for a reunion series, Asner quipped: “I’ll work for food.” When asked if he was ever sorry that his stint on “Mary Tyler Moore” and “Lou Grant” typecast him as the curmudgeonly Lou Grant-type, Asner didn’t hesitate.

“I’m extremely lucky to have been chosen to do him in all his embodiments. He was a good guy,” Asner said. “I could’ve been Ted Knight.” (I think he meant “Ted Baxter” but you never know…)

I didn’t froth too much, but I made a point of telling a few of the principals how much the show meant to an impressionable girl who only ever wanted to be a reporter when she grew up. (For a little while I wanted to be a novelist, and then I read “Ten Days That Shook the World” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail” in quick succession and that pretty much sealed it.)

Linda Kelsey, aka Billie Newman, was gracious, as was exec producer Gene Reynolds. Allan Burns, who co-created “Mary Tyler Moore” with James L. Brooks and shepherded “Lou Grant” with Reynolds, was smart and funny and insightful about TV then and now. Moreover, Burns outta qualify for hero status with the younger-gen of WGA members — he’s been out pounding the picket pavement in front of 20th Century Fox every day that I’ve gone to the lines since the strike began Nov. 5.

BurnsasnerBurns (pictured far left with Asner) noted that despite its Emmy and Peabody winning glory, “Lou Grant” was frequently on the verge of cancellation. Burns recalled “a famous meeting at CBS” a few weeks into the first season in 1977-78 with then CBS programming head Bud Grant, Burns and Reynolds and Grant Tinker, then head of MTM Prods.

“They told us we were doing it all wrong. We were a little ‘uptown.’ We want more action…What you’re giving us is The New York Times and we want the Daily News.” After hearing this, “Tinker had smoke coming out of his ears,” Burns recalled. “You mean you don’t want the New York Times on your network?”

Given the setting — the lovely wood-paneled halls of the Paley Center for Media — there was a funny story to tell about how the show went out after the 1981-82 season. Asner, of course, had been gaining noteriety for his outspokeness regarding the political situation in Central America, back in the days when U.S. foreign policy was greatly concerned with shooing Communists out of America’s backyard, particularly in places due south of Texas like El Salvador and Nicaragua. (Asner actually made an interesting point that his “activism” was somewhat overblown in this period.)

And back in the days when even moderately successful primetime series routinely drew 20 million-25 million viewers, it was hard to hide from a “shit-storm” stirred up by the star of Big Three network show — as Asner provoked in 1981 by taking part in the presentation of a $25,000 check to a humanitarian org that aimed to provide medical care to the needy in parts of El Salvador that were held by rebels. Humanitarian gesture to some; sedition to others. Conservative forces in Congress and elsewhere mounted a letter-writing campaign to CBS boss William Paley. And though a host of CBS execs denied it to Asner, he’s always believed the story he heard after the fact about how “Lou Grant” got spiked.

“We heard that CBS (execs) had ‘Lou Grant’ on the scheduling board” in the spring of 1982 when they were setting the sked for the 1982-83 season. “And supposedly Mr. Paley came in and said ‘What’s that doing up there? Get it off, get it off,” Asner recounted. “And at that point, ‘Lou Grant’ was off the board.”

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