Ed Asner gets in character

My old drinking buddy, Ed Asner, said recently he’s incapable of writing a memoir of his 60 years in show business.

“My memory fails me,” the 86-year-old actor said in a radio interview. “It’s all about the future, which there ain’t much of.”

If that’s the case, I’d like to remind Asner of the intense (for me) and drunken day we spent together – and the lesson I learned about a reporter’s relationships with celebrities.

It was the spring of 1979. I was freelancing for several publications when I got an assignment from Maclean’s magazine to do a piece on Asner.

At the time, he was starring in the hit television show Lou Grant, the character having moved from a Minneapolis TV station on the Mary Tyler Moore Show to a Los Angeles newspaper.

I was to meet him at the Toronto Sun – the paper I quit only a few months earlier – where he had agreed to play editor for a day.

An “appointment notice” in the Sun read:

Douglas Creighton, publisher, is pleased to announce Mr. Lou Grant has accepted the position of Senior City Editor. 

Mr. Grant brings a distinguished career spanning electronic and print journalism to this newly created editorial position.

He comes to Toronto from the Los Angeles Tribune and has worked on many major metropolitan dailies … 

For seven years, he was News Director of WJM-TV in Minneapolis where his highly acclaimed news operation captured several Teddy Awards.

As Senior City Editor he will exercise full editorial control and will report to Managing Editor Ed Monteith.

It was a typical slice of tabloid self-promotion. Asner’s arrival at the Sun was marked by much fanfare and enthusiasm from the paper’s executives and staff.

TV news cameras captured the standing ovation and the gushing by the real editors over the fake editor pretending to be a real editor. When things calmed down a bit, I sidled up to Asner and introduced myself.

“Yeah, yeah, the magazine writer,” he said, in character.

“These guys think you’re really Lou Grant,” I said, accentuating my American accent.

“Where you from?” he said.

“New Yawk,” I replied.

“We’ll talk later,” he said with a wink.

His first chore at the Sun was to go to a morning editorial meeting.

Managing editor Monteith went around the room, asking the assembled editors what was on the agenda that day. It was the usual Sun collection of cops and courts, no mention of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had just returned to Iran and was acting seriously scary, or crazy Quebecers cooking up a referendum on separation.

Asner asked whether there were plans to cover Pinochet cracking down on dissidents in Chile. Faced with blank stares, the meeting moved on and soon broke up.

Asner still had several hours left playing Lou Grant at the Sun. I met him at the front door in mid-afternoon, and editor-in-chief Peter Worthington drove Asner and me to the august Windsor Arms hotel.

When we got to his suite, Asner excused himself, returned wearing only boxer shorts and a T-shirt, and whipped out a bottle.

“You like single-malt scotch?”

He got two tumblers from the bar, poured a couple of fingers into each.

“You gotta drink this stuff neat,” he said. I nodded approval.

We sagged into comfortable chairs, sipped scotch and yakked until after dark.

He talked about growing up Jewish in Kansas City. I talked about growing up Jewish in New York.

He talked about his father. I talked about my father.

We talked about baseball, Jackie Robinson, the Kennedy assassination, Nixon and Watergate, All the President’s Men, Cesar Chavez and Charlton Heston.

At about nine o’clock, the bottle empty, he got up and announced: “Time to go.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I should be getting home.”

“Nah,” he said, “come on over to my trailer. I’ve got another bottle.”

He got dressed, grabbed a fresh fifth of Glenlivet and we walked the two blocks to his trailer, parked on Bloor Street.

He was in Toronto to film a made-for-TV movie called The Family Man. He was the character in the title, who was fooling around with Meredith Baxter Birney. On this night, he would be shooting a scene with Anne Jackson, who played his wife.

Sitting in the motorhome, he opened the scotch, poured two paper cups full, handed me a script and said: “I need you to run my lines. You read Anne’s part. She’s Maggie.”

Asner got in character. I got drunk.

When an assistant summoned him to the location across the street, he rose steadily. I less so.

He gave me a big hug – and a kiss on the forehead.

“I may need to talk to you again, for the story,” I said.

“Call my girl,” he said.

The next day, I found Asner shooting in a warehouse on the Lake Ontario waterfront. I waited for him to finish a scene and sat down next to him on the sidelines.

“What do you want?” he said, amplifying his annoyance.

“I told you I needed to talk to you more, for the story.”

“Haven’t I given you enough of my time?” he spat, and walked off.

I never wrote the story. Until now.


A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

Death and journalism in a small town

My mother died last week at the age of 94. My only son also died in May, in 1982, at the age of two days.

I’ve tried to write about Sean over the years, tried to explore the wound in my gut and psyche from his fleeting life and unexplained death.

But I’m not that kind of writer. So, all I can tell you is what happened.

My wife Linda and I were living in Maine when she became pregnant with our first child. I was working as a reporter at the Sentinel in Waterville, an unremarkable burg off I-95 north of Portland.

All appeared normal with Linda’s pregnancy. But my condition at the paper was deteriorating quickly.

We’d arrived in Waterville from Toronto in the summer of ’81. For me, at the age of 35, the move was a lark, a break from a lifetime of living in big cities and competing in big-time journalism.

We’d loved Maine, travelled there often. Our Maine had been the coastal grace of Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor, of charming country inns and lobster suppers.

The Maine we moved to was the inland poverty of tumbledown mill towns, people living in shacks, hoping to stock the freezer with enough venison or moose meat to get through the long cold winter.

We rented an upscale shack in the woods, about 15 minutes from my office.

On my first day at the Sentinel, the city editor told me: “The guy you’re replacing got a job at The AP in Baltimore. He’s moving right up the ladder.”

“I know,” I said, “I passed him on my way down.”

It was meant as a joke. But the joke would be on me.

Just before Linda went into labor, my notebook full of material for my next story disappeared from my desk.

I knew it had been swiped. I’d never fit in with the small-town, small-minded, no-talent bunch who ran the joint. This was their latest gambit to discredit my work, run me off the paper.

But my search for the notebook was interrupted by the arrival of Sean David Becker, an apparently healthy six-and-a-half pounds, on Sunday, May 23, 1982, at the Mid-Maine Medical Center in Waterville.

I took Monday off and spent most of it with Linda and our baby. The new mom in the next bed was 15 years old. Her mother, the new grandma, was Linda’s age, 31.

The next day, at about 6 a.m., Linda phoned from the hospital.

“Is everything OK,” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“Are you OK? The baby?”

“I heard them screaming ‘Code Blue’ in the middle of the night. The nurses told me he wasn’t breathing.”

“Is he OK?”

“I’m not sure. They took him to Portland.”

I rushed to the hospital. We found out Sean had gone by ambulance to the Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he was in neo-natal intensive care.

We sped down the interstate and found our tiny baby hooked up to machines, eyes closed, barely moving, except for the occasional twitch.

His doctor, Douglas Dransfield, escorted us to a small, private room and gave us the prognosis: Sean had stopped breathing during the night in the nursery in Waterville, had been resuscitated, but not soon enough to prevent severe brain damage. He’d had seizures. His vital signs were weak.

Dr. Dransfield said it was unlikely Sean would survive more than a day if taken off the ventilator.

“Does that mean he’s basically brain dead?” I asked.

“Yes,” the doctor replied. He said it was our call.

Linda, who had given birth fewer than 48 hours earlier, sat in a chair and cried. I asked the doctor to give us some time to talk.

We didn’t have much to say. We knew what we would do. We told the doctor we wanted Sean taken off the ventilator.

He suggested we find a hotel and someone would call us when the time was near.

“It could be hours,” he said. “It could be days.”

We checked into a Hilton, went to the bar, had a drink, telling the front desk to route any calls for us there.

We were back in our room after 10 o’clock when the hospital phoned.

“We think you should get down here,” a nurse said.

We returned to the same small, dark room we had been in before.

A nurse brought Sean in and placed him in Linda’s arms. She held our baby. I held her. Sean hardly moved. The nurse came back a couple of times to check his heart and respiration.

The third time, she shook her head and said: “He’s gone.” We sat there a while, a sad little family, our baby dead. It was 11:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 25, 1982.

I gave Dr. Dransfield permission to order an autopsy. We wanted to know what killed Sean. We never found out, the results deemed “inconclusive.”

(I’ve always blamed small town incompetence.)

The next day, at Brooklawn Memorial Park in Portland, we watched the tiny white coffin placed in a tiny burial plot.

When I next went to the office, the notebook that had disappeared was on top of my desk.

I wrote my last story for the Sentinel, we packed up the shack, and moved home to Toronto.


A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.