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.

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