Every newspaper reporter wanted a city editor as good as Lou Grant.
Lou loved the English language, and he protected it at his own peril. He accepted a job at the Los Angeles Tribune and immediately challenged aristocratic Publisher Margaret Pynchon on the meaning of “promontory.” Lou had it right.
Difficult stories weren’t as tough as Lou. Tribune reporter Billie Newman, a novice at hard news, wanted to write about a charismatic Nazi leader. Lou gave her plenty of guidance and time to dig deep into the Nazi’s background. The result was a stunning discovery — the Nazi leader was Jewish.
Lou had great instincts. A serial killer known as the Samaritan seemingly resurfaced after a five-year absence. Terror took hold of Los Angeles. Lou discovered the Samaritan’s return was a hoax. Threatening letters claiming to be from the Samaritan were actually written by one of Lou’s own reporters. The unhinged reporter had craved excitement and a book deal.
If Lou sounds too good to be true, there’s a reason. Lou Grant was a fictional television character played by actor Ed Asner, who died Sunday at age 91.
Asner first portrayed Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a half-hour comedy. Lou was the jaded news director of a Minneapolis television station. He kept a bottle of liquor in a desk drawer, perhaps because he kept a simpleminded anchorman on the air.
After The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended a seven-year run in 1977, Asner made an immediate comeback in a one-hour dramatic series. His character went from funnyman to a terrific newspaperman in Lou Grant.
Asner’s role as Lou the newspaperman lasted five years. Ratings dipped toward the end. Asner wondered whether his liberal politics led CBS to cancel Lou Grant in May 1982.
He was president of the Screen Actors Guild when the network dropped his show. Unions were losing strength, making them all the more important to Asner.
As a student of history and an advocate for workers, Asner didn’t limit his vision to what Hollywood’s studios were up to. Soon after Lou Grant’s demise, residents of one New Mexico county told Asner they were hurting and needed his encouragement.
Fittingly, perhaps, the place was Grant County. Its unemployment rate had soared to almost 40 percent. Copper prices were depressed, and miners were idle.
One of Grant County’s more influential residents, Juan Chacón, asked Asner to come to New Mexico. Asner’s interest was heightened as he learned details of a historic 15-month strike at the Grant County mines of Empire Zinc Co. The labor strife had inspired the 1954 movie Salt of the Earth.
Chacón, as a 33-year-old miner and president of Local 890 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, played the male lead in the movie.
The striking miners, mostly of Mexican descent, wanted pay equal to white employees, plus improved safety conditions and better health care.
Empire Zinc obtained a court order prohibiting the men from picketing. Their wives and children replaced them on the line, leading to the arrest and jailing of families.
All the pain and suffering ended with the strikers getting nearly everything they asked for.
When the strike began in 1950, Clinton Jencks was the union president. He, too, became famous in the ugliness of McCarthy-era politics. People tagged as communists could be harassed, fired and even imprisoned.
Production of Salt of the Earth in Grant County became controversial. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, made charges of widespread communism in American institutions, a tactic that frightened many Hollywood executives into blacklisting actors.
Jencks, who had played a part in Salt of the Earth, became a target off the screen. The federal government charged him with falsifying an affidavit on whether he was a communist.
He said he told the truth, but he was convicted of perjury in 1954 and sentenced to five years in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Jencks’ conviction in 1957.
All the conflict had the makings of an episode of Lou Grant. Asner traveled to Silver City and met with unemployed residents of Grant County. He said the pride workers showed in the Salt of the Earth strike was a lesson to remember.
Asner was in demand all across the country at a time when blue-collar jobs in manufacturing and other sectors were disappearing. His acting career continued long after Lou Grant, as did his activism.
“It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” Asner would say.
Lou Grant, wordsmith that he was, would have appreciated the pithy quote.