The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) starred Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards, a single woman in Minneapolis working as an associate producer in television news. A central focus of the series was the complicated relationship between Richards and her boss, news director Lou Grant. Grant, portrayed by Ed Asner, could be tough and critical, but his softer side peaked through as he mentored Richards. Moore and Asner are famously linked by these two roles, yet their connection encompasses other aspects of their professional and personal lives.
Asner's audition for Grant left Moore unsure if he was right for the role
It took a series of lucky breaks for Asner to land the role of Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The actor had little comedy work on his resume but he was still invited to try out for the part. After his initial audition proved to be less than stellar, he asked for and received a second chance to deliver his lines, which was much more successful than his first attempt. However, Asner revealed that his delivery once again wobbled when he was brought in to test with Moore.
"When I came back to read with Mary; Allen and Jim, our two producers in attendance, I read the scene with her like a man possessed, thinking I was duplicating my earlier reading for them without Mary," Asner told the Hollywood Reporter in 2017.
Asner's less-than-perfect performance made Moore wonder if he was really the right choice for the role. However, the show's producers reassured her, "That's your Lou Grant."
Asner and Moore first officially met during his audition to play Grant, but their chemistry was evident from the first episode. When Grant says to Richards, "You've got spunk," she reacts with pride before he bursts her bubble with the declaration, "I hate spunk." Asner talked about the exchange in a 2001 interview with NPR: "It was the most powerful moment in theater I've ever had because she played it so beautifully."
Asner learned from Moore's approach to work
Moore had found fame and won an Emmy Award for her work on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s. Though Asner had worked steadily as an actor for years, in 1970 Moore was the unquestioned star of the new series. Not only was it named in her honor, but the show was also overseen by her production company, MTM Enterprises. However, Moore was a team player. Asner praised her generosity as an actress: "I can't say I ever take the measure of most stars of TV shows, but she was quite willing to stay in the background and give the star turn to whoever had that moment in the show, be it a permanent member of the cast or the guest."
After The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended its run in 1977, Asner continued as Grant in a spinoff series, Lou Grant, that was made by Moore's production company. In assuming the lead role on a new show, Asner did his best to create the same kind of atmosphere he'd witnessed Moore establish. He told Vanity Fair, "I discovered that just as she was the giving, generous [lead] of [her] show, that’s what I would have to become to make [my] show successful: the giving, generous pivot around which everything revolves."
The pair went on one date but decided to stay just friends
In addition to being close co-stars, Moore and Asner maintained an offscreen friendship. The support extended to bad times as well as good, as when Asner was among those who attended the funeral of Moore's younger sister in the spring of 1978.
While they were co-stars, Asner and Moore were each married in real life, and no romance took place away from the cameras. However, after The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended they were both single. According to Asner, at this point, he and Moore went on one date. The experience echoed the second-to-last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, when Grant and Richards went on a date of their own, then laughed when they tried to kiss and realized they were meant to be just friends. As on the show, the real-life date resulted in Asner and Moore staying friends instead of embarking upon a romance.
Asner and Moore shared a lasting connection
Moore and Asner liked working together on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and wanted to repeat the experience. They joined forces for the TV film Payback (1997), which Asner produced. Unfortunately, Moore was not satisfied with the final product. Before its release, Moore talked about her frustration with the Chicago Tribune: "It doesn't use me to the full extent they promised. It does no honor to the past relationship between Ed and I."
Disagreement about this project didn't end the friendly relationship between Moore and Asner, which endured until an 80-year-old Moore passed away on January 25, 2017. After her death, he shared on Twitter, "A great lady I loved and owe so much to has left us. I will miss her. I will never be able to repay her for the blessings that she gave me."