Ed Asner’s Lou Grant was the blueprint for the gruff boss with a heart of gold

Ed Asner with his former “Mary Tyler Moore” castmates Betty White and Valerie Harper.
Ed Asner with his former “Mary Tyler Moore” castmates Betty White and Valerie Harper.
Image: Reuters/Fred Prouser
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Lou Grant was the ultimate TV boss. Played with equal parts warmth and bluster by Ed Asner, who died this week at age 91, the character—first on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and, later, Lou Grant—formed the prototype for future pop-culture depictions of the grouchy boss with a heart of gold.

As the dogged head of a Minneapolis TV newsroom, Grant growled at the peppy Mary and spiked his coffee with a bottle of scotch from his desk drawer. But the show emphasized that Grant was at his core a softie, whether he was singing Mary to sleep when she struggled with insomnia or confessing “I treasure you people” to his colleagues in the sitcom’s moving finale.

A big part of what made Grant so appealing can be attributed to the principles and kindness of the actor who played him. An avowed “staunch unionist” and “old-time lefty,” Asner repeatedly stuck his neck out to call attention to political issues. (CBS’s decision to cancel Lou Grant in the 1980s has been attributed, in part, to Asner’s outspoken criticism of American policies in El Salvador.) In one telling story of his generosity, actor Niecy Nash recalls running into Asner at the Hollywood Walk of Fame as a young child, and telling him to remember her name; years later, he turned up to support her when she got her own star.

Carl Fredricksen, Santa Claus

Asner would go on to specialize in roles that blended sweetness and gruffness, voicing the crotchety but endearing Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s Up and playing a gravelly voiced Santa in the 2003 comedy Elf. His influence can also be seen in the long line of lovable curmudgeon bosses who’ve graced sitcom screens in the years since Mary Tyler Moore. The masculine grumbles of Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson are a part of Asner’s TV lineage. So is Jack Donaghy of 30 Rock, with his mixture of exasperation and affection for his direct report (“Good God, Lemon!”), and the stern but empathetic Captain Holt of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Grant’s legacy lives on in our cultural memory because he was the kind of boss-slash-father-figure that so many people wish they had: tough enough to handle all kinds of adversity, and compassionate with the people who counted on him.