NEW YORK - When everyone but idiotic anchorman Ted Baxter was fired from WJM News in 1977, Mary Richards and her fellow casualties were left reeling. It was a bittersweet finale for the beloved "Mary Tyler Moore" show after seven seasons.
Then Mary's crusty boss, news director Lou Grant, made a smooth transition. Within weeks, he had snagged a good job in Los Angeles as city editor of the Tribune.
At the Trib, the formerly comic Lou (still played by Ed Asner) got serious about news. What resulted was "Lou Grant," a superlative drama series that premiered 30 years ago this fall.
Now "Lou Grant" is worth noting for how vividly it captured a singular era in journalism, while somehow preserving that long-ago time in 114 episodes in remarkably relevant fashion. (Though not widely available, it can be seen in 10 million homes served by cable's American Life network, airing Wednesdays at 9 and 11 p.m.)
"Lou Grant" arrived in the blazing afterglow of Watergate coverage by newspaper rock stars Woodward and Bernstein, and the 1976 movie version of their book, "All the President's Men," where Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played the lead roles.
The bracing message of that era: Two dogged reporters (and a newspaper that backed them up) could change the world - and earn the public's adoration.
Anti-press fulminations from the Nixon administration were largely nullified by scandals and disgrace in the White House. It was only later that an anti-media crusade took hold, drawing battle lines between the press and government, and breeding suspicion among much of the citizenry.
The zeitgeist of "Lou Grant" was set forth in the clever opening titles. The cycle began with a twittering bird up in a tree about to be felled and processed into newsprint.
"Lou Grant" broke ground from its debut on Sept. 20, 1977.
Robert Walden played the driven young investigative reporter Joe Rossi. Mason Adams (up to then best-known, unseen, in commercials intoning "With a name like Smucker's, it's got to be good") was Managing Editor Charlie Hume. Linda Kelsey was reporter Billie Newman, determined to make good in what was still primarily a male domain. The glorious Nancy Marchand (later, of course, Tony's craven mother on "The Sopranos") was Mrs. Pynchon, the owner.
The series' creators were James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, writer-producers from "Mary Tyler Moore," and Gene Reynolds, a principal behind the TV incarnation of "M-A-S-H," itself an innovative half-hour blend of laughter and tears.
"Lou Grant" won 13 Emmys, two Humanitas Prizes and a Peabody Award, among many other honors.
Then, in May 1982, CBS announced "Lou Grant" would end. Did CBS make a business decision based on a ratings downturn (as the network always insisted)? Or did Asner, who had stirred up negative attention for his activism, spook network execs by bringing them increasing political headaches?
Recently, the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television & Radio) in Los Angeles hosted a reunion of "Lou Grant" stars and producers. It didn't take long for the discussion to turn to why "Lou Grant" got axed.
"There was a really concentrated effort on the part of the right-wing to torpedo this show," said Burns. *