Ed Asner, probably best known as Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, has passed away. I had the pleasure of doing an interview with him in the early ’90s when I was hosting a morning talk show here in Indy. Here’s a behind-the-scenes story.
Prior to boarding a plane to return home from New York where I had been visiting family, I received a call from one of my producers informing me that the next morning I had a 20-minute one-on-one with this two-time Emmy Award winner. I have no memory of why he was in Indiana. It was almost 30 years ago.
Being a local talk show host and interviewing a celebrity is, in some ways, a more difficult job than it is for a Fallon or a Colbert. This is not to diminish their skills but often the first question posed by a network interviewer has been carefully planned. Even an innocuous query like, “So, Russell (Crowe), how has your summer gone so far?” has been prearranged by segment producers so that someone like Kimmel knows the interview will be off to a great start. When you host a local talk show you don’t have the luxury of having a celebrity guest pre-interviewed, so you can’t depend on an open-ended question to unleash an awesome story filled with humor or suspense.
Back to the plane. I was already a nervous wreck about the next day’s interview. This guy was a hero of mine, one of the few actors in Hollywood who made a name for himself in both drama and comedy. He’d be showing up at the studio (inside Union Station), jump out of his limo and walk cold onto the set. Again, no pre-interview.
I needed an opening question or observation that would make him like and trust me. When a celebrity is comfortable, and doesn’t think you are a local hack, the interview always goes a lot smoother. Sitting on the plane sipping a cup of coffee and needing a distraction, I flipped through the New York Times magazine section and turned to the crossword puzzle, often considered the ultimate in these types of brainteasers. I took out my No. 2 pencil and scanned the clues looking for a surefire start to begin the solving process. I read 53 across: MARY TYLER MOORE’S BOSS, ED _ _ _ _ _.
And so there it was. Or was it? I could start the interview by revealing to Mr. Asner that he was in the New York Times Crossword. This might have yielded several possible responses from him, but I feared either:
1: Big deal, that’s like the 12th time that has happened; or
2. Yes (yawn), you are the 10th person today to tell me.
The next morning I took a big chance. Before I asked a single question, I handed Mr. Asner the magazine and suggested he look at 53 across. And I held my breath.
A little perplexed, he put on his specs and peered at the page. Suddenly, his face lit up, he made a double fist pump and said: “I’ve been waiting for this my whole career. You made my day.” Mr. Asner had made mine, as well. What followed was one of the best celebrity talk segments I had ever done.
So why does the first question make such a difference in an interview? At the time, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure… but I had a clue.