Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia aren’t the only legendary team back on the screen after two decades: The stars of arguably the most beloved sitcom in history — The Mary Tyler Moore Show — have paired up again for the TV movie Payback. And though less fanfare has heralded the reunion of Moore and Ed Asner, star wars of a very different sort were narrowly averted.
Asner, 67, had been searching for a reunion project for some time. Three years ago, he thought he had hit upon the perfect vehicle — a gritty drama about a courageous woman (Moore) who testifies against a rogue cop after she sees him beat up a suspect Rodney King-style; Asner would play the Internal Affairs investigator who talks her into testifying, thus ruining her life. ”The cop decides to exact revenge,” explains Moore, 60, ”and the harassment culminates in his plotting to indict her son for murder.”
Hardly the feel-good reunion fans of Mary Richards and Lou Grant might have hoped for. But that was the point: ”We’re totally different,” says Asner of their characters. ”It’s not a comedy — we’re not even old acquaintances.”
”We were trying not to do a conventional TV movie,” adds Chris Kobin, former vice president of Asner’s production company, Quince. ”And it was tough writing to please Ed and Mary, because they’re both very involved actors.” But Kobin says Asner was happy once an initial rewrite beefed up his do-gooder gumshoe Jack Patkanis — a less squeezably soft version of Grant. ”In Ed’s role there’s a dark undercurrent,” says Kobin, ”and that’s the way it is in life. Everyone has their own agenda.”
Moore’s agenda, upon reading the first draft, was more character development. ”Ed was happy with the crime-drama aspects,” recalls Kobin. ”Mary was interested in the relationships.” And, finding too much Mary Richards in her role and not enough of herself, Moore asked the writers to give her character Kathryn Stanfill more motivation, meaning ”rough edges” and a higher ”guilt factor.” Stanfill, who’d been made a restaurateur, became more career obsessed, and her son more screwed up — a subplot inspired by the actress’ relationship with her own son, Richard Meeker Jr. After the rewrites, her eatery changed too: In keeping with Moore’s animal rights activism, it became vegetarian. ”It’s very Mary,” notes executive producer Kenneth Kaufman.
”Kathryn spends more time with her restaurant than she does with her son,” says Moore. ”As a result he gets into trouble with drugs, and [she] begins to see what went wrong.” As did Moore herself after watching her son battle serious drug problems as a teen, only to clean up his act, then die in a handgun accident in 1980. Since Meeker’s death, Moore — hailed as a ’70s career girl for beating all sexist odds by McCall’s 1996 Rule Breakers Hall of Fame — has regretted putting work above family. ”Ten years ago I would’ve said every woman should work,” says Moore, a recovering alcoholic. ”Now looking back on my relationship with my son, I think that’s wrong. If you’re going to have children, make that your work.”
Script revisions were made; Moore was pleased with the results; and she and Asner settled on a production schedule. For a while, love was all around once again.
At least, that’s how it seemed back in October on the Portland, Ore., Payback set, where Moore confesses to a strong control-freak streak: ”I used to say to Carl Reiner, the most brilliant comedy writer of all time, ‘I can’t get this laugh because it’s contradictory to a character trait we set up two weeks ago.”’ Moore, who worked with Reiner for five years on The Dick Van Dyke Show, admits to ”driving him crazy. But by God, I was gonna make my name known for truth if nothing else.”
”I think Ed had a similar situation on The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” adds Moore, ensconced in her trailer. ”Here he comes now! C’mere! I want to get this right.” Asner lumbers over and Moore invites him in to set the record straight.
Moore: Tell the story of your audition [for the Lou Grant part].
Asner: [Petulantly] I wanna smoke.
Moore: Then stay right where you are!
Asner: [From the door] Forget whatever she said, this is the story. I read the scene [where Lou interviews Mary for her job] like a meshuggener. I did every crazy thing in the world. Lotta grimacing. And years later—yeeeears later—it was revealed to me that after I left she turned to the producers [who wanted to hire Asner] and said, ”Are you sure?”
Moore: [Laughs] I don’t remember that.
Asner: And Allan Burns [a producer on the show] said, ”That’s your Lou.” And I’ve been her Lou ever since.
Moore: You certainly have. But let’s remember that in almost every love affair somebody didn’t think it was going anywhere in the beginning.
Asner: You didn’t.
Moore: Well, thank God you persevered. [Pause] If, indeed, that’s the right story.
The duo’s growlingly affectionate discourse is not unlike that of a certain ’70s sitcom airing on Nick at Nite. But while Moore hovers somewhere between the tough, controlling mother of Ordinary People and the earnest, warm Mary Richards, Asner appears to be an emotional dead ringer for that lovable lefty Lou Grant. (On the Portland set, total strangers came up to Asner demanding hugs.) And even though it is not precisely the Mary/Lou relationship tens of millions came to love, the tenderness between them is palpable and touching.
”There is a very comfortable pattern of behavior where they help each other,” says Kaufman. ”It’s very sweet.”
”We rub off each other—and draw from each other—very well,” agrees Asner.
Adds Moore: ”In the scenes we’ve had together, it’s been great to immerse ourselves in quiet moments and have eye play and the sort of secret thoughts you never get to fool around with in comedy.”
Therefore everyone was shocked when, upon seeing a rough cut of Payback after shooting wrapped in October, Moore expressed extreme displeasure with the final product. ”There was a difference of opinion in terms of the way certain scenes were cut,” explains a diplomatic Asner. ”She wanted a bit more critical edge.”
Specifically, Moore thought her character had been reduced to a stereotypical hand-wringing woman in distress, and that her chemistry with Asner had been underplayed. The finished film shows little trace, for instance, of the sexual tension she claimed existed between her character and Asner’s. Reiner says down-to-the-wire second thoughts are not unusual for Moore. “She could be a pain in the ass. She was a questioner. But you couldn’t slough her off because she was very serious,” he says of their Dick Van Dyke days. “She didn’t do it to be a pain in the ass. She wanted to make it better.”
Payback‘s producers made adjustments (one insider says an early scene was cut). Though Asner thinks she was wrong about the movie, he’s sorry she wasn’t happy. “She’s phenomenally intelligent. She can smell a rat in her own performance, as well as anybody else’s.” As for any misunderstandings, “it’s all been resolved,” Asner barks in Lou Grant mode.
Moore won’t talk about the spat now or qualify her early criticism, leaving the question hanging as to why she first praised, then trashed, the TV movie. But the fate of her 1995 series, New York News, which she also first praised, then blasted and wanted out of, shows this wasn’t the first time Mary’s been a little, well, contrary. And though Moore can write—critics raved over her memoir, After All—even she admits, as she did on the Payback set, that her ability to read a script has been skewed by early experiences. “I got no practice on Dick Van Dyke or my show [at being] able to look at a scene and know where it goes off track because the scripts were pretty perfect.”
“I don’t think this Payback will be a series,” says Asner finally. “I just wanted to get Mary on screen again.”
Regardless of whether it is or is not a critical success, Playback remains a major date in TV history. “To have Ed and Mary Tyler Moore together,” says exec producer Kaufman, “well…it’s a little awe inspiring. I mean, it’s one for the ages.”