Subscribe for 33¢ / day

"I’ve worked with maybe five directors who had an interpretation that took me beyond what I was thinking of doing and enlightened me. They were Leo Penn, Paul Sills, Sydney Pollack, Roger Young and, in Chicago, a director from the Group Theater who directed us in a Shaw play — Al Sachs. He was good." — Ed Asner, interview in Variety, Feb. 5, 2016.

Over the course of his lengthy directing career, Bloomington native Roger Young has called "action!" on sets occupied by some of the biggest, most formidable stars of all time.

You know ... these types: Audrey Hepburn, James Garner, Julie Andrews, Peter O'Toole, Gary Oldman, Debra Winger, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Ellen Burstyn, Frank Langella, Jacqueline Bisset, George Burns, Tom Selleck, Hal Holbrook, Michael Keaton, Max Von Sydow, Ron Howard, Dennis Hopper and (shades of a fellow former B-N dweller!) current Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins.

But one of Young's deepest, most long-lasting directing relationships with an actor occurred over the course of the TV series that helped make the Bloomington High School grad's name: "Lou Grant," the hourlong dramatic offshoot of the character forged in comedy gold via the seven-season run of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

The star of that show, the frankly legendary Edward Asner, is about to make a visit to his old director's hometown for the first time ever, courtesy his one-man show, "A Man and His Prostate," arriving Feb. 24 in the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts (an interview with Asner will be in Thursday's GO! section).

To commemorate the occasion, Young hopped aboard the wayback machine for us, with the dial set to 1977-82: when he became one of the house directors on "Lou Grant," eventually winning the famously thorny Asner's undying respect and an Emmy Award along the way.

He says he was especially proud and gratified when a year or so ago, he picked up the show business bible Variety and saw the quote from Asner (printed above) naming Young as one of his five most rewarding directors over a career that has included hundreds since the 88-year-old actor went professional in 1961.

"I looked at his IMDB page recently, and I was just amazed at how many projects he has going now," says Young, born in Mahomet 75 years ago, then reared in B-N and graduated from BHS (Class of 1960).

His mom, Irma Lambert, lived in Bloomington until just a few years ago; she now lives in Morton with her daughter and, reports Roger, is doing "just fine" for a spry 104-year-old. 

After graduating from the University of Illinois, Young headed to Chicago, where he carved out a nice career heading up a company making commercials.

A producer friend who'd started in Chicago and successfully relocated to Los Angeles suggested that Young ought to follow suit.

"You should come out here ... you'd do well," said the friend.

In short order, Young landed a job as associate producer on a TV movie-of-the-week, "Something for Joey," starring Geraldine Page and Marc Singer. 

"I didn't know anything about producing, but I thought, look, if I can produce a commercial, then I can produce a movie-of-the-week, which is just a longer commercial."

The movie was a ratings/critical success, but, more importantly, it was a production of MTM Enterprises, the company run by Mary Tyler Moore and her husband Grant Tinker.

"Somebody told me about a job opening on a new series called 'Lou Grant' with Ed Asner," recalls Young of the show that was being spun off from Asner's lovably gruff "Mary Tyler Moore Show" character,.

Young was summoned for a meeting with Tinker, which ended ... strangely.

"Instead of walking out of his office, I walked into Grant Tinker's closet. I didn't just open the door, I walked all the way into it. When I turned around to walk out, he smiled and said 'other people have done that, too'."

In or out of Tinker's closest, Young was now "Lou Grant's" post-production supervisor, answering to producer Gene Reynolds, revered then as the producer of another A-list CBS series, "M*A*S*H."

"Gene became my mentor," recalls Young of this heady new phase of his career, which led to being put in charge of hiring directors and, then, becoming associate producer.

"I think Gene wanted some new blood," Young recalls of the directors on the show. "They'd been hiring established directors and, frankly, some of them were a little tired. One day he called me into his office and seemed a little unhappy."

Young: "What's the problem, Gene?," adding, as an afterthought, "you know I want to direct."

And not too long after that, "he gave me my first shot, on the episode 'Slaughter' in 1978. I'd spent a lot of time on set, and had been good friends with John Badham (director of 'Saturday Night Fever'). John told me when I was associate producer that he played a game called 'Dead Director' that he'd made up."

It went like this: He imagined that the phone would ring at night with the news that the director had died and, boom, he had to direct tomorrow's episode. Then he'd figure out how to do it.

"So, every day, before I left the set (of 'Lou Grant'), I'd figure out how to direct tomorrow's work, watching how the director directed."

When the offer from Reynolds came, at no director's mortal expense: "I was really ready, even tough I did throw up on the way to work that morning."

But what about Ed?

Famously irascible, curmudgeonly, raving-lefty Ed?

"When the chance to direct came, I asked Ed to go to lunch with me and talk about how I was planning to do that particular episode. I don't remember if he turned me down, but I do remember he was not too thrilled having a first-time director."

Happily for future lunch dates, the thrill that seemed to be gone soon returned as acceptance.

"Ed's gruffness is just a face ... he's actually the guy with a big heart who cries easily. If Ed likes you, you can't do anything wrong, and you're a great guy."

If he doesn't, well ...

Happily for the kid from Bloomington, Ill., the balding fellow Midwesterner (Kansas City) with the thinning hair and gruff demeanor liked him, he really liked him ... over the course of no fewer than 14 episodes from 1977-80, with 1979's "Cop" winning Young the Emmy Award as Best Director (also a Directors Guild of America Award, twice over the series' run). 

Not that there weren't occasional differences of creative opinion, understand.

"I remember one time we had this talk, and I said 'when you're doing this part here, I want you pacing up and down.' And he turned to me and said, 'I ... don't ... pace.'

Shades of "You have spunk ... I haaate spunk"?

"So I went, 'OK, no pacing'."

Sometimes playing the director-who's-always-right isn't worth the battle fatigue, admits Young.

"He would get gruff. But, mostly, he treated me with nothing but respect, never questioning my blocking or my doing what I want to do. We fell into a great rhythm right away with all the beats an lines. He was just great."

Oh, in case you wondered, life does imitate art, and vice versa.

"Ed definitely IS Lou Grant," says the director who ought to know.

Dan Craft is Pantagraph entertainment editor. He can be reached at 309-829-9000, Ext. 259 or via email at 



Load comments