By: Timothy J. Fuller
Undoubtedly one the most decorated actors on television during the 1970’s and 1980’s, having won 5 Emmys for his portrayal of the gruff, but lovable newsman Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off series Lou Grant, Ed Asner was a man of great character. Asner left behind not only a laundry list of television, film, and Broadway credits, but a legacy of spirited activism and a fight for stronger unions. However, for a man who had received international acclaim as a prolific TV Icon, he was quick to remind us of his very modest origins.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri he was raised in Kansas City, Kansas by his mother Lizzie and father Morris David Asner who owned a junkyard business in an area known as the Bottoms. He describes it as a “mean life,” recalling the packinghouse and the stockyards where cattle and goats would go off to slaughter. As a child he loved to act but would never admit to it as a career for fear that he might be labeled a “sissy.” At one point he had considered taking over his father’s business in the junk trade, something he described as “manly and productive.”
His love for history took him into theatre and drama, and in high school he wrote, produced, and acted in a radio show for two years, which may explain his knack for voice roles in Hollywood films like Carl Fredrickson in Pixar’s award-winning animated film Up. Having never volunteered for roles in high school plays because, during his day, it was often seen as “artsy-fartsy” he was somehow repeatedly chosen for male parts. “It’s a lot of crap that we’re instilled with in terms of what is manly and what is not. You look at a ballet dancer, you’d give your bottom dollar to have that build, to have that strength.”
He described his role on the Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) as the most pivotal role of his career and had a lovely relationship working with Moore, the best star “you could work for, under or over, you name it.” Known as a great character actor, Mr. Asner always sought to emulate the great character actors that had come before him, including Allen Hale, Wendell Corey, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Errol Flynn. He described the Mary Tyler Moore Show as the ne plus ultra of television, which happened to be the break-through show that launched his later career.
As a member of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and the Democratic Socialists of America, Mr. Asner was also known for his sometimes controversial and outspoken political beliefs. When he looked to the future of democracy in America he hoped for a more socialist, life-giving form of democracy. He related that socialist forms of government are already employed throughout Europe and in US government programs such as Social Security and Medicare. However, he pointed out, it’s been made an evil word because we are the chief example of a capitalist country. “The more we become socialist, the more people will become happy,” he said.
When asked what quality he attributed to his great success in life he joked “giving money to people,” and then, just before calling to his cat Inky, answered in all honesty, “trying to speak the truth whenever you open your mouth, or having a joke behind it when you do.” Perhaps, because Mr. Asner had seen his share of success in life, he gave his full energy to giving back to others. He was on the board for Defenders of Wildlife and a strong supporter of Autism Speaks. As a high-profile figure in the Screen Actors Guild strike of 1980, he eventually served as president of SAG for two terms, leading the organization away from its more conservative roots. He encouraged the younger generation to support their unions and with the flood of young talent in Hollywood fighting over roles and practically paying to work, he related “a strong union is the only thing that protects you in this business.”
Asner felt he owed a good deal to his parents and upbringing. When asked what they would be most proud of, he related, “they would have believed me in the roles I’ve played, delighted in the success I’ve had and the principles I’ve stood for, principles they stood for as well.” Certainly, those principles served Mr. Asner well and he will be remembered not only as a talented and inexhaustible TV Icon, but a champion for humanitarian goodwill.