Ed Asner always knew he could play comedy. He’d had lighter small parts in several tv series including Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and Here Come the Brides (including a 1969 episode with everyone being on the lookout for Big Foot, which seems oddly current). The problem is, Asner just didn’t like comedy. He couldn’t turn on the laughs instantly.
Therefore, he chose the villain and serious roles instead. “I haven’t touched base much with making people laugh,” Asner told Donald Freeman of the Copley News Service in 1971. “When you’ve this sinister look and the bulky build, you play a lot of heavies, rotten guys who snarl a lot.” It wasn’t until Lou Grant, the boss in the iconic Mary Tyler Moore series came along, and Asner found a character he could sink his teeth into for foundation, that the comedy came naturally, without Asner having to work for it.
Asner told Associated Press writer Jerry Buck, “In the first script, once I found the character, I would say I was the first actor in the show to feel at home. I was at ease with the first script. I felt a great deal of power, because I knew I had a character I could shine with.” And shine he did. You recognized the strength of the actor behind the character when Lou Grant was equally impressive in the sitcom as he was in the dramatic spin off Lou Grant, where Grant presided over serious crime stories with gritty plots, not the death of Chuckles the Clown. Same character, but the spin off allowed Asner to present an entirely different set of his acting skills. It was like being introduced to him all over again.
Asner was great with the younger Lou Grant characters, reporters Billie and Joe, but he and Nancy Marchand (Mrs. Pynchon) really clicked. With her, we saw Lou Grant taking orders from someone, not just giving them.
Funnily enough, Asner also played a veteran newspaper reporter in the 1964 series, Slattery’s People. I guess being a journalist (well, playing one on tv) was always in his blood.
And as we remember his strengths, we embrace all of the bad guys Asner played with conviction. After all, he met his wife, Nancy Sykes, when they appeared in The Threepenny Opera together, with Asner in the role of Peachum, leader of the beggars, who organized to have the hero (well, antihero) Macheath hanged. Asner was with The Threepenny Opera for three years, then did other Broadway shows and supplemented his income with television roles, like bits in The Naked City or The Defender.
In addition to the prizes he received for Lou Grant (5 emmys), Asner won an Emmy award as Captain Davies, owner of the slave ship that brought Kunta Kente to America in Roots.
And who can forget the widower from Up. I can cry now just thinking about it. Asner made crusty on the outside, melty inside, a famous acting model. He told the Hollywood Reporter that his primary source of fan mail lately has been for Up and Elf. It’s hard to believe that less than 10 days ago he was doing a Q & A for Pixar, the creator of Up.
Asner, who served two terms as President of the Screen Actors guild, was also known for his politics. He described himself as a “lefty” in his twitter bio. In fact, he thinks his liberal viewpoint is why Lou Grant was abruptly cancelled by CBS, even though it was still receiving good ratings after 5 years on air. In recent years, Asner was vocal about his criticism of the GOP, especially angry about its partisan, political treatment of the Coronavirus. When Trump vowed to reopen the country earlier than expected, Asner tweeted that Trump risked killing the elderly, including himself and Betty White!
Speaking of Betty White, one 1972 article in the Cambridge Daily Jeffersonian mentioned how concerned Asner was about two stray dogs he’d found. He kept leaving the Mary Tyler Moore set to check on them. He was worried about finding them homes and said, “We’ll have to keep them until Doris gets here,” he meant Doris Day, Hollywood’s famous animal activist, but that was before Betty White took over the role of pet mother to all. Betty White should have swooped in and taken the stray dogs off of her coworker’s hands immediately.
Asner was born in Kansas City, Missouri to Jewish immigrant parents. He was a one-time all city tackle on his high school football team. “Ah, Kansas City. It was a gentle kind of place to grow up in. It was town that protects you, but I yearned to be off and away. I wanted the pounding of tracks under my feet.” So, he left and went to the University of Chicago. He applied for the football team scholarship and gained admittance on his entrance exams, without the subsidy. At the University, he was a member of the Story Theater of Paul Sills and the Second City revues. Future castmate Valerie Harper was also from the Story Theater. “It was like you had to prove your manhood. I had been protected always. It’s easy to stay 17, if you allow it.”
Asner went into the Army for two years, where he was stationed in post-war France and managed a basketball team. Asner took odd jobs before being able to make a living as an actor. He worked as an auto polisher, in the steel mills in Gary, Indiana, and as a cabbie in Chicago. He would go to the airport and wait to pick up rides. He spent his time waiting in the cab stand reading plays. He wasn’t aggressive about getting rides and declared that he wasn’t the most successful cabbie. The worst job he had, by his account, was as a shoe salesman. But if Ed Bundy could make that career work, I’m sure Lou Grant could. I can just imagine him waiting on fussy shoe customers. Asner called it “grimy” work. I bet it was smelly work, as well! He said he had a lot of bosses who were the yelling, “Lou Grant” types.
Asner had a break out role in Broadway’s “Face of a Hero” starring Jack Lemmon and concluded, “I tell you Broadway is a farce.” Farce or not, he bided his time until something better came along and that strategy paid off for Asner and for his audience. I guess not everyone hates spunk. Asner was married twice and is survived by four children, Matthew, Liza, Kate and Charles.