Died: August 29, 2021.
CRUMPLED, curmudgeonly, often irascible, Ed Asner, who has died at the age of 91, excelled at playing grumpy characters who weren’t easy to get along with.
This was evident to a younger generation of fans in his role of Carl Fredricksen, the memorably grumpy widower who tethers thousands of balloons to his home and sets off
for South America in Up, the Oscar-winning Pixar animation in 2009. Some critics suggested there should be a new award category for “best vocal acting”.
Such was the talent of the man, who made his name by starring in both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and as the eponymous Lou Grant, that in addition to gruff roles he could also play warm, genial ones – he was often cast, for example, as Santa.
His depth was underlined by his becoming the male actor with the highest number – seven – of Primetime Emmy awards. He also won five Golden Globes.
The complainer in him, however, didn’t feel satisfied by his lot. “I never get enough work,” he said in 2009. “It’s the history of my career. There just isn’t anything to turn down and it’s a shame.”
Asner’s sturdy shape, his almost disappeared hairline and his tough smile meant he didn’t present as leading-man material, and he wasn’t always inundated with offers.
But there was another reason why work opportunities may have been denied him; Asner, whose career began during the McCarthy era, was a renowned activist.
During the filming of his 1970s award-winning newspaper office drama, Lou Grant, he complained about “our country’s constant arming and fortifying of the military in El Salvador, who were oppressing their people.”
It was an admirable stance but it resulted in a Hollywood backlash from the likes of the sanctimonious Charlton Heston, the on-screen Moses, who accused Asner of being un-American. Bomb threats were made on Asner’s life and he even had to have armed guards.
He blamed the controversy for ending the five-year run of Lou Grant. CBS insisted declining ratings were the reason, which was not
Born in Kansas City, Eddie (the given name on his birth certificate) Asner and his four brothers and sisters lived above the junkyard run by his father, Morris.
Asner grew up smelling the stench of poverty. His eyes were scorched by inequality, from seeing his German-Jewish father traipse his pony and cart junk around the city and his mother, Lizzie, work in packing factories. The Depression years taught him how the car plants used men up and spat them out.
His Jewish religion underlined his sense of persecution. “But it was a strengthener,” he said in interview. “It gave me a hunger I may never have had.” But a hunger to become an actor? Not at first: “I never saw myself getting involved in the acting business, but I was always the loudest singer at Friday synagogue night services.”
At high school, Asner appeared on local radio and managed to get good enough grades to study journalism at the University of Chicago. But the pull was towards performance. His early attempts revealed a striking confidence, as he debuted as the martyred Thomas Becket in a campus production of TS Eliot’s Murder In The Cathedral.
He then dropped out of university – “I wanted to see the open road” – but instead he went back to Kansas and worked as a taxi driver and a car plant worker. His dream at the time? He harboured notions of meeting his student girlfriend in Ireland, of joining Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. “Then I discovered you had to speak Gaelic,” he said with a dry smile. “And my Hebrew wouldn’t cut it.”
In 1951, he was drafted and served with the army signal corps in France. On return to the US he focused on acting. He moved back to Chicago to appear with former student friends at the 180-seat Playwrights Theatre Club (“above an old chop suey joint,”) where he starred in Chekhov’s The Seagull. “My mom would slip me the occasional fiver or tenner in a letter, to help with the rent.”
To improve his craft he moved to New York, where he appeared in Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera and opposite Jack Lemmon in Face Of A Hero. In 1961, he began to land TV roles such as Naked City, and the film El Dorado, opposite John Wayne.
The career-defining role of Lou Grant did not arrive until 1970, when he was cast in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “I acted like I was a nut job,” he said of the audition. “Mary said to the producer, ‘Are you sure?’”
Asner was perfect for the role; angry, but with devilment in his eyes. (His first line to Moore was, “You’ve got spunk”; pacing his delivery perfectly, he added caustically: “I hate spunk!”) ,
He was perfect for the role of a newsman who was uncompromising in his defence of press freedom, a man who cared deeply about others. So convincing was he the eponymous spin-off show Lou Grant, was almost a given. And so, the success story (although he didn’t see it as such) continued throughout his career, with appearances in Rich Man, Poor Man, and in Roots. He starred in Elf (2003) and returned to Broadway in 2013.
He had three children with Nancy Sykes, whom he married in 1959. They divorced in 1988. Ten years later he married Cindy Gilmore, a producer; they separated in 2007 but did not divorce until 2015. He is survived by his children – Liza, Katie, Charles and Matthew, and 10 grandchildren.
Apart from a great body of work, Ed Asner was also a union activist. He became president of the Screen Actors’ Guild and throughout his career he continually questioned right-wing America.
Despite the gruff exterior, he genuinely cared about people, setting up the Ed Asner Family Center to “support people who are differently-abled”. Did his heightened critical voice limit his career? Most certainly. But then, had he been a more accepting person, we would never had had Lou Grant.