I would imagine that most wealthy nonagenarians spend their days relaxing at the beach or at their mountain villa, but not Ed Asner. After appearing in over 150 TV shows, 70 films, and countless plays, Ed had, as of late last month, no less than fifteen current projects in post-production and five more announced. Of course, anyone who knew Ed wasn’t surprised by his energy or his level of professional activity. It’s what we expected from the man whose blue-collar upbringing taught him the value of hard work. And with role models like two older sisters who were social workers, and a football coach who once explained to him the rights of laborers, it was also predictable that Ed would work hard fighting for others. Ed was an actor who didn’t just talk the talk, he also walked the walk, speaking out against everything from repression to suppression, and raising money for a plethora of charities and causes, even when it meant being criticized and blackballed. It’s no wonder, then, that The Hollywood Reporter just named Ed as their 2021 Icon. That issue came out on August 25. Ed passed away four days later. Ed Asner was 91.
I first got to know Ed back in 2010 when he was filming “Elephant Sighs” in North Carolina and stopped by to tape an episode of Triad Today. We stayed in touch regularly by phone after that, including discussions about politics and his reason for writing The Grouchy Historian: An Old Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs, which was published in 2017. We spoke shortly before the book was released.
Ed: My co-author Ed Weinberger and I were unhappy with how the right-wing was constantly claiming the Constitution was theirs, and we decided some counter-thrust should occur.
Jim: What’s worse, right-wing nuts who abuse the Constitution, or a President who hasn’t read it?
Ed: (laughs) What’s the difference. Trump is a P.T. Barnum like I’ve never witnessed in my life. There’s a sucker born every minute, and I think he’s corralled most of them.
Ed’s political beliefs got him in trouble with conservatives who called him everything from a communist to a socialist, to unpatriotic. But he never wavered in those beliefs throughout his career, and what a career it was. Following a brief stint in the Army, Ed performed with the Playwrights Theatre, then made a living by playing character roles in episodic television and films, before being cast as Lou Grant in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He then headlined the spin-off series Lou Grant, and became the only actor in history to win an EMMY for playing the same role in two different series, one a comedy, and the other a drama. He won seven Emmys in all, served as President of the Screen Actors Guild, and was named to the Television Hall of Fame.
During Ed’s visit to Triad Today in 2010, we discussed his youth, his career, and his social activism. Here are some highlights:
Jim: By now it’s common knowledge that your buddy Gavin McLeod was asked to audition for the role of Lou Grant, but deferred to you instead, because he thought you’d be better in that role. It’s also a well-known fact that you blew your first audition for MTM.
Ed: They told me I gave a very intelligent reading, which is a euphemism for saying “it stunk.” I did a second reading, and this time they asked me to be crazy, wiggy, and wild. I did and they loved it. Then they asked me back to do the same thing with Mary. Afterward, Mary said to the producers, “Are you sure about him?,” and they said, “Yeah, that’s your Lou Grant.”
Jim: MTM was a huge hit, then you did five seasons as the star of the spin-off, Lou Grant. No one had ever attempted to take a sitcom character and have him headline a drama as the same character. There must be a reason why no one had tried.
Ed: There was. We were going from 180 degrees difference, and nobody, producers, writers, crew, nobody knew what it was like to try and take a half-hour comedy show with three cameras, and make it a one-hour drama with no audience. It took us two years to get it right.
Jim: In Lou Grant, you play a big-city newspaper editor who was sort of a throwback to the days of muckraking.
Ed: I love muck (both laugh).
Jim: Do you think that show made a difference in addressing social issues?
Ed: I know it did. For example, we did a show on dogfighting, and it helped change laws in four or five states.
Jim: While flying high with Lou Grant, you sent money for medical supplies to the rebels in El Salvador who were fighting against a dictator that the Reagan administration supported. All of a sudden, the White House and the news media painted you as some sort of communist. Why did you do it?
Ed: Because our government was supporting a dictator who sponsored death squads. They went around killing the peasants unless they supported the evil government. These squads killed nuns, they killed priests, but the American media led folks here to believe that my sending medical aid was a communist move on my part.
Jim: Bowing to political pressure, CBS then cancelled Lou Grant, and you were virtually blackballed for a while afterwards. Did you ever regret what you did?
Ed: I second guess it all the time. My great regret is that a show with ideas was removed from TV. The causes we covered on Lou Grant are still untreated, and that’s the guilt I carry.
Jim: So why didn’t you ever run for Congress and fight those causes as an elected official?
Ed: I should have because all you have to do is serve one term, and you get a good health plan for life (laughs). In fact, everybody in this country should run for Congress and get a good health plan. I also think people who run for the Senate should do what NASCAR drivers do, and put the names of their corporate sponsors on their suit. Look, a lot of folks back then thought I was positioning myself to be Governor, but I have far more power speaking out as an actor than I ever would as a Congressman or Governor.
Jim: Why DID you become an actor?
Ed: Two reasons. It was good therapy, and it was a romantic, safe adventure. Acting is a safe adventure.
Jim: Well, just before we started taping, I noticed that you were trying to be romantic with my wife.
Ed: I was merely resuming where I had been before (both laugh).
I last spoke with Ed this summer to get his thoughts on the passing of our friend Gavin McLeod. Now, less than three months later Ed is gone too. His lasting legacy is one of entertaining and serving others without pretense, and he will be missed. Of course, were he with us now, I’m sure Ed would want the last word, so here’s one more of our exchanges.
Jim: What would it take for you to stop being grouchy?
Ed: I don’t want to stop being grouchy. I think being avuncular is very attractive, and I like filling those shoes, so mind your own God damn business! (both laugh)