By Terrance Turner
Aug. 29, 2021
Legendary television and film actor Ed Asner has died. He was 91.
His publicist confirmed the news to Variety, writing that he died on Sunday surrounded by family. (Asner is survived by four children: Matthew, Liza, Kate, and Chris.) Asner’s family added confirmation on the actor’s Twitter account. “We are sorry to say that our beloved patriach passed away this morning peacefully,” they wrote. “Words cannot express the sadness we feel. With a kiss on your head — Goodnight dad. We love you.”
Eddie Asner was born on Nov. 15, 1929, in Kansas City, Missouri. He was the youngest of five children. “I was the first child born in a hospital,” he told the Television Academy in an interview. Asner was the child of Orthodox Jewish immigrants: Morris (a junkyard owner) and Lizzie (a housewife). Though born in Missouri, he was raised across the river in Kansas City, Kansas. Kansas City “was a very caring place for Jews at that time,” he said.
At Wyandotte High School in Kansas, he was an “all-city tackle” and edited the school newspaper, per Variety. (That editor job set the stage for one of his greatest roles.) He later studied journalism at the University of Chicago. He was drafted into the Army in 1951 and sent to France. After his stint ended in 1953, he returned to Chicago (according to the New York Times). He moved to New York in 1955 and landed a role in the off-Broadway revival of “Threepenny Opera”. He played Peachum in that play for three years, earning $65 a week (per Variety) and working odd jobs.
Asner made his Broadway debut in 1960, opposite Jack Lemmon in “Face of a Hero”. He moved to California in 1961 in search of more work. He worked on shows like “The Fugitive” and films like “The Slender Thread”. But he was 40 when he got his big break.
Asner’s work in a 1970 pilot, “Doug Selby D.A.,” caught the eye of television executive Grant Tinker, who offered him a part in a new sitcom starring his wife. Asner agreed to audition for the part on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” because “it was the best character I’d ever been asked to do,” Asner said later. He got the part. And that character — a hard-drinking, straight-shooting, short-tempered newsman named Lou Grant — would change Ed Asner’s career forever.
Asner had no idea how iconic the show (and his role) would become. Nobody knew if the show would last more than a 13-episode season, but Asner didn’t even care. “As I saw succeeding scripts and was delighted by their craftsmanship and their humor. I thought it didn’t matter if they cancelled us after the first thirteen or not. I will at least have had this opportunity to do this type of quality,” he said in a 2009 interview.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ran on CBS from 1970 to 1977. Asner was nominated for the Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy series every year the show ran. He won the award in 1971, 1972, and 1975. In one acceptance speech he called the production “the best damn ensemble company I’ve ever worked with”.
In between filming the show, Asner won two more Emmys. He won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Single Performance for playing Nick Nolte’s bitter immigrant father in the 1976 miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man”. He won Outstanding Supporting Actor (Single Performance) the next year for playing a morally conflicted slave-ship owner in another miniseries: “Roots” (1977). That program became one of the highest-rated in television history.
Asner won back-to-back Emmys for his roles in “Rich Man, Poor Man” and “Roots” (Getty Images)
When “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ended in 1977, Asner’s character landed a spinoff. According to the New York Times, “Lou Grant” (1977-82) “was an unusual case, a drama series developed around a sitcom character. In the show, Mr. Grant returned to his first love, editing a big-city newspaper, and the scripts tackled serious issues that included, in the first season alone, domestic abuse, gang rivalries, neo-Nazi groups, nursing-home scandals and cults.” Mr. Asner won two Emmys for best lead actor in a drama series (in 1978 and 1980) for his work on the show. He became the first actor to win Emmys for playing the same character in both a comedy and drama series.
Somehow, while playing Lou Grant, Asner managed to run for office. He won election to become president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1981. According to Variety, “His battles included improving the employment and compensation conditions for actors as well as uniting SAG and SEG, which eventually came to pass;” he also championed the merger of SAG and AFTRA.
“But he drew fire with his public pronouncements against U.S. involvement in El Salvador, which many saw as an abuse of his SAG office. While he was president, an award to a former SAG president, Ronald Reagan, was rescinded because of the then-U.S. president’s dissolution of the air traffic controllers’ union — although Asner himself did not vote on it. He also protested South Africa’s apartheid policies while in office.”
These controversies prompted battles with fellow actor (and avid Reaganite) Charlton Heston. The conflict almost went to court. And security became a problem. “We even had bomb threats at the time. I had armed guards,” Asner recalled. And there were professional implications for Asner, too; CBS canceled “Lou Grant” in 1982. Asner believed that his left-leaning political views had cost him his show. He told Variety that ABC tested another Asner series, “Off the Rack,” by asking viewers, “What do you know of Ed Asner’s politics and how would it affect your liking the show?” Almost unanimously respondents said they knew nothing of Asner’s beliefs nor did they care.
Asner continued to work, landing guest-starring and recurring roles on a number of TV shows, including “Roseanne,” “Dharma and Greg”, “ER” and “The X-Files”. He did voiceover work on the animated series “The Boondocks” and was introduced to a brand new audience when he voiced an elderly widower who flies to South America via balloons in “Up” (2009). “Up” won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.