Asner, Ed (1929—)

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Asner, Ed (1929—)

Ed Asner is an award winning actor who holds the distinction of accomplishing one of the most extraordinary transitions in television programming history: he took his character Lou Grant—the gruff, hard drinking, but lovable boss of the newsroom at WJM TV Minneapolis on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, a half-hour situation comedy—to the city editorship of the Los Angeles Tribune, on the one hour drama Lou Grant. Lou Grant's 12-year career on two successful, but very different, television shows established Asner as a major presence in American popular culture.

Yitzak Edward Asner was born on November 15, 1929 in Kansas City, Kansas. After high school, he attended the University of Chicago, where he appeared in student dramatic productions and firmly decided upon a life in the theater. After graduation and two years in the army, he found work in Chicago as a member of the Playwrights' Theater Club. He then headed for New York to try his luck on Broadway.

His success on Broadway was middling at best. He appeared in Face of a Hero with Jack Lemmon, and in a number of off-Broadway productions, as well as several New York and American Shakespeare Festivals in the late 1950s. In 1961, he packed up his family and moved to Hollywood. His first film was the Elvis Presley vehicle Kid Galahad, a remake of the 1937 Edward G. Robinson/Bette Davis/Humphrey Bogart film. Following this were featured roles in such films as The Satan Bug (1965), El Dorado (1965), and Change of Habit (1969), Elvis Presley's last film. He also performed guest appearances in numerous television series, and he had a continuing role as a crusading reporter on the short-lived Richard Crenna series, Slattery's People.

In early 1969, Moore and Dick Van Dyke, stars of television's The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), appeared in a reunion special on CBS that did so well in the ratings that the network offered Moore the opportunity to come up with a series. Together with her husband, Grant Tinker, and writers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, she created The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one of the happiest and most successful marriages of writing and ensemble casting in the history of American television. The program was first telecast on September 19, 1970 and centered around Mary Richards, an unmarried, independent 30-year-old woman who was determined to succeed on her own. She became the assistant producer in the newsroom at fictional WJM-TV in Minneapolis. Asner was cast as Lou Grant, the gruff and abrupt but sentimental boss of the somewhat wacky newsroom crew and their inept news anchor, Ted Baxter, played by Ted Knight. Lou Grant constantly struggled to maintain a higher than mediocre level of standards in the newsroom, while he coped with his personal problems and the problems created by the interaction of the members of the newsroom crew. His blustery, realistic approach to the job, and his comedic resort to the ever-present bottle in his desk drawer to vent his frustration and mask his vulnerability, nicely balanced Mary Richards' more idealistic, openly vulnerable central character.

Asner was a perennial nominee for Emmy awards for the role, receiving the Best Supporting Actor awards in 1971, 1972, and 1975. When the show ended its spectacular run in 1977, Asner was given the opportunity to continue the role of Lou Grant in an hour-long drama series that MTM Productions, Moore and Tinker's production company, was working up. In the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, station WJM was sold and the entire newsroom crew was fired except, ironically, Ted Baxter. Lou Grant, out of a job, went to Los Angeles to look up an old Army buddy, Charlie Hume, who, it turned out, was managing editor of the Los Angeles Tribune. Lou was hired as city editor. The series was called simply Lou Grant and it presented weekly plots of current social and political issues torn from the headlines and presented with high production values. It emphasized the crusading zeal of the characters to stamp out evil, the conflicts and aspirations of the reporters, the infighting among the editors, and the relationship between Grant and the publisher Mrs. Pynchon, played by Nancy Marchand. The program succeeded because of Asner's steady and dominating portrayal of the show's central character, who represented a high standard of professional ethics and morals, and who was often in conflict with the stubborn and autocratic Mrs. Pynchon. Asner was again nominated for Emmy awards, winning the award in 1978 and 1980 as Best Actor in a Series.

In 1982, CBS suddenly canceled Lou Grant, ostensibly for declining ratings, but Asner and other commentators insist that the show was canceled for political reasons. He was a leading figure in the actor's strike of 1980 and was elected president of the Screen Actors' Guild in 1981, a post he held until 1985. He also was an outspoken advocate of liberal causes and a charter member of Medical Aid for El Salvador, an organization at odds with the Reagan Administration's policies in Central America. This created controversy and led to political pressure on CBS to rein in the Lou Grant show which, to many observers, was becoming an organ for Asner's liberal causes. "We were still a prestigious show. [The controversy] created demonstrations outside CBS and all that. It was 1982, the height of Reagan power," he would recall later in an interview on Canadian radio. "I think it was in the hands of William Paley to make the decision to cancel it."

Following Lou Grant, Asner has done roles in Off the Rack (1985) and Thunder Alley (1994-1995). With Bette Midler, he played a wonderfully subdued role as Papa in the made for television rendition of Gypsy (1993). In addition to the five Emmies noted above, he won Best Actor awards for the CBS miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) and Roots (1977), a total of seven Emmy awards on 15 nominations. In addition, he holds five Golden Globe Awards and two Critics Circle Awards.

—James R. Belpedio

Further Reading:

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. New York, Ballantine Books, 1995.

Brooks, Tim. The Complete Directory to Prime Time TV Stars, 1946-Present. New York, Ballantine, 1987.

CJAD Radio Montreal. Interview with Ed Asner. Transcript of an interview broadcast May 12, 1995,