Ed Asner obituary

It is very difficult to separate the character of the eponymous hero of the television series Lou Grant (1977-82) from the actor who played him. Ed Asner, who has died aged 91, will always be associated with the irascible but kindly crusading city editor of the Los Angeles Tribune, although he had a career that stretched back to the 1950s and continued long after Lou Grant was axed.

While the show was running, Asner was an outspoken activist against US support of the junta in El Salvador. He stood on the steps of the state department to announce the formation of Medical Aid for El Salvador and presented the first $25,000 relief cheque for war-ravaged communities there. Dozens of rightwing organisations asked their members to boycott the products that sponsored the show.

Asner was also twice elected head of the Screen Actors Guild, a position that he frequently used as a forum for his political opinions, which brought him into conflict with Charlton Heston, who took over from Asner in a highly publicised power play.

“My presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, coupled at the same time with being one of the founding members of Medical Aid for El Salvador, created a conflict which eventually led to the cancellation of the Lou Grant show,” he wrote. “It was 1982, the height of Reagan power.”

It all sounds like an episode of Lou Grant, in which, at Lou’s instigation, star reporters Joe Rossi (Robert Walden) and Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey) gathered facts about how pressure groups force a TV network to cancel a show because of the political leanings of its star.

Many of the groundbreaking show’s themes reflected Asner’s views. Among the controversial issues it covered were abortion, prostitution, child pornography, racism, homophobia, the negative treatment of Native Americans, Vietnam vets, Vietnamese immigrants, illegal aliens, US support of military juntas, big business corruption and third world dumping. Looking back, it is a wonder the show lasted five years, and that Asner remained a star and in work.

Indeed, his newfound fame as Grant did not, initially, gain him many roles on the big screen. Years later, Asner commented, “I still find resistance to putting me in movies. I’m not sure whether it’s a combination of so much TV in my life or my recognition as Lou Grant so intensively that they hoped to bury me within the wrappings of a character. They’re much more afraid to cast me than they are in television. Also, I’m not a leading man, so it would be a harder sell.”

Asner had originally appeared as Lou Grant in The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970. An eminent ex-journalist, Grant was the macho news show producer at WJM-TV. Sometimes he was the exasperated boss, sometimes the wise counsellor, traits Asner carried over from the sitcom to the spinoff drama series. Added to this, Asner transformed the comic persona into a serious newsman, uncompromising in his defence of press freedom and, despite his gruff exterior, genuinely caring about people.

Asner was born in Kansas City, Missouri, into a traditional Orthodox Jewish family, the son of Lizzie (nee Seliger), and Morris David Asner, a poor immigrant junk man – what would be known in Britain as a rag and bone man – who described himself to his friends as being in the “used materials business”. Theirs was the only Jewish family in the neighbourhood, so the young Ed learned to defend himself both vocally and physically.

He played football in high school and organised a basketball team which toured much of liberated Europe. After moving to Chicago in the 1950s, he was briefly a member of the Playwrights Theatre Club until he went to New York to try his luck. There, from 1954 to 1957, he appeared as Mr Peachum in the off-Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, in a cast which starred Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya.

In the early 1960s, on television, he profited from his physical resemblance to the stereotyped view of KGB types during the spy-show boom. At the same time, he started to appear in feature films in secondary roles, mostly as cops. It was while playing a streetwise police lieutenant in Elvis Presley’s last – and worst – feature film, Change of Habit (1969), that he met Mary Tyler Moore. The latter played a nun who at one point stages a sit-in at a grocery store because the prices are unfair. When Asner refuses to arrest her, she shrieks, “Police brutality!”

In 1970, despite Moore’s initial reluctance (she was not certain he was funny enough), Asner was cast as Lou Grant in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran for seven seasons, and for which he won three Emmy awards.

Among the few substantial roles he had in feature films were a slave trader in Skin Game (1971); an owner of a football team which includes a Yugoslav mule in Gus (1976); a tough cop, second billed to Paul Newman, in Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981); a faithful widower in communication with the ghost of his wife in O’Hara’s Wife (1982), and as a lawyer defending a couple accused of treachery (based on the Rosenbergs) in Sidney Lumet’s Daniel (1983).

Asner continued to appear regularly on television, taking on two weekly sitcoms, Hearts Afire (1992-93) and Thunder Alley (1994-95), atypically cast in the latter show as an ineffective grouch who is easily dominated by his daughter and grandchildren.

At the same time, Asner started to get a lot of work as a voice actor on animated TV series (Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, Zorro, The Boondocks, Gargoyles, The Cleveland Show, for example), and animated features, notably Up (2009), beautifully exploiting the gruff persona that was the protective stance of a private, sensitive person. Despite his being cast so often as a curmudgeon, it might seem paradoxical that he played Santa Claus a number of times, most famously in Elf (2003).

As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, he remained outspoken in a very conservative industry. “Socialist means a thing that will curb the excesses of capitalism: the increasing wealth of the rich and decreasing wealth of the poor,” he said. “I’d like to see a national guarantee of health, a national guarantee of education (through college), fair housing, and sufficient food.”

Asner had two daughters and a son from his first marriage, to Nancy Sykes, which ended in divorce; and a son from a relationship with Carol Jean Vogelman.

Ed Asner, actor, born 15 November 1929; died 29 August 2021

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