November 22, 2017
Hall of Fame

Ed Asner: Hall of Fame Tribute

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Ed Asner
can't hide it any more than his alter ego, Lou Grant, could: they both love humanity; they both champion the underdog; they both have a soft spot for Everyman (and woman). In Grant's case, this quality helped endear him to millions on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant. In Asner's case, it also endeared him to millions — but was barely endured by those who didn't agree with his politics.

And it cost him.

The Lou Grant show, certainly the best TV series ever about a newspaper, sometimes actually behaved like a crusading newspaper — tackling tough issues and irking the establishment. (One show that dealt with inhumane nursing homes cost them a sponsor.) Asner, at times (notably from 1981-85, while president of the Screen Actors Guild), behaved like a crusading U.S. citizen — tackling and denouncing U.S. involvement in Central America, and other issues that he saw as unjust.

Then — shades of the days of blacklisting — a couple of sponsors, apparently irritated with the program's (or Asner's) activism, dropped Lou Grant. Not long afterward, the show was cancelled outright, despite landing consistently in the top 12, ratings-wise (it was replaced by the then-low-rated Cagney and Lacey, which had already been cancelled months earlier). Huge picket lines snaked around CBS in protest, but it was for nought. Asner, to his amazement, found that his resume suddenly didn't open a lot of doors. Here's how Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore executive producer Allan Burns described the sorry situation:

"The rest of us went to work on other things, but Ed was a pariah for a while. He went through a very tough patch. It was a few years before anybody was willing to forgive him."

Forgive him? For what? Asner saw his actions as simply discharging his obligation as an American.

"I was raised in a very giving family," said the actor, reached at his L.A.-based Quince Studios.  In my soul, I saw that I had to pay something back. I had to do something to make my success warranted, merited. And I suddenly had a clout which wasn't worth anything before. I felt I should use it for what I thought was worthwhile.”

Somewhat like Grant, Asner spoke in a laconic, matter-of-fact, self-effacing tone. He always does. His friends and family were only too happy to comment a bit more pointedly. Quoth Burns:

“Ed is a great citizen. He proves it time and time again. He's a great American. He loves his country, but he loves it in a way in which he's not afraid to say, ‘Hey, Uncle, you've got a wart on your nose, maybe you ought to take it off.’  Nobody works harder than Ed. Nobody is more sincere than Ed. It's a privilege to call him not only my colleague, but my friend.”

Quoth Grant Tinker, former head of MTM productions (which generated Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant) and NBC:

“Ed has been a cherished friend for more than a quarter century. During those years, as an actor, he's produced a body of work that certainly qualifies him for entrance into the Hall of Fame. But Ed is also a Hall of Famer as a citizen. He has always put conscience before career, often to the detriment of the latter. He can't help it; Ed Asner simply cares about people — all people. The Television Academy honors a singular human being.”

Quoth Matthew Asner, Ed's son:

“I look at my father and I see much more than an actor. I see a man who is not afraid to speak his mind, and a man who basically risked a lot to get his views across. To me, that was a tremendous act of bravery on his part — his basically activist, bad-boy image … I think his motives were very honorable, and I think that history will certainly reflect that.”

History will first reflect that, as Tinker mentioned, Asner did a little bit of acting, too.

In fact, when you talk about Ed Asner's acting, only one other great name springs immediately to mind: Babe Ruth. No, the Babe wasn't much of a thespian (although, for a paunchy guy, he did a hell of an impression of an athlete). Asner and Ruth each accomplished one of the most remarkable feats in the history of their respective professions. Ruth switched from ace pitcher to home run specialist, which has never been done by anyone else in major league baseball. Asner pulled a Ruthian switch; he took a comedic character from a hit series, and transformed him into a dramatic character in another hit series — which has never been done successfully by anyone else in television.

"No, it's never been done," said Asner, "and there's a good reason why … It was a nightmare."

The character, of course, was Grant — irascible, vulnerable, and hilariously disgruntled on one of the greatest comedy series ever, Mary Tyler Moore, and irascible, vulnerable, and tough-as-nails on one of the more technically accurate dramas ever, Lou Grant. If you remember, the transition was not stark. At the beginning of Lou Grant, Lou was still … playful.

"I was making sure that every joke that's there, though not normal, had to be unbelievably stressed," said Asner. “And it was like body English all the time. I was truly going nuts. Finally, I reached a sense of defeatism that would say ‘to hell with this.’ They wanted me to be the watchdog for preserving the original character, and in the end, I got so strained that I just said, ‘I'm going to perform the scripts as I see them written.’ And I don't know if you can tell the difference, but I was able to relax so much more.”

Ed Asner first started performing scripts back home in Kansas City, Kansas, at age seven.  “I loved to be dragooned into playlets and group singing because I certainly had a loud voice," he said, “and loved that kind of hopping around, and displaying my intensity. Most of this took place in our synagogue, where I played Mordecai, etc. In school, I was always delighted to do the same, but you never volunteered. It would be sissy to be in a play, you see. You waited until the teacher chose you. Once I was chosen, then that was wonderful.”

A synagogue? There was a Jewish community in Kansas? Only about 100 families, as it turns out — but nearby Kansas City, Missouri, was a Mecca for Jews throughout the Midwest. Asner's mother and her family emigrated from Russia through Galveston, Texas, and were given jobs in a Kansas City packing-house.  Ed, youngest of five children, was the only one in the family inclined toward things dramatic. Credit, in part, goes to a magnificent, and now sadly neglected author of young person's adventure books — Joseph A. Altsheler.

One memorable summer, young Ed took refuge in Altsheler's ornate, romanticized description of life on the American frontier. “I loved romantic escape as a kid. And oh, did I ever love those books — and Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans and Terhune's Bob, Son of Battle … It was an essentially lonely summer, and these books made it live for me.”

The chance to do a little radio work a few years later in high school allowed Asner to realize that acting could be his own romantic escape — or, as he put it, "safe adventure."  “I loved radio and it influenced me. I certainly didn't see much stage in Kansas City. I went to movies, but I think radio wove a spell over me more intense than movies. And I thought I was an ugly duckling, so I thought, ‘Well, I can live through the voice.’ It allowed me to be Errol Flynn. I developed my voice as best-sounding as I could, and ridded myself of much of the accent that my siblings had. I have a cousin in Kansas City today who sounds like Gomer Pyle.”

He went on to appear in school plays at Wyandotte High, where he also discovered a love of journalism — one that, except for advice from a foresighted journalism teacher, might have allowed Asner to blossom into a real-life Lou Grant. The advice? "You can't make a living at it." Later enrolled at the University of Chicago, Asner focused on acting, appearing as Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral and joining a campus dramatic group, "Tonight at Eight-Thirty" (where he was directed by a young Mike Nichols). Two years-in-the-Army later, he returned to the Windy City and joined The Playwrights Theater Club for $50 a week, invited by founders Paul Sills and David Shepard. It was during that time that invaluable "research" was done — that helped shape Asner's blue-collar, regular guy appeal, and helped forge his social concerns for the downtrodden: he worked as a cab driver and a steelworker.

“I think those jobs helped inculcate in me a means of approaching that kind of person — that Everyman/person," he said, “It gave me my observation of the world, and the feeling very strongly that I would never look good enough to be the tycoon, the prince, the Errol Flynn. You see, the magic of theater for me was becoming the king, becoming the archbishop, putting on the mask and becoming other than myself.”

From there, Asner's career went rather by-the-book, as successful acting careers go — on to the New York stage, where he appeared with Jack Lemmon in Face of a Hero, off-Broadway, and the American and New York Shakespeare Festivals. From there came The Big Move West — to Hollywood, where his resume gradually became a workmanlike list of credits, including movies like El Dorado, Kid Galahad, The Satan Bug, The Venetian Affair, and TV including Slattery's People, with Richard Crenna, and later Rich Man, Poor Man. (The last credit being the only time, said Matthew Asner, "I've seen him as an actor, and said, 'that's not my father.' The sadness of that man was very moving — his best role — so far!")

Truth be told, he almost blew the audition for the most successful role of his career (to date): Grant. Crenna had highly recommended Asner to his pal, Grant Tinker, at MTM. The year was 1970. Burns remembered:  “We were really striking out left and right trying to find somebody to play Lou Grant. It was terrible. We had been reading literally for months. He didn't read very well, honestly. Ed knows it.”

(Mary Tyler Moore, in her autobiography, After All, said Asner's first reading of Grant was “like a scene from Silence of the Lambs — a Hannibal Lechter with an intense appetite for Jodie Foster's liver.”): “The problem was that we were just too respectful, I guess. We said, “Thank you very much,” with big smiles on our faces, told him how good he was, and he left. Ten minutes later, there was a buzz on our intercom, and our assistant said, “Ed Asner's back and he wants to see you.” And Ed walks in — bursts in — says, “You guys, you're just too goddamned polite! Okay, I'm an actor. You want more comedy? Tell me! Tell me what I'm doing wrong, and I'll do it right!”

They did, and he did — and the part was his. (An interesting aside: Gavin McLeod had also read for Grant. After Asner read, he came back and auditioned for the part of Murray, which later became one of his trademark roles.) Burns called it "the best decision we ever made." Asner still speaks with obvious affection for the show.  “I think there are probably more brilliant shows, more funny shows, more pertinent shows. But Mary Tyler Moore had that wonderful Everyman quality to it. [Washington Post TV critic] Tom Shales described it as a ‘wonderful bunch of losers,’ which I think is accurate. Losers who didn't know it and regarded every day as containing some kind of triumph.”

Grant was an exercise in sober reality compared to the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and is, perhaps accordingly, the source of one of Asner's serious regrets. In this world where fact and fancy are too often blurred, he became something of a journalistic icon while editing the fictional Los Angeles Tribune. As a guest speaker at high schools and universities, he encouraged a lot of kids to enter journalism — and is sorry he did. (Today, if asked, he recommends getting a well-rounded education instead.)

"I came to realize, particularly when I became controversial, the powerlessness of the journalist," he said,” that there is no investigative reporting of any nature going on anymore.” 

“The cliquishness! For instance, the journalists in the loop in Washington certainly dare not attack anybody who shares that loop with them, or they'll be tossed out of the loop. You know, a general whorishness … I also discovered that no matter what you put into the body of an article, the journalist and the subject are victims of the editors.”

In the '80s and '90s, this seven-time Emmy-winning actor (Mary Tyler Moore, three; Rich Man, Poor Man, one; Roots, one; Lou Grant, two) has busied himself with a few series (The Trials of Rosie O'Neill for CBS), some cartoon voiceover work ("good for small change"), television movies (including Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus for NBC, and Heads for Showtime), and feature work (Oliver Stone's JFK). He has lately returned to his first theatrical love, radio, putting on classic dramas in front of an audience for broadcast over National Public Radio. Other ongoing projects? Raising his nine-year-old son, Charlie (he has three other children: Matthew, who produced Hiroshima for Showtime; twin sister Liza, a production coordinator for a Portland, Oregon TV station; and Kate, an actress). And here's one for the Mary Tyler Moore fans — he's reuniting with Mary for an ABC movie called Payback (which he describes as "a good cop/bad cop story").

Of the nearly legendary on-screen chemistry with Moore (Burns termed it "the heart of the Mary Tyler Moore Show; almost a Tracy/Hepburn kind of thing"), Asner practically rhapsodized: "There's a truly a walking on air, and superior feeling that can't be defined. It's truly magnificent."

His remarks were less effusive when asked about his feelings, at the tender age of 66, upon being inducted into the Hall of Fame. In fact, his response was to be practically tongue-tied, and say some fairly complicated and humble things off-the-record. It left the impression that Ed Asner — the generous-spirited, duty-bound citizen; the one-time lonely kid from Kansas City, Kansas, who found his muse in adventure stories; the Everyman actor who seems like everyone's favorite uncle (and also plays a damn good heavy) — might just feel that he doesn't deserve any honors. So the question was rephrased: How might Lou Grant react to being inducted?

"He'd say, 'They couldn't find anybody else?"'

That's right. They could never find another Lou Grant.

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Ed Asner's induction in 1996.

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