September 10, 2021
Online Originals

Hardscrabble Hero

Long before he became the toast of television, Ed Asner knew what it felt like when “you’re not quite the right glass of tea.”

Ed Asner, perhaps the most honored television actor in history, had no acting ambitions in his formative years.

Except maybe once or twice during the festive Jewish holiday of Purim, when children act out the story in the Book of Esther. "I'd love to get up on stage and play Mordechai in the school plays," Ed said.

The men he considered real actors — legends like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn — never played Mordechai. Ed wasn't like them, he told me over corned beef sandwiches.

That was one of the many memories he shared with me over a period of nearly 40 years until his death at age 91 on August 29.

I met Ed in 1982, shortly after I became the television critic at The Kansas City Star newspaper. I grew up in Chicago and began my journalism career in Kansas City. He grew up in Kansas City and become an actor in Chicago. I was plodding along in my career; he was a superstar whose very name was a common clue in crossword puzzles.

We were in loose touch after that, generally meeting for lunch or dinner every year. I never ran out of questions for him, and he never ran out of stories.

There was nothing about Ed's early years that foretold his future. He was born just a few weeks after the stock market crash plunged the nation into a decade-long Depression.

Until then, his family had prospered. His father immigrated from Vilna, in Lithuania, and his mother from Odessa, in Ukraine. Helped by social services, they found their way to Kansas City, Kan., where each had family. Unlike Kansas City, Mo., a populous and sprawling city just across the state line, Kansas City, Kan. was a modest working-class town with few, if any, points of interest.

His father owned a junkyard. It was a stone's throw from a half-dozen meat processing plants. All day, the air was filled with the bleats of animals stomping over the walkways into the packing houses and the stench from their demise. All day, workers came and went in their blood-stained rubber boots, their sharp-edged knives at their side. Often, they ate lunch in the shade of one of the trees of the Asner front yard.

The junkyard did well. On the day the market crashed, Ed's father was in Arkansas, working on a joint venture with his uncle, who was in the oil business. The venture failed, as did just about everything. Ed's mother pawned whatever jewels she had to pay expenses.

"They both had to start scrubbing, making every end meet that they could," Ed said. At the time, his father was 57, and his mother was 48.

Ed was the youngest of five children. His two older brothers and his two older sisters doted on him. During the Depression, though, it was practically impossible to spoil a child.

He remembered the first time his mother bought him a pair of boxer shorts. "Up until then, I had worn nothing but longjohns," he said. "I was so thrilled and delighted with them, I begged her and got permission to wear them on the street."

Ed didn't take part in high school plays or drama club. Even so, his teachers influenced his future career.

He learned literature and a facility for memorizing lines from his freshman English teacher, Miss Timmer. "When I was the class clown, she used to make me learn great poems as punishment," he said.

Then there was Mr. Corporan, Ed's journalism teacher. He had served in World War II and returned to teaching with a new perspective on the world. "He brought back standards — literary standards, journalistic standards. He spoke well. He demanded excellence, and he showed how to get it."

Still, Ed never considered acting. "I considered myself the ugly duckling at the time, not a candidate for being an actor in any way, shape or form. I disliked myself despite my success and achievements in high school," Ed said.

When it was time to decide on a college, he applied for a scholarship at the University of Chicago. "I was vaguely interested in the idea of political science," he said. "That sounded intriguing, challenging. Chicago was thought to be a good school." He didn't get a scholarship, but he went anyway.

Ed was an average student, but at the university, he found more than classes. The school had installed a closed-circuit radio station that broadcast through the electric wiring. Ed never fancied himself an actor, but he had always been enamored by radio.

"I could feel safe behind the microphone," he said. "I could allow my voice to become the person who transported you to Scotland or England or wherever."

Ed asked his roommate if he should try out for a role in the radio station's production of Richard III. The roommate asked Ed to read for him. Ed took out a copy of Song of Songs he got as a birthday gift.

"I stood at one end of the room and read to him at the other," he recalled. "I knocked his socks off. 'By all means, you can do any role,' he said." He wound up playing a small role, the Duke of York.

What mattered far more, though, was that he found his way into the theater group.

Ed's college education lasted a year and a half. He overloaded on classes, got mostly average grades and determined to leave college as quickly as possible. He returned home and got a job at the local Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac plant. But there was no longer a question about his future. His mind was on acting.

When his theater friends called to tell him they were preparing a production of Julius Caesar and that he would be perfect, the invitation was irresistible. With a few bucks in his pocket, the future Brutus headed back to the Windy City.

He honed his craft in Chicago, leaving only for two years of Army service, from 1951 to 1953. Much of that time was spent coaching his unit's basketball team, which became the second best Army team in Europe.

Ed was no basketball genius. He said he didn't have to be. "I knew that, when one guy wasn't doing well, I put in another guy. Also, coming from Kansas City, I knew who was a good player and who wasn't. The players coached themselves. I merely did the legwork."

Two weeks before he was discharged, Ed got a letter inviting him to join a new drama troupe being formed in Chicago. Army bonus money in hand, off he went. The letter promised $50 to $60 a week, but it turned out to be more like $10 to $29. He slept in an alcove of the theater. But he was doing what he loved.

A couple of years later, Ed moved to New York. There, he found work in theater and, increasingly, in the new medium of television. At first, there were Sunday morning shows, such as Camera Three and Lamp Unto My Feet. Then came roles in primetime dramas, such as Studio One and Armstrong Circle Theatre. He read poetry for records and narrated an occasional industrial film.

He had begun to taste the sweetness of success. Maybe that's why his father's death at that time seemed so bitter.

"There was a great regret that there wasn't some form of contact," Ed recalled. "I suppose I had gotten word that he was getting old. The last year he was less active at the business. He had Bell's Palsy [a type of facial paralysis]. I guess somebody in the family might have said, 'You ought to come home and pay a visit.' I would plan on seeing him my next vacation whenever that came around. But you're performing every night, and you don't think of those things. You go on and work, work, work."

Instead, Ed returned for the funeral. He recalled when he was 16 and played football for his high school team on the holiday of Yom Kippur, succumbing to outside pressure against his father's wishes.

"I felt intense guilt over it," Ed said. "At the same time, I think it heightened my love for him and his willingness to pursue his ideals, his beliefs, his standards and not merge or blend to the point of being lost. He was not an educated man and, in essence, I felt I sold my faith out and I've always regretted it."

Back in New York, Ed's career continued to build. In 1961, he was asked to fly to California for a role in the TV drama Naked City. Then came even more success, followed by horrific failure.

In Los Angeles, Ed found himself the center of attention: "Everybody became impressed with me. Everybody wanted me to see this one and that."

Two years earlier, Ed married the former Nancy Sykes. When he was in California, he called her to say he wanted to stay for another week. After a second week, he told her he wanted them to move to L.A.

In the last six months of that year, Ed made more than he had in his best year in New York. The parts kept getting better and better. Then his fortune changed.

Three years before he scored the career-making role of Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ed left the political drama Slattery's People because it didn't seem there was much for him to do. It was about the time he bought his dream house in the hills north of Westwood even though he hadn't sold the house they lived in. Meanwhile, his family grew to include three young children.

"All of a sudden, the well dried up," Ed said. "It was probably the time I needed money more than ever. The first half of the year, it was slow; I thought I'd make up for it in the second half. The second half comes, and it doesn't happen. Then you start panicking, and the second year is worse.

"These things happen. You have a run of luck where you're not quite the right glass of tea, and it went on for two years. I'd look in the Sunday paper to see how I could supplement my income. I realized for the first time that I'd become almost 40. I was too old for some jobs and totally unequipped for any of the others."

He was glum. Prospects were bleak. "There was a point there where I stood on the slope of my house and I looked over the panorama and I realized I may have to walk away. The reserves were being wiped out. It's horrible to go through. In the end, what you have to say is, 'It's only money. It's only a house, and we'll find another house.'"

The following year, Ed was back in the groove, and the offers flowed. He had his best year ever. At least, until the following year, when he was picked to play Lou Grant.

Years later, he looked back at his life with barely concealed disbelief. To this day, his seven Emmys remain the record for male actors.

"When I set out in the industry," he said, "all I set out to do was to guiltily enjoy my love of acting and my love of performing in hopes that I could struggle through life, marry, have a couple of kids or more and afford to send them to college. That was my goal.

"To exceed that beyond my wildest dreams always will amaze me."

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