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Ed Asner attends the 2009 Creative Arts Emmys.

Chris Pizzello/AP
August 31, 2021
Online Originals

He Had Spunk! A Tribute to Ed Asner

Remembering the esteemed performer

Herbie J Pilato

"I regard myself as a beautiful musical instrument, and my role is to contribute that instrument to scripts worthy of it," said Ed Asner in a recent interview with author Herbie J Pilato.

Asner died August 29, 2021, at age 91.

He rose to fame as cantankerous newsman Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the legendary CBS comedy that was a Saturday-night staple from 1970 to 1977. He would reprise the role in Lou Grant, a spin-off that CBS aired Monday nights from 1977 to 1982.

In the process, Asner made television history playing the same character in a 30-minute comedy filmed with three cameras before a live studio audience and a 60-minute, single-camera drama.

In the sitcom, Lou Grant was the executive producer of the fictitious WJM TV newsroom in Minneapolis. He supervised associate producer Mary Richards (Moore), news writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod), self-absorbed news anchor Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), and weatherman Gordy Howard (John Amos).

Other characters on the show included Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White — the last living member of the cast), host of WJM's Happy Homemaker show, Ted's girlfriend — and eventual wife — Georgette Franklin Baxter (Georgia Engel), and Mary's neighbors and best friends Rhoda Morgenstern, portrayed by Valerie Harper, and Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman).

On Lou Grant, Asner's title character moved to Los Angeles, where he was hired as editor of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune. Once more in a supervisory position, Asner's Grant was surrounded by another group of diverse characters portrayed by an equally talented cast. They included Mrs. Pynchon (Nancy Marchand), the paper's owner, assistant editor Charlie Hume (Mason Adams), reporter Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey) and reporter Joe Rossi (Robert Walden).

Created by the multi-Emmy-winning writing team of James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, both the Moore and Grant shows met Asner's top priority: the quality of the words on the page. "It all starts with the scripts," he said. "Good writing has to come first before an actor can properly interpret a role, a story, a situation."

In describing his most famous character, Asner said, "He wasn't sappy. He was a straight shooter. He was tough but kind. He had his limits  —  and I would say that's always the defining mark in the creation of development of a character...finding balance."

Early in the development of Lou Grant, there were conversations about having characters from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, including Moore's Mary Richards, make guest appearances. "Mary was busy with her show, as was Ted [Knight]," Asner explained. "The producers may have made the offers, but nothing came of it."

Meanwhile, network executives and the show's producers requested certain other alterations. Among them: asking the robust Asner to lose weight to present what was then perceived as a more accepted appearance. Without hesitation, the actor complied.

But his shift in size was not entirely embraced by his fans. They missed Asner's fuller form, the one they had come to love for years.

So, Asner complied once more and returned to his original heft.

However, it was the outspoken actor's political views that ultimately ended the show, while also earning him accolades for his fearless and forthright opinions until the day he died. Before and after Lou Grant, the actor remained dedicated to the Democratic Party, and described himself, "an old lefty."

In late 2017, Asner published a book about the Constitution titled The Grouchy Historian. That year, he told Closer Weekly magazine, "There's a great deal of injustice in the world. I like to call out injustice and remark on it when I see it, and it's very easy to see. And easy to open your mouth, though not a lot of people are willing to because there are repercussions for that, which I found out with Lou Grant."

"After I stumbled through that disaster," he explained, "I figured the damage was done, so I might as well continue the performance. I don't lead cavalry charges down Pennsylvania Avenue, but I'll make comments."

Asner was equally unstoppable in his career, which began on television with countless guest spots in the 1950s and '60s. Early appearances included anthology shows like Studio One (his first credit), the Armstrong Circle Theatre and the Kraft Theatre, and dramas like Dr. Kildare, The Defenders, The Fugitive, The Invaders and Route 66.

Asner also appeared in the original and rebooted Hawaii Five-O, playing the same character, a world-glass smuggler named August March.

In doing so, he made TV history again.

Footage from his appearance on the original Five-O from 1975 (starring Jack Lord as police detective Steve McGarrett) was incorporated into the reboot, which aired in 2011 (with Alex O'Loughlin as McGarrett). Released from prison after serving three decades for committing murder, March was now living on the island of O'ahu.

The rebooted Five- O's executive producer and showrunner Peter Lenkov said in a TVLine.com interview at the time, "It is thrilling to  —  for the first time  —  merge the original Hawaii Five-O and our new show by having the classic, versatile and award-winning actor Ed Asner reprise his role of August March, a character Mr. Asner first played 36 years ago...There is no better way to form a bridge between our reboot and the original series."

During and after his Lou Grant years, Asner also performed in several heralded TV movies such as We're Alive (on ABC in 1975 with Sally Struthers) and The Gathering (ABC, 1977 with Maureen Stapleton). He also played key supporting roles in two groundbreaking ABC miniseries — like Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots — and won Emmy Awards for both.

In Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), based on the novel by Irwin Shaw, Asner played the gruff baker Alex Axel Jordache, father to the two brothers at the center of the story: Rudy Jordache, the "rich man," played by Peter Strauss, and Tom Jordache, the "poor man," played by Nick Nolte.

Axel, he said, was "an example of a tortured individual who slapped around his sons but at the same time offered subtle implications of his deep kindness." Asner said his acting "benefitted greatly" from the story's translation from book to screen because the character of Axel was granted "more texture" in the TV adaptation.

In Roots (1977), adapted from the novel by Alex Haley, Asner portrayed Thomas Davies, the devout ship captain faced with a moral conflict when he learns that his vessel would be transporting enslaved people to America.

Although best known for his television work, Asner also had roles in several films. Years before his outstanding performance in the 2009 animated feature Up, in which he voiced the lovable but grumpy Carl, he appeared in the classic western El Dorado with John Wayne in 1966, and the police drama They Call Me Mr. Tibbs with Sidney Poitier in 1970.

That was that same year The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted. In the pilot episode, "Love Is All Around," Asner's Lou Grant offers what has become the half-hour's most memorable line, when he tells Moore's Mary Richards, "You've got spunk!" Then, after a beat, "I hate spunk."

He also has the most memorable line from the sitcom's final episode, "The Last Show."

This time, the entire WJM news team is fired except for Ted Baxter. As the group huddles together in tears and dismay, Lou drops his armor, and cries, "I treasure you people."

And countless television fans throughout the world will always treasure Ed Asner.


Herbie J Pilato, host of Then Again, a classic TV talk show streaming on Amazon Prime, is the author of several books about television including Mary: The Mary Tyler Moore Story.


Ed Asner's legacy continues through his Ed Asner Family Center. For more information, click HERE

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