Remembering Ed Asner, from Chicago days to Lou Grant

Entertainment

Chicago Tribune 30 August, 2021 - 01:00pm 28 views

How did Ed Asner die?

Death. Asner died of natural causes at his home in the Tarzana neighborhood of Los Angeles on August 29, 2021, at age 91. wikipedia.orgEd Asner

How old is Ed Asner?

Ed Asner, best-known for playing fictional TV newsman Lou Grant, has died aged 91. The actor, whose roles also included voicing the lead in the Pixar film Up, passed away "peacefully" on Sunday morning, his family said. BBC NewsEd Asner: Lou Grant and Up actor dies aged 91

An actor can flourish across an entire career without finding the role that truly understands him.

Ed Asner, who died Sunday at 91, found his: Lou Grant, the surly, sneaky-avuncular news director of WJM-TV on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Prior to that show — one of a sterling handful of situation comedies we’ll be revisiting decades from now — the son of an Orthodox Jewish Kansas City junkman worked hard, and not always gratifyingly, in a decade (the 1960s) dominated for him by supporting heavies and brusque, salt-of-the-earth authority figures.

Asner faced the camera, or a fellow actor, like the onetime high school football tackle he was. All business. Ready to charge. He had the stuff while rarely having the material to maximize it. He could hold his own with old-guard Hollywood stars, as he did with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in the 1967 Howard Hawks Western “El Dorado” (1967). He plays a generic bad guy well there, delivering a small part with focused intensity, an expressive glower in occasional close-up and (the bonus) a sly sense of a malevolent side character messing with the leading players’ heads.

“I was afraid of comedy,” Asner used to say in interviews. On stage he hated the way laughs came easily in one performance, only to vanish the following night. In a 1998 A&E “Biography” special devoted to Asner, “Mary Tyler Moore Show” executive producer Allan Burns described Asner’s initial audition for Lou Grant as “the worst reading in the history of show business.” Flat. Humorless. No spunk.

But despite Moore’s own initial misgivings, he and Lou became one. The second he landed the “spunk” payoff line in the show’s pilot, Asner knew something had just happened. Things were going to be different after that.

Lou Grant made a uniquely daring transition from half-hour sitcom (1970-1977) to the CBS-TV spinoff “Lou Grant” (1977-1982). The actor who played him became a beloved TV superstar, winning seven Emmy Awards during those years, two of them for his work on the biggest miniseries of the ‘70s: “Rich Man, Poor Man” and “Roots.”

Then something else happened, not suddenly but gradually. Asner’s leftist, advertiser-unfriendly political activism, particularly his championing of the El Salvadoran revolutionaries fighting the U.S.-backed military junta, put him squarely at odds with some of his fellow Screen Actors Guild constituents during his tenure as SAG president.

As a young, striving Chicago actor, as Asner recalled in the documentary “Compass Cabaret 55,” the junkman’s son bounced out of the University of Chicago after a year and a half, working various job and acting when he could. He stayed quiet about the anti-Communist Hollywood blacklist, “like the craven bastards we were,” he said in the documentary.

Once “Lou Grant” left the air in 1982, with CBS citing low ratings though they were still pretty high, Asner rarely stayed quiet about his beliefs.

He credited his early stage work as the spark that lit the fire. “He really is a Chicago story. That’s where came into contact with the idea of being an actor,” said Dexter Bullard, head of graduate acting at The Theatre School at DePaul University. Bullard directed Asner in the 2012 Broadway production of Craig Wright’s “Grace.”

“He was an actor. Not a comedian. Not a celebrity. Not a personality. An actor. And he treated people with deep, deep respect,” Bullard said Monday. “His gruff side, which is definitely in Lou Grant — that’s just one mode of him. In person there’s just this golden heart, a die-hard progressive who always stuck to his principles.”

Asner roomed with Mike Nichols for a short time in the early 1950s, around the time Nichols directed him in William Butler Yeats’ “Purgatory” on campus. When Paul Sills opened the Playwrights Theatre Club on North LaSalle Street, the troupe included Nichols; Elaine May; Barbara Harris; and Asner. Three of them were supernaturally gifted improvisers; Asner, not so much.

“For me, acting was therapy,” he once said. “I was not pleased with who I was.” Those early years were full of tumult and rejection. He left U Chicago because his grades weren’t good and he was dating someone who wasn’t Jewish and for those two facts, his parents cut him off financially.

Decades later Asner gave away a lot of his money to cause after cause after cause. The Ed Asner Family Foundation remains part of his legacy. Another is his passion for labor organizing. As his “Mary Tyler Moore Show” comrade Gavin McLeod, who died earlier this year, says in the 1998 “Biography” special: “He had a heart for the rank and file.”

That “Biography” segment is extremely misleading today; it implies Asner was essentially done with his stardom before the 21st century and had already settled into cranky semi-retirement, a life of protests with a second marriage on the horizon (that one didn’t last, either).

But in so many ways, time was good to Asner until the end. He got hot again and stayed active. He was a gas on Twitter. He’d already won millions of new fans by way of two unusually good family pictures early in the new century, playing a wryly disgruntled Santa Claus in “Elf” (2003) and voicing Carl in Disney/Pixar’s lovely “Up” (2009). He did voiceover work and guest spots in dozens of comedies and dramas, plus the occasional film.

And he toured in a one-man show about Franklin Delano Roosevelt well into his 80s, landing in the Chicago area in 2011 for a Woodstock Opera House engagement.

There’s a photo of Asner visiting the Chicago Tribune newsroom in 1978, early in the run of “Lou Grant.” He’s shaking hands with city editor Bernie Judge, while day city editor Donald Agrella smiles. The newsroom — the rank and file — was awed by Asner’s presence, and by what he bellowed, good-naturedly, to the reporters present: “All right, you turkeys! Get to work!” Many say Agrella was a model for the second, hour-long iteration of Lou Grant.

Real-life inspirations aside: It was Lou Grant who sparked Ed Asner. Magically, indelibly, it worked the other way, too.

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Why Lou Grant best captured Ed Asner's genius

Los Angeles Times 30 August, 2021 - 06:19pm

Thus did Ed Asner, who died Sunday at the age of 91, deliver the best-remembered line from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” (Shifting back into neutral, he hires her as an associate producer, on a whim.) That series, which ran from 1970 to 1977, would earn him three Emmy Awards — better said, he would earn the series three Emmys, to which the spinoff “Lou Grant,” which aired from 1977 to 1982 and transported the character from a multi-camera sitcom set at a TV station into a single-camera newspaper drama (not without humor), would add two more. Asner would earn another two Emmys while he was still playing Lou, one for the 1976 miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man,” as an immigrant patriarch, and one for “Roots” the following year, as the morally conflicted captain of a slave ship, as if to remind viewers that he had taken on other sorts of roles before and announcing that he would again.

Ed Asner, the versatile actor who starred on TV in ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and ‘Lou Grant,’ and movies such ‘Elf’ and ‘Up,’ dies at 91.

Asner was just past 40 when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” debuted and less than a third of the way through his career. He would work regularly through his 80s and when he died had several projects in pre- and post-production.

In broad terms, his career followed a trajectory not uncommon to the era: theater in college, a little acting in the Army, local stage work. He was a founding member of the Chicago-based Playwrights Theater Club, which would become the Compass Players, which would give birth to Second City. This was followed by a move to New York in the mid-1950s for theater and television work, and then a move west, alongside television production itself, in the early ‘60s.

Then there is the period after “Mary,” decades in which every appearance comes accompanied by years of banked goodwill; he is famous, not merely familiar, not just an actor but a friend. His presence feels like a benediction. There were regular parts in several less successful sitcoms, recurring roles in well-established programs, voiceover work (lots of bit parts in superhero cartoons and a starring role in the Oscar-winning “Up”) and documentary narration — usually something related to the left-wing politics whose expression, Asner believed, led to the cancellation of “Lou Grant.” There was stage work as recently as 2019; if a pandemic hadn’t gotten in the way, there might have been more.

And of course, of course, of course, there was his Santa Claus, a role he played more than once but most notably, and perfectly, opposite Will Ferrell in “Elf.” Really, the best Santa ever.

By virtue of a long life, consistently good writing and a genuinely bonded cast, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” developed a kind of gravitas over the years, ripened and matured, without dulling the comedy; the end is deep and moving. In the penultimate episode, Mary, whose dating life has been serially unsatisfying, decides perhaps the thing to do is to date Lou. Theirs has been a relationship with almost no sexual tension, yet in most every other sense they are clearly significant others. (“We’re not a man and a woman; we’re friends,” says Lou, when she asks him out. “We care for each other a great deal. How can two people like that date each other?”) After a lot of teenage awkwardness, they finally kiss, seriously, and slowly, mutually collapse into giggles.

Mary Tyler Moore, who died Wednesday at age 80, was the second great woman of television.

The final “Mary Tyler Moore,” in which the station’s new owner fires the staff (except for Ted Knight’s Ted Baxter, the world’s worst news anchor) is still something to behold; watching it again last night, it struck me as maybe the most intimate thing I’d ever seen on television. You’re watching the actual end of something, not merely actors enacting the end of something; the tears are real. Asner is particularly brilliant as Lou keeps warning Mary away from expressing something that will make him break down, only to break that dam himself: “I treasure you people.” When they embrace — eventually it’s a group hug — you want to turn away. (Of that group, only Betty White remains.) Eventually a joke breaks the tension: They move as a unit to grab some tissue, because no one wants to let go.

And so we come to another ending, still not wanting to let go.

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Robert Lloyd has been a Los Angeles Times television critic since 2003.

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