ASNER, ED

U.S. Actor

Ed Asner is one of U.S. television's most acclaimed and most controversial actors. Through the miracle of the spin-off, Asner became the only actor to win Emmy awards for playing the same character in both a comedy and dramatic series. A former president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Asner's mix of politics and acting have not always set well with network executives, corporate sponsors, or the viewing public.

While Asner is best known for his Mary Tyler Moore Show supporting character Lou Grant, the role was a departure from his dramatic roots. Asner began his professional career with the Chicago Playwright's Theatre Company, graduating later to off-Broadway productions. Asner came to Hollywood in 1961, where he received a steady stream of roles, including his first episodic work in the series Slattery's People, which ran on CBS in the 1964-65 season.

Asner's big break came when he was spotted by MTM Enterprises co-founder Grant Tinker in an ABC Made-for-TV movie; Tinker asked Mary Tyler Moore Show creators James L. Brooks and Alan Burns to consider Asner for the role of Mary's boss, the gruff-yet-lovable Lou Grant. According to Brooks, Asner gave a terrible first reading, however Brooks agreed that Asner had a special quality that made him the clear choice for the role.

Although Asner had previously shied away from comedy, he felt that The Mary Tyler Moore Show script was the finest piece of writing he had ever seen. The series paid off for Asner, MTM, and the audience. Lou Grant not only became one of the most successful supporting roles in a comedy series, but the prototype for such characters as Taxi's Louie DePalma, whose comedy depends on superb timing in the delivery of well-crafted, trick-expectancy dialogue.

After The Mary Tyler Moore Show voluntarily retired, Asner became part of another historic TV event when he starred as Captain Davies, a brutal slave trader, in the epic miniseries Roots. Meanwhile, James L. Brooks, Allan Burns and M*A*S*H executive producer Gene Reynolds began adapting the Lou Grant character to a dramatic role for CBS, in which Asner would star as the crusading editor of the fictional L.A. Tribune. Despite a shaky start, the beloved comic character gradually became accepted in this new venue. More than just moving to the big city and losing his sense of humor, however, Asner's more serious Grant become a fictional spokesperson for issues ignored by other mass media venues, including the mainstream press. At the same time, the dramatic narrative offered opportunities for exploring the character more deeply, revealing his strained domestic relationships and his own complex emotional struggles. These revelations, in turn, complicated the professional persona of Lou Grant, the editor.

Like his character, Asner could also be outspoken. His first brush with politics occurred when he became a labor rights activist during the 1980 strike by the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG), which delayed the 1980-81 TV season. Asner's work on behalf of the actors helped make him a viable candidate for the SAG presidency, which he received in 1981. Asner's political agenda widened, and, in the face of a growing right-wing national sentiment highlighted by the 1980 election of Ronald Regan, Asner became increasingly vocal against U.S. public policy, including that affecting U.S. involvement in Latin America.

Through Lou Grant, Asner's own popularity was growing, leading to appearances in the 1980 film Fort Apache, The Bronx and the 1981 TV movie A Small Killing. This level of success was soon to crumble, however, when Asner took part in a fund raiser to send medical aid to El Salvador rebels who were fighting against the Reagan-supported regime. Most disturbing to conservative minds was Asner's direct-mail letter on behalf of the aid organization, which began with, "My name is Ed Asner. I play Lou Grant on television." Conservative SAG members, including Charleton Heston, rose up in arms over Asner using his character to support his own political agenda (of course, one can argue that Heston is so closely associated with his own on-screen persona that his links to conservative causes are just as manipulative).

In his essay on MTM drama, Paul Kerr quoted Allan Burn's assessment of the ensuing anti-Asner onslaught: "I've never seen anybody transformed so quickly from being everyone's favorite uncle to a communist swine." Within weeks, Lou Grant was canceled. While CBS maintains the cancellation was based on dwindling ratings, Asner, and others on the Lou Grant production team, feel this was swift punishment for Asner's political beliefs. Interestingly enough, Howard Hesseman, star of WKRP in Cincinnati, was also involved with the Asner-supported El Salvador rally; WKRP and Lou Grant were canceled the same day.

It was not until 1985--the year Asner resigned as SAG president--that he obtained another episodic role on TV, this time playing the grouchy co-owner of a L.A. garment factory in the ABC series Off The Rack. After 12 years of quality scripts from his MTM days, Asner's Off the Rack experience can be viewed as paying penance for his perceived crimes. In 1988, however, he was back in a more serious role in the short-lived NBC series The Bronx Zoo, which focused on the problems faced by an inner city high school. Ironically, Asner later landed the role of a conservative ex-cop who often confronted the liberal heroine in The Trials of Rosie O'Neil, which starred Sharon Gless as a crusading public defender. Asner has since continued to play a variety of supporting roles in various sitcoms, yet none as weighty or as important as Lou Grant.

-Michael B. Kassel


Ed Asner

EDWARD ASNER. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S., 15 November 1929. Educated at Wyandotte High School, Kansas City, Kansas; attended University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, 1947-49. Married Nancy Lou Sikes, 1959; children: Matthew, Liza, Kathryn, and Charles. United States Army Signal Corps, 1951-53. Professional debut, Playwrights Theatre, Chicago, 1953; Broadway and off-Broadway productions and television guest appearances, 1950s and 1960s; prominent as Lou Grant in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1970-77, and as the title character in Lou Grant, 1977-82. President, Screen Actors Guild, 1981-85. Recipient: five Golden Globe Awards; seven Emmy Awards; Fund for Higher Education Flame of Truth Award, 1981.

TELEVISION SERIES

1964-65 Slattery's People
1970-77 The Mary Tyler Moore Show
1977-82 Lou Grant
1985 Off the Rack
1987-88 The Bronx Zoo
1991-92 The Trials of Rosie O'Neill
1992-93 Hearts Afire
1994-95 Thunder Alley

TELEVISION MINISERIES

1976 Rich Man, Poor Man
1977 Roots

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1966 The Doomsday Flight
1969 Doug Selby, D.A.
1969 Daughter of the Mind
1969 The House on Greenapple Road
1970 The Old Man Who Cried Wolf
1971 They Call It Murder
1971 The Last Child
1971 Haunts of the Very Rich
1973 The Police Story
1973 The Girl Most Likely to...,
1975 Twigs
1975 The Imposter
1975 Hey, I'm Alive!
1975 Death Scream
1977 The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish
1977 The Gathering
1979 The Family Man
1981 A Small Killing
1981 The Marva Collins Story (narrator)
1983 A Case of Libel
1984 Anatomy of an Illness
1985 Vital Signs
1985 Tender is the Night
1986 Kate's Secret
1986 The Christmas Star
1987 Cracked
1988 A Friendship in Vienna
1990 Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less
1990 Happily Ever After (voice)
1990 Good Cops, Bad Cops
1991 Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus
1991 Switched at Birth
1991 Silent Motive
1992 Cruel Doubt
1993 Gypsy
1994 Heads
1996 Gone in the Night

FILMS

The Slender Thread, 1965; The Satan Bug, 1965; Peter Gunn, 1967; El Dorado, 1967; The Venetian Affair, 1967; The Todd Killings, 1970; Halls of Anger, 1970; Change of Habit, 1969; They Call Me Mister Tibbs, 1970; Skin Game, 1971; Gus, 1976; Fort Apache, The Bronx, 1980; O'Hara's Wife, 1982; Daniel, 1983; Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night (voice), 1987; Moon Over Parador, 1988; JFK, 1991; Earth and the American Dream (voice), 1993; Gargoyles: The Heros Awaken (voice), 1994; Cats Don't Dance (voice), 1994.

FURTHER READING

Dane, Clark. "The State vs. Asner in the Killing of Lou Grant." Journal of Communication Inquiry (Iowa City, Iowa), 1987.

Daneil, Douglass K. Lou Grant: The Making of TV's Top Newspaper Drama. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press.

Feuer, Jane, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi. MTM: "Quality Television." London: British Film Institute, 1984.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1984.

See also Lou Grant; Mary Tyler Moore Show