It seems like we have been watching Edward
Asner all of our lives – and for many of us that is the case.
In a Hollywood career that has spanned five
decades, Asner has been a ubiquitous presence in film, television and
He has appeared in 76 films over the years,
including Fort Apache: The Bronx, El Dorado. They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!,
JFK, Hard Rain, The Bachelor and Elf. He was also in two of
the biggest mini-series in television history – Rich Man, Poor Man
and Roots. He has been a regular presence on TV series such
as The Practice, Studio 60 on Sunset Strip, ER, Thunder Alley and
The Closer. He has done voice-over work on dozens of cartoon
series including Spider-Man, Superman and The Adventures of
Batman & Robin.
And, of course, he is best known for that
cantankerous newsman Lou Grant – first on the legendary sitcom The
Mary Tyler Moore Show and later in the spin off drama named for the
However, for all of the great moments that
character had, for all the intriguing roles Asner has played in 50-some
years as an actor, it seems that every time you see a retrospective with
Asner in it, they always play the same almost 40 year old scene. That
iconic moment is when a dour newsman named Lou Grant first meets with a
bright-eyed wannabe producer named Mary Richards on the first episode of
The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
So be straight with us, Ed Asner. Do you ever go a
day without people repeating the “I hate spunk” line to you?
“I’m afraid not,” Asner acknowledges good
However, Asner doesn’t live in the past and things
“I find so many autograph seekers, etc., who are
approaching me not for Mary Tyler Moore but for my cartoon work
on cartoon series,” Asner says.
now the actor, who will turn 80 in November 2009, is enjoying a
continued streak of interesting projects with two new movies – of
differing statures – hitting theaters in the next couple of months.
First comes his performance as a mushroom-taking, gangsta-rap loving
elderly father in the quirky indie romantic comedy Gigantic with
Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, John Goodman and Jane Alexander. He follows
that up with the lead role in what will probably be one of the biggest
blockbusters of the summer – the Pixar animated fable Up.
Gigantic was a labor of love for Asner, who
felt upon reading the script that “it was clever. It was charming. It
In the film, Asner plays the much older father of
Ben (played by Paul Dano), a quiet and depressive mattress salesman who
is looking for love and trying to adopt an Asian baby as a single man in
modern New York. Asner’s character is quirky, hard-edged but loving.
He is also – in a bit of a departure for Asner as an actor – high most
of the time.
“Oh, that wasn’t high,” Asner laughs. “I could
show you high! He needs whatever you saw on that film.”
Well he was looking for magic mushrooms all the
“Yes. We found them, though,” Asner laughs again.
“And we enjoyed them.”
Asner also enjoyed working with his young co-star.
Dano, following up his breakout role in There Will Be Blood,
not only acts in Gigantic but was one of the producers.
“I had seen that movie and I thought he was
lovely,” Asner says. “He’s absolutely lovely. I have no complaints
whatsoever. Success hasn’t gone to his head. We’re two very different
types of actors and yet in our scenes together, I thought we blended
It is an interesting father/son dynamic, because
like as is pointed out in the film, Asner’s character was a lot older
when he had Ben. It was almost more like a grandfather/grandson
“It was very natural because I have a young son
myself,” Asner says. “How quick he challenges me so that it’s difficult
to even stay as a father, let alone grandfather.”
Asner’s wife is played by the acclaimed actress
(and former head of the National Endowment for
the Arts) Jane Alexander.
“Wasn’t she great in this thing?” Asner asks,
Though Alexander’s role is rather small, she does
have one show-stopping moment with Deschanel.
“On the balcony…,” Asner agrees. “The best scene
in the movie.”
In fact that tiny taste of Alexander makes the
audience hunger for more of her. Did Asner get to do more scenes with
the actress which may show up on the DVD bonuses?
“Not that I recall,” Asner replies. “I’ve only
seen the film once. And I have a malfunctioning memory.”
if Gigantic brings Asner back in front of the art-house crowd, he
has a potential smash on his hands – playing the lead role of the
crotchety Carl Fredrickson in Pixar’s animated fantasy Up.
In the film, Asner plays an elderly balloon
salesman who has always wondered if he could use his balloons to lift
his home to the sky and travel the world. However, when he finally
tries this out, he finds that he got an inadvertent stowaway with a
“I think it’s one of the sweetest movies to come
down the pike,” Asner says, enthusiastically. “I supposed if it gets
attacked, it may get attacked for being sentimental. But I think people
will be very nicely touched by it. It’s a love story between an old man
and a little kid.”
Therefore Asner is getting a great introduction to
an entirely new generation of viewers. Small children whose parents
weren’t even born when Lou Grant first appeared on television now know
who he is. Asner is honored by the opportunity – one that he has been
working at for years. At this point in his career, he does almost as
much voice work as he does live action. It is a different style of
acting – and one he has found that has some very nice perks.
“Well, you don’t have to shave,” Asner chuckles.
“It’s quick. And I get enormous pleasure out of it. I get enormous
pleasure out of doing books [on tape]. I used to do a lot of books. I
did five of Carl Hiaassen’s books. It’s a wonderful challenge, but I
don’t get the offers anymore. I guess they’re getting them done cheaper
someplace else. The authors are doing a lot of their work now.”
Beyond books on tape, Asner has also been a huge
part in the “Novels for television” – the miniseries. In the 70s, Asner
was in two of the defining projects for the art form, playing the
Captain of the slave ship which brought Kunta Kinte to America in
Roots and also taking the role of family patriarch Axel Jordache in
Rich Man, Poor Man. In fact, that role turned out to be a
defining part in his career.
“I had an epiphany on that,” Asner says. “I did
not expect that I would end up doing that character. I was surprised
they wanted me. Once I got it, I so identified with the man. I loved
the man. I pitied the man. And I lived and breathed the man, I think
more than any other character I played.”
In fact, Asner misses the miniseries format, one
that he thinks is overdue for a resurrection.
“Well when I tried to sell a new miniseries to
Brandon Stoddard (former President of ABC Entertainment, who backed many
of the biggest miniseries), he was at ABC at the time, and he said,
‘They don’t make money.’ I looked at him in disbelief that he could
possibly stand there with a straight face and tell me that. I could not
believe it. I don’t know. I have nothing to prove it with, so I’ll let
it go at that. I was shocked when he said it and I still don’t believe
way that Asner has courted a family audience over the years is that he
has done an extraordinary amount of holiday films – including playing
Santa Claus twice on film. Asner enjoys doing the films, even though it
may have been a little bit of a culture shock for the man who grew up in
an Orthodox Jewish home.
“Well, the jobs are offered me,” Asner reasons.
“The offers just come. I guess my rotundity makes it easy for me to be
Santa Claus. I look like I enjoy a good, hearty meal of turkey and ham
and cranberries and stuffing and pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie and
all that jazz. I’m the holiday type.”
However, no matter how many intriguing roles Asner
has taken in his career, there is still one that people think of when
his name is mentioned. Lou Grant will be synonymous with Asner for the
rest of his life. Asner is okay with that, there are worse things to be
remembered for. Still, he has to admit, when he was hired for the role
he had no clue that the role would become iconic.
“I had no idea,” Asner says. “All I knew was the
character I was asked to play was one of the most exciting characters I
had been offered in the nine years I had been in Hollywood. As I saw
succeeding scripts and was delighted by their craftsmanship and their
humor. I thought it didn’t matter if they cancelled us after the first
thirteen or not. I will at least have had this opportunity to do this
type of quality.”
episodes turned into seven seasons, and the Mary Tyler Moore Show
became one of the great ensembles in television history – with Asner,
Moore, Betty White, Ted Knight, Georgia Engel, Gavin MacLeod, Valerie
Harper, Cloris Leachman and many others shifting in and out of the
newsroom of WJM-TV.
“They were fantastic,” Asner recalls. “It was
seven years on the yellow brick road. We would resort to petty
jealousies and minor paranoia from time to time, but nothing that was
ever major or dominated.”
Then, after MTM went out on top, Asner was
offered an unprecedented opportunity, to reinvent his character in the
series Lou Grant – going from a comedy to an hour-long drama.
Grant left the Minneapolis TV station to return to his newspaper roots
for a Los Angeles daily. The show lasted five seasons and was
critically acclaimed, but looking back Asner admits
making that leap was a bittersweet experience.
“Well it would have been exciting if it hadn’t been
so horrifying,” Asner says. “It was something that had never been done
before, and after the agony I had to go through, it probably will never
be done again. It got me that wonderful credit of the only character to
win Emmys for comedy and for drama, and so forth and so on, but it’s an
enormous switch. It made life so difficult. So difficult. We were
finding our sea legs for two years. It would have been cancelled
earlier, CBS said, had we not won a lot of Emmys in our first year and
had CBS not been caught flatfooted without anything to replace us with.
They stuck with us and we grew and it certainly meant a lot to thinking
people. But it was an agony to have to go through as an actor.”
Well, what is it they say? What doesn’t kill you
makes you stronger. After about 50 years in Hollywood, Asner is pretty
Still, after all of these years, Asner still has
his career in perspective. When asked how he’d like for people to look
at his career, Asner is quiet for a moment, gathering his thoughts.
Then he chuckles softly.
“He made the most of it.”
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