“The world for me is divided into three spaces,” Ed Asner told AM New York in 2016. Those spaces: “Lou Grant, Up, and Elf.” While those are his most identifiable credits, they only hint at the breadth and depth of this consummate character actor and controversial activist, who died on Sunday at the age of 91.
In the days to come, expect to see this Asner clip a lot. You should know which one without even clicking on it. His impeccably-timed delivery of one of the most quoted lines in television history—“I hate spunk,” barked at job applicant Mary Richards in the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show—instantly and indelibly defined newsman Lou Grant, the character Asner embodied and made iconic for seven seasons on that show, and then for another five on the spin-off series, Lou Grant.
Asner knew he had nailed the “spunk” scene. “I felt such power at that moment,” he told V.F. in 2017. “I could command those 300 people [in the audience] to march into the sea if it was nearby.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show made Asner an “overnight” star after more than a decade of steady appearances in television and films. As Lou Grant, Asner became the first actor to win comedy and drama Emmy Awards for playing the same character. He won seven Emmy Awards (out of 10 nominations) and five Golden Globes (out of six nominations).
But he did not rest on those estimable laurels. Over the course of his 60-year career, Asner’s stocky build, gruff voice, and glowering visage made him a good fit for characters on both sides of the law—the villain or the cop, or even the network executive. But his inner-softy’s smile and twinkling eyes made him ideal to portray grumpy but lovable old men (Up) and Santa Claus—which, according to the Internet Movie Database, he did nine times, most notably opposite Will Ferrell in the feature film Elf.
In his 80s, Asner embarked on new acting challenges, including FDR, a one-man show in which he portrayed the 32nd president. “I love the work of acting,” he said in a 2009 interview with a suburban Chicago newspaper chain. “It’s the only thing I’m good at. One of the reasons I took [the role] is I’ve never done a one-man show, and I relish the challenge.” In 2012, at the age of 82, he returned to Broadway after an absence of 23 years in Grace opposite Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon.
In March 2013, while on tour with FDR, he was taken off the stage at the Marquette Park Pavilion in Gary, Indiana, and hospitalized for exhaustion. But that did not slow him down for long. About 60 of Asner’s more than 360 IMDB credits date from 2014 to the present. In 2017, he co-starred in the ensemble independent film The Parting Glass and toured with another one-man show, A Man and His Prostate, written by Emmy and Peabody Award-winner Ed Weinberger. Weinberger also wrote or co-wrote some of the most memorable episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, including the series finale.
Asner was born into an Orthodox Jewish family on November 15, 1929, in Kansas City, Missouri, but he grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. He worked as an announcer for his high-school radio station. While attending the University of Chicago, he appeared in a production of Richard III on a closed-circuit dormitory radio station started by his two roommates.
After serving in the army, he returned to the university, where he was recruited to join the Playwrights Theatre Club alongside such future luminaries as Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Barbara Harris, and Sheldon Patinkin. (The ensemble would evolve into an improvisational ensemble called the Compass Players, and then Second City.)
Asner departed for New York in 1955 (“you had to if you wanted respect as an actor,” he told the New York Times in a 1973 interview). For almost three years, he co-starred in the Off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera while also doing television work. He performed in several Shakespeare productions, and in 1960 was cast in a small role opposite Jack Lemmon in the play Face of a Hero, which ran for only 36 performances.
The next year, Asner and his first wife, Nancy Sykes, whom he married in 1959 (they divorced in 1988), relocated to Los Angeles, where he worked steadily on TV series as varied as Route 66, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Outer Limits before landing his first series in 1964, Slattery’s People, in which he co-starred with Richard Crenna. It lasted two seasons.
In the years leading up to getting cast on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Asner appeared in iconic and cult series that included The Fugitive, Rat Patrol, Gunsmoke, The Invaders, and Mission: Impossible. “When I came out to Hollywood in 1961, I was determined not to be typecast,” Asner told The Spectrum in 2016. “My agent and I worked assiduously ever since to make sure that never happened.”
A rare foray into comedy as a police chief in the 1971 made-for-TV movie They Call It Murder made an impression on network executive Grant Tinker, who was then married to Mary Tyler Moore. When it came time to cast The Mary Tyler Moore Show, he recommended that Asner be brought in to audition for the role of Lou Grant. In an interview for the Archive of American Television, Asner credited CBS casting executive Ellen Weinert with assuring Tinker that he could handle a sitcom. As Asner recalled, she told Tinker, “Ed Asner can do anything.”
“Anything” included two benchmark made-for-TV miniseries, Rich Man, Poor Man, and Roots, which aired while The Mary Tyler Moore Show was on the air. Asner’s featured roles as an embittered German immigrant father and slave ship captain, respectively, earned him Emmy Awards.
The spin-off series Lou Grant premiered in 1977, but despite garnering critical acclaim and racking up a dozen Emmys as well as Peabody and Humanitas Awards, it was unceremoniously canceled in 1982.
Asner, a liberal and self-described “staunch unionist,” did not think it was a coincidence that the show’s demise coincided with his contentious two-term tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild—and, specifically, a 1982 press conference at which he proclaimed his support for victims of El Salvador’s civil war and announced his humanitarian donation of $25,000 for medical supplies. Critics contended Asner did not make it clear he was acting as a private citizen and not as president of the union. Asner served from 1981 to 1985.
The ever-defiant Asner did not mellow with age. He was an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, and in 2013 expressed equal opposition to any proposed military action in Syria. In January 2017, he joined a roster of celebrities in signing a petition of anti-fascist resistance against then-president-elect Donald Trump.
“Whether it’s a Republican or Democrat president, or Republican or Democrat Congress—and it doesn’t make a God-damned difference—it behooves us to get off our ass and ask questions,” Asner told the Hollywood Reporter in 2013.
With the possible exception of the SAG incident, his outspoken views did not seem to hinder his career. He graced such celebrated series as ER, The X-Files, The Practice, and The Good Wife, while he lent his distinctive voice to such animated series as The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, The Boondocks, and Spider-Man. In 2001, the Screen Actors Guild honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Asner’s career soared to new heights with Pixar’s 2009 computer-animated film Up, which earned an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Asner voiced Carl, a stay-at-home widower who, facing eviction, ties thousands of balloons to his house and embarks on a South American adventure.
Beyond Elf and Up, perhaps Asner’s most notable feature film roles were opposite John Wayne in the 1966 Howard Hawks western El Dorado, Paul Newman in Fort Apache, the Bronx in 1981, and in two movies starring Elvis Presley, Kid Galahad in 1962 and Change of Habit in 1969. Presley’s leading lady in that film was Asner’s future co-star Mary Tyler Moore, but the two did not share any scenes together.