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Constructively Curmudgeonly: Ed Asner 1929-2021

Ed Asner, who died this week at age 91, might not be the grumpiest celebrity I've ever interviewed, but I'm pretty sure he was the one who most enjoyed being grumpy. We were talking on the phone and he was annoyed that he could hear some noise on my end of the line. There were people talking quietly in the next room. I could barely hear them myself, but he could and told me I should tell them to shut up. I said, "Maybe they think I should shut up," and he said, "That doesn't matter!"  

But that did not keep him from doing what he was there to do, talking to me about the re-release of a made-for-television movie he had starred in 32 years before, a Christmas chestnut of a film called "The Gathering." He played the estranged patriarch of a wealthy family who asked his ex-wife, played by Maureen Stapleton, to bring the family together for Christmas. "She was a tough broad but sweet as she could be," he told me. Even though she was famously devoted to method acting and he was not ("though I studied for a year with Lee Strasberg," he assured me), "we meshed as actors." He called their most intense scene together "a delicious moment." 

Asner was constructively curmudgeonly, his directness based in his impatience with injustice. It led him to be an outspoken advocate for causes from the 1980 actors' strike, and then serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild, to support for the Equal Rights Amendment, the Freedom of Information Act, Public Citizen, and opposition to American intervention in El Salvador. He told the Washington Post, "I'm quite comfortable and believe I have an ability to speak out, perhaps sometimes too rashly, but I think in this day and age there are far too many who don't speak out at all. I would consider it an attribute." In 2020, he joined other actors in suing the union, now SAG-AFTRA, over reductions in benefits, with a characteristically fiery comment: "They can't get away with this. This is criminal." Having a son and grandsons on the autism spectrum inspired Asner's involvement with the advocacy organization Autism Speaks. He also supported organizations providing resources for special needs children, undocumented immigrants, and the environment. Some of his advocacy caused controversy, including his challenges to the official reports on the 9/11 attacks. 

Asner said that earlier in his career he feared speaking out would lose him jobs in show business. But once he achieved some success, "I hope to furbish my identity as a concerned human being. If it costs the actor, then so be it." 

He was classically trained in addition to his work with Strasburg, but Asner was often relegated to law enforcement roles due to his stocky build and gruff voice in the early days of his career. It would take time to discover that Asner was a talented, versatile actor with a wide range. He played Santa Claus (“Elf,” "The Story of Santa Claus," and more), Jabba the Hutt (on radio), the captain of a ship carrying captured Africans to be sold into slavery ("Roots"), a rabbi ("The Golem," "Hopelessly in June"), and a bishop ("Forgive Me"), as well as real-life characters mobster Meyer Lansky (“Donzi: The Legend”), the pope ("Papa Giovanni: Ioannes XXIII"), billionaire Warren Buffett ("Too Big to Fail"), and Franklin Roosevelt (on stage). He appeared with Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, and Elvis Presley twice.

Asner's best-remembered roles had him playing tough, sometimes irascible, forceful characters, who might, somewhere, have some hidden tenderness. The prime example is, of course, his multiple Emmy-winning role in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as Lou Grant, the crusty and cynical producer of the nightly news show on a Minneapolis television station. Sharp-eyed viewers can glimpse a photo of the real Asner as a high school football player on the wall of Lou Grant's office.  

In the first episode, Grant interviews Mary Richards, who has applied for a job as a secretary. When she pushes back on some of his questions, he says, "You've got spunk!" He takes a beat while she smiles modestly. And then: "I hate spunk!" He ends up hiring her as an associate producer of the show only because it pays less than the secretary job. She has no training or experience in a newsroom, but he assures her, "If I don't like you, I'll fire you! If you don't like me, I'll fire you!" And thus began one of the most endearing relationships in the history of television, and a rare example of a work-based friendship without any romantic overtones (though one episode suggested they might have briefly considered it). 

Mary always called him "Mr. Grant." Like a lot of gruff, outspoken characters, he expressed the frustration with the news and the less than hoped-for performance of people around him that most of us must keep to ourselves. Over seven seasons and 168 episodes, devoted audiences tuned in every Saturday night to watch Mary become more confident and capable and Lou become more aware of how much he relied on and cared about her. The last episode of the series ended with a group hug and a line that was clearly from Asner's heart as well as his character's: "I treasure you people." 

When the series ended, Asner went on to accomplish one of the most difficult transitions in the history of show business. He took the character of Lou Grant from a half-hour situation comedy with punchlines, wacky characters, and a laugh track to an hour-long drama, and, after a rocky beginning, the audience came with him. "Lou Grant" was a serious show about a newspaper editor and it engaged with timely and complicated issues in journalism including conflicts of interest and treatment of sources. Asner won two more Emmy Awards, the first actor to win both comedy and drama awards for playing the same character. The show also won a Peabody and two Humanitas awards. He said that was his proudest achievement as an actor because it was shown all over the world, giving audiences a greater appreciation for the importance of the press. Despite the awards and strong ratings, it was canceled after five years. Asner suspected it was because of the controversy over his advocacy.

Asner provided the voice for another grumpy character in Pixar's "Up," an Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature. He played Carl Fredricksen, an elderly widower who fulfills his late wife's dream by flying his house—via thousands of helium balloons—to South America. In an interview, writer-director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera said that Fredericksen was inspired in part by Lou Grant, because it guided them in balancing likable and unlikable aspects of the curmudgeonly character.

We have not lost him yet. According to IMDB, there are at least six performances by Asner in post-production, including a gritty crime drama, a documentary about the Gettysburg Address, and yet another Christmas movie. And when we think of the indelible characters he created, we say to them what he said to the cast of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." We treasure those people.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow reviews movies and DVDs each week as The Movie Mom online and on radio stations across the US. She is the author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

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