To the casual tv viewer he was “Lou Grant,” the irritable, irascible but lovable character on the popular Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off, Lou Grant. He was tough and gruff on the outside but soft on the inside. One of his enduring lines was when he told “Mary Richards,” played by Mary Tyler Moore, “You got spunk. ….. I hate spunk.” Perhaps, he is best known for that character, but his career encompassed so much more. Read on, and you will see.
Eddie Asner was born on November 15, 1929 in Kansas City, MO into a family of Orthodox Jews. He grew up in Kansas City, KS. His parents were first-generation working class immigrants from Lithuania. His father ran a second-hand shop and a junkyard.
While in high school he became interested in acting through a school radio program. After graduating high school he attended college at the University of Chicago. He intended to be a journalist until one of his professors informed him of the low pay in that field. At that point he switched to studying drama. Ed dropped out of college prior to graduation, and worked at a succession of odd jobs, including driving a taxi, working on an assembly line, and working in a steel mill, among others. In 1951 he was drafted into the military. While serving he appeared in various productions at Army bases mostly in Europe.
After he was discharged he moved to Chicago where he helped found the Playwrights Theatre. Eventually, this organization morphed into the Compass Players, and then Second City, which was and is a well-regarded comedy improvisation group. As some of you may recall, Second City was the starting point for a host of comedic actors, many of whom became famous on Saturday Night Live, such as John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radnor.
Next, Ed moved to NYC where he appeared in various Broadway and Off-Broadway productions such as The Threepenny Opera and Face of a Hero with Jack Lemmon. Around this time Ed broke into TV, appearing in episodes of productions such as Studio One, The Outer Limits, Route 66, The Fugitive, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
In 1970 Ed’s career took off when he won the part of Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. The show, which was set in a newsroom, also featured Valerie Harper, Ted Knight, Chloris Leachman, and Betty White. It ran for seven years, was very popular and spawned various spin-offs, including Lou Grant, starring Asner.
In his long career the versatile Asner appeared in numerous TV productions. My favorites were his roles as the domineering father, Axel Jordache, in Rich Man, Poor Man, which co-starred Peter Strauss and Nick Nolte, and the captain of the slave ship that transported Kunta Kinte to America in Roots for which he won two of his seven Emmys. Additionally, Asner performed in several “voice-overs,” including Pixar’s Oscar-winning Up and Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt.
Asner’s seven Emmys are the most of any male actor. In addition, in 2001 he was the recipient of the Screen Actors’ Guild Life Achievement Award. Furthermore, he served two terms as president of the Guild. He was known for his strong political views. In fact, that may have been a contributing factor of the cancellation of Lou Grant in 1982 despite the show’s high ratings.
Asner was very productive and versatile, performing for over 60 years in various venues as described above. He was married twice and had four children. He was the father and grandfather of an autistic child. He was active in the non-profits Autism Speaks and Asperitech, which trains high-functioning autistic persons.
Ed passed away on August 29 of natural causes at the age of 91. Rest in peace, Ed. You will be sorely missed.