(first presented in August 2010 at popcultureaddict.com)
Sometimes it doesn’t take much to become a television icon. All you need to do is find a signature role that captures the public’s imagination. Often all that requires is a catchphrase or a characteristic appearance. For a select group of performers, though, what made them into pop culture icons was not an oft-repeated epithet or an instantly recognizable hat but raw talent. This is the category that Edward Asner, one of television’s most beloved and respected actors, fits into.
Ed Asner is more than just a recognizable face on television, he is a living legend. In fact, with a total of eight Emmys awarded to him for his roles in Roots, Rich Man, Poor Man, Lou Grant and, of course, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ed Asner continues to hold the record for winning more Emmy awards than any other actor in television history. That alone is a feat of legendary proportions.
Originally from Kansas City, Ed Asner started acting in radio productions while in high school. Becoming involved in theater during university, Ed eventually graduated to the stage in Chicago and New York before heading to California at the beginning of the 1960’s. There he found success as a consistently working character actor in a host of classic television series. But it was in 1970 that Ed Asner found his breakout role as gruff but lovable Lou Grant on the groundbreaking sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ed would win a total of four Emmy’s on The Mary Tyler Moore Show before getting his own spin-off series in 1977.
While The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a comedy, Lou Grant allowed Ed Asner to flex his dramatic muscles by starring in a hard hitting drama dealing with topical issues right out of the current headlines. Unfortunately, despite critical acclaim and Emmy awards, Lou Grant became the victim of cancellation in 1982 due to Ed Asner’s personal political activities. Throughout the next two decades, Ed Asner would remain busy on television, in films, and on stage, appearing in every sort of role and genre of film imaginable, keeping him relevant, fresh and continuously in the public eye.
Most recently Ed Asner hit another chord with the public when he voiced the character of Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s Oscar winning animated feature Up. Although he never left the pop culture radar, the success of Up has once again revived his popularity with the public, and suddenly Ed Asner is everywhere once again.
But there is another side to Ed Asner than just his long and colorful career. Politically-minded and outspoken, Ed Asner has gained notoriety in Hollywood for being passionate about America’s social and political injustices. A man who has no time for coyness, Ed Asner is not afraid to speak his mind and stand up for his convictions, when other public figures would much rather sit down and not make waves. Ed Asner has indeed ruffled his share of feathers, but his strength in character and ability to speak intelligently about political issues has earned him respect.
Currently playing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a one-man stage production traveling throughout California, I had the great honor to speak with him about his career and his politics in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He is an astute, well spoken and talented man who embodies the characters he has become famous for. Talking to Ed Asner is not just an interview. Talking to Ed Asner is a true brush with greatness.
Sam Tweedle: When I speak to different generations of people, they each remember you for playing Lou Grant, but lately I find that a lot of younger people connect to you more as being the voice of Carl Fredricksen in Up. Did that role give you a rebirth on the pop culture radar?
Ed Asner: Oh absolutely. I have been nicely busy in the last couple of years and I attribute a lot of that to Up.
Sam: That was a remarkable little film. How did you get involved in it?
Ed: It was evidently submitted by my voiceover agent, and as you know, we put our name down and we audition. Evidently it clicked somewhere down the line with the genius of writer/director Pete Docter and they were considering me strongly. I happened to be doing a one-man show in San Francisco. He and his co-writer and producer Bob Peterson came to see the show, and that clinched it.
Sam: Up was labeled as a kid’s film but it is a really powerful film that grabs the rawest emotions.
Ed: The only error committed in promoting the film was that they should have put in large caps: “You don’t need a kid with you to see this movie.”
Sam: You have a lot of projects on the go. Currently you have been doing a one-man show on the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. How long have you been doing that show?
Ed: We’ve been doing it since the end of last summer. We are getting ready to go out again. We will be performing it at the Pasadena Playhouse for anywhere from four to five weeks.
Sam: Is it challenging to not only do a one man show, but to play a historical figure like FDR?
Ed: Well you begin with the fact that I don’t look anything like him. So I have to sound as much as I can like him, and illuminate his words the best I can so that we can convince the audience that this character is alive and breathing and this is what he did and said.
Sam: How have you channeled the spirit of FDR?
Ed: From my intense appreciation of him.
Sam: You have a number of other films coming out over the next year, but one project I was most fascinated about was a documentary you did the voiceover for about the Amityville Case, called Shattered Hopes. How did you get involved in that project?
Ed: The writer/producer/director is an old acquaintance of mine and he had been working on it for some time and he talked me into doing his voiceover.
Sam: What kind of take does the project have? Is it a crime scene thing or does it focus on the supernatural aspect?
Ed: I don’t recall too much hocus pocus. It tried to base it as much as possible on solid evidence, as I recall, but once I finish a project I put it out of my mind to go on to other projects. So I can’t tell you my exact emotional response at the time of that performance.
Sam: Is that how you remain fresh and able to evolve as an actor?
Ed: That’s right.
Sam: I noticed as I was going through your career that you have remained solidly busy since the late 1950’s. You just keep going.
Ed: If you don’t go you stop, and I don’t intend to stop.
Sam: Did you always plan on becoming an actor?
Ed: I always loved to jump on stage as a kid and showboat and shout and scream and play the king, or queen if necessary, but I never thought of it as a way to make a living. In those days I was not middle class enough to even consider it. I did radio as a kid and I loved it. I felt that I was not attractive enough to perform in any other way. I’m not trying to gain denials on your part, but that’s how I felt.
Sam: I know that feeling very well. That’s why I write.
Ed: But I went to college, and while in they decided to start a short circuit radio station in the dormitory system. I talked to my roommate who was in the extra-curricular theatre program, and since I had done radio in high school he had me read for Richard II. He said, “Let me hear you read.” I read for him and his jaw dropped. He thought I was a Kansas jock. I played a role in that production. I was attempting to get through college as fast as possible so I was attending summer school and [my roommate] came home one day and he said, “They are going to do a production of Murder in the Cathedral for the summer. You can do any of the roles in it. Go read for it.” So I did and I ended up doing the lead and I got hooked.
Sam: You started your career on the New York stage, didn’t you?
Ed: I spent six years in New York and was not thrilled or delighted with it.
Sam: Why was that?
Ed: Everyone lauded and praised New York as being the Mecca and the city on the hill and I thought it was filled with as many phonies as is necessary to achieve charlatanism. I was sick and tired of the less-than-professional attitude and hypocrisy. Then came an opportunity to come to LA and do an episode of The Naked City. I came to California and went around and talked to people and met people. I decided that I’d take my chances with this and a few months later we moved out.
Sam: Throughout the late fifties and throughout the sixties you appeared on a lot of classic television programs and worked with a great deal of legendary performers. Do you feel during that period that you had any breakout performances before you came upon the role of Lou Grant?
Ed: There were good performances I had. On the way [to California] I even did a Route 66 in Youngsville, Ohio. I was very proud of that. I already had done The Naked City, so I had those pieces of film exhibiting, and it made it very easy for me to be accepted and to enter the ranks of working actors in Los Angeles.
Sam: Now today you have gone down in the history books as being the one actor to win more Emmy Awards than any other actor in television history, which impresses me. As a young actor coming to LA who impressed you?
Ed: That’s an interesting question. I liked James Arness. He was a lovely man. A lovely star. He didn’t try to reduce you to a zero. He was kind and hospitable and nice to watch. I liked him. I worked with Barbara Stanwyck. I found her very nice and very professional and with none of the glitter that begat bullshit.
Sam: I know you’ve heard it said many times that The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of the most brilliant sitcoms of all time. When I was recently watching some episodes what came to my mind was how many huge personalities you had in a single cast. How were you and your co-stars able to coexist with such giant personalities all in one place, and able to mesh it together so perfectly?
Ed: Well, first of all you begin with the writing, and when the writing was as brilliant as it was on that show you know that you are in hog heaven. That’s the first part. The second part is that you are with a leading lady that is generous, talented and tremendously a joy to work. Third is you respect your co-workers. You love meshing with them and working up a scene to its maximum. Fourth is that we had a wonderful director in the person of Jay Sandrich, who was a taskmaster. Fifth was the producers and writers who came down like vultures and watched every one of our moves and knew how to fix it.
Sam: In the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show all the characters seemed quite two-dimensional, but even within a few episodes the depth of the characters began to show. There are so many sides to all the characters, especially Lou Grant. How much involvement did you have in molding that character?
Ed: I’ll put it this way. Jay Sandrich gave me the compliment to respond to you with. He said “The wonderful thing about you is that if you can’t make it real for you, you can’t do it.” I worked at making it real and evidently I succeeded at finding the various ways at getting to that point.
Sam: When The Mary Tyler Moore Show finished and you went over to your own spin off, Lou Grant, it was a whole different type of series. You went from comedy to an intense drama, which is a bizarre jump. I don’t think it’s been done before or since.
Ed: No it hasn’t, and probably won’t be done again.
Sam: How did that come about and was it an easy transition?
Ed: It was probably generated by Jim Brooks and Allan Burns. I think they wanted to strut their stuff and show that they weren’t wallpaper hangers, so they wanted to take on a show about issues. To do that it would be best achieved to go back to newspapers, which was Lou Grant’s first love, and making it as real as could possibly be done. They did that in addition to bringing in Gene Reynolds, who was recently through with M*A*S*H. He is like a beaver working on a dam. He is unstoppable. He exhausted every source of information he could lay his hands on to create a verisimilitude that Lou Grant had to newspapers. So the combination of the three of them helped create the reality you saw in Lou Grant. I would say that the convenient way to describe Lou Grant would to be call it a dramady.
Sam: In a sense it was ahead of its time. It was a predecessor to a lot of the HBO and Showtime programs today. What was the audience reaction to see [the character] Lou Grant in such a serious tone?
Ed: A couple of weeks in TV Guide it was listed as a comedy. It shows you how much they knew.
Sam: What was the initial audience reaction?
Ed: Terrible. Because of the TV listing people were expecting to turn on a show that was a continuation of the old comedic routine. They certainly weren’t prepared to see issues and events discussed in depth as Lou Grant presented them, so the ratings were terrible.
Sam: But it went on to be one of the more respected dramas of the early 1980’s.
Ed: Yes. Lots of Emmys.
Sam: By the time you were on Lou Grant the TV audience had already seen you win Emmys for serious dramatic roles, such as in Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man. Your characters were such a departure from Lou Grant. How were you initially received by the audience in such intense and different roles from Lou Grant?
Ed: Well the main reason I wanted to do the character in Roots was, first of all, that I thought they would have a hard time finding white actors who wanted to perform in it. That shows you how stupid I was. Actors were willing to break each other’s legs to get into it. Secondly I had not done any lofty, dignified characters up to that point and I wanted to show that side of me. Thirdly I wanted to concentrate on what a good Nazi would be like.
Sam: There has been a lot of controversy about the cancellation of Lou Grant. Do you care to discuss it or has everything been said that has to be said about that?
Ed: Oh I don’t mind discussing it. I became heavily involved in the depredations occurring in Central America with our government’s approval, so I finally went on the board for medical aid for El Salvador. We went to Washington to announce, amongst the great official buildings of Washington, the formation of this group and the contribution of twenty five thousand dollars to achieve medical aid for those people in the provinces that weren’t getting it from the government. A shit storm was created and everybody immediately started saying that I, as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, was giving Screen Actors Guild money or that I had not properly clarified that I was not speaking for the Guild. It went on and on and on in order to indict me for my political act. When that storm subsided there were congressmen in the house who were proposing a boycott of Lou Grant and its sponsors. Payroll sponsors dropped out, primarily Kimberly Clark, which had two factories in El Salvador. Vidal Sassoon was another and Cadbury’s Chocolates. Interestingly enough two out of three companies were British. There was a lot of panic in the network and it was the beginning of the second year of the Reagan administration. [ Head of CBS] William Paley was a buddy of Reagan’s, and we learned that he came in to where the discussions were being held on what to retain and what to dispense. He saw Lou Grant still on the board and he shouted out “What’s that doing up there? Get it off there! Get it off there!”
Sam: Didn’t WKRP in Cincinnati get cancelled for the same reason?
Ed: I don’t know about that. Howard Hesseman was with me in Washington at the time when I became the spokesman for the group, but I don’t think the series itself [was cancelled] because of Howard, because he was not front and center as I was.
Sam: So in the end Lou Grant got crushed by the Republican elephant.
Ed: By the Republican elephant and the fact that I was president of the Screen Actors Guild at that time, and we were attempting to bring in the last remaining members of the Screen Extras Guild who had no representation. That caused the elitists, such as Charleton Heston and actors of that ilk, to create an uproar and outcry so the referendum in the union was defeated.
Sam: You are famous for being very political and for having a fiery passion for your politics. I found it interesting that you are a supporter of Mumia Abu-Jamal. I’ve had a similar interest in the case ever since I read his book in University. How did you get interested in that case?
Ed: From the accounts I’ve read of the murder he was accused of, the police work and forensics done at the time were so abysmal. The quote from the stenographer, I believe, in the vicinity of the judge, who heard [the judge] say “I’m going to get that nigger.” [Those factors] were enough to propel me to identify for that cause. I still believe in it.
Sam: I find it amazing that he’s been on death row for decades now.
Ed: This is the establishment. Many powerful people in the establishment have put themselves on the line by saying he is guilty, so to reverse that would prove them to be liars and incompetent.
Sam: Thus he is just being made an example by this point.
Ed: That’s right.
Sam: Do you think they’ll keep him there forever?
Ed: You know this as well as I do.
Sam: Tell me about the 9-11 Visibility Project. What is that about?
Ed: I’d like to see a commission established which has some true legitimacy. The two leaders of the commission that was established to investigate have both attested to the fact that the CIA lied to them. The countless amounts of witnesses that were not heard. The glaring appearance of what happened on that fateful day and the fact that not one person in government had his head rolled, due to severe irresponsibility unto incompetence, I think, is sickening. Here we are the most powerful nation that has ever existed in the world, and an act like that is performed against an American landmark and nobody is at fault? There is an organization called 1000 Architects and Engineers for 9-11 Truth. There is another group being formed called Artists for 9-11 Truth. The glaring inconsistencies, the coincidences, the impossibility in my mind that this could have happened by, from what I’ve heard, incompetent flying airliners, I cannot accept any official version that has been put out. Let me put it this way. If this government can manufacture, in the eyes of its people, an invasion of Iraq out of whole cloth, this establishment can easily allow to happen two airliners crashing into tall buildings. People are afraid to admit it out of personal fear or the destruction of their belief in their country.
Sam: I find it interesting that Barack Obama seems to be trying to sweep away 9-11 as if it was some sort of remnant of the previous administration. Do you think he will ever reopen the 9-11 investigations?
Ed: Absolutely not. The last thing you will ever see Barack Obama do is indulge in adventure. I believe that George W. Bush was a corporatist, I believe that Bill Clinton was a corporatist and I believe Barack Obama is a supreme corporatist. His acts of benevolence have primarily benefited corporations in every case.
Sam: Where do you get the time and the passion for all your different causes and activities?
Ed: Well I have a wonderful assistant that keeps me informed and guides me, and it doesn’t take that much time to utter an opinion.
Sam: In your career you have had sixteen Emmy nominations, eight Emmy Awards and five Golden Globes. Does getting these awards ever become mundane to you?
Ed: Never. I don’t think I’ll win any more awards because I am not as uncontroversial as I was then. Every time you take a stand on anybody you always lose a vote or two.
Sam: So that’s why all the “middle of the road” stuff always seems to win.
Ed: Oh yeah, and the actor who does not want to jeopardize his potential vote-getting will not make the kind of utterances that I have made in the past.
Sam: But you’re well known for your honesty and integrity.
Ed: When the attacks first started on me because of El Salvador I expected to fade into that long good night and never been seen again. Every time they attacked me they made some kind of lying accusation that always made me feel compelled to respond in kind and try to preserve the truth. My agent at the time said that I probably would have faded into the long good night, but by staying in the press and shooting my mouth off I preserved my longevity.
Sam: What got you to go into voice acting? You’ve done everything from J. Jonah Jameson to Jabba the Hut. A lot of people seem to be going in that direction.
Ed: Yeah. They’re going for work anywhere. For me voice acting work is as rewarding and exciting as anything else. I started on radio, remember. You try to incorporate into your voice everything that your body and face would emit, but you don’t have your body and face so you just do the voice. It’s wonderfully intimidating and challenging to do books. To do fifty to a hundred characters – kids, women, accents. It’s long work but good exercise.
Sam: I read one reviewer that had seen Up where they wrote that after your performance they believed that the Academy should create a new category to include voice acting. Do you think that this could happen?
Ed: I don’t know but I do think it’s a good idea. Not that I would want to achieve it for myself but I think it is worthwhile.
Sam: You have a lot of projects on the go, but what is next for you? What is left that you haven’t done that you want to do.
Ed: (Laughs) Leap tall buildings.
Sam: (Laughs) So you want to play the next Superman.
Ed: Yeah…yeah! Well, I am going back on the road in September with FDR and I will take that into March of next year. I have another one man show that I think is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read, about a Holocaust survivor going through dementia. It’s beautifully written by a young lady who is unheralded and unknown but, boy, does she deserve to be recognized.
Sam: What’s her name?
Ed: Emily Beck.
Sam: When do you think that will go on stage?
Ed: Well I’m having a bitch of a time getting it committed to memory so it’ll go on the stage whenever I feel confident enough to get up there and do it.
Sam: Will it be a traveling production, or in LA?
Ed: It will be traveling until I can get my feet wet.
Sam: That sounds intense.
Ed: It is. It was done in Chicago by Emily’s father. I don’t know how it was received. I don’t care about how it was received. It’s got to be put out there to at least have a day in the sun.
Sam: What is the name of the production?
Ed: Number of People.
Sam: Is there anything else that I missed that you want to talk about?
Ed: My son may want to go up to Canada to the University of British Columbia so you better reserve a space for him.
Sam: (Laughs) Well I can try to lobby the school! I don’t think I have that sort of power up in Canada.
Ed: Oh, after talking to you I think you have power that you don’t know about.
Sam: I think that is a compliment.
Ed: It is. Sam, you’re a good guy.
Sam: I try.
Ed: You succeed.
A compliment from Ed Asner could be one of the highest compliments that someone can get. A man of strong opinions and even stronger convictions, Ed Asner is not someone who minces words. This is what has made Ed Asner one of the most respected and honoured actors in television history. Now in his 80’s, he shows no signs of slowing down. With eight new projects in various stages of production, he is once again one of the busiest actors in Hollywood. Ed Asner is a true living pop culture legend of the highest calibre whose presence has been felt across multiple generations, and will continue to make an impact for years to come.
NOTE: I would like to thank Edward Asner’s publicist Mr. Charles Sherman for arranging this interview. Thank you for believing in the work that we do at PCA and your continuing support in connecting us with some of the biggest pop culture icons in entertainment history. Your support is truly appreciated.