Ed Asner, the tough guy with the soft side who starred as the irascible newsroom boss Lou Grant on the legendary sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show and on his own hard-hitting TV drama, died Sunday. He was 91.
Said his family on Twitter: “We are sorry to say that our beloved patriarch passed away this morning peacefully. Words cannot express the sadness we feel. With a kiss on your head — Goodnight dad. We love you.”
Publicist Charles Sherman said Asner died of natural causes at his home in Tarzana.
The actor received three of his record seven Emmy Awards (in 1971, ’72 and ’75) for playing the news director/producer of the WJM-TV evening news on CBS’ The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then reeled in two more trophies (1978, ’80) after his out-of-work character was hired as city editor of the Los Angeles Tribune newspaper on CBS’ Lou Grant.
He’s one of only two actors (Uzo Aduba is the other) to win a comedy and drama Emmy for the same role on different shows.
Asner also received Emmys for his performances on two renowned ABC miniseries: 1976’s Rich Man, Poor Man, in which he played an embittered German immigrant, and 1977’s Roots, as the sea captain who brought Kunta Kinte to America.
Asner then attracted a new generation of fans when he voiced Carl Fredricksen, a 78-year-old widower who ties thousands of balloons to his house to fulfill a dream of seeing South America, in the Oscar best picture nominee Up (2009).
An avowed liberal, Asner also served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1981-85 and sparred often with Charlton Heston, a noted conservative who preceded him as head of the guild. He received the SAG Life Achievement Award in 2002.
Asked by Feinberg how “old he felt,” Asner replied: “If it weren’t for my bad left leg, I would feel younger. I’ve got many parts that need to be bolstered and refurbished. And I haven’t got time to undergo all those changes.”
And what was left on his bucket list? “I haven’t climbed Suribachi! No, I think just ensuring that I’ve left enough for the family,” he said.
Asner’s portrayal of a ill-tempered, comedic police chief in the 1971 Erle Stanley Gardner NBC telefilm They Call It Murder led to the role that changed his life. MTM Enterprises head Grant Tinker saw Asner’s work in the dailies and recommended him for the role of the gruff Grant on the new Mary Tyler Moore Show, starring Tinker’s wife.
(Gavin MacLeod also had read for the part of Grant but told producers he was probably better suited to play newswriter Murray Slaughter.)
“It was such a gorgeous character, such a gorgeous script,” Asner recalled in a 1973 interview with The New York Times. “I began licking my lips over the project. I couldn’t believe a situation comedy was affecting me this way. I had never regarded myself as a comedian, and I’d deliberately stayed away from comedy parts.”
Asner played Grant — who famously had a low tolerance for “spunk” — on The Mary Tyler Moore Show for seven seasons, from September 1970 until the series shut its doors in March 1977.
Six months later, Asner was still on the air, and still playing Grant, but now he was in an hourlong drama. The radical idea for the segue came from James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, the creators of The Mary Tyler Moore show, who originally had written that Grant had been a newspaper guy before he joined Minneapolis’ WJM.
They also believed they could have a hit in the wake of the success of the journalism film All the President’s Men.
But Lou Grant was a one-camera drama that emphasized journalism and serious, topical issues, not a three-camera comedy taped in front of a live audience — a much different animal than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
“I was told [by the producers], ‘It’s up to you to maintain the flame of Lou Grant, remember who the character is,’ ” he said during a 1999 interview with the Archive of American Television. “I got down on that floor with the single camera and the new crew and began slogging through the first shows, and nobody’s laughing. I’m so busy gesticulating and grimacing to punch whatever I’m finding funny to make sure the audience knows that there’s a laugh here. I was becoming a nervous wreck.
“After the show opened, I went in for a session [with his therapist] and said, ‘What do you think [about the series]?’ He said, ‘Why are you grimacing so much?’ That’s all he said. I’m trying to get those laughs, knowing that the guys told me to remember who Lou was. I said, ‘I’m going to forget about comedy.’ … I was relieved.”
Even TV Guide listed Lou Grant as a comedy at first. “People were expecting to turn on a show that was a continuation of the old comedic routine,” Asner told Sam Tweedle in a 2010 interview. “They certainly weren’t prepared to see issues and events discussed in depth as Lou Grant presented them, so the ratings were terrible.”
Lou Grant, however, went on to capture the Emmy for best drama series in 1979 and ’80 — after The Mary Tyler Moore Show had closed with the best comedy statuette in 1975, ’76 and ’77 — and lasted five seasons.
The series could have lasted longer. The outspoken Asner often said that his public opposition of the U.S.-backed military dictatorship in El Salvador led to CBS canceling Lou Grant.
Edward Asner was born on Nov. 15, 1929, in Kansas City, Missouri, the youngest of five children (the family lived across the state line in Kansas City, Kansas). His father, Morris, owned a junkyard.
Asner worked as feature-page editor on the Wyandotte High School newspaper, The Pantograph, and was an All-City lineman on the football team. (A framed photo of him wearing No. 52 from that era was seen hanging on a wall in Grant’s office on The Mary Tyler Moore Show).
Asner attended the University of Chicago, where he participated in dramatics, but dropped out after two years and returned to Kansas City, where he sold shoes and encyclopedias.
The directionless Asner made his way back to Chicago, did some acting and worked on an auto-assembly line. “I really wanted to be an adventurer, to lay pipelines in South America or be a cabin boy on an Alaskan cruiser, but I didn’t have the guts,” he told the Times in the 1973 interview.
In July 1951, Uncle Sam provided some adventure when Asner was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in France.
Following the service, the stocky 5-foot-9 Asner joined Paul Sills’ Playwrights Theatre Club in Chicago, and his acting juices were renewed: He went on to appear in 26 plays during a two-year period, working at times with Barbara Harris and Elaine May.
But when the troupe veered toward improv comedy — “it just seemed like too much fun to me, I wanted to stay legit” — he left and headed to New York City.
In 1956, Asner landed a gig on Broadway in Threepenny Opera, playing Mr. Peachum for nearly three years. He supplemented that run with work on local TV shows and in off-Broadway performances. In 1960, he appeared on stage opposite Jack Lemmon in Face of a Hero and filmed an episode of Naked City, playing a cop.
Asner moved to Los Angeles in 1961, and during the cross-country drive stopped in Ohio to guest-star on an episode of Route 66. Dramatic roles in other shows like The Outer Limits,The Untouchables, Dr. Kildare and Slattery’s People — on which he portrayed a newspaper reporter — followed.
He made his big-screen debut in Elvis Presley’s Kid Galahad (1962) and played a detective who helps a suicide-center volunteer (Sidney Poitier) save the victim of an overdose (Anne Bancroft) in The Slender Thread (1965). Later, he was in another Presley film, Change of Habit (1969), as was Moore.
Meanwhile, he was distinguishing himself as a busy character actor on many of the era’s top TV shows, including Medical Center, The Name of the Game, Mod Squad, Ironside and Police Story, before his big break came along on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
In 1977, Asner delivered a ripe performance as colorful Louisiana politician Huey Long in the NBC movie The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish. He also sparkled that year as a ruthless businessman reunited with his estranged wife (Maureen Stapleton) in the ABC film The Gathering.
Asner was elected to a second term as SAG president with 73 percent of the national vote in 1983. During his tenure, the union succeeded in getting California legislation passed to end auto insurers’ discrimination against actors; expanded unemployment insurance rights for actors; increased TV/Theatrical contract minimums and pension and health benefits; collected a then-record amount of residuals for members; and successfully lobbied to amend and improve California’s Personal Managers Bill, which contained numerous provisions detrimental to actors.
“There have been few actors of Ed Asner’s prominence who risked their status to fight for social causes the way Ed did,” SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris said in a statement. “He fought passionately for his fellow actors, both before, during and after his SAG presidency. But his concern did not stop with performers. He fought for victims of poverty, violence, war and legal and social injustice, both in the United States and around the globe.”
He declined to seek a third term and was succeeded by actress Patty Duke.
Asner’s feature career included roles in The Venetian Affair (1966), El Dorado (1967), Gunn (1967), They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970), The Wrestler (1974), Gus (1976), Daniel (1983), Fort Apache the Bronx (1981), Sidney Lumet’s Daniel (1983), JFK (1991), Hard Rain (1998), The Animal (2001) and, as Santa Claus, Elf (2003).
More recently, he played Franklin D. Roosevelt in a one-man show on stage, did lots of voice work and appeared in recurring roles on The Closer, The Practice, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Good Wife and Grace and Frankie.
Survivors include his children, Katie, Charles and twins Matthew and Liza, and grandchildren Jake, Will, Avivah, Max, Wolf, Eddy, Gabriel, Charlotte, Grant and Helena. He was married to Nancy Lou Sykes from 1959 until their 1988 divorce and then to Cindy Gilmore from 1998 until their 2015 divorce.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.