Ed Asner, the burly and prolific actor who became a star in time of life because the gruff but lovable newsman Lou Grant, first within the hit comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and later within the drama “Lou Grant,” died Sunday. He was 91. Asner’s representative confirmed the actor’s death in an email to The Associated Press. Asner’s official Twitter account included a note from his children: “We are sorry to mention that our beloved patriarch gave up the ghost this morning peacefully. Words cannot express the sadness we feel. With a kiss on your head- Goodnight dad. We love you.”
Built just like the football lineman he once was, the balding Asner was a journeyman actor in films and television when he was hired in 1970 to play Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” For seven seasons he was the rumpled boss to Moore’s ebullient Mary Richards (He called her “Mary,” she called him “Mr. Grant”) at the fictional Minneapolis TV newsroom where both worked. Later, he would play the role for five years on “Lou Grant.”
Asner’s character had caught on from the primary episode of “Mary Tyler Moore,” when he told Mary in their initial meeting, “You’ve got spunk. … I hate spunk!” The inspired cast included Ted Knight as Ted Baxter, the dimwitted news anchor; Gavin MacLeod as Murray Slaughter, the sarcastic news writer; and Betty White because the manipulative, sex-obsessed home show hostess Sue Ann Nivens. Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman, playing Mary’s neighbors, both saw their characters spun off into their own shows. Asner is that the third “Mary Tyler Moore” alum to die in recent months. Leachman died in January and MacLeod died in May.
The 99-year-old White is that the lone surviving main cast member from “Mary Tyler Moore.” “Mary Tyler Moore” was still successful when the star decided to pursue other interests, then it had been delivered to an end within the seventh season with a hilarious finale during which all of the principals were fired apart from the bumbling Baxter. Asner went immediately into “Lou Grant,” his character moving from Minneapolis to l. a. to become newspaper editor of the Tribune, a crusading newspaper under the firm hand of Publisher Margaret Pynchon, memorably played by Nancy Marchand. Asner won three best supporting actor Emmys on “Mary Tyler Moore” and two best actor awards on “Lou Grant.” He also won Emmys for his roles within the miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man” (1975-1976) and “Roots” (1976-1977).
He had quite 300 acting credits and remained active throughout his 70s and 80s during a sort of film and television roles. In 2003, he played Santa Claus in Will Ferrell’s hit film “Elf.” He was John Goodman’s father within the short-lived 2004 CBS comedy “Center of the Universe” and therefore the voice of the elderly hero within the hit 2009 Pixar release, “Up.” More recently, he was in such TV series as “Forgive Me” and “Dead to Me.”
Nonetheless, Asner told The Associated Press in 2009 that interesting roles were hard to return by. “I never get enough work,” he said. “It’s the history of my career. There just isn’t anything to showdown, let me put it that way.” “I’d say most of the people are probably therein same boat, old people, and it’s a shame,” he said. As Screen Actors Guild president, the liberal Asner was trapped during a political controversy in 1982 when he spoke out against U.S. involvement with repressive governments in Latin America. “Lou Grant” was canceled during the furor that followed and he didn’t run a 3rd SAG term in 1985.
“There are few actors of Ed Asner’s prominence who risked their status to fight for social causes the way Ed did,” said actor Gabrielle Carteris, who is SAG-AFTRA’s president. She noted that his advocacy “did not stop with performers. He fought for victims of poverty, violence, war, and legal and social injustice, both within us and around the globe.”
Asner discussed his politicization during a 2002 interview, noting he had begun his career during the McCarthy era and for years had been afraid to talk out for fear of being blacklisted. Then he saw a nun’s film depicting the cruelties inflicted by El Salvador’s government thereon country’s citizens. “I stepped bent complain about our country’s constant arming and fortifying of the military in El Salvador, who were oppressing their people,” he said. Former SAG President Charlton Heston et al. accused him of creating un-American statements and of misusing his position as head of their actor’s union.
“We even had bomb threats at the time. I had armed guards,” Asner recalled. The actor blamed the controversy for ending the five-year run of “Lou Grant,” although CBS insisted declining ratings were the rationale the show was canceled. Although the show had its light moments, its scripts touched on a spread of darker social issues that the majority series wouldn’t touch at the time, including alcoholism and homelessness. Asner remained politically active for the remainder of his life and in 2017 published the book “The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs.”
Asner, born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1929, almost became a newsman in the real world. He studied journalism at the University of Chicago until a professor told him there was little money to be made within the profession. He quickly switched to drama, debuting because the martyred Thomas Becket during a campus production of T.S. Eliot’s “Murder within the Cathedral.” He eventually dropped out of the faculty, getting to work as a taxi driver and other jobs before being drafted in 1951. He served with the military Signal Corps in France.
Returning to Chicago after military service, he appeared at the Playwrights Theatre Club and Second City, the famed satire troupe that launched the careers of dozens of top comedians. Later, in NY, he joined the long-running “The Threepenny Opera” and appeared opposite Lemmon in “Face of a Hero.” Arriving in Hollywood in 1961 for an episode of television’s “Naked City,” Asner decided to remain and appeared in numerous movies and television shows, including the film “El Dorado,” opposite John Wayne; and therefore the Presley vehicles “Kid Galahad” and “Change of Habit.” He was a daily within the 1960s political drama series “Slattery’s People.” He was married twice, to Nancy Lou Sykes and Cindy Gilmore, and had four children, Matthew, Liza, Kate, and Charles. This story has been corrected to reflect that Gavin MacLeod died in May, not March.