TV legend ED ASNER has had an acting career like no other. After attending college, the Kansas City native appeared in plays touring Army camps throughout Europe while serving with the Signal Corps. A brief stint on Broadway followed. Eventually he successfully made his mark on television playing the iconic role of “Lou Grant” for over a decade: first on the half-hour sitcom ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ from 1970 to 1977, then on its spin-off, the hour-long drama ‘Lou Grant’ until 1982. He won Emmys for both. Asner and Mary Tyler Moore are each tied with seven acting Emmy wins apiece; only ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ co-star Cloris Leachman has won more (she has nine). But…Asner is the only actor in history to ever win Emmys for a sitcom and a drama playing the same role. During that time he also made a powerful turn as “Captain Davies” in the epic ABC miniseries ‘Roots’. And by the way, he won an Emmy for that too.
The politically-active thespian was elected and served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1981 to 1985; he was then inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. He has lent his uniqueness to numerous voiceover projects including Pixar’s 2009 blockbuster film Up.
After decades in show business, Asner is still in demand for film, in television and on stage. For the past few years he has played the title role in the one-man show “FDR” throughout the country. This stage production about the life of President Franklin D. Roosevelt will be coming to Southern California this fall. The feature film The Games Maker he shot in Argentina (with Joseph Fiennes and Tom Cavanagh) will hit movie theaters in July.
Asner was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to sit down with The Tolucan Times at his lovely home here in the Valley for this exclusive interview…
Where did your interest in acting begin?
At first I was thinking in terms of archeology; then intrigued by radio. I never thought of a career as an actor, but it became an intellectual and emotional escape for me. I loved the heroicness of classical acting; when I went to the University of Chicago one of my roommates had become part of the theater group. I mentioned I did radio in high school and I wanted to try out for “Richard II”. He asked me to read. By the time I finished his jaw had dropped, I just shrugged and wound up playing the “Duke of York”. That summer they did “Murder in the Cathedral” and I ended up doing the lead. I was drafted in 1951 and spent two years in the Army stationed in France. A couple months before I got out I received a letter letting me know a new theater was starting in Chicago and I was asked to come join – it was like my life fell into place. For a few years we did wonderful plays then the City closed us down so I gathered my great reviews and went to New York. I got a break [there]but the show failed. I became disappointed with Broadway and the theater business; it was full of hypocrisy…
You’ve won seven Emmys since then; one was for Roots. Did you realize that was going to be such a landmark film?
For one thing, Roots was a phenomenon because it introduced so many great talented black actors to the country. In my own shallowness, at first when I was offered Roots, I felt it was incumbent upon me, my insipient way of racism created this in my mind: most white actors weren’t going to offer themselves to this project so I must be the first… You needed an axe to beat off all the white actors who wanted to be in Roots…and were. That shows you how mistaken my take on that was!
Which role are you most proud of?
“Axel Jordache” in ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’. I played this character that was loathsome to his wife and slaps his kid around; not a likeable person. I love the fact that out of that phoenix came a character who was a fine person at heart. He wasn’t that way in the book, but the writing in the miniseries allowed it to happen.
What do you think of channels like MeTV resurrecting classic TV shows like yours?
There is a huge audience of gray-heads out there… it gives them TV to watch. No matter how many times you watch ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ it’s still fantastic. But they haven’t had the vision to bring ‘Lou Grant’ back in that style. When I look at the awful reality shows…I’m not going to say that everything is terrible…I’m sure there are good shows out there, I just haven’t discovered them. Cable is certainly providing some wonderful performances and writing though.
You’ve done it all: stage, film, TV and voiceover – which do you prefer?
I love it all and would not say I prefer this over that. Granted, to be on stage – if something came up and I had to commit myself to that stage work I would have to learn [all]the lines. Right now I’m doing “FDR” which is an hour and fifty minutes of lines, just me. If I had a second opportunity like that I don’t know if I’d take it because I don’t know if I could handle the inordinate load that it implies… I love doing animation; I love acting! I don’t have a preference.
You are very political; what’s your take on Obamacare?
We need a national healthcare service. This may not be the answer but it could lead to it. At least it’s better than what we had before. I think a big mistake was leaving it to the private health insurers to carry out this mandate. Why we can’t have what Canada has is beyond me… I don’t like to see corporations gaining huge profits on a government plan, it’s that simple.
You do a lot of charity work; one organization is Autism Speaks.
One of my sons is a high-functioning autistic. I just went to New Haven to deliver a speech at his graduation from the College of Southern Connecticut. I use my ‘celebrity’ wherever I can to bring attention to it. My oldest son is Executive Director for Autism Speaks in Southern California and his youngest son is also autistic.
Another is Defenders of Wildlife.
I am very, very proud of that association. They are champions of the wolves who are an endangered species. The Governor of Idaho is trying to wipe out every wolf in the book and they kill bison on the hocked up idea that they are passing [disease]onto the cattle. I am on the Board and I speak about the subject whenever I can. The wolf has gotten a bad rap since we were children – there is no recording of a wolf killing any [human]. They kill cattle so the vested interests, who get repaid for their losses by the way, just want them to be out-of-sight, out-of-mind. We encroached on their land.
What do you do in your spare time?
I watch ‘Criminal Minds’, everybody is great on that show! I used to collect masks; I love primitive art. Some are from the Pacific Northwest – they are the most expensive. I have masks from African, New Guinea, Nicaragua, Mexico and El Salvador. It was the fierceness and the drama of each one… It goes back to the appeal of anthropology and archeology for me.
What are you working on now?
I am looking at a script for a play to see if I want to do it. And I am still performing “FDR” including five performances in Laguna this November … Oh, I adored him!