|Ed Asner as Lou Grant|
I didn't join in, even though I had flown to Los Angeles in the late 1980s and watched him tape a lesser-remembered show, "The Bronx Zoo," whose two seasons did not even merit mention in his New York Times obit, and had lunch with him. I pulled the magazine story I wrote and it was ... meh. Not worth my typing, which meant it wasn't worth your reading.
Not a terrible story, mind you. It had a few good spots: his two years at the University of Chicago, where he performed in the first production ever directed by Mike Nichols. Susan Sontag had a walk-on role in the same performance.
And it didn't pull punches. Covering his struggles with his weight, his collapsing marriage, how his political activism hurt his career—he was the president of the Screen Actor's Guild, and in 1981 and yanked back an honor to Ronald Reagan because he fired the air traffic controllers. He spoke out regarding America's covert shenanigans in El Salvador. Charlton Heston went after him, and "Lou Grant" was cancelled.
But plodding and cliched. To be honest, I never liked celebrity profiles. It takes a singular talent—a Bill Zehme, say—to do it well. Otherwise you're bloodying your fingertips scrabbling at a brick wall.
I tried, with Asner. Before I flew out, I tracked down his brother, a butcher in Kansas City. A Jewish butcher. We had a nice chat; he had a daughter, and in our brief phone conversation, he tried to fix us up.
I wasn't interested. But that did provide me with a great ice breaking line. When I found myself in Asner's trailer on a set at Rosedale Cemetery, L.A., as we were shaking hands, I said, "Your brother is trying to fix me up with his daughter. Is she good looking?" That put him off balance, a good start for an interview, and we ended up having what I thought was a candid conversation during lunch. I believe booze was involved, but I can't be sure at this distant remove.
The only other part I remember is, later I turned the story in, and immediately afterward I was in the supermarket, and saw a copy of the National Enquirer, which had some headline along the lines of "Ed Asner's Love Child." And I remember thinking first, indignantly, "Really? He didn't say a word about it," and then, "Duh, idiot, it's not like you're pals."
At the end of our interview, Asner did say something worth repeating.
"I cherish America," said the son of immigrants. "I adore America, and all those ideals that I was brought up by. To me [our involvement in El Salvador] was a stain on our escutcheon. I didn't want to see a dirtied America and so I raised my voice becauseI thought that the press and Congress weren't sufficient to draw the people's attention to it.
"I find the American people too complacent, too unquestioning, too accepting At least at the time, I did And I think that now they are less so, not because of what I have done, but because the press has finally become less supine than it was. Congress is less supine that it was. But it doesn't last. At that particular time I was confronted with an instance of our government's tyranny, our government's involvement in what would turn out to be the murder of some 60,000 Salvadorans by their government, and it is a government that we were fostering."