Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Ed Asner

Ed Asner as Lou Grant
     Ed Asner died Sunday. Beloved as Lou Grant on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and in its spin-off, "Lou Grant," he was one of those crusty-yet-warm characters that people felt close to. Facebook was alive with people who had met him, befriended him, interviewed him, knew him, or thought they did.
     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."
     That's a celebrity profile; pretending to get to know someone you don't know at all.
     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."
     Ed Asner was a skilled, funny actor but also something far more rare and valuable: a man who stood up for what is important.


  1. My father's youngest brother worked with Ed Asner during his Chicago days. No, not on the stage. They were employed at Brooks Brothers in the Loop, where they sold men's clothing and accessories in the mid-Fifties. Even actors gotta eat. It was a day job.

    Later on, my uncle became a woodworker (and a beatnik), and worked for years as a set painter in the Hollywood studios. He was the guy who could take plywood and paint and turn it into a rusty and corroded 'L' pillar for the cameras. He never hung out with Ed Asner, as far as I know. But they remained friends because they both worked in the same places, although in far different capacities.

    My uncle had only good things to say about Ed Asner. They were the same age, the same religion, came from similar backgrounds, and had the same leftist political beliefs (My uncle was better-looking, though--in his younger days, he resembled Omar Sharif).

    There aren't too many guys like Ed and David left in this country anymore, and we are much the poorer for it. R. I. P.

  2. He was way ahead of his time. As many, I too was unquestioning. I bought the propaganda that was sold to us as American history. We learned that propaganda was only distributed by our enemies.
    The only reason I protested the Vietnam War was because I didn't want to go. They'd be shooting at me (apologies to Heller's Yossarian).
    My eyes have finally opened and I don't like what I see.
    I wish I paid more attention to those like Asner.

  3. He seemed like quite a guy, in addition to having won 7 Primetime Emmys, the most for a man. Even to the point of maintaining a presence on Twitter, on the shall-we-say "righteous" side of things at 91.

    Who could have predicted, when "Mary Tyler Moore" off the air in 1977, that the oldest member of the main cast, Betty White, would be the last survivor?

    If I may ask... Am I correct in assuming that the profile is not online, Neil? Is there a reason that you don't mention the name of the magazine?

    1. No, there wasn't an online to be on when it was published, about 1987. I guess I didn't mention it because I assumed nobody would know what it was: Mature Outlook, the magazine that Sears sent to everybody over 50 who held Allstate Insurance. I wrote for them for a few years.

    2. Had to be better than Leather & Shoes, not to speak of Funeral Directors Review, on which I honed my proofreading skills, such as they are.


    3. Thanks for the reply. Yeah, even with the, ahem, mature crowd that comments here, there may not have been any reading Mature Outlook in 1987. At age 57 at the time, Mr. Asner could have been a subscriber, though!

    4. Probably because I was insured by State Farm for over forty years, I never saw a copy of Mature Outlook. Not to be confused with Modern Maturity, the former name of the largest circulation magazine (23.5 million) in the United States. That was the title of the monthly AARP magazine between the late Fifties and the late Nineties.

      When I worked in a nursing home in the early Seventies, the staff used to collect images of scenic landscapes from Modern Maturity, and paste them on the walls in the hallways. Snowy farm fields, winding back roads lined with autumn foliage, bright red barns, green hillsides, and the like. Probably to calm the residents, I suppose, most of whom had spent much of their lives as farmers, or in small towns.

      I doubt if they even noticed them at all. Most of the residents were in a state of rapid physical and mental decline. I worked there for just two months, but that was time enough to experience the deaths of thirteen of them.


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