If you decide to go to IMDB to track the career of Ed Asner (as I did) expect to do a lot of scrolling. With 422 listed credits (25 of them either in progress or completed but yet to be seen) you can wear out your thumb swiping up on your phone in the pursuit of a starting point to write an obit on the famously crusty performer.
Asner practically defined that term, “crusty.” Balding and barrel-chested with a sandpaper voice, you’d be right to anticipate an actor who looked and sounded like him to have lot of one-off episode appearances and bit parts in productions both memorable and less so. No one would necessarily look at Ed Asner and think “leading man.”
Asner’s first role onscreen dates all the way back to 1957 with a small part on Studio One, during the golden age of television. For the next 13 years, Asner would carry on in small parts in episodic television and occasionally on film, until finding his career-defining role as Lou Grant, the gruff leader of a TV newsroom on the classic sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show on CBS. As the casually sexist, but ultimately (and almost accidentally) good-hearted boss of Moore’s Mary Richards, Asner created an indelible character whose flaws couldn’t cover up his basic decency. Asner’s comic timing was superb, and his chemistry with Moore unforgettable.
When The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended with a group hug, the network spun off his character into his own show, titled quite simply, Lou Grant. As the city editor of the LA Tribune, Grant moved from the Midwest to the west coast where he sparred with newspaper’s owner (Nancy Marchand, who would go on to find greater fame playing the mother of Tony Soprano on HBO’s The Sopranos) for five memorable seasons.
Lou Grant was a particularly unusual spin-off, as the show traded the sharp sitcom humor of The Mary Tyler Moore Show for a more stolid drama. Despite mostly being largely known for playing one character for 13 years, that role gave Asner the chance to showcase his comedic and dramatic chops. In doing so, Asner was nominated for 12 Emmys (winning five) as the venerable character (Asner would also win two more Emmys in 1976 and 1977 for Rich Man, Poor Man, and Roots).
Once Asner put Lou Grant behind him, his work carried on in a semi-similar manner as it had before he found his seminal role. The remainder of Asner’s career found him largely doing one-shot performances on episodic television, peppered with the occasional supporting part on film. Only now, those short assignments tended to be meatier. After all, he was now Ed Asner, the TV legend as opposed to the journeyman he was for so long previously.
He would be nominated for three more Emmys after Lou Grant (as supporting actor in the short-lived Sharon Gless series The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, the TV movie Luke Spelman, and as guest actor on CSI:NY). Asner also provided memorable cameos in Oliver Stone’s JFK and in Elf, as Santa Clause.
For a more modern audience, it’s Asner’s voice that might be most memorable. In 2009, Asner voiced the character Carl Fredericksen in Pixar’s much-beloved Up. As a sad, elderly widower taking a final shot at fulfilling a lifelong dream of discovering Paradise Falls in South America (with a stowaway Boy Scout and a talking dog in tow), Asner received some of the best reviews of his life, despite being heard and not seen. While the Motion Picture Academy has never seen fit to award an Oscar for voice work, many thought Asner’s work so valuable as to be worthy of the creation of that category, and its first recipient.
One thing Asner never stopped doing was working. As mentioned before, he was still carrying on with his craft past his 90th birthday. 422 credits over 64 years. It’s staggering, really.
Beyond his well-earned plaudits as an actor, Asner was known for his staunch liberal beliefs. He considered himself a Democratic Socialist and served two terms as the President of the Screen Actors Guild, playing a significant role in that organization’s 1980 strike. He was an outspoken critic of the United States governments machinations in Central America, and was a staunch supporter of single-payer healthcare.
Whether onscreen or off, Asner was a legendary, formidable presence. His life was one of substance in both craft and activism. He was a man who seemed to have been born as a 50-year-old, and his maturity, intelligence, and blunt demeanor suffered no fools, even if he occasionally played the part of one. For a guy who played a character who once famously said, “I hate spunk!” he sure had a lot of his own.
Ed Asner died today. He was 91 years old.