As Lou Grant, he was one of the more beloved television characters ever seen in prime-time. As a real-life leader, he served as President of the Screen Actors Guild, prior to its merger with AFTRA.
Now, Hollywood and the world are pausing to remember the life and achievements of Ed Asner.
Asner was 91 years old.
“There have been few actors of Ed Asner’s prominence who risked their status to fight for social causes the way Ed did,” said current SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris, best known for her role on the original Beverly Hills 90210. “He fought passionately for his fellow actors, both before, during and after his SAG presidency. But his concern did not stop with performers. He fought for victims of poverty, violence, war, and legal and social injustice, both in the United States and around the globe.”
Asner created one of the most memorable roles in television history — the gruff but loveable newsman Lou Grant on two hit television series for CBS: the comedy Mary Tyler Moore from 1970–1977, and the drama Lou Grant from 1977–1982. His five Emmy Awards for that role, plus two additional Emmys, set a record for the most Emmys ever awarded to a male TV actor. He was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame in 1996. In 2001, Asner received the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.
Asner was born on Nov. 15, 1929 in Kansas City, Mo., as the son of Orthodox Jews who had emigrated from Russia. He moved to New York in 1955, where he appeared in numerous Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. In 1961, he packed his bags and went to Hollywood, where he worked on the films El Dorado (starring John Wayne) and They Call Me Mister Tibbs (starring Sidney Poitier).
Early TV credits include appearances on “The Fugitive,” “The Mod Squad,” and “Ironside.”
Despite a resume heavy with dramatic roles, in 1970 Asner was cast as Lou Grant. His fierce but funny persona was summed up in the pilot episode, with his perfect comedic reading of the line in which Grant informs Mary, “You got spunk … I hate spunk!”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran for seven seasons to high ratings and critical acclaim. When it went off the air, CBS took the unprecedented step of spinning off a drama from a comedy. Lou Grant premiered in 1977, and took the character from a Minneapolis TV station to a Los Angeles newspaper room. Despite the change in tone, Asner made the new format work. The show tackled social issues and earned Asner an additional Emmy for his portrayal, making him the first actor to win an Emmy for a comedy and a drama for the same role.
Asner was elected Screen Actors Guild president in 1981, and was a frequent presence on the picket lines during the joint Screen Actors Guild/AFTRA 1980 TV/Theatrical strike, which affected a multitude of productions, including his own Lou Grant. In September 1981, Asner addressed a crowd of 8,000 trade union members at Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park at a Solidarity Day event, and was elected Screen Actors Guild president six weeks later, winning 52% of the vote.
When CBS canceled Lou Grant, Asner claimed it was in retaliation for his political views.
Just weeks later, the Actors’ Equity Association honored Asner with its Paul Robeson Award, given in recognition of an individual or organization demonstrating “concern for and service to fellow humans, respect for the dignity of the individual, freedom of expression, universal brotherhood and the artist’s responsibility to the profession and greater society.”
In 1983, Screen Actors Guild members showed their approval of Asner by electing him to a second term as president, where he garnered 73% of the national vote.
Asner declined to seek a third term as Guild president, passing the gavel to his successor, Patty Duke, in 1985.
He continued to keep busy as both a performer and a political activist. In fact, he won over a whole new generation of fans by voicing “Carl Fredricksen” in the 2009 Pixar feature “Up.” In 2013, at age 83, he was touring his one-man stage show, “FDR,” portraying President Franklin Roosevelt.
Asner was married twice, to Nancy Sykes and Cindy Gilmore, and had four children: Matthew, Liza, Kate and Charles.