CHICAGO — An actor can make a good living, and even flourish, across an entire career without finding the role that truly understands him.
Ed Asner, who died Sunday at 91, found his: Lou Grant, the surly, sneaky-avuncular news director of WJM-TV on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Prior to that show — one of a sterling handful of situation comedies we’ll be revisiting decades from now — the son of an Orthodox Jewish Kansas City junkman worked hard, and not always gratifyingly, in a decade (the 1960s) dominated for him by supporting heavies and brusque, salt-of-the-earth authority figures.
Asner faced the camera, or a fellow actor, like the onetime high school football tackle he was. All business. Ready to charge. He had the stuff while rarely having the material to maximize it. He could hold his own with old-guard Hollywood stars, as he did with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in the 1967 Howard Hawks Western “El Dorado” (1967). He plays a generic bad guy well there, delivering a small part with focused intensity, an expressive glower in occasional close-up and (the bonus) a sly sense of a malevolent side character messing with the leading players’ heads.
“I was afraid of comedy,” Asner used to say in interviews. On stage he hated the way laughs came easily in one performance, only to vanish the following night. In a 1998 A&E “Biography” special devoted to Asner, “Mary Tyler Moore Show” executive producer Allan Burns described Asner’s initial audition for Lou Grant as “the worst reading in the history of show business.” Flat. Humorless. No spunk.
But despite Moore’s own initial misgivings, he and Lou became one. The second he landed the “spunk” payoff line in the show’s pilot, Asner knew something had just happened. Things were going to be different after that.
Lou Grant made a uniquely daring transition from half-hour sitcom (1970-1977) to the CBS-TV spinoff “Lou Grant” (1977-1982). The actor who played him became a beloved TV superstar, winning seven Emmy Awards during those years, two of them for his work on the biggest miniseries of the ‘70s: “Rich Man, Poor Man” and “Roots.”
Then something else happened, not suddenly but gradually. Asner’s leftist, advertiser-unfriendly political activism, particularly his championing of the El Salvadoran revolutionaries fighting the U.S.-backed military junta, put him squarely at odds with some of his fellow Screen Actors Guild constituents during his tenure as SAG president.
As a young, striving Chicago actor, as Asner recalled in the documentary “Compass Cabaret 55,” the junkman’s son bounced out of the University of Chicago after a year and a half, working various jobs and acting when he could. He stayed quiet about the anti-communist Hollywood blacklist, “like the craven bastards we were,” he said in the documentary.
Once “Lou Grant” left the air in 1982, with CBS citing low ratings though they were still pretty high, Asner rarely stayed quiet about his beliefs.
He credited his early Chicago theater work as the spark that lit the fire. He roomed with Mike Nichols for a short time in the early 1950s, around the time Nichols directed him in William Butler Yeats’ “Purgatory” on campus. When Paul Sills opened the Playwrights Theatre Club on North LaSalle Street, the troupe included Nichols, Elaine May, Barbara Harris and Asner. Three of them were supernaturally gifted improvisers; Asner, not so much.
“For me, acting was therapy,” he once said. “I was not pleased with who I was.” Those early years were full of tumult and rejection. He left U Chicago because his grades weren’t good and he was dating someone who wasn’t Jewish and for those two facts, his parents cut him off financially.
Decades later Asner gave away a lot of his money to causes. As his “Mary Tyler Moore Show” comrade Gavin McLeod, who died earlier this year, says in the 1998 “Biography” special: “He had a heart for the rank and file.”
A lot happens in 23 years. That “Biography” segment is extremely misleading today; it implies Asner was essentially done with his stardom before the 21st century and had already settled into cranky semi-retirement, a life of protests with a second marriage on the horizon (that one didn’t last, either).
But in so many ways, time was good to Asner until the end. He got hot again and stayed active. He was a gas on Twitter. He’d already won millions of new fans by way of two unusually good family pictures early in the new century, playing a wryly disgruntled Santa Claus in “Elf” (2003) and voicing Carl in Disney/Pixar’s lovely “Up” (2009). He did voice-over work and guest spots in dozens of comedies and dramas, plus the occasional film.
And he toured in a one-man show about Franklin Delano Roosevelt well into his 80s, landing in the Chicago area in 2011 for a Woodstock Opera House engagement.
There’s a photo of Asner visiting the Chicago Tribune newsroom in 1978, early in the run of “Lou Grant.” He’s shaking hands with city editor Bernie Judge, while day city editor Donald Agrella smiles. The newsroom — the rank and file — was awed by Asner’s presence, and by what he bellowed, good-naturedly, to the reporters present: “All right, you turkeys! Get to work!” Many say Agrella was a model for the second, hourlong iteration of Lou Grant. The “hat and coat!” line of Lou’s: That was Agrella.
Asner’s real-life inspirations aside: It was the man created on the page who inspired Ed Asner. And magically, indelibly, the other way around.