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October 2014

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Ed Asner Interview: "I Figured Wrongly That All White Actors Were Racists"

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Image attributed to Ed Asner

Ed Asner

Television legend Ed Asner has won seven Emmy Awards for performing which is more than any other male actor. He is primarily known for his role as Lou Grant on both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff series Lou Grant. Asner has had an extensive voice-acting career and starred as the voice of Carl Fredericksen in Pixar’s award-winning animated film Up (2009).

Other television appearances include The Bronx Zoo, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Hawaii Five-O (1975), Hawaii Five-O (2012 remake), The Middle, The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, Hearts Afire, The Untouchables, Curb Your Enthusiasm, CSI: NY, Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, Working Class, Michael, Tuesdays and Thursdays, The Glades, just to name a few and many made-for-television movies. He is known for his acclaimed role as Captain Davies in the miniseries Roots which also earned him an Emmy Award as did the similarly dark role of Axel Jordache in the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man.

“To be honest, I thought that Roots would need me, that most white actors, believing at the time that they probably were racists or wouldn’t want to be identified with a liberating show about blacks, I felt Roots needed me. I figured wrongly that all white actors were racists. When we finally agreed on the role, you needed an axe to beat off all the white actors that wanted to be in Roots. That’s how wrong I was!”

Asner has continued to star in FDR, a stage production about the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and will appear in the season two premiere of CBS’s Mom starring Anna Faris and Allison Janney on October 30, 2014.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m looking forward to seeing you in Mom. Had you previously worked with the show’s creator Chuck Lorre?

Ed Asner: No, I didn’t know him at all. I’d certainly heard of him, but never met him. I was quite impressed when I watched his manner on the set in terms of what he liked and didn’t like and his corrections. It was good stuff. I had admired Allison Janney for many years particularly after The West Wing, but I’d never worked with her either. Working with her didn’t spoil my impression.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You are also continuing to tour in the stage production about the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)?

Ed Asner: Right. I’ve been doing that over four years. I had participated in the Theatre at Sea, which was the Theater Guild, and normally we had something prepared. I didn’t have anything prepared at that time, and they asked, “Why don’t you read FDR?” I said, “Okay. I’ll look at it.”

I read it, and it came off moderately well. When the cruise ended, they suggested maybe we ought to try it out as a one-man show, which is the way it’s written. I said, “Fine,” because I always wanted to try a one-man show, and this was like a double header. I’ve always been a great fan of FDR.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does it make it more challenging because you do not look like him?

Ed Asner: Well, I don’t sound like him either, but hopefully the phenomenon of his words eventually wins the audience over. He was also tall and strong before he was struck down with polio, something that people may forget.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): FDR had a political influence on you?

Ed Asner: Oh yeah. When he died, I thought God the father had died. He very much had an influence on me. He was a champion of the poor, of the underprivileged. I have to laugh whenever I see the attempted detractors who try mighty hard. Granted he had a lot of protection from the press, but even so … I have to laugh at his modern day detractors at their tripping themselves constantly.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have portrayed so many comedic and dramatic characters. Were you more interested in doing comedy when you first arrived in Los Angeles?

Ed Asner: No, but I found myself fairly effective at it. I was afraid of it actually. When Edmund Gwenn (probably best known as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street) was dying, a famous director who had contributed to his welfare, George Seaton, came to see him at the Motion Picture Home. He saw that Gwenn was in an oxygen tent, but asked, “How goes it, Eddie?” Eddie said, “It’s okay, George. It’s okay. I’m dying you know.” The director answered, “Oh I see. How do you feel about that?” Gwenn said, “It’s frightening, George, but it’s not as frightening as comedy.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I can’t believe it has been forty-four years since The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted. That makes me feel old!

Ed Asner: Yeah (laughs). Well, I’ll bet you look good nevertheless.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What kind of input did you have in shaping the Lou Grant character?

Ed Anser: Well, I never had free rein. When they decided to turn Mary Tyler Moore into Lou Grant (spinoff), everybody said, “Okay. Remember who you are. You’re keeping the torch, the flame alive. You have to remember to always be true to the idea of Lou.” So I went out, leaving a three-camera audience attended half hour comedy for a one-hour single camera non-audience, not essentially comedic show.

For the first year, I tried very hard to carry that banner of Lou Grant, always being responsible to Lou Grant. I was in therapy at the time. I went to my therapist after the show opened and asked, “What did you think?” He answered, “Why do you grimace so much?” I thought, “Oh my God.” It was not a comedy show, but it had laughs in it. I felt it incumbent upon me to unconsciously signal to the audience at home that it was okay to laugh, so I developed this stupid grimace. I stopped it immediately. You would’ve thought I had palsy or something.

We continued to work on the first year, and finally I came to the realization that I was using my two older brothers as inspirations for the “Mary Tyler Moore Lou.” I realized in the different scripts that were being written, that same character would not work for me, and I began to plunge into myself to find that character of Lou in the hour show, and that’s what I came up with.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very interesting.

Ed Asner: I think so. Two sides of a coin, but not the same.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That must’ve been a difficult adjustment for the cast and the audience to differentiate between the two “Lous.”

Ed Asner: Right.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I cannot remember that ever being done before or since on network television.

Ed Asner: It hadn’t been done before. For instance, in TV Guide, they had “Lou Grant, a comedy,” for the first three weeks. That’s how stupid they were. I think CBS did that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The show was cancelled because the “powers that be” didn’t agree with your political opinions?

Ed Asner: Whether they agreed or disagreed, like any business, they felt like my press coverage at the time would be damaging to business, which is why it was cancelled.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Captain Davies, a character you played in the miniseries Roots, was very different than the character of Lou Grant. What drew you into that role?

Ed Asner: To be honest, I thought that Roots would need me, that most white actors, believing at the time that they probably were racists or wouldn’t want to be identified with a liberating show about blacks, I felt Roots needed me. I figured wrongly that all white actors were racists. When we finally agreed on the role, you needed an axe to beat off all the white actors that wanted to be in Roots. That’s how wrong I was!

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There was a small Mary Tyler Moore reunion on Hot in Cleveland last year, but you were missing.

Ed Asner: I don’t think that I was written into the story. I don’t think Gavin (MacLeod) was either. It was just for the girls.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it more tiring for you to face the daily rigors of a weekly series than doing a film or play?

Ed Asner: No. I was truly amazed. You used to see the stars of our shows and how they wouldn’t even give a damn if the show was picked up or not. I was supposed to be the hub of Lou Grant, and then I found out in seven or eight days that I might only work a few hours a week because the primary two stars (Robert Walden and Linda Kelsey) who were playing the reporters, had all the action. I was frankly kind of bored on set.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes I remember. It seemed the show revolved around the two reporters.

Ed Asner: Right. The writers were looking very hard to find the ways to write for me, to feature me and involve me because I played the City Editor, and I was just chained behind the desk with no action.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You guest-starred on The Crazy Ones. Was that the first time you had met Robin Williams?

Ed Asner: I think I had met him briefly before just in passing. I found him exceedingly polite, kind and generous and was disappointed that we didn’t do more work together.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A sad situation.

Ed Asner: Yeah. The world is filled with sad situations these days.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I found a 1973 made for TV movie written by Joan Rivers called …

Ed Asner: Are you kidding? The Girl Most Likely to … with Stockard Channing. I had forgotten that Joan had written it. That was very good. Very good.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was described as a black comedy/psychological thriller.

Ed Asner: It was mostly comedy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I saw that you were involved in a radio program kicking off a special 100th birthday celebration for actor, producer, director Norman Lloyd as he becomes a centenarian on November 8, 2014.

Ed Asner: Oh please. He’s such a pain in the ass … one hundred years of ass pain. That’s Norman Lloyd.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you laughing?

Ed Asner: I’m laughing. He is a phenomenal institution. We did a reading for radio, that’s right. Of course, he was the star, greedy bastard. I was just a humbling sidebar.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you begin your career on the stage in New York City?

Ed Asner: Actually it was Chicago before New York.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a young actor, you worked with some Hollywood legends. Who impressed you?

Ed Asner: Nobody disimpressed me. Some were average. Some were dementedly precise like Barbara Stanwyck. She was the ultimate professional and would arrive on set early.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ve always heard that Jack Lord could be difficult.

Ed Asner: Well, he was pompous. He was quite pompous, and I really didn’t pay attention to him. The role was a really good one, and I had a lot of fun doing it, so it didn’t matter what he did.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any upcoming projects you’d like to discuss?

Ed Asner: I have The Games Maker. I play the grandfather, so nothing spectacular for me, but I saw the trailer, and it looked cute. It kind of reminds me of Harry Potter.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did I read that you made a film with Pat Boone?

Ed Asner: Oh, he produced and acted in a movie I’m in called Boonville Redemption.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you and Pat ever clash politically?

Ed Asner: No not at all. He never rubbed my nose in it at all. However, secretly I think he’d like to know more about what I think, but he’s going to have to hire me for another job to get that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have always been very outspoken about your political views, and you served two terms as the president of the Screen Actors Guild. Have you been happy with Obama’s presidency?

Ed Asner: No, but that’s the problem for people with liberal bent. They keep voting usually for democrats that deliver half a loaf. I cry out for the system, which I think is sickening, to change. We are paralyzed by this system of non-action. The most important thing this country could use, I think, is public financing of elections so that we don’t fall sucker to the enormous lobbyist output into TV and print and mailings that are filled with lies and mischaracterizations.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there a chance the economy could totally turn around?

Ed Asner: It is turning around. I just read today that the people who dominate the … I see that we’re still in a depression. I’m sure we are, but unemployment is going down. Most people, in an article I just read, thought we were at 9% unemployment. We’re actually at 5.9% unemployment, so there’s a lot of disinformation going on out there, and of course, during this period, the rich are getting richer, and the middle class is getting poorer. We still haven’t solved that, but the economy is in healthy shape on this side of the Atlantic at least.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would raising the minimum wage help solve some problems?

Ed Asner: That would certainly put a lot of bucks into the market system. Not that inflation is out of sight, but inflation keeps going up, and people need to buy things. We don’t have a master class of tradesmen anymore, people who are highly skilled tradesmen who will get all kinds of fancy money and have Unions who are strong and protecting. Unionism has been destroyed, minimum wages are kept down, and the people really have no spokesman for fighting the cost of living.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever thought about running for political office?

Ed Asner: No. Well, I got in trouble during Lou Grant. I was trying to follow in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps. The actor, over a certain age, can certainly do much better in terms of effectiveness than if he puts his ass on the line for office because if he does, he just becomes another part of a thundering herd.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s say you did run and win, what would be President Asner’s first action in office?

Ed Asner: That’s a good one. Who’s to say that President Asner could achieve anything with the Congress that is being presented to the world? But if I had a Congress that was acquiescent to my wishes, I would wipe out the new voting restrictions the states are trying to put in which discourages minority and poor voters, identification laws which we never needed before that are costly and time consuming. I would wipe out the abortion restrictions that Texas put in.

The Supreme Court are spoilers. They truly spoil our lives. We look to them as gods, and they keep hindering the plight of women and minorities and Unions and making corporation life better actually. We have a muddy history in terms of messing up, of creating the very terrorists that we fight now. I don’t know how we get back to the beginning and clean it up. We’re in like 130 something countries with military forces, and that sucks us dry. We are a militaristic state, and unless we can divorce ourselves from the militaristic stance we use, we’re doomed. It will keep sucking us dry.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your birthday is the day after mine, so I will be thinking about you.

Ed Asner: Oh really? We’re Scorpios. We can’t marry.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): No?

Ed Asner: No. We can play around though.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) That’s quite a milestone of 85 years. Anything you’d still like to accomplish in life?

Ed Asner: Well, my activity, my physical activity, is somewhat limited. I’d still like to lose weight. I’ve ever found out how to do it well. I don’t walk that well, so touring museums and visiting national parks doesn’t do it for me. I guess I’ll just have to rely on the beauty of women.

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