Ed Asner Interview: Our Final Conversation with a Hollywood Icon
Image attributed to Ed Asner
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, on November 15, 1929, versatile actor Ed Asner is the most honored male performer in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awards, having won seven – five for portraying Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and two on its spinoff drama series Lou Grant. His other Emmys were for performances in two television miniseries, Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots. He served as the 21st president of the Screen Actors Guild (1981-1985).
After his military service (1951-1953), he helped found the Playwrights Theatre Company in Chicago. In New York City, he played Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum in the Off-Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera, scored his first Broadway role in Face of a Hero alongside Jack Lemmon in 1960 and made his television debut in 1957 on Studio One.
"It’s awful lonely, you know? It’s not nice to have a life full of relatives and siblings and to have all of them gone. I hate it. I’m the last."
Other TV appearances are The Untouchables, The Virginian, Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive, Ironside, Police Story, Off the Rack, The Bronx Zoo, The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, Hearts Afire, The Closer, ER, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Working Class, The Cleveland Show, Dead to Me, Blue Bloods, Grace and Frankie and Dug Days, just to name a very few. Asner had an extensive voice career and made numerous film appearances. Some of the most notable were El Dorado, Change of Habit, They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, Fort Apache, the Bronx, JFK, Elf and Up.
Sadly, Ed Asner passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 91 on August 29, 2021, and the loss was felt by millions around the world. One of his final roles before his death was returning to the voice of Carl Fredricksen in the Up TV spinoff titled Dug Days.
Smashing Interviews Magazine was very fortunate and delighted to speak with Ed a number of times over the years. He enjoyed playing a curmudgeon even off the screen but would start to laugh even before the gruff exterior faded away. The only time we heard his strong activist’s temper truly flare was at any mention of an injustice. He was a sweet, harmless flirt. He was an icon and at the center of some of our fondest television memories. We will miss his talent, wit and charm. We will miss our friend, Ed Asner. This is our last interview with him several weeks before his death.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Ed, how are you today?
Ed Asner: Well, I haven’t been able to leap hurdles like I used to.
Smashing interviews Magazine: Me either.
Ed Asner: Really?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Really. I can’t believe it has been four years since we spoke last.
Ed Asner: You haven’t changed a bit.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You know, you haven’t either (laughs).
Ed Asner: Well, my beard is gray.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How are you doing these days with the pandemic still going on?
Ed Asner: We go on day to day. Life would be very boring if it was like this all the time. But it will end, and we’ll be doing gigs all over the place.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You are one of the actors that filed a suit who claimed the SAG-AFTRA Health Fund’s plan changes last year illegally discriminated based on age.
Ed Asner: That’s right. I’m one of the leaders in that. I don’t know where it stands now with the lawyers, but I leave it up to them. But older actors are all we are these days.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve had some film releases this year, one of which was Rain Beau’s End, a story about a lesbian couple adopting a child diagnosed with a predisposition for violence, starring Sean Young. You also starred with her in the dark comedy In Vino.
Ed Asner: Oh, well, I love Sean Young, and I think she’s a fine actress. I’ll always be glad to be identified with her. In Vino was a dark, mysterious comedy kind of thing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And you two played husband and wife?
Ed Asner: Yeah, although, we didn’t play it loudly. Did you see it?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Not yet, but I will in the near future.
Ed Asner: I’d like your opinions on both of those movies when you see them.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Of course. Your book is called Son of a Junkman: My Life from the West Bottoms of Kansas City to the Bright Lights of Hollywood. Let’s talk a little about that.
Ed Asner: Sure. Absolutely.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: West Bottoms is a large industrial area located in both Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas.
Ed Asner: Yeah, quite large, nothing but grit, sand, dust, dirt, filth and blood when I grew up. I was born on the Kansas City, Missouri side but was raised on the Kansas City, Kansas side right across the street from the packinghouse. I worked for my father in the junkyard.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell me about your parents.
Ed Asner: Dad was my height. He had three boys, two of whom were his height and one was shorter, two girls who were of good stature. He wasn’t a talker. But once aroused, he became an animal, which was almost rarely. After his death, I heard a story. My grandfather lived on the Missouri side, and he would make wine. I don’t know if he sold it or if he just gave it away, but a neighbor found out he was making it. This, of course, was at the height of prohibition. The neighbor said, You’re making wine, and if you don’t give me some money, I’m going to snitch on you.” My grandfather was a man of God and was very worried about it. He told my mother about it, and she told my father. My father said, “Don’t worry about it.”
So the next morning, my father got up and drove over to the Missouri side about a block from my grandfather’s house. He went in, told my grandfather to lay low and said that he’d handle it. The neighbor came around and hollered my grandfather’s name and asked, “You got my money?” My father said, “Yeah. Come on in.” The neighbor came in, and my father beat the hell out of him and said, “You got enough money?” So that was my father’s solution to prohibition.
There was another incident where my father beat the hell out of a guy because he wanted to know where the money was the guy owed him. The guy wasn’t forthcoming and admonished my father to be patient. Well, that broke it. So we were used to my father’s barrel-like hands, but that was not often.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was your mother like?
Ed Asner: She was nothing but love, peace and generosity.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: They had a good marriage?
Ed Asner: Yes, very good.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You had two brothers and two sisters. Are you the sole survivor?
Ed Asner: That’s right. It’s awful lonely, you know? It’s not nice to have a life full of relatives and siblings and to have all of them gone. I hate it. I’m the last.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was your very first job, Ed?
Ed Asner: I delivered for a drugstore. I had a Schwinn bike, which was not easy to pump uphill, and I got a large delivery of beer. Drugstores sold beer in those days. I delivered the beer at the bottom of a long, long hill, and that’s when they gave me the empties to take back. I struggled up the hill delivering those empties back to the drugstore, and I realized what a load it would be. So I complained to the possessor of the empties and said, “You’ve got a drugstore right around the corner here. Why don’t you do business with them?”
By the time I got back to the drugstore, they had called, and there were three clerks waiting to tear me a new bottom for telling them about a nearer drugstore. That was my procedure until I quit that job.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When did you decide on acting as a career?
Ed Asner: During my time in the military. I was drafted in 1951. I took basic training in Georgia. I went to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, to learn radar repair until I was assigned to the Signal Corps. While there, I went to the Special Services officer and said, “I’m an actor, and I’d like to be assigned to Special Services.” He laughed outright. He said, “We’re 15 miles from New York. What the hell do we need you for?” I said, “Aha. Now I understand.” So I went back to learning radar repair.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Then what happened?
Ed Asner: I was sent to the South of France where I finished my service. A week or two before I left France, I got a letter from Paul Sills from Chicago, whom I had known at the University. We were both in the theater program there. Paul said, “We’re starting a theater here. We’re going to do old classics and new plays. Come join us.” So I came home and spent a week in Kansas City at home and then went to Chicago. The next day I began rehearsals. We got great reviews, and I decided to move to New York.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: An early film was Kid Galahad. What did you think of Elvis Presley?
Ed Asner: He was a nice guy. He was doing karate in those days. He had broken fingers. He had an entourage. But he still was a nice guy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell me about the audition for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Ed Asner: I was one of many. Gavin MacLeod followed my audition. But he told them that he thought he was better suited for Murray.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What were you told about the role of Lou Grant?
Ed Asner: I really wasn’t told anything. I was given the script. I read it and liked it. How could I not? What happened was I had done a comedic police chief in a film that was shot at 20th Century Fox. Somehow, Grant Tinker had done something there at the time. So he knew about me being funny as this police chief. Knowing that the boys, i.e., Jim Brooks and Allan Burns, were casting, Tinker suggested me to them. They then asked Ethel Winant, VP in charge of casting, “Could Ed Asner do comedy?” Her response was, “Ed Asner can do anything.” Why she was so generous, I have no idea because she had no idea what I could do in comedy. But they decided to bring me in.
So they brought me in, and I read for it. Jim Brooks said, “Well, that was a very intelligent reading.” And I mumbled, “Yeah. But was it funny?” He said, “We’ll have you back to read with Mary.” He said something about trying it another way. He gave me some instructions, and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. So I started to walk out. But I turned back, and I said, “Why don’t you try me that way now, and if I don’t cut it, don’t have me back?” I’ve never talked like that before or since. He said, “Well, we have another appointment.” That was Gavin MacLeod. But I read it again and like a lunatic this time, really a lunatic, and they laughed. Jim said, “Read it just like that when you come back to read with Mary.”
So I worried the whole two weeks thinking, “What the hell did I do? What did I do? How did I read it?” I came back to read it with Mary and found out a couple of years later that she turned to them after I left the room and said, “Are you sure?” They told her, “That’s your Lou.” So there you have it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So Mary wasn’t sure you should play Lou Grant?
Ed Asner: No. She wasn’t sold.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did she ever say why?
Ed Asner: Because it was a crazy, crazy performance. I was a nutjob. Even Lou wouldn’t have hired me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: At the read, you didn’t realize that you and Mary had chemistry?
Ed Asner: No. I thought I had to work on it constantly. Then finally came the show where Mary betrayed Lou’s night at Sue Ann’s house, and I had to discipline her.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Lou spending the night at Sue Ann Niven’s house was one of the funniest episodes ever.
Ed Asner: Yeah, and Mary blabbed. That caused an uptake on my part. I had to discipline her, so I implied that things would be different now. We wouldn’t be friends like we had been before.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you enjoy working with Betty White?
Ed Asner: Oh, yeah. She’s a delight. She’s the sweetest creature in the world. That’s sad, too, because so many of that family have died. I’m left now with just Betty.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Mary Tyler Moore Show had a live audience and Lou Grant did not. Was that a tough transition to make in the beginning?
Ed Asner: I was in therapy at the time. He was a Freudian to my chagrin. I’m on the couch, and I’m talking to him, and I said, “What did you think?” He said, “Why do you grimace so much on the show?” For the first time, I realized that because there were no audience responses, that though there were laugh lines in the show, I was grimacing to indicate each time a laugh occurred. It was stupid, and I stopped grimacing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But Lou Grant was sometimes a grimacing character as the editor of a newspaper.
Ed Asner: Yeah. Well, he was dealing with the news of the world, and that never improves, does it?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: True. Do you watch television?
Ed Asner: No. It’s not because I don’t think the shows are good. My sight and my hearing aren’t good. So I don’t feel like blaring everybody from across the room with the sound. Melissa’s a beautiful name. Why don’t you adopt me?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Thank you, and I’d be honored.
Ed Asner: How long have you been married?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: We’re in our 27th year.
Ed Asner: My God. That’s a long marriage.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I waited for the right person.
Ed Asner: Oh, that’s good. Now I’ve come along, so there are two right persons.
Smashing interviews Magazine: (laughs) Indeed. What roles, other than the iconic Lou Grant, are some of the most memorable of your career?
Ed Asner: I loved doing Axel Jordache in Rich Man, Poor Man. I liked doing Off the Rack, as short as it was. It was a funny little moment in time. Ah, what else. I can’t call them up as I’d like to. Which one did you like?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: There are so many. Up was a great film.
Ed Asner: Oh, well, that’s modern history. I love Up. I adore it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: My favorites are too numerous to mention.
Ed Asner: Ah, you flatterer.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What kind of roles do you choose these days?
Ed Asner: Oh, just something beaming with wisdom. Nobody can be smarter than me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Any regrets over your seven-decade career?
Ed Asner: No. Nothing. No regrets. I regret that they ended, that they had a beginning and an end.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What else are you doing these days?
Ed Asner: Some scenes for ["Dug Days"], which is sort of the sequel to Up. Then I travel with two shows. One is A Man and His Prostate. That’s a solo show. Then I do another show that was written. It’s called God Help Us, which I play God. There’s a young couple there who were lovers at one time but split up because they disagreed so much. I, as God, try to bring them together.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I suppose you can definitely do that if you are God.
Ed Asner: Well, I don’t want to use my powers until I have to. You don’t find me using my powers on you, do you? (laughs) I can.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I don’t doubt that (laughs). How’s your health?
Ed Asner: My health’s fine. I’m in pain all the time. I’ve got a bad hip. I’ve got a torn bicep on my left arm, and on my right arm, the rotator cuff is not working or is working and manufacturing pain. I’ve got nothing but pain.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You know, I’ve probably kept you on the phone long enough today.
Ed Asner: I don’t care.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It has been so wonderful chatting with you again.
Ed Asner: And I with you. I hope to have cause and reason to dial your number someday soon.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Me, too. Until we speak again, please take care of yourself, Ed.
Ed Asner: I will, sweetheart. Lovely talking to you.
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