I approach the mid-sized, one level house in the Valley with decided anticipation. To the left of the door a small sign reads, “Forget the dog, Beware the Owner!” The housekeeper answers the bell in welcoming fashion. Framed photos of awards ceremonies and entertainment based gatherings past adorn antique shelves and hutches; most notably, a group shot including Betty White, and another of our esteemed subject shaking the hand of President Jimmy Carter himself! We will be asked if either of us wants anything to drink. Ed will order coffee. I will ask for water. I sit catty corner to Mr. Asner’s desk in his venerable study overlooking the pool and gasp slightly at the halcyon view as a butterfly flits by over the aesthetically tiled sidewalk. Masks from every country ever visited adorn the walls, flanked by two of Mr. Asner’s seven Emmys garnishing the edge of his desk. A fluffy, sweet and loveable Himalayan cat enters as if on non-theatrical/randomly-real-world cue. China is her name: “China Asner” I imagine would encompass the full nomenclature and surname and I can’t help but note she bears no relational resemblance to “Mr. Grant” himself. “She’s got more hair!” he will emphatically bark! She will invariably purr, head butt, endear, jump upon, and ultimately scratch Asner to oblivion as he attempts to swaddle her in his arms—but only to catch her balance—not because she is not forever besotted by the object of her attempted affection. Some light swearing will ensue as the floor’s cold hard surface is reinstated as the feline’s proverbial “lap” and Mr. Asner will substitute all her furry softness for a caustic bottle of rubbing alcohol and a yellow band-aid with the word “FUCK” emblazoned across the back of its all too forgiving and relieving gauze. “Boy, it’s a good thing I didn’t clip my fingernails this morning,” I muse aloud as I assist in peeling open the most obstinate of wrappers. Once all has settled; wounds are covered, drinks poured, and felines rendered customarily independent, I begin at the very beginning…
So, how did you know that you wanted to be an actor?
I had an escapist tendency in life. I didn’t think of acting as a livelihood in those days, and you always tend to think of yourself as being too ugly to be an actor unless you look at all the actors who dominate the screen and find out that most of them aren’t pretty at all.
So I didn’t think about it. It also was not a middle class consideration at the time. I started doing radio in high school. I loved performing on radio. We had our own little program once a week, and I still didn’t think of it as a career. Eventually I went to college… They started a closed circuit radio station in the dorm system, and we were going to do a production of Richard II. So I asked my roommate who was involved in the theatre group, “Should I read for it?” And he thought I was just a jock…from Kansas, [but I read for him and] his jaw fell open and [he said] “Where’d you learn to read like that?” He was impressed. I did the Duke of York on the radio presentation. Then I decided to go to summer school and [my roommate] came busting home one day and said he wasn’t going to summer school but he said, “They’re going to do ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ as a summer production. Check the book out and read it. You can do any of the roles in it.” So I checked it out. I didn’t read it. I read for it…and ended up doing the lead… and learned a lot and uh…got hooked!
Where’d you go to college?
University of Chicago.
And were you still on the football team then?
No they didn’t have a football team.
But you were quite the football player in high school.
So then…I have here that you joined the Military…?
I didn’t join the Military. I waited to be drafted.
So you were drafted, and how long did you stay…?
And did you hate it?
No, it was an interesting experience. I learned about the Army and…chose not to be an uh…I didn’t believe in the war…but I still served… I suppose you can say it was my first indentured servitude… [But] then I got hooked [on acting] and never looked back.
…and then you went to New York…?
No, I started out in Chicago. First I got drafted and put in my two years and, just before I got out of the army, I was stationed in France. I got a letter from Paul Sills who was starting the Playwright’s Theatre Club in Chicago. I had known him at the University. He said, “Come join us, we’ll do old and new plays,” and my life fell into place very easily.
And did you write plays yourself or were you always an actor?
No. I’ve always backed away from writing. I think I’m good at it when I set down to do it but um…it’s probably my innate laziness. It’s a lonely art.
So, I’m sure you get this a lot but my reading base would be remiss if I didn’t ask this. Do you have any anecdotes from your time on Mary Tyler Moore.
(giggles) What you sees is what you gets… No. Nothing that’s funny… I mean it was a beautifully, well regulated, well produced, beautifully written, well directed show. We all had stage experience. We’re all lucky to be alive and working… The one thing I would say…we prepared the first show and, on a Tuesday, decided to perform it for an audience to avail ourselves of the laughter, in preparation for filming it on Friday night… The audience response was not great. It was taped in front of an audience. Mary was in the depths of despair crying and everything. Nobody saw that anything went wrong. [But] Marge Mullen, our dialogue coach, felt that the only recommendation she would have would be that, since Valerie [Harper] seemed to be such a pain in the ass to Mary, that Phyllis’ daughter Beth would just offer at one point and say, “I like Aunt Rhoda.” That seemed to help. But no other changes were made even though Grant Tinker, Mary’s husband, said “Fix it.” There was nothing to fix. So we went out there that Friday night and the producers instructed us… They said, “Play the hell out of it”. I went out there and threw off any shackles that I had [and] played the drunk. If you’ll recall in the interview scene… she fails to respond rapidly to my rapid fire questions, probably she complains about it and I walk over to her and say, “You know what? You’ve got spunk — I hate spunk.” And the audience laughed, 300 people…they adored it! I felt like I’d never again do wrong and the show just sailed…the show sailed. But all the execs at CBS were not happy with us; with the exception of Ethel Winant who was vice president in charge of casting. She loved the show. So finally…they showed the first [episode] to Fred Silverman, then VP in charge of production, or VP of the network. Bob Wood was the president and he saw it and he came back and he said, “The show looks too good to throw away on Monday night. Let’s open our Saturday night with this.” And all the vice presidents were proved wrong and we were off on a magical mystery tour…
And it lasted for seven years. And then I was surprised, that Lou Grant [its sequel] was actually an hour long drama.
Yeah. When the [The Mary Tyler Moore] Show was ending, my agent went to CBS, and said, “Do you want Ed or not?” CBS says “Yes we want him,” and I was delighted to hear that they’d like to put me in my own show. So I said that I’d like my two producers to be the producers of it ‘cause I figured they’d just be writing another half hour show for me; that was Allan Burns and Jim Brooks. So they thought about it. They said they’d be happy to and we decided to have MTM produce it. So after a week or two of thinking, they came back to me and they said that…Jim had been in broadcast journalism [and] “We’d kind of like to have Ed go back and have Lou go back to his first love which is newspapers. How would it feel to make an hour long show about this?” So we made an hour show out of it. Unfortunately CBS wasn’t so aware that we were a very different show. I think the first two weeks in TV Guide, Lou Grant was listed as a comedy. Instead, it was, what we refer to, as a dramedy. I think a lot of people were fooled thinking that they would tune in to see more of Lou Grant; the comedic Mary Tyler Moore partner. Here he was a very straight laced guy, same guy but with different facets. And I was in therapy at the time. After the show opened in the fall, I went to therapy, asked my therapist had he seen the show, and he said, “Yeah”. I said, “Well what’d ya think?” He said, “Why do you grimace so much?” And he didn’t have to say another word. I realized what I was doing. Because we were an hour show, no audience, there is no off camera response to whatever happens on camera so, little stupid me, when I got to a potential joke or laugh line, just to be sure the audience understood, I used to grimace without even knowing I was doing it!
So that quickly sobered me up and I stopped grimacing. But people still thought that they were tuning into see a comedy and…so the ratings went into the cellar and only winning Emmys the first couple years did we impress upon people that we were a show of value…of substance.
At this point in the interview I just might mention how good Ed’s coffee smells (velvety vanilla). He will ask if I’d like some. “Sure, if you’ve got any left.” “Well you had your chance before and that’s just too goddamned bad!” He will mischievously bark, then good naturedly direct me towards the kitchen, and then the fridge wherein resides almond milk. “Oooh healthy Ed,” I will muse aloud. (“You want a cookie?” “Oh no thanks…I’ll just eat some cat food.”) It is, indeed, a stellar piece of coffee making at its finest and the almond milk accents it most perfectly surprisingly enough…(the uneaten cat food, not so much…)
I read they cancelled the show because you were not supportive of America’s actions in Central America.
No, I attacked America’s policies of supplying the death squads in El Salvador. We had already done a great job in Guatemala and Kimberly Clark—one of our main sponsors, had two factories in South America. So I went to Washington with a group because I was the hottest thing on TV, of the group at the time. There was a large press conference [and] I read the opening statement for this group; “Medical Aid for El Salvador” and they [started asking] questions. The second question asked of me was, “You say you’re in favor of free elections in El Salvador. What happens if it turns out to be a communist government?” And all of a sudden, I realized, I, Ed Asner, had done so much to avoid controversy all these years and here I’ve set myself up in a perfect forum to destroy my career and I thought, “Jesus Christ, if I answer this truthfully, then I will destroy my career.” So I waffled an answer, went on to another question… It bugged me that I’d come all this way, all this time, and I would waffle an answer like that! So I answered the third question and I said, “I was unhappy with what I had to say to the second gentleman and I would say to you that if it’s the government that the people of El Salvador choose, let them have it!” And by saying that, I knew I was dead. It was never printed that way but I knew… Charleton Heston became outspoken against me, among others. Protests came in via mail and eventually Bill Paley president—the owner of CBS–decided I and the show were too dangerous and wanted it taken off the air.
And how were the ratings at the time?
Comfortable…for such an intellectual show it was quite comfortable.
I remember that you did this short thing on Jay Leno when he was still on, “Does this impress Ed Asner?” That was hilarious. How did that come about?
One of his main writers worked out at the gym I worked out at and then a thought occurred to him… He conceived the idea and so had Jay and it began.
About how many of those did you do?
Maybe about 7 or 8, I’m not sure.
Do you remember what act you were most impressed by?
The best laugh I ever got was um…the guy who blew up condoms. And when he finished, I forget what he did with them.
(laughing) I’m sure I wouldn’t want to know.
But when he finished his act, I looked at Jay and said, “Now that’s a blow job!”
See that’s good see? You’re a writer, right there…and that’s the less lazy version…or less lonely version of writing ‘cause you’re kind of doing it improv style!
So tell me a little bit about your charity work.
Well I used to be big in the Central American scene; less active there now. Defenders of Wild Life has been on the board, tried to be active there and, whatever anti-war movement is going on I participate avidly…
What are your current projects?
I’ve got a movie…by Disney coming out towards the end of the year… called “The Games Maker”… I play a grandfather which is normal and it was directed by one of South America’s hot directors [Juan Pablo Buscarini]… I saw the trailer for it and it looks like it might be interesting. It seems to have a touch of Harry Potter to it… Oh and then in November I’m doing my one man show of FDR… I’ll do five performances (November 19-23) in Laguna.
It sounds like you also still do a lot of staged readings and things like that.
Yeah, yeah. Wherein you don’t have to get dressed!
Asner has played Santa Claus five times, and dressed the part for nearly every one of them. Upon addressing this I can’t help but wonder what role he has not yet portrayed whilst declaring, “Well, actually, if I were ever going to cast you in anything it would be in the role of God.” “Whaddaya mean? I AM God. I thought everybody knew that. That’s no stretch!” he will say with a hearty, robust smirk!
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