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Ed Asner Is The
Epitome Of Spunk

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Ed Asner at the 2012 Phoenix Comicon.
Image by Gage Skidmore and used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
From U.S. Army To Sleeping In The Theatre And All The Way Out To Hollywood And The Cover Of TV Guide, The Man Known To Many As Lou Grant Remains Approachable, Real

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

April 11, 2016 — Spunk. Whether he likes it or not, the word characterizes Ed Asner, both personally and professionally. The “Lou Grant” character that Asner debuted in 1970 on The Mary Tyler Moore Show had a gruff exterior that was mostly bluff engineered to hide a gooey center of grudging sensitivity.

From the WJM newsroom in Minneapolis to the Los Angeles Tribune city desk as the titular star of his own spin-off series, even extending to his curmudgeonly voiceover as Carl Fredricksen in the 2009 animated hit, Up, the Lou Grant spunk has remained a commodity audiences can count on.

Over the years, in Studio City, Calif., we frequently encountered Asner’s spunk firsthand.

A favorite dining spot near Tom’s home was Spark Woodfire Grill, an Italianate hybrid restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, which featured on its menu a Margherita Pizza with crust as thin as construction paper. The Grill was also in Asner’s restaurant rotation and he was frequently there dining with friends. We’d always stop to say “hi” since Asner is one of the most approachable pedigreed actors in Hollywood. That said, before we reached the table, he would usually exclaim in a low rumble (just theatrical enough to be overheard): “Uh-oh, here comes trouble!”

When we first encountered Asner in 1980, three years after Mary Richards had turned off the lights at WJM, he looked much the same as he did in that last episode with a ruddy complexion, stocky build and a ring of brown hair around his head like a laurel wreath on the head of a Caesar.

We chatted with him in his trailer at CBS soon after a Screen Actors Guild strike had closed down Hollywood entertainment production for nine weeks. In his office that day was Johnny Green, famed MGM musical director and composer (“I Cover the Waterfront,” “Body and Soul”) who left just as we entered having cajoled Asner into agreeing to moderate a Musician’s Guild of America fundraising event.

At that time, Asner, a lifelong hardcore liberal, was the last actor to cross the musicians’ picket line after an agreement had been tentatively reached with the Guild. It reflected a political and professional bent that could be traced to his years as a journeyman laborer doing odd jobs throughout the Midwest.

“One of my first jobs was selling encyclopedias,” he told us. “I threw-up from the training. It was scumbag time, the degrading hard sell. I tried to sell shoes and then went to work on an automobile assembly line in Kansas City. That didn't work out, so after nine or 10 months, I traveled to Chicago and worked as a taxicab driver. I finally wound up in a steel mill in Gary, Ind. I really appreciate the blue-collar worker.”

Asner's first professional acting experience came as a member of Paul Sills’ Chicago Playwrights Repertory Theater, a company that fostered Elaine May, Mike Nichols and Barbara Harris among others.

“Before I got out of the Army, I was stationed in France, and I got a letter from Paul Sills who I had known from the University of Chicago Theatre,” Asner said. “Sills wrote that he was starting a little professional theater on the Near North Side and asked if I wanted a job. He said hopefully he could pay me $50-$60 a week. Suddenly my life fell into place. It was a 180-seat theater, which we slept in. The second floor had been an old chop suey joint and bookie front."

The Chicago Playwrights Theatre, Asner remembered, was not an immediate hit among the city's theater critics. The avant-garde stance and presentation of modern playwrights was not always appreciated or understood.

Asner was first cast in La Ronde, by Schnitzler, but the play incurred the displeasure of the Catholic Church and closed after only two performances. He was then cast as the lead in Woyzeck by Buchner. It was a hit and ran for two years. Asner quit the Chicago Playwrights Theatre when it became improvisational.

“I felt it was too much fun to improve,” he said. “I wanted to seek renown as an actor, not an improvisationalist. I wanted to be tested. You can put that down to feelings of Jewish middle-class guilt.”

As an out-of-work actor just relocated to New York City, Asner told us he devised a method for canvassing the city with his resume and headshots that was as effective as it was simple.

“I began looking for work by making the rounds, looking up anybody and everybody I could. One of the few times I ever did anything intelligent for myself, I came to New York expecting nothing. I set myself up a grid pattern of the city. I would drop off my picture and resume to any and all agencies knowing full well that most of them were dumped in the wastebasket before I reached the door.”

For Asner, acting was always about finding “outlets” and occasionally suffering the slings and arrows of the New York critics. “I was in a production of The Tempest in New York, and Brooks Atkinson reviewed it,” Asner said. “It was his next-to-last review before retiring and he likened my voice to that of a train conductor. I diverted myself from his criticism with the thought that I would not have time to get on stage in something else and make that S.O.B. eat his words concerning my talent.”

For six years Asner acted in such plays as The Three-Penny Opera, Ivanov and Henry V for Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park. But Asner's subsequent decision to move to Hollywood was not a natural outgrowth of his experience on the stage. “I could have stayed in New York forever, but I was discovered by the Burt Leonard people who did the television shows Naked City and Route 66,” he said.

Asner's success led to his first TV series role as a character on Slattery's People. It was short lived. “They couldn't find a way to use me properly. In the first 10 shows they didn't use me in two of them.”

Then came The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Asner said that he and just about every other actor in Hollywood tested for the part of Lou Grant. “I read for the two producers and then came back a week or two later and read with Mary. I think that Gavin MacLeod tested for my role. The producers didn't think he was right for it, but asked him if he would be interested in the role of Murray Slaughter. Happy ending.”

The irony is that up to that point in his career Asner had assiduously avoided comedic roles. “I came in highly recommended with really very little basis to substantiate that recommendation,” he said, “but they were impressed with the grunting reality of what they saw and they felt that they could pump me up into the blowhard character that Lou turned out to be.”

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