Ed Asner, Emmy-winning star of ‘Lou Grant’ and ‘Up,’ is dead at 91
By Anita Gates
Ed Asner, the burly character actor who won seven Emmy Awards — five of them for playing the same character, the gruff but lovable newsman Lou Grant, introduced on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — and later starred in film hits like “Up” and “Elf” — died Sunday at his home in Tarzana, California. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his family via Twitter. No cause was specified.
Asner also served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1981 to 1985 and was active in political causes both within and beyond the entertainment industry. The issues he supported over the years included unionism (in particular the air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981) and animal rights; those he protested against included the U.S. military presence in El Salvador.
Asner was 40 when he was approached for the role of Lou Grant, the irascible but idealistic head of the fictional WJM television newsroom in Minneapolis and the boss of Moore’s Mary Richards. His place in television comedy history was secured when, during the first episode, he told Moore, an eager young job seeker, “You’ve got spunk,” then paused and added, “I hate spunk.”
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ran on CBS from 1970 to 1977, and Asner was nominated for the Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy series every year. He won in 1971, 1972 and 1975. He went on to win twice for best lead actor, in 1978 and 1980, for the spinoff “Lou Grant,” making him the first performer to have received Emmys for playing the same character in both a comedy and a drama series.
“Lou Grant” (1977-82) itself was an unusual case, a drama series developed around a sitcom character. In the show, Grant returned to his first love, editing a big-city newspaper, and the scripts tackled serious issues that included, in the first season alone, domestic abuse, gang rivalries, neo-Nazi groups, nursing-home scandals and cults.
In between playing Lou Grant, Asner also won Emmys for his appearances in the 1976 miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man,” as Nick Nolte’s bitter immigrant father, and the groundbreaking, lavishly lauded 1977 miniseries “Roots,” in which he played a slave-ship captain with scruples. He also won five Golden Globes, one for “Rich Man, Poor Man” and two each for the two series in which he played Lou Grant.
Edward David Asner was born on Nov. 15, 1929, in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. He was the youngest of five children of Orthodox Jewish immigrants, Morris David Asner, a junkyard owner from Poland, and Lizzie (Seliger) Asner, from Russia.
As a boy, Edward Asner became interested in dramatics and worked on a school radio program. After high school he was accepted at the University of Chicago, but dropped out after 1 1/2 years to work at odd jobs — taxi driver, encyclopedia salesman, metal finisher at an auto plant — while he tried to build an acting career.
In 1951 he was drafted into the Army and sent to France. Mustered out in 1953, he returned to Chicago to work with the Playwrights Theater Club and the Compass Players, a precursor of the Second City comedy troupe. But he soon moved to New York, where he found work onstage (a small part in “The Threepenny Opera” at the Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village and a short-lived Broadway play, “Face of a Hero,” starring Jack Lemmon) and in a handful of television shows.
Moving to California in 1961, he found the acting jobs more lucrative, and was cast in a short-lived CBS political drama, “Slattery’s People,” starring Richard Crenna. He made a point of largely avoiding comedy — out of fear, he said in a 2002 appearance at Vanderbilt University, and because “in those days you got discovered by doing the drama shows as a guest star.” But he agreed to audition for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” because, as he said in an Archive of American Television interview, Lou Grant “was the best character I’d ever been asked to do” in either television or film.
Lou was a hard-drinking, straight-shooting, short-tempered journalist who had tender emotions but did not plan to show them; a strong aura of professional and personal integrity; a fear that he had outlived his era; and “a great common core of honor,” as Asner told Robert S. Alley and Irby B. Brown, the authors of “Love Is All Around: The Making of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’”
In the post-Lou Grant era, Asner worked on both screen and stage. He returned to Broadway in 1989 to play the pugnacious Harry Brock opposite Madeline Kahn in a revival of “Born Yesterday.” His last Broadway play was “Grace” (2012), a tale of gospel-themed motels and murder, in which he played an exterminator.
He provided the voice of the lead character in the Oscar-winning animated movie “Up” (2009), about an elderly widower who flies to South America by attaching roughly a zillion colorful balloons to his house. Manohla Dargis’ review in The New York Times, which praised Asner and the supporting characters — including a portly stowaway scout and several talking dogs — called it “filmmaking at its purest.”
Asner also played a levelheaded Santa Claus in the Will Ferrell comedy “Elf” (2003), about a tall human raised by North Pole elves, which has become a Christmas-season classic. (It was Santa’s fault, really; the human baby crawled into his giant bag of gifts one busy Christmas Eve.) Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert called the film “one of those rare Christmas comedies that has a heart, a brain and a wicked sense of humor.”
Asner married Nancy Sykes in 1959, and they had three children. They divorced in 1988. Ten years later he married Cindy Gilmore, a producer; they separated in 2007 but did not divorce until 2015.
He is survived by two daughters, Liza and Katie Asner; two sons, Charles and Matthew, and 10 grandchildren.
In a 1999 interview, Asner looked back fondly on his long-running series.
“To me, the best performances come from those milieus where you create the family,” he said. “Of bolstering each other, of love for each other’s work, of trying to help each other, of trying to get the best out of each other. And I believe it pays off.”