Eighty-four years old and Ed Asner is still ticking. He is starring in the new Disney feature The Games Maker to be released in 2014 and playing Papa Noel in an upcoming Lifetime telefilm Christmas on the Bayou to air on December 14. And somehow he still manages to take his one-man show on the road playing one of American history’s most eminent presidents. Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mr. Asner is a man of great character, something not just displayed by his laundry list of television, film and Broadway credits, but something that stands out in his facial expressions and his hilariously clever quips. He humorously jokes that he never knew there were any heights in Melrose. “My nose never started to bleed,” he tells our host.
Seated at his home in Valley Village, LA this past June he answered a few questions for us. Although born in Kansas City, Missouri he was actually raised in Kansas City, Kansas with his mother Lizzie and father Morris David Asner who owned a junkyard business. In his youth he never dared dream of becoming a famous actor, but rather considered that he might just take over his father’s trade, something he describes as manly and productive. He grew up in an area of the city known as the Bottoms, across from a packinghouse and the stockyards where he recalls cattle and goats going to slaughter. Something that didn’t leave an impression on him at the time, but impresses him today. “It’s a mean life,” he relates.
He loved history as a teenager, which is what took him into drama and theatre, but he thought that a life as an archaeologist would be very exciting. Never having volunteered for roles in high school plays, mainly because it was seen as unmanly and too “artsy-fartsy,” he was somehow repeatedly chosen for the male parts. He quips that, “it’s a lot of crap that we’re instilled with in terms of what is manly and what is not. You look at a ballet dancer, you’d give your bottom dollar to have that build, to have that strength.” Also in high school he wrote, produced and acted in a radio show for two years, which may explain his knack for voice roles in Hollywood films like Carl Fredrickson in Pixar’s award-winning animated film Up.
He is best known for his role as the gruff, but softhearted news director Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which he describes as the most pivotal role of his career. He had a lovely relationship working with Moore, the best star “you could work for, under or over, you name it.” Known as a great character actor Mr. Asner always sought to emulate the great character actors that had come before him, including Allen Hale, Wendell Corey, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Errol Flynn. He describes the Mary Tyler Moore Show as the ne plus ultra of television, which happened to be the break-through show where he was eventually discovered.
As a member of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and the Democratic Socialist of America, Mr. Asner is also known for his sometimes controversial and outspoken political beliefs. Looking to the future of democracy in America he hopes for a more socialist, life-giving form of democracy. He relates that socialist forms of government are already employed throughout Europe and in US government programs such as Social Security and Medicare. However, it’s been made and evil word because we are the chief example of a capitalist country. “The more we become socialist, the more people will become happy,” he says.
He enjoys his one man show FDR, although he admits he doesn’t look like him or sound like him, he takes great pleasure in speaking his words because FDR was “a good strong leader and espoused a certain amount of socialism.” Mr. Asner has been taking his play on tour throughout the United States, on and off for the past four years. The play runs for an hour and forty-five minutes and an abridged version will be playing at New Mexico State University on January 25, 2014 and will be going on tour later in the year.
When asked what quality he attributes to his great success in life he jokes “giving money to people,” and then just before calling to his cat Inky, answers in all honesty, “trying to speak the truth whenever you open your mouth, or having a joke behind it when you do.” Certainly, Mr. Asner has seen his share of success in his life, but he doesn’t plan on resting anytime soon, with his continuing roles in film, television, and theatre, his involvement in social and humanitarian causes and advocacy for stronger unions. He’s a strong supporter of animal welfare causes, on the board for Defenders of Wildlife and a supporter of Autism Speaks. He encourages the younger generation to support their unions and with the flood of young talent in Hollywood fighting over roles and practically paying to work, he relates “a strong union is the only thing that protects you in this business.”
Of course he owes a good deal to his parents and upbringing and when asked what they would be most proud of he relates, “they would have believed me in the roles I’ve played, delighted in the success I’ve had and the principles I’ve stood for, principles they stood for as well.” Certainly, those principles have served Mr. Asner well and there’s more in store from this TV icon far into the foreseeable future.
written by Timothy J. Fuller // photography by Eric Dahan