Ed Asner, actor who twice had the role of a lifetime as newsman Lou Grant, dies at 91

Actor Ed Asner poses for a portrait in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 20, 1980. Asner is better known for the American Television drama series "Lou Grant", a spin-off from the sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Actor Ed Asner poses for a portrait in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 20, 1980. Asner is better known for the American Television drama series "Lou Grant", a spin-off from the sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.Washington Post photo by Harry Naltchayan

Ed Asner, an actor and liberal activist who twice had the role of a lifetime in the character of Lou Grant, the irascible newsman he played first on the hit 1970s sitcom "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and then on an acclaimed spin-off series, died Aug. 29. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by his manager, Perry Zimel. Additional information was not immediately available.

The son of an immigrant junk dealer, Asner had a fireplug build, jowly countenance and workingman's semblance that are not traditionally considered the raw materials of stardom. Those attributes were perfect, however, for the gruff, middle-aged news director of WJM-TV, the fictional Minneapolis television station at the center of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Widely regarded as one of the finest sitcoms in TV history, the program aired on CBS from 1970 to 1977 and starred Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards, an earnest assistant producer who became a generational ideal of the single working woman. Asner, then in his 40s, played Mary's crusty boss and was catapulted to a decades-long acting career that would include hundreds of TV and movie credits.

Besides Asner and Moore, the cast included a bevy of first-rate character actors: Gavin MacLeod as Murray Slaughter, the long-suffering news writer; Ted Knight as Ted Baxter, the pompous anchor; Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens, hostess of the TV station's "Happy Homemaker" program; and Valerie Harper as Mary's self-deprecating neighbor and friend Rhoda Morgenstern.

With a single exchange in the first episode, "Mr. Grant," as Mary always called him, was installed in the annals of TV comedy.

"You know what?" he asks Mary, his new hire, her perfectly coiffed hair in laughable contrast to his loosened tie. "You've got spunk."

"Well, yes . . . " she replies, blushingly modest, to which Asner barks his memorable punch line:

"I hate spunk."

Between its original broadcast and reruns shown on "Nick at Nite" in the 1990s, the show endeared itself to millions and ended with a plotline in which new management fires the newsroom crew, with the ludicrous exception of Ted. After a tearful speech by Lou - "I treasure you people" - the staff shuffles in a group-hug to a box of Kleenex and then files out, with Mary left to turn off the lights.

When "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" ended in 1977, Asner's character was re-imagined as a hard-charging Los Angeles newspaper editor in"Lou Grant," a CBS drama that addressed issues such as overseas dictatorship, nuclear power and the mental health of Vietnam War veterans. Nancy Marchand played a fictional publisher modeled in part on Katharine Graham of The Washington Post.

The transition was the rare example of a major comedic character turned into a serious one. Asner received five Primetime Emmy awards as Lou - three for supporting actor in a comedy and two for lead actor in a drama.

" 'Lou Grant' is the best new show of the season," Washington Post television critic Tom Shales wrote in 1977. "Like the man in the title, it is a bracing, reassuring combination of an essentially gentle spirit and good, old-fashioned guts. This may be not only what television needs, but what America needs."

CBS canceled "Lou Grant" in 1982, citing declining ratings. Many observers, as well as Asner, suspected that the true cause was the leading man's political activism.

Asner was prominently involved in the Screen Actors Guild strike over wages and profit-sharing in 1980 and was SAG president from 1981 to 1985. During that time, he criticized President Ronald Reagan for sending military aid to the right-wing government in El Salvador and helped raise funds for medical supplies for leftist rebels there.

Those activities, Newsweek magazine reported in 1982, "stirred up the hottest Hollywood political dispute since Jane Fonda's wartime visit to North Vietnam."

"I had no idea I was so cute," Asner quipped in response to the comparison.

Reagan, a former actor and head of SAG, said that he was "very disturbed" by Asner's work. Another erstwhile SAG chief, the actor and future NRA president Charlton Heston, accused Asner of injecting politics into the union and using it "like some Mafia don."

Asner - who had a bodyguard for a period - said that he was not acting on behalf of the union and that he was "exercising [his] right to free speech."

"I'm not an expert, but I'm a citizen who can read," he told an interviewer. "I think I know enough to make judgments, and I think we're on the wrong side. I think we've ended up on the wrong side too many times in too many places."

Asner helped raise money to support the high-profile legal defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1982 of killing a Philadelphia police officer. More recently, the actor questioned widely-accepted explanations of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and appeared in a series of advertisements by the liberal group MoveOn.org targeting then-President George W. Bush.

In a foreword to a book about "Lou Grant" by author Douglass K. Daniel, Asner wrote that the drama was one of his proudest accomplishments as an actor.

"I knew, at the time, that we were doing exceptional and important work that had the power to make changes in our world. That may sound egotistical; it was, after all, just a television show," he wrote.

"Consider, though, that . . . a prime-time show reaches 40 million homes," he continued. " 'Lou Grant' has been seen in 72 countries; in many of them, the very idea of freedom of the press is amazing. That kind of power gives my industry an obligation to be responsible for what we produce, and, in that regard, 'Lou Grant' was exemplary."

Early years

Asner - some sources reported his given name as Yitzak - was born Nov. 15, 1929, in Kansas City, Mo., and grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home on the Kansas side of the border. He played football and worked on the radio and newspaper in high school before attending the University of Chicago, where he became involved in drama.

After serving in the Army Signal Corps in the early 1950s, he was invited by theatrical director Paul Sills, who had seen him act in college, to join the Playwrights Theatre Club in Chicago. Asner performed there with actors including Mike Nichols and Barbara Harris; he left when the group ventured increasingly into improvisation.

Asner moved to New York, acting in Shakespeare festivals and in a staging of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera" before concluding that he could earn a more stable living as a TV actor in California. His early TV work, heavy on crime dramas, included appearances on the programs "The Untouchables," "Felony Squad," "The F.B.I." and "The Mod Squad."

Television producer Grant Tinker, then married to Mary Tyler Moore,saw a TV movie in which Asner played a police chief and invited him to audition for the part of Lou Grant.

Asner received Primetime Emmys for performances in two acclaimed miniseries, first as an embittered German immigrant baker who immigrates to the United States in "Rich Man, Poor Man" (1976), based on the Irwin Shaw novel, and as a slave ship captain in "Roots" (1977), based on the Alex Haley book.

His early films included "The Slender Thread" (1965) with Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft, in which he played a detective searching for a suicidal caller to a crisis hotline, and "El Dorado" (1966), a John Wayne western. Asner later portrayed a police officer in "Fort Apache, the Bronx" (1981), the drama starring Paul Newman about a troubled precinct station house, and appeared as an FBI operative in director Oliver Stone's "JFK" (1991).

To a later generation of movie viewers, he may be better remembered as Santa Claus in "Elf" (2003) with Will Ferrell and as the voice of the cranky widower Carl Fredricksen in "Up" (2009).

Asner performed on Broadway as a rude, millionaire junk dealer in a 1989 revival of Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday." In Craig Wright's "Grace" (2012), also on Broadway, he played a German-born exterminator whose family died during the Nazi regime and whose wife is succumbing to cancer.

Asner's marriages to Nancy Lou Sykes and Cindy Gilmore ended in divorce. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

"I'm very proud of what I've done," Asner once told an interviewer, reflecting on his acting and political activism. "There were times when I felt terribly alone, when I wished the storm-troopers would come and rescue me. But I was also given a feeling of nobility about my life. How do you buy that?"