Interview: A Tribute to Ed Asner
We lost an important and lasting player in television history in 2021 with the passing of Ed Asner. While this is a delayed tribute, we wanted to step back into the archives and pay homage to an actor who really was always there. We lost an iconic and legendary performer with Asner’s passing and he’s missed every day.
A television legend of the highest order, most are certainly familiar with his portrayal of Lou Grant on the legendary comedy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. However, from El Dorado to Route 66, Slattery’s People, and even Modern Family, Asner enjoyed a career that lasted more than sixty years on both the big and the small screen. He leaves us strong and dynamic performances and characters we’ll never forget.
Last summer, The Ticklish Team had the opportunity to sit down with Asner over Zoom to talk about his new book, Son of a Junkman: My Life From the West Bottoms of Kansas City to the Bright Lights of Hollywood. He graciously talked to us about everything from his earliest film and TV work to the cultural importance of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and even Up. Asner shied away from nothing. He was gracious and it truly gave us an experience we’ll never forget.
The audio from the interview is included above!
KL: What inspired you to sit down and write your memoirs?
I never thought about it. I’ve been plagued by writers (and) producers who (thought) it was a good idea. So I caved in (with) Son of a Junkman…. We…played around with how we wanted to do it and we ended up with (the book).
KL: You’re ‘no holds barred’ in each and every chapter and it really is a book that makes you feel vulnerable and exposed. Was that an easy process for you to show these parts of yourself which are so private and intimate?
I carry the guilt (so) I may as well talk about it. None of it seemed difficult. It was the mode of the book that gave me the problems. We (started) off with Sam Joseph’s myriad (of) questions…. just answering questions to me seemed to have a lack of passion. A friend who… fancies himself a writer… came along and said, ‘I can create the flow you want’ (and) I said ‘Do it’. So that’s why the book has two sections, the Q&A at the end and the narrative at the beginning.
KP: You’ve jumped across the mediums with such fluidity, everything from the stage to television, film and even writing books. In previous interviews, you mentioned television was your favorite of the art forms. Is this still true?
Yeah, it brought the greatest joy. It brought me the awards! And with movies, all I can think of was regret at the ones (I wasn’t) chosen for.
KP: As you think back on it, is there a role that got away?
No, no, all of them I could say… I was tremendously gratified with all that was thrust at me in terms of television.
KL: You’ve worked with some amazing women. Today we expect women in the industry to be able to say what they want and do what they want. But you know, at the time you were working on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, this was a groundbreaking thought. Did you feel that show was changing the cultural landscape?
No, I regarded The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a good example of what is to be found on television and not (as) a groundbreaker. I never bought that stuff about it being a barrier tumbler for ‘she’s made it on her own’… it’s a nice story (about) a girl getting a job.
KP: I was doing some research on Lou Grant and noticed the amazing Emmy’s showing (the show) enjoyed throughout its run. Michelle Gallery took home the Emmy for Best Writing for a Dramatic Series. She was the second woman to take home that award and in the history of television, only five women have won a dramatic writing Emmy on a solo script. Lou Grant also had women directing as well, which was still relatively rare in the 1970s and 1980s. Did the series make an effort to champion women behind the camera?
There seemed to be. Treva Silverman was the female leading the charge for representing women and a good writer… I wasn’t crazy about (Gallery). Her writing was superior to how I felt about her… It (is) fine by me if they all won, there were a couple of tandem females who were good. They didn’t get awards.
KP: Lou Grant had no fear in the subjects it tackled throughout its run. It is so sad the show didn’t get more of an opportunity to explore these storylines.
I was very proud of the show and I would say… whatever it achieved was somewhat unique and most well-earned. (It) was always a group effort. The producers were upstanding individuals and in their search… women writers… producers… (and) directors always (seemed) to profit.
KL: You’re very open in the book about Charlton Heston and your thoughts on Ronald Regan. How do you look at the romanticizing of classic stars and the desire to not show the bad parts?
I think the truth should be told… believe it or not. I was just thinking this morning lying in bed…restlessly. Let me emphasize that, restlessly! Lou Grant was canceled because of my involvement in Latin America… I was tainted with the ‘Commie Brush’. Now it turns out… I was just too outspoken. (The studio was) afraid of my alienating people. And whatever I was championing I… discover today that I was wrong. They were right to condemn me, but they didn’t condemn what I was fighting against, which was training the so-called leaders to be the militaristic junta they turned out to be.
KL: We all know Heston had very conservative thoughts and you mentioned Barbara Stanwyck was closely aligned politically. Do you have memories of Stanwyck as a person? What she was like, especially at that time?
Lovely! She was lovely and we did not broach politics at all. So you can say that if she knew… I’ve never heard her quoted against me, or about any of the topics I dealt with. She was always a perfect, lovely lady with me.
KL: One of the other stars you talk about in the book is Jack Lemmon who you worked with in JFK. We’ve been fortunate to speak with other people who worked with him and we’ve never had a bad Jack Lemmon story. What was Jack Lemmon like?
He was a peach! We worked on stage together. And then later, we worked on JFK. He was a doll-face.
KP: Jumping to your Screen Actors Guild work, when you were elected you took over the Presidency from William Schallert. He was such a prolific performer but was so low profile. Do you have memories of your involvement with him?
He was a lovely actor, I regretted that the forces of change needed me to run (in order)… to defeat him. The biggest complaints I got from those…. who participated with him in negotiations after the big strike (preceding) my election… was that he was called ‘The Rabbi’…. he would often give both sides (of) a point and they wanted more direct action. This is what resulted in my election.
KP: Running the Screen Actors Guild seems like such a rough role and almost thankless in a way. In hindsight, would you get involved in the Screen Actors Guild again? would you take on that leadership?
No, no, it would require too sweeping of change. We have 160,000 members. That is a large mob to satisfy and I don’t think the majority are of our opinion.
KL: You said that The Mary Tyler Moore Show taught you how to do comedy, judge it, and evaluate good writing. Do you see streaming shows today giving actors a similar opportunity? How do you look at the streaming concept now that terrestrial television is considered passé?
I cry, not because of the quality, (but) because of my deficiency (in) seeing and hearing. (They are) below normal and I can’t judge properly the effect on the show I’m watching. So I don’t (watch).
KL: You said Lou Grant was a lot like you. A lot of people my age or younger say they feel Carl Fredricksen from Up seems a lot like you. Do you think that’s a true statement? Or is Lou Grant still the character you feel is the most like, you
Carl is an older Lou Grant. I like him and I love the vehicle that he came to prominence in.
KP: Reading some of your press coverage in the early 1980s, I was stunned just how often journalists made very direct Lou Grant comparisons. One source wrote, “Asner is more intense, more intelligent and 30 pounds lighter than Lou Grant”. As an actor, is that a sign of success to be so aligned with a character, or is that more of a frustration?
No, it never offended me. I lapped it up. I lapped up the identification with Carl Fredricksen in Up. And we don’t talk about the other movie which keeps me dangling in front of the audience… that’s Santa Claus in Elf. He was the kind of Santa Clause that I approve of (and one) that I adore. He was a rough and tumble, beer-drinking and vodka guzzling Santa! That’s for me.
KL: You said in the book that Spencer Tracy was your inspiration for Carl Fredericksen. Who are some of the other classic film stars you’ve been inspired by?
I like Spencer Tracy and you can even… compare my style to something of his energy. I even think Fredric March was a better guide and inspiration.
KL: We don’t get a lot of Fredric March named drops on here these days.
I really loved his work. I’m personally signing a letter going to a couple of schools in Wisconsin (to protest) his expulsion or lack of consideration, because (of) supposed Fascist (ties). It’s all poppycock.
KL: I have mixed views of (March) because I’m a big Veronica Lake fan. She didn’t get along with him, but he’s a complex performer.
She didn’t get along with him?
KL: She hated him. When they made I Married a Witch together she would put rocks in her pockets when he had to carry her. It’s such a delightful movie, but it’s very weird to watch it be like ‘Oh, they love each other!’ but no, they detested each other. That’s acting though, right?
I thought his acting in that was gorgeous.
KL: I’m a wheelchair user. I’m a disabled person and I love that your son Matthew has worked with the Autism Society and that your Ed Asner Family Center champions all abilities. For people who don’t know about that, can you talk about promoting disability? I write a lot about the need for people with disabilities to be in media and entertainment. Is it the next big step to emphasize more disabled people in front of and behind the camera?
You call them disabled, but they may well be the future. I have an autistic son, he’s 35. Matthew has (two children on the spectrum) one by birth, and two by marriage. They are close to genius types. The Center is dedicated to providing service… and to give (them) a proving ground (as well as) give their parents a comfortable place to relax and to understand the affliction… if you want to call it that. It’s an all-around base (for) patients and parents.
KL: We need more people with disabilities making TV and starring in it. I think when you say we’re the wave of the future, that’s it. That’s a pretty good endorsement. It reminds me why I keep writing.
(Children today) are all different. I think they’re all individuals. (We can’t) push kids into slots… the way it was when I was a kid. It’s encouraged to be individualistic. And I think that creates a lot of varied input and certainly a lot of maturities in most kids.
KP: What was your history with entertainment when you were growing up? Were you a radio listener? Who were those figures who influenced you growing up?
Well, I love it all. My parents were normal Americans (tuning) into Jack Benny.
KP: Do you remember those actors you saw who made you go ‘I want to do that!’?
That tended to come later. I never identified with them as a kid but as an adult. For instance, in Blade Runner, the last scene with (Rutger Hauer)… his speech on the rooftop is one of the most gorgeous pieces of prose poetry I’ve ever heard. I loved Harrison Ford in that movie.
KL: My mother is a big John Wayne fan. So I saw El Dorado for the first time a couple of weeks ago. That is such a hug movie. You get John Wayne, you have Mitchum, you have James Caan. You tell a great story in the book about James Caan asking John Wayne questions and ‘The Duke’ getting very frustrated. What was that like to be in that pot of very intimidating performers?
The first day of filming, (Howard)Hawks asked ‘The Duke’ and me to go over a scene with him and I would make little additions or corrections to the dialogue, which Hawks accepted very gracefully. Duke never had anything to add. So then, Hawks said, ‘Well, it’s going to be a while before the set is ready. You can go back to your trailer’.
So I’m wandering around…feeling lost and not really knowing what to do with myself. I saw the army of grips preparing the stage for the scene between Duke and me. And I say, ‘Well, it looks like they’re getting close. I may as well start heading that way’.
So I’m walking over the prairie towards the location. Duke is busy teaching his (Appaloosa) to back up… He’s a towering giant, to begin with. While I’m walking towards him, he’s muttering ‘Where’s that New York actor? Where’s that New York actor?’… So I said, ‘You mean me?’ and he quickly adapted a more amenable tone. I then went and prepared for the scene, which is where he throws back the money I sent him to kill Mitchum because they’re friends. So we do that scene. The camera’s on him for that first part. We do that scene. Then we turn the cameras around and do me.
(Then) Hawks takes me aside and says ‘There’s something bothering me’. I don’t even let him go any further (and say) ‘I think I know what you mean… I think I’m acting towards ‘The Duke’ (as if he’s) John Wayne… not as whatever his name was’. I (needed) to readjust my attitudes. It worked beautifully. Hawks used that as a stimulus to talk to other young actors and influence them.
KL: Was Mitchum, an easier person on set? Or did he come with his own things?
We played blackjack together. He was just a regular guy. He wasn’t carrying the movie like Duke thought he was… That makes a difference.
KL: You mentioned in the book that Oliver Stone was also open to actors bringing in suggestions similar to Hawks. For JFK, do you remember a similar suggestion Oliver Stone might have used or appreciated?
With Oliver Stone, I discovered that if there were time I could suggest changing or modifying a line and he would accept it. But if more time was allowed than expected, he would then revert and say ‘No leave it the way it is’.
KL: You mention in the book that you did a remake of Born Yesterday in 1989, with the wonderful Madeline Kahn. What was someone like Madeline like to work off of? She definitely was a comedian who had a process. I’ve heard stories she was great to work with, but she had a way of filming.
Well, I never really figured out what her way of filming was. We got along well. I think she was as intimidated, if not more, by me… surprise, surprise… then I was by her, but I thought she was perfect for the role.
KP: Working on a monster like The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s you also played a large role in the golden age of game shows and variety specials. I was watching some of your Match Game appearances. What was Match Game like for you behind the scenes?
I can’t remember but I know that I was always eager to do it. Who was the emcee?
KP: Gene Rayburn. You were usually sitting next to Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly was there, Richard Dawson…
And those two were always the scene stealers. They were great to be with.
KP: You seem like you had a lot of fun with the format. There’s a YouTube playlist of your episodes that an account put together and it’s very entertaining.
Let’s face it. The format is designed to show you having fun. You got to go out there and have fun.
KP: What were your thoughts behind shows like Celebrity Bowling and Battle of the Network Stars. Were these just part of the job or were you able to have some fun with those?
I want you to realize that I was younger at the time and mindless… ‘ Oh, it’s good for the show?’. ‘ It’s good for my advancing my career?’. Good. Without thinking, I guess is the modus of conduct. And I had fun. It was always fun. Always. I never walked away feeling I had sold out or sold myself short. I felt it was worthwhile.
KL: My mom would not forgive me if I didn’t ask this question. You mention you received your first Emmy from Lucille Ball. Can you talk about that night? Receiving your first Emmy from Lucy herself?
Well, I mean, it’s part of the ballgame. You’re gonna win or lose, and you realize what a great honor it is. And it’s your first so it’ll help break the ice for anything else to come after. When they called my name, I appropriately leaped out of my seat, ready to grab and tackle the bear, and realized that you got to kiss somebody! I kissed David Davis’s companion…because she was closer than my wife. I always carry the guilt of not having kissed my wife.
KP: You guest-starred on Route 66 a number of times. Ticklish Business listeners will tell you, Martin Milner is also one of my all-time favorite performers. What remembrances do you have of working with him? What were those shoots like for you?
I did five or six episodes. And they were always rewarding and always worthwhile. It was substantial and advanced my career. It was interesting to do while I was doing it, and I loved the effect… And the two bums held up their end. They did well.
Interestingly enough, my last one was playing the cop in… Cleveland… somewhere in that area… and Rod Steiger was a guest as well. Whatever I did was pedestrian. When the time finally came… George (Maharis) did not show up for work! It had never happened before. We were all kind of picking at our navels (to) see if we could find some solution there. And finally, they had to cancel the episode… You never saw it or you didn’t see it. They had to do some quick recovery.
KP: You’ve appeared opposite people like Rod Steiger and did another with Lew Ayres. You’ve worked with such fascinating people. Did you ever find yourself starstruck?
No. The first one I did was with Darren McGavin, and I played his… towel boy. I thought he did a great job. Lois Nettleton was his girlfriend and we were off to a good start.
So much of Ed Asner’s work is widely available. His book Son of a Junkman: My Life From the West Bottoms of Kansas City to the Bright Lights of Hollywood is available wherever you get your books. Hulu subscribers can check out the full run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show while there are multiple episodes of Lou Grant available to stream for those who enjoy venturing over to YouTube.
And as always…
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