Ed Asner on crotchety roles from Lou Grant to Up
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Ed Asner started his television career in the late 1950s, working on both the big and small screens through the ’60s. But he didn’t earn his pop-culture immortality until 1970, when he informed a girl who could turn the world on with her smile that he hated spunk. Asner’s list of credits is formidable: beyond playing irascible newsman Lou Grant on both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and his own series, he has appeared in more than 200 other TV series and almost a hundred films, two of which—2011’s Identical and 2012’s Elephant Sighs—have just been released on DVD.
Identical (2011)—“Yaakov Washington”
Elephant Sighs (2012)—“Leo Applegate”
Ed Asner: Well, what Leo Applegate means to me is, he’s a wise old fart who realizes that we’re all dancing to the piper, and as long as we’re dancing, we might as well make the best of it and do the best dance we can, whatever we’re capable of. He’s a good man who recognizes his failures in life, his lack of accomplishment. He recognizes that lack in those around him as well, and he tries to bring them farther along than they think they can go.
The A.V. Club: Elephant Sighs is being described as a Christian film, or “a comedy of faith.”
EA: Well, if that’s what they want to do…
AVC: How did you get involved? Did they just send you the script and ask if you’d be interested in the role?
EA: Yeah. Ed Simpson, the director, sought me out, and I was twiddling my thumbs at the time, and I was glad to do it. With Identical, that role was slapped together out of… It was only a day’s work, I believe, so I didn’t really have that much to do with it. It seemed intriguing, with Mr. [Jonathan] Togo and the idea of identical twins, so I was eager to contribute my little bit to the film.
AVC: So these one-day stints on films are something you tend to enjoy doing?
EA: A day’s work is… Well, certainly the money is always nice to see. [Laughs.] And I certainly wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like what I was saying or doing. So money is not all that counts.
Studio One In Hollywood (1957)—“Juror” (uncredited)
AVC: If IMDB can be believed, this was your first TV appearance.
EA: It was one of them, yeah. I was working my way up. In those days, they had under-fives on TV, roles where you had less than five lines, and given that I was uncredited, that probably was an under-five. That was one of many I did, but that particular one was a precursor to The Defenders.
AVC: What got you involved in acting in the first place?
EA: Well, you can call them the same things, but if you want to really get definitive, you can point out that it was escape and therapy.
AVC: In that order?
EA: [Laughs.] No, it might’ve been therapy and escape. I don’t know which order they came in, but they both were satisfied by my becoming an actor.
AVC: In your early years, you worked with the Playwrights Theatre Club in Chicago, and you also have kind of an honorary status within Second City.
EA: Right. That’s correct. I did their 25th-anniversary celebration, which was televised. I worked out with them when they came out to L.A. and loved it, and I guess I’m kind of regarded as emeritus.
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (2006-2007)—“Wilson White”
EA: Yeah, I had great regrets that the show was canceled. Our genius was beginning to really write some great stuff. For me. [Laughs.] And I hated to lose it.
AVC: So you enjoyed working with Aaron Sorkin?
EA: Oh, sure. He was a delight. Some of the people under him weren’t so delightful. But I never had any problems at all with him.
Kid Galahad (1962)—“Assistant D.A. Frank Gerson”
Change Of Habit (1969)—“Lt. Moretti”
EA: Oh, you know about Kid Galahad, too, huh? You do your research, boy! [Laughs.] And in both cases, I found Elvis a very nice person to be around.
AVC: From a trivia standpoint, Change Of Habit is interesting because it was the first time you worked with Mary Tyler Moore.
EA: Yeah, except I didn’t actually work with her. [Laughs.] We didn’t have any scenes together. But it was only, what, a couple of years away from when we finally got together?
AVC: Only a year. Change Of Habit was in ’69.
EA: And Mary Tyler Moore was in ’70. So only a year later, huh? Well, I’ll be damned…
JFK (1991)—“Guy Bannister”
EA: [Gruffly.] Yeah, what about Guy Bannister? You want to make something out of it? [Laughs.] I think Oliver Stone proved himself to be a genius on that movie. I got the script, I couldn’t even follow the thing. I said, “To hell with it, I’ll just pay attention to Guy Bannister.” So I did whatever research I could, brought the character in, and… I was just totally amazed when I saw the film, how he put it all together. He was a genius with that film.
AVC: One of your more notable scenes involves you beating the hell out of Jack Lemmon’s character, Jack Martin.
EA: Yes! It was very embarrassing, actually, because I like to think I’m pretty good at faking stunts, but in both cases, in the scenes we shot, I grazed his face when I slapped him with the gun. But he seemed proud to be bearing the marks of a beating. [Laughs.] I apologized profusely. After all, it was the great Jack Lemmon, who’s one of the nicest people to ever come down the pike. But he was having a big laugh out of the whole thing.
EA: Well, I certainly don’t think any commission revealed the truth. My thoughts are best conveyed by the Seinfeld take-off. [Laughs.] I think that is brilliant.
Gus (1976)—“Hank Cooper”
EA: Oh God. [Laughs.] Yeah, I had great hopes for being discovered to be a comic genius for that film. But it did not come to pass.
AVC: How was working within the Disney family-film genre?
EA: Oh, that was all right. There were a lot of talented people on that film: Don Knotts, Tim Conway… good actors. Even Dick Butkus. [Laughs.] “Even Dick Butkus.” Dick Butkus was funny, but that’s not so unusual for him. Yeah, a very lovely assortment of actors on that.
The Animal (2001)—“Chief Wilson”
EA: [Very long pause.] You know, I don’t really have a lot to say about that.
AVC: Was that one of those cases you referenced earlier, where the money was nice to see?
EA: Well, sometimes you get a picture where you just go and you look scared when they want you to look scared and you act angry when they want you to act angry. And then you go home.
Fort Apache The Bronx (1981)—“Connolly”
EA: I thought that had the makings of a great movie. I loved Paul Newman and thought he was a nice guy. I hung out with the cops a lot during that, and… I had an idea of making it a superb movie. But nobody bought my idea. As it was, though, it was still a damned fine movie.
The Middle (2012)—“Ben”
EA: I enjoyed it. Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn were very nice to work with. That was the first time I’d worked with Neil Flynn. The director, Lee Shallat Chemel, was very sweet, and the producers [DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler] were lovely and made it very nice. And although it was in a comedy, the things I had to say were very meaningful. Did you see it?
AVC: Absolutely. It obviously wasn’t a stretch for you to play a crusty newspaperman. Do you tend to get a lot of calls to kind of spiritually reprise your Lou Grant persona?
EA: No, not that much. You’re always treading dangerous ground if you’re repeating yourself too much, though, so it’s fortunate that I’m spared from having to reject them.
El Dorado (1966)—“Bart Jason”
EA: Well, that was my introduction into the big leagues, working with Mr. [John] Wayne and Howard Hawks. I was being picked up at Paramount to go to the airport to be flown to Tucson, with Jim Davis, who used to be a stuntman, and I said I was on a split contract. I was going to go down there and do a week’s work and then finish up in L.A. But he said, “Oh no you’re not. You get down there, Hawks’ll keep you.” So I thought, “Well, that’s fine by me.” And I called my agents and said, “Looks like I’m not gonna be down there on a split contract.” So they got busy and made sure I had an ongoing contract instead.
AVC: What are your recollections of working with John Wayne?
EA: He kind of razzed me on the first go-round. [Laughs.] Tested me. But amazingly, I proved my mettle, and the rest of the shoot, he didn’t test me anymore.
Up (2009)—“Carl Fredricksen”
EA: I had no idea at the time how goddamned glorious it would be. It truly was wonderful. Once again, just like Oliver Stone with JFK, I had no idea what a majestic thing it would turn out to be, due to Pete Docter and Bob Peterson… but above all, Pete Docter. He’s a goddamned genius.
EA: [Laughs.] I’ve never seen Twilight. But I’m willing to go along with that.
AVC: It’s true, the setup for the film is astonishingly effective.
EA: It is. It really is. Of late, I’ve come to discuss it as being not a love story, but a double love story.
Captain Planet And The Planeteers (1990-1995)—“Hoggish Greedly”
Spider-Man (1994-1998)—“J. Jonah Jameson”
Superman (1998-2000) / Justice League (2004-2005) / Superman/Batman:
Apocalypse (2010)—“Granny Goodness”
The Boondocks (2005-2010)—“Ed Wuncler”
WordGirl (2009)—“Kid Potato”
AVC: You’ve done a lot of voice acting in recent years. In fact, you earned Emmy nods for playing Hoggish Greedly, J. Jonah Jameson, and Kid Potato.
EA: Yeah. They were all wonderful things to be engaged in.
AVC: How did you get into voice acting in the first place?
EA: Well, the first thing was Captain Planet, I think, and I guess that was kind of getting my toe wet. And then slowly but surely, more jobs kept coming my way. They’re all great fun to do. I guess the most telling thing I can tell you about the voice-acting business—and it’s kind of descriptive about show-biz in general—is that when books on tape first became all the rage, in the space of about two years, I did five or six of ’em. This one year, Playboy did a Christmas issue that had this big section on possible Christmas gifts, and they had a huge collection of reviews of books on tape. Every one I’d done was reviewed in there, each by a different critic, and they were all raves. So, y’know, I was swept off my feet. I went, “My God! The offers are gonna be coming in over the transom! This is really something!” I think it was at least a year, maybe two years, before I got another job. [Laughs.] They didn’t mean diddly-squat. I haven’t done a book, tape or otherwise, in God knows how long.
AVC: On the superhero front, you’re also a member of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
EA: Oh, yeah. Well, I guess I still am. [Laughs.] I have been, anyway.
AVC: Did you grow up as a comic-book fan?
EA: I did. I read the Classics comics. In fact, even the baseball cards we got back then were… Well, the pictures on some of them were drawn, anyway. Some of my earliest political feelings were based on the anti-Japanese bubblegum cards I got. There were also Spanish Civil War bubblegum cards. Awful. [Asner is almost certainly referring to the “Horrors Of War” bubblegum cards produced in 1938 by Gum, Inc. And he’s right: they really are awful. —ed.]
EA: That was a delightful, delightful job. Jon Favreau did a lovely job guiding us all. I didn’t know he had it in him. [Laughs.] And Will Ferrell was so steeped in his character as an elf that I was forced to be the Santa that I became. I had to do Santa that way just to keep up with Will Ferrell.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2001)—“Mr. Weiner”
EA: [Grumbles.] Well, that’s a sore point. I did that show, and I had a wonderful time working with Larry David, improv-ing and all that, getting it all down. And then a year or two later, I ran across Larry, and I said, “How come you don’t have me back?” He says… [Impression of Larry David stammering nervously.] “Well… you died!” And I thought, “What the fuck’s wrong with you? Do you ever watch TV?” I mean, I came up in TV doing three characters in one year on the same show! So I don’t know, I guess he never watched TV…
Hawaii Five-O (1975)/Hawaii Five-0 (2012)—“August March”
EA: I had done CSI: NY with Peter Lenkov, and it was a very good show, I liked it a lot. And they wanted to do more with me, and when they switched over to Hawaii Five-0, they researched the original show and came across August March, and he turned into the perfect foil.
AVC: How do you think Alex O’Loughlin stacks up against Jack Lord?
EA: Well, he was under the weather when I worked on the show, so I can’t really tell you. But as big a stiff as Jack Lord was, he evidently still compelled a lot of attention.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)/Lou Grant (1977-1982)—“Lou Grant”
AVC: Most lists cite “Chuckles Bites The Dust” as the definitive Mary Tyler Moore episode, but do you have a favorite Lou-centric installment from the show?
EA: Oh, I loved the one where Mary betrayed me and told Murray I’d slept with Sue Ann (“Once I Had A Secret Love”). I had a lot of fun on that show. But they were all memorable in some way or other. The funniest of all, though, is… We had a show where the station is owned by Slim Pickens (“The 45-Year-Old Man”). That was in the first year, I think. I think I even got fired in it, but Mary saves me by talking to Slim Pickens. George Kirgo wrote the show, and they were busy changing every goddamned thing, every line in it, to satisfy everybody. And in the end… I think he won an Emmy for that show, but hardly one of his original words was still in it. [Laughs.]
EA: Well, like a fool, I thought, “Well, they’re smart, they’re brilliant, they’ll know what to do.” Fortunately, there was no competition waiting in the wings, so we had a two-year shakedown cruise with Lou Grant, so we could find our ass with either hand.
AVC: The series is on Hulu, and it holds up very well.
EA: Yeah, well, that’s one thing you’ve got to come to expect from us: We do lasting work. [Laughs.] I think you’ll find Mary Tyler Moore holds up well, too. A lot of the problems we tackled then are still with us, unfortunately.
AVC: What are your thoughts on the current state of journalism?
EA: Well, as bad as it was during Lou Grant, it’s even worse now. Papers are hanging on by their thumbs. TV has assailed them, and cable has destroyed the cutting edge of whatever existed in commercial TV. Lots of chaos, lots of choices, and you still end up with only a few to pick. It’s sad.
AVC: Given that you did both with the character, do you have a preference of comedy vs. drama?
EA: I figure whatever drama you do, you should find the comedy to put into it. You need both. I learned a tough lesson there, one that made me realize that you can’t just hop off one train and get on the next easy as pie. We sweated bullets. Well, I did, anyway. You must always pepper it with laughs wherever you can, or Jack will be a very dull boy.