As reported by Variety, legendary actor, political activist, and—primarily to a younger generation of movie fans—voice actor Ed Asner has died. Asner played Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its more dramatic spin-off Lou Grant, with those two shows getting him five of his seven Emmy awards (a total that made him the most-honored male performer in the history of the Emmys, with only Mary Tyler Moore herself, Cloris Leachman, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus getting more trophies). Also, though he played Santa in modern holiday classic Elf, Asner’s most iconic role arguably came even more recently, with him starring as bitter old grump Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s Up. According to his publicist, who confirmed the news to Variety, the 91-year-old Asner died surrounded by his family.
Asner was born in Missouri in 1929, the child of Jewish immigrants, and didn’t start acting professionally until after he had finished serving with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the war (with which he worked as part of a touring company that put on plays for U.S. military camps in Europe). Asner moved to New York after the war and started working as a theatrical actor, landing his first Broadway role in Face Of A Hero with Jack Lemmon in the early ‘60s.
He started working in television around that same time, making memorable appearances on The Outer Limits, Route 66, and The Untouchables. It wasn’t until 1970 when he joined the cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show that he got his first longterm, regular TV gig. As Lou Grant, he was a seemingly hard-drinking and hard-edged newspaperman who papered over his inner softness with a gruff exterior as part of his transition from print journalism to TV journalism. He played Lou Grant for seven years and over 150 episodes on The Mary Tyler Moore Show before resurrecting the character for the Lou Grant spin-off.
Lou Grant was a drama, not a comedy, making Asner one of two people (the other being Uzo Aduba) to win an Emmy for playing the same character in both a comedy and a drama, and though it was a critical and commercial success, the show was unexpectedly canceled by CBS after five seasons—potentially because of Asner’s vocal support for left-wing politics. A former president of the Screen Actors Guild, Asner fought to introduce single-payer health care to California, supported Barack Obama’s initial presidential run in 2008, and was a member of the Democratic Socialists Of America.
Outside of playing Lou Grant, Asner’s other major roles include playing Captain Thomas Davies on Roots and Axel Jordache on Rich Man, Poor Man, the two roles that won him his other two Emmys. Beyond playing Carl in Up, Asner also had a long career as a voice actor, playing Roland Dagget on Batman: The Animated Series, Hudson on Gargoyles, J. Jonah Jameson on the ’90s Spider-Man cartoon, Granny Goodness on various Superman-related shows, and even as Chief Abalone on the oddly memorable Fish Police.
Ed Asner’s family made a statement via his official Twitter account, saying: “We are sorry to say that our beloved patriarch passed away this morning peacefully. Words cannot express the sadness we feel. With a kiss on your head- Goodnight dad. We love you.”
In that same Twitter account just a few weeks ago, someone asked Asner if it bothered him that he now seemed to be better known for his voicework in projects like Up than for his TV series heyday. He responded: “Different people remember me for different things and that’s great. But, the one thing I hope I am remembered for is that I tried to make the world a better place.”