Millennials know him as Santa Claus in Elf (2003) or Carl the main character in the animated Oscar-winning feature Up (2009), but seven-time Emmy Award winning actor Ed Asner will always be best known for his role 'Lou Grant', first on the sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then the spinoff hour-long newspaper drama Lou Grant, whose first season was finally released last month in the U.S. on DVD.
Still active as a working actor who turns 87 in November, IMDB lists Asner as being involved in 18 projects in the first half of 2016. Some are full-length films, while others are TV pilots or documentaries. He's non-plussed by all the offers, noting some never get completed or are in various stages of financing or production.
"I give them my name to help sell the picture," says Asner, who is getting honored with a lifetime achievement award July 23 at the International Film Expo in Bellmore, NY, where My Friend Ed, the hour-long 2014 documentary about him being an activist who refuses to budge on his ideals no matter what anyone thinks will be screened, followed by a Q&A.
His outspokenness in the early 1980s about American military intervention in Central America is thought to have resulted in the cancellation in Lou Grant by CBS after five seasons in the Top 10.
Ed Asner in 'Lou Grant'
"I carry great guilt about the loss of jobs by my fellow actors, writers, producers, crew - all the people I loved and appreciated: my words supposedly being the target of the cancellation [of Lou Grant]," says Asner, who I first interviewed in November 1982 for Rolling Stone. At the time, he believed he was blacklisted for his anti-Reagan political views, but would stand by his principles, even knowing what he knows today.
"All I know is I was chosen as the patsy to be the target by Charlton Heston and his stuntmen and day players who followed him sheep-like, attacking me for what I believed in," he says, somewhat bitterly. "I said to that [Lou Grant] producer of mine, 'What do you want me to do when they attack me as an enemy of the state. You want me to shut up?' It was impossible for me to shut up. Interestingly enough, my agent at the time, Jack Fields, thought my career was finished. The fact that I responded verbally to the verbal attacks, he thought kept me alive. So here I am today."
Asner believes the full truth is not known about 9/11, and less controversially he is active in Autism Speaks, a nonprofit that sponsors autism research and conducts awareness and outreach activities aimed at families, governments, and the public. Asner has a son and a grandson who are autistic.
Asner is still a loud voice in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), for which he served two terms as president 1981-1985, and vehemently opposed its merger in 2012 with American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), unsuccessfully suing to stop the merger. In another pending case against Actors' Equity, he served as lead plaintiff, objecting to producers' right to pay performers as little as $7 per performance.
Regarding his octogenarian lifestyle, he watches what he eats and explains his "eight hip surgeries" prevent much mobility. "My left leg is shorter and I can't do a lot of walking." Still he manages a half hour every day for exercise on an elliptical bicycle.
Asked why it took Lou Grant so long to come out on DVD, Asner believes, "It was regarded as an ideas show. It was canceled under a cloud of controversy. People who finance these things were afraid to touch it. Also, it's not the Mary Tyler Moore Show; it's not going to be a big smash, flood of sales."
Asner is depressed by the current state of American politics. He supported for president "the Jewish Socialist" (i.e., Bernie Sanders), a label that could he easily apply to him. "At least the Jewish Socialist made a splash among the electorate and the young. Of the young, it'd be nice if we could all learn from them. I find society itself quite depressing. Our rotting infrastructure, our military industrial complex is always with us. The leading democratic candidate is happy to dance jigs for the banks. Mr. Bill [Clinton] is probably in the background pulling the strings. Our selection of candidates drops even lower than ever. It's a joke."
On what he's most proud of in his career, Asner responds: "The fact I could get by in comedy is a great achievement."
His standard in choosing roles has not changed. "I like to play a real human being, not a character with no redeeming value. Someone who you can love and some who you can hate."