Ed Asner’s Legacy: The TV Icon Reflects on ‘Mary Tyler Moore,’ ‘Lou Grant,’ ‘Elf’ & More
TV fans across the world are mourning the death of beloved actor Ed Asner, who passed away on August 29 at the age of 91. The star never really stopped working despite his advanced years and granted one of his final interviews to TV Insider in May last year.
In a wide-ranging chat, the 7-time Primetime Emmy Award-winning actor discussed current projects that had been put on hold due to the COVID-19 production shutdown. He also looked back at his amazing career and life, including his landmark role of loveable newsman Lou Grant who he played in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and Lou Grant (1977-82).
Asner also reflected on his role as German immigrant Axel Jordache in the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man, his memorable portrayal of Santa Claus in the Will Farrell film Elf, and more. You can learn about what made him tick in his memoir Son of Junkman: My Life from the West Bottoms of Kansas City to the Bright Lights of Hollywood.”
But for now, enjoy our interview.
“Ask me anything,” Asner said in a jovial tone as we sat down with him.
So we did…
Was The Mary Tyler Moore Show your first series regular role?
Ed Asner: I had signed on for a series or two prior to that but they never came to be. I did a series with Richard Crenna [called Slattery’s Law]. I was a court reporter, amazingly enough. Supposedly, my character was the conscience of the series but it already that a conscience with Richard Crenna as the star. It didn’t work out. There was another series, a comedy, that I signed on for but that didn’t go either.
Did you know The Mary Tyler Moore Show was something special from the beginning?
(Wryly) We thought we were pretty hot, pretty good.
It was a challenge satisfying the network and various other people. But once we got started, I didn’t have any worries. They canceled shows right and left back then…you can’t count your chickens.
You had that great line in the pilot to Mary after Lou hired her as associate producer: ‘If I don’t like you, I’ll fire you. And if you don’t like me…I’ll fire you!’ That perfectly encapsulated the loveable but gruff Lou Grant. Is there an episode you’re asked about more than others?
The one in which Chuckles the Clown died always gets a large return. Also, the ones where Lou slept with Sue Ann [Betty White] and the one where Lou and Rhoda [Valerie Harper] went out together.
Lou and Mary also had one date but they burst out laughing after trying a kiss. She couldn’t even call him…
“Louuuu…” (Wryly) I was minding my P’s and Q’s for seven years. I expected a bigger return than a kiss!
While you were doing The Mary Tyler Moore Show, you also filmed the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man, playing Axel Jordache a hardworking German immigrant baker and father to Rudy (Peter Strauss) and Tom (Nick Nolte). He was extremely tough but when Tom’s French teacher, Miss Lenaut (Golden Globe winner Josette Banzet), called Axel in for a meeting because Tom had sketched a naked picture of her, Axel stood up for his son using wit and anger.
I’d read the book by Irwin Shaw and I loved it. I didn’t think I was right for the part and I didn’t expect to be cast as the father but who am I to say no to greatness – (wryly) or executive producer Harve Bennett? The teleplay was even better than the book, I thought. In the book, Axel’s scene with the French teacher was over Rudy. But in the TV show I did it for Tommy. Later, Tommy gets in trouble again and Axel goes to California to help him.
Everyone thought Axel was a brutal husband but he broke up a fight between his two boys. After that, he came back into his bedroom where his wife [Mary, played by Dorothy McGuire] is muttering a prayer. I respond, ‘Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and you. Four saints. One bed. One too many for me.’ I don’t remember that scene in the book but scenes like that made the mini-series so rich. They combined a few characters into one that Susan Blakely (Julie) played. I loved that.
Did you have a stunt double for when Tom punched his dad and he fell into the glass pastry case?
Of course. Insurance! You were so ensconced in people’s minds as Lou Grant at the time but you won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series for playing Axel.
That was my proudest moment.
Do you think that Rich Man, Poor Man gave birth to the miniseries?
There had been a couple before but I’m not sure they stayed in people’s minds like Rich Man, Poor Man did.
Seven years is an impressive run but viewers weren’t ready to say goodbye to Mary, Lou, and everyone at WJM-TV in 1977. Did you feel The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended at the right time?
I felt we had at least another year. The two producers – Allan Burns and Jim Brooks – felt it was time to end. They felt they’d done everything they could with it, but who knows? I never heard that Mary agreed with [the decision]. All of the supporting actors would have done another year. I know I certainly would have.
You took Lou Grant from a half-hour comedy series to an hour-long drama series (Lou Grant). How did that come about?
We knew we were going to end [the sitcom]. I needed to get a commitment from the network that they wanted me [for another series] and we got that. I wanted Allan [Burns] and Jim [Brooks] for my [new] series which I thought would be a comedy. I said, ‘I’d like them if they’re willing.’ They said yes.
A few weeks later, Jim came to me and said, ‘I’d like to try a show using my experience at a newspaper and do an hour show.’ I was naïve and said, ‘Fine by me.’ I felt they could do no wrong and actually, I was correct. They worked hard to create the reality of Lou Grant and they brought on [executive producer] Gene Reynolds [M*A*S*H] and a lot of other good people.
We had three cameras on the sitcom and there’s only one in a drama. They crew can’t really laugh. I can’t laugh. I was in therapy at the time and asked [my therapist], ‘What do you think of the show?’ He said, ‘Why do you grimace so much?’ That struck me like a lightning bolt. There were still laugh lines in the show. Each time one was read, I was grimacing to the audience as if to say, ‘It’s okay to laugh.’ But I stopped grimacing immediately.
You write in your memoir Son of Junkman that Nancy Marchand (Mrs. Pynchon, Lou Grant) had to be the “best actress that ever came down the pike.”
Yes. She found her character by the second episode and was great ever since. We had a scene in [an episode in] which Mrs. Pynchon hired an efficiency expert and she was bugging the hell out of me and Charlie Hume [Mason Adams]. It came down to the expert or me. Mrs. Pynchon chose me. There was a moment of suspense where you didn’t know how she was going to decide. That showed what a great actress Nancy was.
We did a master shot, a two-shot, an over-the-shoulder shot, and then a close-up. Each time we shot the scene, she became more and more defined and more and more definite. Each speech was different, more and more ostensibly stronger. By the time we got to the closeup, there was no indecision. Shooting that experience was when I regarded her as the best actress on television.
An extra on a TV show told me once that they offered to let you go in front of them in line when people were getting dinner and you said, ‘No, you stay where you are. We’re all doing a job here.’
I may have said that. I believe in the truth of that.
You not only have more Primetime Emmy wins than any other (male) actor but you’ve also won statues for playing the same part (Lou Grant) in a comedy and a drama.
The basics are there [with the character] so, you just build on them.
Did you always want to be an actor?
I started out in high school as a feature page editor [at our school newspaper]. I had a beautiful teacher who’d come back from World War II. One day, he walked by my desk, stopped, looked at me, and asked me if I was thinking of pursuing journalism as a career. I said, ‘Oh, yes! Yes!’ I was thinking of going to University of Missouri or the University of Kansas. He said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t.’ I asked, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘You can’t make a living at it.’ And that was in 1947! If it was that bleak then, can you imagine what it’s like now?
Santa Claus has been portrayed by so many actors. How did you make your performance as the character in Elf so memorable?
Well…I didn’t set out to make him memorable. Jon Favreau [Elf’s director] was a big help. I have to say Jon is brilliant. Santa gives Will Farrell’s character this speech on what to do and what not to do [when he goes to New York]. That’s when I saw that [Santa] was as much of a real guy that you could ever ask for. He says, ‘Don’t pick the gum off the street’ and ‘This pizza is better than that pizza.’ From then on, it was easy to treat him like he’s just this regular guy.
What was your experience doing a one-man show – A Man and his Prostate?
Ed Weinberger, who was a writer and producer on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, worked for Johnny Carson [The Tonight Show], and executive produced a number of comedy shows, wrote my one-man show. I guess he had me in mind. It was beautifully put together. It paints a real person.
You love to work.
I do. I do. I take energy from working. Doing a one-man show is a pain in the ass and I hate to travel but once I get there, I take energy from the show.