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Ed Asner died Sunday, Aug. 29 at the age of 91.
One need look no further than his IMDb page to see a legacy, especially on the small screen, that stretches from the sponsored TV anthologies of the ’50s and ’60s (Kraft Theatre, Play of the Week, etc.) to guest turns on nearly every imaginable classic TV drama (from The Untouchables to Dr. Kildare to The Fugitive). In the ’70s, Asner had the most decorated run that any TV actor has ever experienced, winning five Emmys for his performance as grouchy and dogged editor Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then Lou Grant, as well as a pair of Emmys for the iconic Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man.
As peaks go, you can’t top Asner’s work in the ’70s, when, in addition to the unprecedented Emmy wins in both drama and comedy categories as Lou Grant, he found a way to make appearances on shows including Mod Squad and Police Story and Hawaii Five-0. Ed Asner loved being an actor, and his next three decades of work trace the media’s evolution from broadcast-centric to the expanded parameters of cable to the ubiquitous world of streaming. The way to have a career that stretches from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Cobra Kai is to never stop working.
Dozens upon dozens of shows, from generic procedurals and schlocky sitcoms to memorable hits and franchises, were improved by Asner’s expert comic timing and committed intensity. From Dead to Me to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to Grace and Frankie to Briarpatch, I never saw a show that didn’t benefit from an Asner cameo. And I’m betting that extends to shows I don’t watch that he appeared in, among them Criminal Minds, Blue Bloods and CSI: NY, on which he made an Emmy-nominated appearance. It was easy to see some of Asner’s seemingly random cameos and go, “What on earth is Ed Asner doing here?” The answer was always some version of “Remaining active and making TV better.”
And that’s before getting to the generation that he reduced to tears and laughter by voicing the hero of Pixar’s Up, or the countless animated shows — from Gargoyles to The Boondocks to Central Park — that feature his dulcet gruffness.
Until the weeks before his death, Asner was still giving spirited interviews, tweeting up a storm, and, more than anything, working. He’ll be seen and heard in shows for months and possibly years to come.
That legacy would, I’m sure, please Ed Asner, but I’m just as sure he would want equal measure given to his activism, because that’s another place where his spirit will be felt well into the future. And it’s there that his passion, dedication and often rage helped shape the lives of everybody in the industry.
Asner’s status as a high-profile figure on the picket line during the 1980 Screen Actors Guild strike led to two terms as president of SAG, during which time he shifted the guild’s advocacy away from its more conservative roots under leaders like Charlton Heston and Ronald Reagan. He was a thorn in Reagan’s side on the national stage as well, taking the White House’s policies in El Salvador to task in a public way that rankled the SAG members who believed he represented the organization even when he spoke as an individual. He blamed the cancellation of Lou Grant in 1982 on his support for leftist rebels in the Central American country (though it’s hard to argue that the show’s ratings weren’t also down).
After his presidency, Asner remained outspoken on a variety of union issues. He bluntly condemned the merger of SAG with AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) in 2012, warning that it would hurt the SAG health plan. Eight years later, he led a group of SAG members suing over changes to that health plan, alleging age bias. He was front and center when the Screen Actors Guild evicted Donald Trump earlier this year, having been amply candid about his opposition to all things Trump throughout that presidential administration.
He supported a variety of free-speech causes and medical support charities, led the charge for humane treatment of immigrants at our border with Mexico, and sat on the boards of charities related to autism awareness and wildlife conservation. He was also a very visible skeptic of the official government narrative on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, so perhaps not all causes can be winners.
By all means, remember Ed Asner as the spunk-hating, stealthily sympathetic defender of journalistic integrity from Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore (and Rhoda). Remember the way he made your heart break as the embodiment of the enduring (and ephemeral, free-floating) power of love in Up. Remember the myriad episodes he stole with acidic quips and craggy gravity. But don’t forget his crusades on behalf of low-earning guild members, the political candidates he campaigned for, the causes he brought into the light with his star power. TV today wouldn’t be the same without his beloved (and lovably flawed) characters, nor would the industry be the same without his tireless and vocal presence.
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