Don’t expect Ed Asner’s name to fade from casting lists any time soon. With a variety of current and upcoming projects, the 86-year-old remains as busy and versatile as ever.
“I’m continuing with my one-man show, ‘A Man and His Prostate,’ ” said Asner from his office in Los Angeles. “I’m doing several nights in Chicago in September and more next year in New York and Florida. I’m also in a comedy short with Jean Smart called ‘Getting Ed Laid,’ which is being featured at film festivals.”
It’s a trend that follows a lifetime of dedication to his craft, playing bishops, doctors, judges, cops, cowboys, professors, villains and hundreds more film, television and stage characters as well as voice roles.
“When I came out to Hollywood in 1961, I was determined not to be typecast,” recalled Asner. “My agent and I worked assiduously ever since to make sure that never happened.”
Nevertheless, Asner is still widely recognized as Lou Grant, the TV news director and newspaper editor, respectively, on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoff series “Lou Grant.” In fact, five of his seven Primetime Emmys were awarded for the character.
Yet he modestly brushes aside any reference to his hefty collection of the iconic gold-plated figures.
“They’re distributed throughout the house,” Asner said of his statuettes. “Those prongs are really sharp. I just have to be sure I don’t sit on one.”
Before arriving in Hollywood from his native Kansas City, Kan., young Asner found one of his first television jobs in the New York anthology drama series “Studio One.” In 1957, he appeared in the episode “The Night America Trembled,” a re-creation of the reputed panic caused by Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.”
Asner wrote home enthusiastically to his mother and brothers.
“I told them of my wonderful good fortune because I really thought I was about to strike it big,” he said. “My brother even conned the local Kansas City newspaper into writing an article on how I was about to become a big star.”
But his prediction of fame was just a little premature.
“It turned out my character was one of the radio players and didn’t even have a name — we were just credited as First Actor, Second Actor and so on. I was nowhere near the leading actor I had hoped, so it was a big embarrassment.”
His fortune would eventually change. The ’60s brought movie roles alongside the likes of Boris Karloff, John Wayne and Elvis Presley.
Asner worked with Elvis twice, in 1962’s “Kid Galahad” and “Change of Habit,” in 1969, the latter starring Mary Tyler Moore who would soon rocket to fame in her own show with Asner.
“I actually never saw Mary on the film because we had different scenes. I fleetingly watched her on the ‘Dick Van Dyke Show,’ but never thought she would turn into the talented powerhouse that she became.”
After working with Moore, Asner took the lead in his own show in 1977 — a rare network move to spin off a one-hour drama series from a half-hour comedy. But “Lou Grant” eventually found an audience and good ratings during its five-season run.
When the series was suddenly canceled in 1982, Asner believed it was due to his political views and activism. His left-leaning philosophy even managed to rankle liberal Hollywood.
When asked to sum up his career, he offers a one-word description: “eclectic,” adding “I was always happy with the variety of roles I was able to garner. But I’m not through yet.”
Nick Thomas has written features, columns, and interviews for more than 600 magazines and newspapers. See TinseltownTalks.com.