At 91, Ed Asner has fully earned the right to the cranky-old-man archetype he’s been mining most of his career.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Asner discovered acting while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, where he appeared in plays. After his service, he joined Playwrights Theatre Company in Chicago. He then moved to New York City, where he worked with the earliest incarnation of The Second City in 1959. By 1960, he was appearing on Broadway opposite Jack Lemmon in the legal drama Face of a Hero. TV soon came calling, with Asner landing everyman and cop parts in shows like Mission: Impossible and The Fugitive. But it was his role as Lou Grant, the gruff, lovable newsroom boss on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that made Asner a household name.
He was Emmy-nominated six times for his supporting work on that CBS sitcom, and won three times — in 1971, 1972 and 1976. He then took the unprecedented route of spinning the character off into an hourlong drama, Lou Grant, which put Lou in charge of a newspaper. The show earned him five noms, including wins in 1978 and 1980 for outstanding lead actor in a drama series. (That feat — winning for the same role in both a comedy and a drama — has been accomplished by only one other actor: Uzo Aduba for Orange Is the New Black. And that was simply a category change; the show remained the same.)
The show itself won outstanding drama series in 1979 and 1980. Asner shone in many more roles after that: There was Captain Davies, the morally conflicted slave ship seaman in 1977’s Roots; and Axel Jordache, father of a down-and-out boxer (Nick Nolte) in the 1976 ABC miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man. Both roles earned him Emmys. Years later, he would charm a generation of kids and their parents by voicing the very Ed Asner-like Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s 2009 feature, Up. Asner still delights his fans on his Twitter feed, @TheOnlyEdAsner. He recently deadpanned to someone who thought he was dead: “Not yet.”
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.