On Sunday, August 29th, prolific actor and legendary Hollywood icon Ed Asner passed away at the age of 91. Anser is survived by his son, Charles, whom he shared with Carol Jean Vogelman, as well as his children Matthew, Liza, and Kate, whom he had with his ex-wife Nancy Sykes.
Asner and Sykes got married in 1959 but divorced in 1988. A decade later in 1998, Asner tied the knot with Cindy Gilmore, but that union too ended in divorce in 2015. Following the dissolution of his second marriage, Anser did not remarry.
Ed’s family confirmed that he had died at his home in Tarzana, California via Twitter but as of yet, an official cause of death has yet to be given. Most sources however list his death as being the result of natural causes.
Asner is a seven-time Emmy Award winner and is perhaps best known for playing Lou Grant on the trailblazing sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. After the Mary Tyler Moore Show wrapped up in 1977, Asner’s character, Lou Grant, received his own dramatic spin-off series, where the gruff newsman took on the biggest issues of the time.
Asner was an incredibly accomplished and reliable actor throughout his career right up until his death. In addition to his role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Asner enjoyed roles in films like Up and Elf, limited TV series like Roots and Too Big to Fall, and made regular guest appearances on contemporary shows like The Good Life, Cobra Kai, and Grace and Frankie.
When he wasn’t acting, Anser kept himself pretty busy. He served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1981 to 1985. He was also a fierce defender of causes that really spoke to him. From labor unions to animal rights to his strong views against the War in Iraq, Asner was never afraid to speak his mind and fight against what he saw as oppression, injustice, and corruption.
Whenever he could, Anser felt called to bring politics into his work as an actor. Sometimes this would alienate him from his colleagues but even that didn’t silence him. He refused to back down even when it seemed like it was him against the world.
Let’s take a look back at his life and career not just to mourn his death but to celebrate his life and all that he managed to accomplish while he was here with us.
Ed Asner’s Early Years
Ed Asner, whose birth name was Yitzhak Edward Anser, was born on November 15, 1929, in Kansas City, Missouri. His parents were Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant parents. His mother Lizzie was a housewife from Russia and his father Morris David Asner who hailed from Lithuania was the owner of a second-hand shop and junkyard.
Asner attended Wyandotte High school in Kansas City, Kansas. After graduating, he enrolled at the University of Chicago where he studied Journalism. After one of his professors informed him that there was very little money to be made in that career path, he switched to studying drama.
Asner made his debut as an actor portraying the martyr Thomas Becket in a campus production of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’. Eventually, he dropped out of school and started working as a taxi driver. Later he would work on the assembly line at General Motors while picking up other odd jobs on the side.
In 1951, Asner was drafted into the U.S. Military. He served with the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1951 to 1953 while finding time to appear in plays that toured Army bases around Europe.
After Asner was discharged from the military, he found his way back to Chicago. While he was there, he helped found the Playwrights Theater Club with his fellow up-and-coming actors Bernard Sahlins, David Shepherd, and Paul Sills.
Sahlins and Still, with the help of Howard Alk, would later found the legendary Chicago improv comedy club, Second City.
In 1955, Asner left Chicago and relocated to New York when the Playwrights Theatre Club changed its name to the Compass Players and began performing improvisational theater which he had very little interest in taking part in.
Once in New York, Asner began performing in Off-Broadway productions. Most notably, Asner played Peachum, the boss of the beggars in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera which ran from 1955 to 1961.
Asner left the big apple behind in 1961 and relocated to Los Angeles where he started acting on television.
He appeared on numerous television programs throughout the 1960s. Some of these credits included roles in series like Naked City, The Untouchables, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Slattery’s People.
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And don’t go anywhere just yet. Stay tuned to see what political and humanitarian causes Ed Asner spent much of his time fighting for.
Asner’s Breakout Role And Ensuing Fame
Asner scored his big break in 1970 when he was cast as Lou Grant in the sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. On that program, Asner performed with an ensemble cast that included the likes of stars like Betty White, Gavin Macleod, Ted Knight, Cloris Leachman, and Valerie Harper.
Asner’s character, Lou Grant, was the headstrong but loveable boss of a local TV news station where Mary Richards, played by the one and only Mary Tyler Moore, worked. Asner’s signature husky voice and stocky build made him the perfect casting choice to portray his character.
As we already touched on, Asner won three Emmy Awards for his performances on the series throughout its seven seasons. Lou Grant was in fact such a popular character that when The Mary Tyler Moore Show came to an end in 1977, he was given his very own eponymous spin-off series which ran from 1977 to 1982. Lou Grant was a bit of a departure from The Mary Tyler Moore Show as it moved away from comedy, instead taking on a more dramatic tone. Asner won an additional two Emmys for his role in that series.
From Roots To The President Of The Screen Actors Guild
In 1977, Anser was given the role of Thomas Davies, a slave-ship captain on the groundbreaking mini-series Roots which was based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
Anser’s Thomas Davies was a sympathetic white character who was meant to soften the viewing experience for the hard-hitting miniseries. Asner, once again, won another Emmy for his performance.
In 1981, Asner was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild. He used that position which he held for four years, as a way to better express his political views. Perhaps his biggest agenda point was fighting to minimize the U.S. Governments involvement in Central America.
Taking this position didn’t exactly earn him many allies and it’s well documented how his activism put him at odds with fellow SAG member Charlton Heston.
Asner’s political activism incidentally coincided with the cancellation of Lou Grant. While the network denied the accusation, Asner believed that it was his political beliefs that led to CBS’ axing of that series.
Asner Was A 9/11 ‘Truther’
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Asner voiced support for some 9/11-related conspiracy theories. In 2004, he signed a joint statement released by the conspiracy theorist organization 9/11 Truth which included a call for a new investigation into various elements of the attacks that he took issue with.
Asner reaffirmed his support for the statement in 2009, the same year that he narrated the documentary film The Oil Factor: Behind the War on Terror.
In 2011, Anser hosted the Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth documentary which focused on the collapse of World Trade Center building 7. In that film, he argued for the controversial fringe theory that the building was brought down by some kind of controlled demotion.
The Post Lou Grant Era
Even though the television program that he headlined had come to a conclusion, Asner’s TV and movie offers did not slow down. Throughout the 1980s, Asner appeared in eight made-for-TV movies and was given the starring role in two television series; Off The Rock, which ran for two seasons from 1984 to 1985, and The Bronx Zoo, a primetime drama that ran from 1987 to 1988.
In the 90s, Anser performed in numerous films and TV shows. Most notably, he portrayed a retired race car driver in the television series, Thunder Alley, from 1994 to 1995. During these years, Anser also worked as a voice actor for shows like Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Batman: The Animated Series, and Gargoyles – just to name a few.
Following the dawn of the new millennium, Anser continued to appear in TV shows and films. Some of his most notable credits from this chapter of his life were 2006s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, 2019s Dead to Me, and 2003s Elf in which he portrayed Santa Clause.
In 2009, Asner provided the voice for Carl Fredricksen, the lead character in Disney-Pixar’s Academy Award-winning animated film Up. In 2014, he reprised his role as Santa Claus in the animated reboot of Elf, Elf; Buddy’s Musical Christmas.
Asner holds the record for being the man who’s amassed the most Primetime Emmys for acting, with a total of seven awards. Overall, he’s tied for second with actresses Allison Jenney, Julie Louis-Dreyfus, and his former co-star Mary Tyler Moore. The only person who has won more primetime Emmy Awards for acting than he has is Cloris Leachman.
Ed Anser’s Activism
While Anser’s primary passion in life was acting, he was also very much so a humanitarian. He believed in justice, egalitarianism, and equal opportunity for all. Throughout his life, Asner joined forces with several nonprofit organizations to help try and make the world a better place.
Asner was on the Entertainment Board of Directors for The Survivor Mitzvah Project, a nonprofit dedicated to providing direct aid to elderly and impoverished survivors of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. He was also a member of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a free-speech organization that is committed to protecting comic book creators and retailers from prosecutions based on content.
Asner was additionally an advisor for the Rosenberg Fund for children, a nonprofit founded by the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which provides benefits for the children of political activists. As an animal rights activist, Asner sat on the board of the wildlife conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife.
In 2017, Asner was the master of ceremonies at a volunteer dinner held by Humane Borders, an organization based out of Tucson, Arizona, that maintains water stations in the Sonoran desert that are meant to be used by undocumented immigrants.
While it’s always sad to learn that a legendary Hollywood heavyweight like Ed Anser has died, it’s important to keep his legacy alive by remembering who he was, what he stood for, and what he managed to accomplish while he was alive.
Ed Asner was more than just an accomplished actor. He was a man of deep convictions and had a heart overflowing with compassion and empathy. While not everyone is going to agree with all of his political and ideological beliefs, no one can say that Ed Asner wasn’t dedicated. He put the needs and struggles of others above his own, and that’s precisely how he’s going to be remembered.
Which one of Ed Anser’s TV shows did you enjoy more, The Mary Tyler Moore Show or its spin-off, Lou Grant? Let us know in the comments section below.
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