Working His Way Up to Gigantic
by Jay S. Jacobs
It seems like we have been watching Edward Asner all of our lives – and for many of us that is the case.
In a Hollywood career that has spanned five decades, Asner has been a ubiquitous presence in film, television and animation.
He has appeared in 76 films over the years, including Fort Apache: The Bronx, El Dorado. They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!, JFK, Hard Rain, The Bachelor and Elf. He was also in two of the biggest mini-series in television history – Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots. He has been a regular presence on TV series such as The Practice, Studio 60 on Sunset Strip, ER, Thunder Alley and The Closer. He has done voice-over work on dozens of cartoon series including Spider-Man, Superman and The Adventures of Batman & Robin.
And, of course, he is best known for that cantankerous newsman Lou Grant – first on the legendary sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show and later in the spin off drama named for the character.
However, for all of the great moments that character had, for all the intriguing roles Asner has played in 50-some years as an actor, it seems that every time you see a retrospective with Asner in it, they always play the same almost 40-year-old scene. That iconic moment is when a dour newsman named Lou Grant first meets with a bright-eyed wannabe producer named Mary Richards on the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
So be straight with us, Ed Asner. Do you ever go a day without people repeating the “I hate spunk” line to you?
“I’m afraid not,” Asner acknowledges good naturedly.
However, Asner doesn’t live in the past and things are changing.
“I find so many autograph seekers, etc., who are approaching me not for Mary Tyler Moore but for my cartoon work on cartoon series,” Asner says.
So now the actor, who will turn 80 in November 2009, is enjoying a continued streak of interesting projects with two new movies – of differing statures – hitting theaters in the next couple of months. First comes his performance as a mushroom-taking, gangsta-rap loving elderly father in the quirky indie romantic comedy Gigantic with Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, John Goodman and Jane Alexander. He follows that up with the lead role in what will probably be one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer – the Pixar animated fable Up.
Gigantic was a labor of love for Asner, who felt upon reading the script that “it was clever. It was charming. It was sweet.”
In the film, Asner plays the much older father of Ben (played by Paul Dano), a quiet and depressive mattress salesman who is looking for love and trying to adopt an Asian baby as a single man in modern New York. Asner’s character is quirky, hard-edged but loving. He is also – in a bit of a departure for Asner as an actor – high most of the time.
“Oh, that wasn’t high,” Asner laughs. “I could show you high! He needs whatever you saw on that film.”
Well he was looking for magic mushrooms all the time…
“Yes. We found them, though,” Asner laughs again. “And we enjoyed them.”
Asner also enjoyed working with his young co-star. Dano, following up his breakout role in There Will Be Blood, not only acts in Gigantic but was one of the producers.
“I had seen that movie and I thought he was lovely,” Asner says. “He’s absolutely lovely. I have no complaints whatsoever. Success hasn’t gone to his head. We’re two very different types of actors and yet in our scenes together, I thought we blended well.”
It is an interesting father/son dynamic, because like as is pointed out in the film, Asner’s character was a lot older when he had Ben. It was almost more like a grandfather/grandson dynamic.
“It was very natural because I have a young son myself,” Asner says. “How quick he challenges me so that it’s difficult to even stay as a father, let alone grandfather.”
Asner’s wife is played by the acclaimed actress (and former head of the National Endowment for the Arts) Jane Alexander.
“Wasn’t she great in this thing?” Asner asks, enthusiastically.
Though Alexander’s role is rather small, she does have one show-stopping moment with Deschanel.
“On the balcony…,” Asner agrees. “The best scene in the movie.”
In fact that tiny taste of Alexander makes the audience hunger for more of her. Did Asner get to do more scenes with the actress which may show up on the DVD bonuses?
“Not that I recall,” Asner replies. “I’ve only seen the film once. And I have a malfunctioning memory.”
However, if Gigantic brings Asner back in front of the art-house crowd, he has a potential smash on his hands – playing the lead role of the crotchety Carl Fredrickson in Pixar’s animated fantasy Up.
In the film, Asner plays an elderly balloon salesman who has always wondered if he could use his balloons to lift his home to the sky and travel the world. However, when he finally tries this out, he finds that he got an inadvertent stowaway with a neighborhood boy.
“I think it’s one of the sweetest movies to come down the pike,” Asner says, enthusiastically. “I supposed if it gets attacked, it may get attacked for being sentimental. But I think people will be very nicely touched by it. It’s a love story between an old man and a little kid.”
Therefore Asner is getting a great introduction to an entirely new generation of viewers. Small children whose parents weren’t even born when Lou Grant first appeared on television now know who he is. Asner is honored by the opportunity – one that he has been working at for years. At this point in his career, he does almost as much voice work as he does live action. It is a different style of acting – and one he has found that has some very nice perks.
“Well, you don’t have to shave,” Asner chuckles. “It’s quick. And I get enormous pleasure out of it. I get enormous pleasure out of doing books [on tape]. I used to do a lot of books. I did five of Carl Hiaassen’s books. It’s a wonderful challenge, but I don’t get the offers anymore. I guess they’re getting them done cheaper someplace else. The authors are doing a lot of their work now.”
Beyond books on tape, Asner has also been a huge part in the “Novels for television” – the miniseries. In the 70s, Asner was in two of the defining projects for the art form, playing the Captain of the slave ship which brought Kunta Kinte to America in Roots and also taking the role of family patriarch Axel Jordache in Rich Man, Poor Man. In fact, that role turned out to be a defining part in his career.
“I had an epiphany on that,” Asner says. “I did not expect that I would end up doing that character. I was surprised they wanted me. Once I got it, I so identified with the man. I loved the man. I pitied the man. And I lived and breathed the man, I think more than any other character I played.”
In fact, Asner misses the miniseries format, one that he thinks is overdue for a resurrection.
“Well when I tried to sell a new miniseries to Brandon Stoddard (former President of ABC Entertainment, who backed many of the biggest miniseries), he was at ABC at the time, and he said, ‘They don’t make money.’ I looked at him in disbelief that he could possibly stand there with a straight face and tell me that. I could not believe it. I don’t know. I have nothing to prove it with, so I’ll let it go at that. I was shocked when he said it and I still don’t believe it.”
Another way that Asner has courted a family audience over the years is that he has done an extraordinary amount of holiday films – including playing Santa Claus twice on film. Asner enjoys doing the films, even though it may have been a little bit of a culture shock for the man who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home.
“Well, the jobs are offered me,” Asner reasons. “The offers just come. I guess my rotundity makes it easy for me to be Santa Claus. I look like I enjoy a good, hearty meal of turkey and ham and cranberries and stuffing and pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie and all that jazz. I’m the holiday type.”
However, no matter how many intriguing roles Asner has taken in his career, there is still one that people think of when his name is mentioned. Lou Grant will be synonymous with Asner for the rest of his life. Asner is okay with that, there are worse things to be remembered for. Still, he has to admit, when he was hired for the role, he had no clue that the role would become iconic.
“I had no idea,” Asner says. “All I knew was the character I was asked to play was one of the most exciting characters I had been offered in the nine years I had been in Hollywood. As I saw succeeding scripts and was delighted by their craftsmanship and their humor. I thought it didn’t matter if they cancelled us after the first thirteen or not. I will at least have had this opportunity to do this type of quality.”
Thirteen episodes turned into seven seasons, and the Mary Tyler Moore Show became one of the great ensembles in television history – with Asner, Moore, Betty White, Ted Knight, Georgia Engel, Gavin MacLeod, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman and many others shifting in and out of the newsroom of WJM-TV.
“They were fantastic,” Asner recalls. “It was seven years on the yellow brick road. We would resort to petty jealousies and minor paranoia from time to time, but nothing that was ever major or dominated.”
Then, after MTM went out on top, Asner was offered an unprecedented opportunity, to reinvent his character in the series Lou Grant – going from a comedy to an hour-long drama.Grant left the Minneapolis TV station to return to his newspaper roots for a Los Angeles daily. The show lasted five seasons and was critically acclaimed but looking back Asner admits making that leap was a bittersweet experience.
“Well it would have been exciting if it hadn’t been so horrifying,” Asner says. “It was something that had never been done before, and after the agony I had to go through, it probably will never be done again. It got me that wonderful credit of the only character to win Emmys for comedy and for drama, and so forth and so on, but it’s an enormous switch. It made life so difficult. So difficult. We were finding our sea legs for two years. It would have been cancelled earlier, CBS said, had we not won a lot of Emmys in our first year and had CBS not been caught flatfooted without anything to replace us with. They stuck with us, and we grew, and it certainly meant a lot to thinking people. But it was an agony to have to go through as an actor.”
Well, what is it they say? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. After about 50 years in Hollywood, Asner is pretty strong.
Still, after all of these years, Asner still has his career in perspective. When asked how he’d like for people to look at his career, Asner is quiet for a moment, gathering his thoughts. Then he chuckles softly.
“He made the most of it.”
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 2, 2009.
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