Ed Asner, the prolific character actor and seven-time Emmy winner best known for playing Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, died Sunday at his home in Tarzana, California, The New York Times reports. He was 91.
Asner’s death was confirmed by his family on Twitter, though no cause was given. “We are sorry to say that our beloved patriarch passed away this morning peacefully,” the Asner family said. “Words cannot express the sadness we feel. With a kiss on your head — Goodnight dad. We love you.”
We are sorry to say that our beloved patriarch passed away this morning peacefully. Words cannot express the sadness we feel. With a kiss on your head- Goodnight dad. We love you.
— Ed Asner (@TheOnlyEdAsner) August 29, 2021
Asner was a consummate working actor throughout his career up until his death. Along with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, he had roles in films like Up and Elf, TV mini-series like Roots and Too Big to Fail, and constant guest appearances on shows such as The Good Wife, Grace and Frankie and even Cobra Kai.
On top of his acting work, Asner served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1981 to 1985. He was an outspoken activist for labor unions and animal rights; he raised money to support the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal; and he was a fierce critic of the War in Iraq. When he could, Asner was compelled to bring politics into his work as an actor: After The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Asner’s character, Lou Grant, was given a more dramatic spin-off, where the brusque newsman tackled the issues of the day.
“I knew, at the time, that we were doing exceptional and important work that had the power to make changes in our world. That may sound egotistical; it was, after all, just a television show,” Asner wrote in the foreword to a book about the show by Douglass K. Daniel (via The Washington Post). “Consider, though, that a prime-time show reaches 40 million homes. Lou Grant has been seen in 72 countries; in many of them, the very idea of freedom of the press is amazing. That kind of power gives my industry an obligation to be responsible for what we produce, and, in that regard, Lou Grant was exemplary.”
Asner was born November 15th, 1929 in Kansas City, Missouri, became interested in drama at a young age, and spent a year-and-a-half at the University of Chicago before dropping out to pursue acting. After a stint in the Army, he spent the Fifties doing stage work and television in New York City and Chicago, but his career really got off the ground after moving to Los Angeles in the early Sixties.
Asner’s earliest work was largely in TV dramas, and he racked up credits on the serialized classics of the day, like The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, Mission: Impossible and Ironside. As he would later say, he largely avoided comedy because drama was an easier way to get discovered, but when he was offered the chance to audition for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, he took it, calling Lou Grant in an Archive of American Television interview, “the best character I’d ever been asked to do.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran for seven seasons, and Asner won three Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy. He also picked up Emmys for his work on Roots and another mini-series, Rich Man, Poor Man, and later won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Lou Grant (he won a handful of Golden Globes for the same shows, as well).
Along with his scores of television and film roles, Asner did regular voiceover work on an array of animated shows, from Batman and Spider-Man series, to American Dad and The Boondocks. He recently reprised his role as Carl from Up for the upcoming Disney+ spin-off series, Dug Days, which will premiere September 1st.
In what would become his final interview, conducted earlier this month with The Hollywood Reporter, Asner reflected on his career and seemed eager to keep working, even though the offers had slowed both due to the pandemic and his age. “I sit here most of the time, bored as hell, not sure which way to turn,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m waiting for the next gig, and they’re slower in coming in now, I can tell you.” When asked what he still had on his bucket list, Asner cracked: “I haven’t climbed Suribachi! No, I think just ensuring that I’ve left enough for the family.”