Eddie Asner (/ˈæznər/; born November 15, 1929), known generally as Ed Asner, is an American actor, voice artist, and a former president of the Screen Actors Guild. He is perhaps best known for his role as Lou Grant during the 1970s and early 1980s, on both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off series Lou Grant, making him one of the few television actors to portray the same character in both a comedy and a drama. He is the most honored male performer in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awards, having won seven – five for portraying Lou Grant (three as Supporting Actor in a Comedy Television Series and two as Lead Actor in a Dramatic Television Series). His other Emmys were for performances in two of the most significant television miniseries of the 1970s: Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), where he won for Outstanding Lead Actor for a Single Performance in a TV series, and Roots (1977), for which he won for Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actor in a TV series.
He played John Wayne’s adversary Bart Jason in the 1966 Western El Dorado. He has played Santa Claus in several films, notably in 2003’s Elf. In 2009, he starred as the voice of Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s animated film Up and made a guest appearance on CSI: NY in the episode “Yahrzeit”. In early 2011, Asner returned to television as butcher Hank Greziak in Working Class, the first original sitcom on cable channel CMT. He starred in Michael, Tuesdays and Thursdays, on CBC Television and appeared in The Glades. Asner guest-starred as Guy Redmayne, a homophobic billionaire who supports Alicia Florrick’s campaign, in the sixth season of The Good Wife. In 2020 he guest starred in an episode of Modern Family and had a recurring role as James Staghorne Sr. on Briarpatch.
Asner was born Eddie Asner on November 15, 1929, in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. His Jewish immigrant parents, Lizzie (née Seliger; 1885–1967, from Russia), a housewife, and Morris David Asner (1877–1957, from Lithuania), ran a second-hand shop and junkyard. He was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family and given the Hebrew name Yitzhak.
Asner attended Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas, and the University of Chicago. He worked on the assembly line for General Motors. Asner served with the U.S. Army Signal Corps and appeared in plays that toured Army camps in Europe.
Following his military service, Asner helped found the Playwrights Theatre Company in Chicago, but left for New York City before members of that company regrouped as the Compass Players in the mid-1950s. He later made frequent guest appearances with the successor to Compass, The Second City. In New York City, Asner played Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum in the Off-Broadway revival of Threepenny Opera, scored his first Broadway role in Face of a Hero alongside Jack Lemmon in 1960, and began to make inroads as a television actor, having made his TV debut in 1957 on Studio One. In two notable performances on television, Asner played Detective Sgt. Thomas Siroleo in the 1963 episode of The Outer Limits titled “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork” and the reprehensible ex-premier Brynov in the 1965 Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episode “The Exile.” He made his film debut in 1962, in the Elvis Presley vehicle Kid Galahad.
Before he landed his role with Mary Tyler Moore, Asner guest-starred in television series including the syndicated crime drama Decoy, starring Beverly Garland, and Route 66 in 1962 (the episode titled “Welcome to the Wedding”) as Custody Officer Lincoln Peers. He was cast on Jack Lord’s ABC drama series Stoney Burke and in the series finale of CBS’s The Reporter, starring Harry Guardino. He also appeared on Mr. Novak, Mission: Impossible, The Outer Limits, “The Fugitive”, and The Invaders. Asner also played a minor character in children’s television show W.I.T.C.H. (Napoleon – Cornelia’s younger sister’s cat). In 1963, Asner appeared as George Johnson on The Virginian in the episode “Echo of Another Day”.
Asner is best known for his character Lou Grant, who was first introduced on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970. In 1977, after Moore’s series ended, Asner’s character was given his own show, Lou Grant (1977–82). In contrast to the Mary Tyler Moore series, a thirty-minute award-winning comedy about television journalism, the Lou Grant series was an hour-long award-winning drama about newspaper journalism. (For his role as Grant, Asner is one of only two actors to win an Emmy Award for a sitcom and a drama for the same role, with the second being Uzo Aduba.) In addition he made appearances as Lou Grant on two other shows: Rhoda and Roseanne. Other television series starring Asner in regular roles include Thunder Alley, The Bronx Zoo and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. He also starred in one episode of the western series Dead Man’s Gun (1997), as well as portraying art smuggler August March in an episode of the original Hawaii Five-O (1975) and reprised the role in the Hawaii Five-0 (2012) remake. He also appeared as a veteran streetwise officer in an episode of the 1973 version of Police Story.
Asner was acclaimed for his role in the ABC miniseries Roots, as Captain Davies, the morally conflicted captain of the Lord Ligonier, the slave ship that brought Kunta Kinte to America. The role earned Asner an Emmy Award, as did the similarly dark role of Axel Jordache in the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (1976). In contrast, he played a former pontiff in the lead role of Papa Giovanni: Ioannes XXIII (Pope John XXIII 2002), an Italian television film for RAI.
Asner has had an extensive voice acting career. In 1987, he played the eponymous character, George F. Babbitt, in the L.A. Classic Theatre Works’ radio theatre production of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Babbitt. He also provided the voices for Joshua on Joshua and the Battle of Jericho (1986) for Hanna-Barbera, J. Jonah Jameson on the 1990s animated television series Spider-Man (1994–98); Hoggish Greedly on Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990–95); Hudson on Gargoyles (1994–96); Jabba the Hutt on the radio version of Star Wars; Master Vrook from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel; Roland Daggett on Batman: The Animated Series (1992–94); Cosgrove on Freakazoid!; Ed Wuncler on The Boondocks (2005–14); and Granny Goodness in various DC Comics animated series. Asner provided the voice of famed American orator Edward Everett in the 2017 documentary film The Gettysburg Address.
Asner provided the voice of Carl Fredricksen in the Academy Award-winning Pixar film Up (2009). He received great critical praise for the role, with one critic going so far as to suggest “They should create a new category for this year’s Academy Award for Best Vocal Acting in an Animated Film and name Asner as the first recipient.”
He appeared in the mid- to late-2000s decade in a recurring segment on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, entitled “Does This Impress Ed Asner?”
He was cast in a Country Music Television comedy pilot, Regular Joe.
In 2001, Asner was the recipient of the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.
Asner has won more Emmy Awards for performing than any other male actor (seven, including five for the role of Lou Grant). In 1996, he was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. In July 2010, Asner completed recording sessions for Shattered Hopes: The True Story of the Amityville Murders; a documentary on the 1974 DeFeo murders in Amityville, New York. Asner served as the narrator for the film, which covers a forensic analysis of the murders, the trial in which 23-year-old DeFeo son Ronald DeFeo Jr., was convicted of the killings, and the subsequent “haunting” story which is revealed to be a hoax. Also in 2010, Asner played the title role in FDR, a stage production about the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt; he has subsequently continued to tour the play throughout the country. In January 2011, Asner took a supporting role on CMT’s first original sitcom Working Class. He made an appearance in the independent comedy feature Not Another B Movie, and had a role as billionaire Warren Buffett in HBO’s economic drama Too Big to Fail (2011).
Asner has also provided voice-over narration for many documentaries and films about social activism, including Tiger by the Tail, a documentary film detailing the efforts of Eric Mann and the Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open to keep General Motors’ Van Nuys assembly plant running. He has also recorded for a public radio show and podcast, Playing On Air, appearing in Warren Leight’s The Final Interrogation of Ceaucescu’s Dog with Jesse Eisenberg, and Mike Reiss’s New York Story. Asner was the voice-over narrator for the 2016 documentary Behind the Fear: The Hidden Story of HIV, directed by Nicole Zwiren, a controversial study on the AIDS debate.
A 2014 documentary titled My Friend Ed, directed by Sharon Baker, focused on the actor’s life and career. It won Best Short Documentary at the New York City Independent Film Festival.
In 2018, Asner was cast in the Netflix dark comedy, Dead to Me, which premiered on May 3, 2019. The series also stars Christina Applegate, Linda Cardellini and James Marsden. Also in 2018, Asner portrayed Johnny Lawrence’s step-father, Sid Weinberg, in a guest role on the Cobra Kai series.
Beginning in 2016, Asner took on the role of Holocaust survivor Milton Saltzman in Jeff Cohen’s acclaimed play The Soap Myth in a reading at Lincoln Center’s Bruno Walter Theatre in New York. He subsequently toured for the next three years in “concert readings” of the play in more than a dozen cities across the United States. In 2019, PBS flagship station WNET filmed the concert reading at New York’s Center for Jewish History for their All Arts channel. The performance, which is available for free, world-wide live-streaming, co-stars Tovah Feldshuh, Ned Eisenberg, and Liba Vaynberg. Further plans for Asner to perform the play have been postponed during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Asner served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, in which capacity during the 1980s he opposed US policy in Central America, working closely with the Alliance for Survival. He played a prominent role in the 1980 SAG strike. He has also been active in a variety of other causes, such as the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and the movement to establish California One Care, single-payer health care in California, for which he created a television advertisement. He endorsed Barack Obama during the 2008 United States presidential election. He was formerly a member of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and is a member of DSOC’s successor, the Democratic Socialists of America.
The sudden cancellation of Lou Grant in 1982 was the subject of much controversy. The show had high ratings, being in the ACNielsen top ten throughout its final month on the air. However, the CBS television network declined to renew it. It has been Asner’s consistent position that his left-wing political views, as well as the publicity surrounding them, were the actual root causes for the show’s cancellation.
Asner endorsed Democratic candidate Marcy Winograd in the 2011 California 36th Congressional district special election.
From 2011 to 2015, Asner worked with filmmaker Nicole Zwiren on the feature-length documentary Behind the Fear which addresses HIV/AIDS denialism. The film was released in 2016 with Asner as the narrator.
Asner is on the Entertainment Board of Directors for The Survivor Mitzvah Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing direct emergency aid to elderly and impoverished Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe.
Asner is a member of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a free speech organization that is dedicated to protecting comic book creators and retailers from prosecutions based on content. He serves as an advisor to the Rosenberg Fund for Children, an organization founded by the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which provides benefits for the children of political activists, and as a board member for the wildlife conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife. Asner also sits on the advisory board for Exceptional Minds, a non-profit school and a computer animation studio for young adults on the autism spectrum.
Asner is also a member of the Honorary Board of Directors for the homeless respite service center Fresh Start WC in Walnut Creek, California.
Asner is a supporter of Humane Borders, an organization based in Tucson, Arizona, which maintains water stations in the Sonoran desert for use by undocumented migrants, with the goal of preventing deaths by dehydration and exposure. He was the master of ceremonies at that organization’s volunteer dinner in fall 2017.
In November 2017 The Ed Asner Family Center was founded by Asner’s son, Matt Asner and daughter in law Navah Paskowitz Asner. The Center provides arts and vocational enrichments, counseling services and support groups and camps to special needs individuals and their families.
September 11 attacks
Asner has voiced support for 9/11 conspiracy theories. In 2004, he signed a statement released by the conspiracy theorist organization 9/11 Truth that called for a new investigation into the September 11 attacks. A brief summary of the reasons for his position appears in a video available on YouTube. Asner confirmed his support for the statement in 2009. Asner also narrated the documentary film The Oil Factor: Behind the War on Terror.
In April 2004, Asner wrote an open letter to “peace and justice leaders” encouraging them to demand “full 9-11 truth” through the organization 9-11 Visibility Project. In 2011, Asner hosted the Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth documentary on the collapse of 7 World Trade Center, which endorsed the unsupported fringe theory that the building was taken down by controlled demolition.
Opposition to SAG–AFTRA merger
On March 30, 2012, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) completed a merger of equals, forming a new union SAG-AFTRA. Asner was adamantly opposed to such a merger, arguing that the planned merger would destroy the SAG’s health plan and disempower actors. Asner and a group of fellow actors and voice-actors, including Martin Sheen and Ed Harris, filed (but later dropped) a lawsuit against SAG president Ken Howard and several SAG vice presidents, seeking to have the merger overturned, and the two unions separated to their pre-merger organizations. The lawsuit was formally dismissed on May 22, 2012.
Asner was married to Nancy Sykes from 1959 to 1988. They have three children: twins Matthew and Liza, and Kate. In 1987, he had a son named Charles with Carol Jean Vogelman. Asner is a parent and a grandparent of a child with autism and was involved with the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization Autism Speaks. He has also served as a board member and adviser for Aspiritech, a nonprofit organization that trains high-functioning autistic persons to test software and perform quality-assurance services to companies.
Asner became engaged to producer Cindy Gilmore in 1991. They married on August 2, 1998. Gilmore filed for legal separation on November 7, 2007. Asner filed for divorce in 2015.