Actor Ed Asner, TV’s blustery Lou Grant, dies at 91

The former Chicago actor became a star in middle age playing the gruff but lovable newsman Lou Grant on the hit comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

SHARE Actor Ed Asner, TV’s blustery Lou Grant, dies at 91
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Ed Asner in 1997.

AP file

LOS ANGELES — Ed Asner, the burly and prolific University of Chicago dropout who became a star in middle age as a gruff but lovable newsman, first in the hit comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and later in the drama “Lou Grant,” died Sunday. He was 91.

Asner’s representative confirmed the actor’s death in an email to The Associated Press. Asner’s official Twitter account included a note from his children: “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.”

Built like the football lineman he once was, the balding Asner was a journeyman actor in films and TV when he was hired in 1970 to play Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” For seven seasons he was the rumpled boss to Moore’s ebullient Mary Richards (He called her “Mary,” she called him “Mr. Grant”) at the fictional Minneapolis TV newsroom where both worked. Later, he would play the role for five years on “Lou Grant.”

Asner’s character had caught on from the first episode of “Mary Tyler Moore,” when he told Mary in their initial meeting, “You’ve got spunk. ... I hate spunk!” The inspired cast included Ted Knight as Ted Baxter, the dimwitted news anchor; Gavin MacLeod as Murray Slaughter, the sarcastic news writer; and Betty White as the manipulative, sex-obsessed home show hostess Sue Ann Nivens. Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman, playing Mary’s neighbors, both saw their characters spun off into their own shows.

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Ed Asner (from left), Ted Knight and Mary Tyler Moore appear in a 1971 episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Asner is the third “Mary Tyler Moore” alum to die in recent months. Leachman died in January and MacLeod died in May.

The 99-year-old White is the lone surviving main cast member from “Mary Tyler Moore.”

“Mary Tyler Moore” was still a hit when the star decided to pursue other interests, and so it was brought to an end in the seventh season with a hilarious finale in which all of the principals were fired except for the bumbling Baxter.

Asner went immediately into “Lou Grant,” his character moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles to become city editor of the Tribune, a crusading newspaper under the firm hand of Publisher Margaret Pynchon, memorably played by Nancy Marchand.

Asner won three best supporting actor Emmys on “Mary Tyler Moore” and two best actor awards on “Lou Grant.” He also won Emmys for his roles in the miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man” (1975-1976) and “Roots” (1976-1977).

He had more than 300 acting credits and remained active throughout his 70s and 80s in a variety of film and TV roles. In 2003, he played Santa Claus in Will Ferrell’s hit film “Elf.” He was John Goodman’s father in the short-lived 2004 CBS comedy “Center of the Universe” and the voice of the elderly hero in the hit 2009 Pixar release, “Up.”

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Ed Asner poses with someone in costume as his “Up” character at the film’s premiere in 2009.

VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

More recently, he was in such TV series as “Forgive Me” and “Dead to Me.” And in 2015, Asner brought “The Roosevelts” to life on the stage with actress Loretta Swit in Chicago.

Nonetheless, Asner told The Associated Press in 2009 that interesting roles were hard to come by.

“I never get enough work,” he said. “It’s the history of my career. There just isn’t anything to turn down, let me put it that way.”

“I’d say most people are probably in that same boat, old people, and it’s a shame,” he said.

As Screen Actors Guild president, the liberal Asner was caught up in a political controversy in 1982 when he spoke out against U.S. involvement with repressive governments in Latin America. He did not run for a third SAG term in 1985.

Asner discussed his politicization in a 2002 interview, noting he had begun his career during the McCarthy era and for years had been afraid to speak out for fear of being blacklisted.

Then he saw a nun’s film depicting the cruelties inflicted by El Salvador’s government on that country’s citizens.

“I stepped out to complain about our country’s constant arming and fortifying of the military in El Salvador, who were oppressing their people,” he said.

Former SAG President Charlton Heston and others accused him of making un-American statements and of misusing his position as head of their actors union.

“We even had bomb threats at the time. I had armed guards,” Asner recalled.

The actor blamed the controversy for ending the five-year run of “Lou Grant,” although CBS insisted declining ratings were the reason the show was canceled.

Although the show had its light moments, its scripts touched on a variety of darker social issues that most series wouldn’t touch at the time, including alcoholism and homelessness. Asner remained politically active for the rest of his life and in 2017 published the book “The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs.”

Asner, born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1929, almost became a newsman in real life. He studied journalism at the University of Chicago until a professor told him there was little money to be made in the profession.

But he discovered an affinity for acting and performed in several plays, including a production of W.B. Yeats’ “Purgatory” that was the directorial debut of future stage and screen legend Mike Nichols.

In 1950, he helped found an avant-garde student troupe called Tonight at 8:30.

“It was the same raw energy that was occurring off Broadway in New York (or about to), in which the moribund stage was brought to life by young people—young people who perhaps did not bring jaded technique, but who brought energy,” Asner told UChicago magazine in 1987. “And [there was] nobody to say ‘No, it’s not done that way.’ ”

He eventually dropped out of school, going to work as a taxi driver and other jobs before being drafted in 1951. He served with the Army Signal Corps in France.

Following his service he returned to Chicago and performed with Playwrights Theatre Club, an Old Town troupe founded by, among others, his frequent U. of C. director Paul Sills.

Asner “was in charge of cleaning up the theater before the show every night,” castmate Sheldon Patinkin wrote in his book “The Second City.” “He’d recently gotten out of the army and ran us like he was the master sergeant and we the buck privates. If Ed was angry with someone, that person got latrine duty that night.”

Playwrights lasted only two years, but its principals went on to form the Compass Players and later the popular and hugely influential Second City. Asner returned to Chicago in 1984 for a show celebrating Second City’s 25th anniversary.

Later, in New York, he joined the long-running “The Threepenny Opera” and appeared opposite Jack Lemmon in “Face of a Hero.”

Arriving in Hollywood in 1961 for an episode of television’s “Naked City,” Asner decided to stay and appeared in numerous movies and TV shows, including the film “El Dorado,” opposite John Wayne; and the Elvis Presley vehicles “Kid Galahad” and “Change of Habit.” He was a regular in the 1960s political drama series “Slattery’s People.”

He was married twice, to Nancy Lou Sykes and Cindy Gilmore, and had four children, Matthew, Liza, Kate and Charles.

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