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ObituaryChild of Ashkenazi immigrants was raised Orthodox in Kansas

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

Prolific actor became a star in middle age as the gruff but lovable newsman on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ and in later spinoff; once said he hoped to be buried on Mount Scopus

Actor Ed Asner arrives during the 82nd Academy Awards in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles, on March 7, 2010. (AP Photo/ Matt Sayles, File)
Actor Ed Asner arrives during the 82nd Academy Awards in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles, on March 7, 2010. (AP Photo/ Matt Sayles, File)

LOS ANGELES — Ed Asner, the burly and prolific actor who became a star in middle age as the gruff but lovable newsman Lou Grant, 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 Jewish 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 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.

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

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).

Asner, who once told The Forward he was “too much of a Jewish bourgeoisie” to play conventional roles, 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.” More recently, he was in such TV series as “Forgive Me” and “Dead to Me.”

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.

Raised Orthodox

Asner was the child of Jewish immigrants, from Russia (his mother Lizzie) and Lithuania (his father Morris), was given the Hebrew name Yitzhak and raised Orthodox.

Asner as a public persona was unabashedly Jewish. In 1981, he headlined a PBS documentary on Passover, and in 2012, he made a Jewish Hanukkah pitch for a charity that distributes cattle to impoverished communities. He joined Jewish Voice for Peace initiatives in speaking out against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

“I’m amazed by Israel’s militaristic achievements and accomplishments, and yet I think I gloried more at the Jewish image of the Children of the Book,” he told the Los Angeles Jewish Journal in 2005, after receiving an activism award from a Jewish group.

In 2019, Asner narrated “The Tattooed Torah,” an animated version of the children’s Holocaust education tale. “This little Torah is the story of our people, tattoos and all,” Asner says in the narration.

As Screen Actors Guild president, the liberal Asner was caught up in a political controversy in 1982 when he spoke out against US involvement with repressive governments in Latin America. “Lou Grant” was canceled during the furor that followed and he did not run for a third SAG term in 1985.

Asner discussed his politicization in a 2002 interview, noting that 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 would not 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.”

Actor Ed Asner and character Carl Fredricksen arrive for the premiere of Disney Pixar’s ‘Up,’ at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood on May 16, 2009. (Valerie MACON / AFP / File)

Asner was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1929, to Orthodox Jewish parents, Lizzie Seliger and Morris David Asner, who had immigrated from the Soviet Union. He was given the Hebrew name Yitzhak.

He 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.

He quickly switched to drama, debuting as the martyred Thomas Becket in a campus production of T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral.”

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.

Returning to Chicago after military service, he appeared at the Playwrights Theatre Club and Second City, the famed satire troupe that launched the careers of dozens of top comedians.

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.”

More Jewish characters

As Grant aged, many of his characters were more explicitly Jewish, from Joe Danzig, a worn-out principal at a troubled inner-city high school in “The Bronx Zoo,” in 1988, to Sid Weinberg, the abusive stepfather in the recent “Karate Kid” reboot, “Cobra Kai.”

Grant acted until the end, and the Internet Movie Database lists more than a dozen roles that are in production or post-production, or that had yet to film. Beginning in 2016, he toured the country playing a Holocaust survivor in “The Soap Myth,” a run interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

From left to right: Ed Asner, Liba Vaynberg, Ned Eisenberg and Tovah Feldshuh in a reading of “The Soap Myth” at the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York, Jan. 23, 2019. (Diane Bondareff)

Grant told interviewers that his parents practiced a “midwestern” orthodoxy, observing many of the religious laws, but driving to shul. More substantially, they instilled in him a belief that Jewish practice was inseparable from activism.

“I was raised to believe that giving back to your community is the good and right way above all, and that we were needed to uphold the faith, and if we upheld it, we would be doing right,” he told the Jewish Journal.

Like his characters, he told The Forward in 2012 that he had experienced an arc from self-righteousness to self-questioning. “My self-examination could have been more rigorous,” he said “I could have been braver, better, more rehearsed for life.”

Asked if he had a wish, he told the Jewish newspaper: “Bury my ashes in Mount Scopus.”

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

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