Legendary actor Ed Asner died on August 29 at the age of ninety-one, and I am grateful to have spent last Saturday with him before he passed. Ed had a star on the fabled Hollywood Walk of Fame, won five Golden Globes, and had more Primetime Emmy Awards than any other male actor in TV history. Yet the costar of the beloved Mary Tyler Moore Show played his greatest role off-screen and offstage, courageously challenging the Reagan regime’s blood-drenched Central America policy.
Throughout his life, Ed continued to epitomize the actor/activist, using his celebrity to support causes, candidates, and charity. And this is how I was lucky to meet and get to know Ed, interviewing him many times over the years. But let me begin with what turned out to be my final encounter with the man whose most famous role was the gruff yet lovable newsman Lou Grant on Mary Tyler Moore’s long-running sitcom, then as the title character in a spin-off dramatic series.
On August 21, I was invited to attend a party at the home of Jan Goodman and Jerry Manpearl. Jan and Jerry are well-to-do, left-leaning attorneys who often donate the use of their Santa Monica enclave for progressive purposes. We were there to discuss the ongoing, contentious struggle over the direction of the Pacifica radio network.
When I arrived around 6:45 p.m., Ed was ensconced in a chair out on the western end of the patio, engaged in conversation with our host. I pulled up a seat and joined them, noticing that Ed had grown a goatee since I’d last interviewed him in person, pre-pandemic, at his sprawling home in Tarzana. The nonagenarian, who was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, still had a stocky build, although I believe he’d lost weight since I’d last laid eyes on him. For the first time that I’d noticed, Ed also had a walker, which was parked in front of him.
The trio were talking about politics, of course. In the course of their discussion, Ed stated that he was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), something he’d never told me before. We discussed CNN’s recent hour-long program on his fellow DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that had studiously avoided asking America’s second-most famous living socialist a single question about socialism.
Before we moved to the dinner table, the subject of political persecutions came up, and I mentioned that Ed himself was no slacker in that department, having taken a heroic stand against the Reagan administration and paying a steep price for opposing US interference in Central America. In a previous interview, Ed discussed details of what had gone down in the 1980s when he was making the series Lou Grant while serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and how he got into a big brouhaha with President Ronald Reagan, who was himself a former SAG president.
“I was approached by a Catholic nun named Sister Pat Krommer,” Ed recalled. “She showed me footage shot by a Belgian cinematographer about the dead left in El Salvador. I was shocked and couldn’t believe it. This is happening under US aegis by an ally of the United States. Then Bill Zimmerman came to me, having been successful with medical aid for Indochina, and he said, ‘We’re going do the same for El Salvador. Will you be on our board?’ I said, ‘I’d love to.’”
In February of 1982, Asner went to Washington to present the funds they’d raised in a ceremony on the ongoing crisis in El Salvador. “Because I was the star of a current TV show, they asked me to read the credo of the group, which I did. It was a huge press turnout — automatically, they began asking questions. Because I was already there with a microphone in my hand, I began to field the questions. Big mistake!”
After Asner called for free and fair elections in El Salvador, one journalist asked him if he would still support that if it turned out to be a communist government. “If it’s the government that the people of El Salvador choose, then let them have it.’ That’s democracy. That’s what it’s called,” Asner replied.
The fallout was quick. “[Former SAG president and future NRA president] Charlton Heston made all kinds of slurs and innuendos about my response. Bruce Herschensohn was a commentator on ABC at the time, and he spent three nights talking about what a danger I was to the country.”
Immediately, sponsors for Asner’s show Lou Grant pulled their ads. “Kimberly-Clark, which had two factories in El Salvador, pulled out their ads. They were later followed by Vidal Sassoon and Cadbury candy. The uproar was tremendous.
“CBS sent its vice president out, a guy I knew and liked, Jim Rosenfield, just to show me that sponsors were standing in line for the show, that it wasn’t because of lack of sponsors that the show was being canceled.”
When I asked if canceling Lou Grant was an act of political reprisal and censorship, Asner asserted: “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.” In that earlier interview, Ed added that US–Central America policies back in the 1980s have created part of the current immigration crisis, with people fleeing El Salvador, Honduras, and other countries to come to the United States. “Yeah, I’d say it was blowback.”
Asner was very sensitive to the issue of censorship, and he also participated in a sold-out commemoration of the Hollywood blacklist that took place at the Writers Guild of America’s Beverly Hills theater on October 27, 2017 — the precise seventieth anniversary of the first testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) by one of the Hollywood Ten in 1947, John Howard Lawson.
Ed reenacted the defiant appearance by Lawson before HUAC in a special video that I had the honor of directing. Lawson was the first president of what’s now the Writers Guild (WGA) and reputedly the head of the Communist Party’s branch in Tinseltown. The four-hour-plus reenactment was repeatedly aired by C-SPAN, and you can see it, including Asner’s unique depiction of Lawson here.
I had the opportunity to work with Ed on another historic commemoration I co-organized, the sixtieth anniversary of the execution of the so-called “atomic spies,” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. On June 19, 2013, Asner spoke at a screening of Daniel, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s novel that fictionalized the Rosenberg case, costarring Ed as the beleaguered couple’s attorney, Jacob Ascher. Actor Mike Farrell, a death penalty opponent, also spoke at the standing-room-only anniversary presentation of the film at the LA Worker Center, a popular venue for left-wing events.
Although Ed is best known for his little-screen work, his hundreds of credits also include many big-screen productions, too, such as Oliver Stone’s 1991 JFK, wherein he portrayed ex-FBI agent Guy Bannister. Ed also gave voice to the crotchety old man Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s 2009 Up, which won two Academy Awards, including for Best Animated Feature, and was nominated for three more. In 2003, Ed depicted a character well-suited to him — Santa Claus, in Elf.
Off-screen, Ed was very generous, donating money and time to the movement, reading screenplays by aspiring writers, and so on. Late in life, he became a philanthropist; along with relatives, in 2018, he cofounded the Ed Asner Family Center, for special needs children and their families.
During our August 21 dinner, I had no inkling that this would be “the last supper.” According to the Hollywood Reporter, his publicist said the superstar died of natural causes. For me, personally, the best thing about my work is that it gives me access to extraordinary individuals such as Ed. I’m just happy to have spent one last time with a stellar man who embodied the spirit of the artist/activist, on and off stage and screen.
Farewell, Ed Asner — truly one of our greats. Rest in power.