Every actor goes through an early trial period in which they face some
great test of stamina and character. Edward Asner's trial came in the
form of John Wayne.
Cast in Howard Hawks' great easygoing 1967 film El Dorado, Asner
played one of the story's villains, Bart Jason, a rich landowner who
hired gunfighters to do his dirty work.
In one scene, Asner attempts to hire Wayne, but Wayne turns down the
job. The two men engage in a hostile face-off before Wayne rides off
(backwards, so as not to be shot in the back).
Speaking via phone recently, Asner said that it took him awhile to
stop looking at the great Wayne with awe. "He was powerful," Asner says,
explaining that the Duke loved to intimidate any new blood. As Asner
approached the set, Wayne looked right through him and yelled aloud to
no one, "Where's that New York actor?"
During the scene, Asner tosses a bag of money to Wayne, which Wayne
then tosses back after rejecting the job. Off camera, Wayne hurled a
line drive to Asner, which he dropped, causing Wayne to retort, "Better
get this guy a catcher's mitt!" During the next take, Asner caught the
bag but Wayne dropped it.
Asner continued to get in trouble during the shoot, especially when
-- on his night off -- he stayed up late playing a noisy game of poker
without realizing that the director was trying to sleep in the next
room. But he survived and went on to an amazing career in both film and
The actor will receive an honorary award tonight at the Mill Valley
Film Festival. He will participate in an on stage interview, discussing
highlights of his 40 year-career, and the festival will play a
collection of choice clips.
While he's in the Bay Area, Asner also hopes to do a little
campaigning for his wife's nephew -- none other than Supervisor Gavin
The tribute takes place at the Rafael Film Center, and a reception
follows at Piatti Restaurant. (Tickets are $20 for the tribute only, $45
for the tribute and the reception.)
Asner's biggest break came three years after the release of El
Dorado, when he was cast as curmudgeonly newscaster Lou Grant on "The
Mary Tyler Moore Show."
Even then Asner had a tough time. Certain executives thought that
Asner couldn't play comedy. But he also had supporters, and he stayed.
"We did the first show and it came off like gangbusters."
"When I read that first script, I thought, 'this is the funniest
character, the finest script I've read. I will have the time of my life
doing this character and not care if the show gets cancelled after 13
episodes.' That gave me great confidence," he says.
The moment Asner becomes a star is easy enough to find: Mary comes
into Lou's office to ask for a job. Lou looks at her and says, "You've
got spunk." Then, after a perfect pause: "I hate spunk!"
That first episode, as well as the entire first season, is now
available in a new DVD box set (CBS/Fox Home Video, $49.98). The box
includes 24 half-hour episodes on four discs, as well as commentary
tracks and a feature documentary about the making of the show.
"It's produced by my son Matthew, you know," says the proud Asner of
the new set, but also points out a mistake in the packaging: "They did
not list David Davis as the producer. They mistakenly credited Ed
Just as memorable was the show's final episode, aired in 1977, which
culminated in the famous "group hug."
"We went into the hug, which was written in rehearsal and the tears
were flowing. And because of the tears, [producer] Jim Brooks asked, 'is
there some means that we can work a laugh into here?'"
The cast and crew quickly came up with the idea of shuffling the
group over to get the Kleenex on Mary's desk.
After "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" wrapped, Asner continued playing
Lou Grant for five more years on his own show. The trouble was he went
from a half-hour comedy shot in front of three cameras and a live studio
audience to a one-hour drama shot with one camera.
"The first two years especially were the most impossible, most
difficult two years. None of the cast or crew had ever worked on an hour
show. We would have been so much better off if they had created this new
show and called me Joe Schmoe. I felt like, 'you've got to retain the
integrity of the character.' I felt this enormous load of not pissing on
Not to mention that the fans expected "Lou Grant" to be funny. "The
ratings were low because 'TV Guide' listed the show as a comedy."
Things picked up. "After the second year, I dug into myself and found
the real side of Lou," Asner says. In addition to the three Emmy awards
he won for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Asner won two more for "Lou
"I was inordinately lucky," Asner says. "To any young actors, I would
say you don't go into acting to make money, particularly in the early
years. If you can't do it for the love, then forget about it. And it's
particularly true now with the glut of actors and the lack of
opportunity in film and television. The odds are vastly more difficult
than when I started."
As for watching his old work today, Asner says "it's always a thrill
to me. I can't squelch my ego. I not only get a kick out of watching, I
watch it to learn how to act."
October 4, 2002
Partial Edward Asner Filmography:
The Satan Bug (1965)
The Slender Thread (1965)
El Dorado (1967)
The Venetian Affair (1967)
Change of Habit (1969)
They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970)
Skin Game (1971)
Fort Apache the Bronx (1981)
Hard Rain (1998)
The Bachelor (1999)
Olive, the Other Reindeer (1999, TV) (voice)
The Animal (2001)
Up (2009) (voice)
Plus TV Shows: "Alfred Hitchcock Presents,"
"The Outer Limits,"
"The Mod Squad,"
"Rich Man, Poor Man,"
"Mary Tyler Moore,"
"Mad About You,"
"Dharma & Greg,"
"The Simpsons" (voice),
"King of the Hill" (voice),
"The Boondocks" (voice),
"CSI: NY," and more...