Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Ed Asner

Rhapsody in Lou

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Edward Asner Movies

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 television.

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 Newsom.

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 Weinberger."

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 the past."

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 Grant."

"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)
Gunn (1967)
Change of Habit (1969)
They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970)
Skin Game (1971)
Fort Apache the Bronx (1981)
Daniel (1983)
JFK (1991)
Hard Rain (1998)
The Bachelor (1999)
Olive, the Other Reindeer (1999, TV) (voice)
The Animal (2001)
Elf (2003)
Gigantic (2008)
Up (2009) (voice)

Plus TV Shows: "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "The Untouchables," "The Outer Limits," "Gunsmoke," "The Fugitive," "Mission: Impossible," "The Mod Squad," "Rhoda," "Hawaii Five-O," "Rich Man, Poor Man," "Roots," "Mary Tyler Moore," "Lou Grant," "Mad About You," "Spider-Man" (voice), "The X-Files," "Dharma & Greg," "The Simpsons" (voice), "King of the Hill" (voice), "ER," "The Practice," "The Boondocks" (voice), "CSI: NY," and more...

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