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Army veteran Ed Asner, 7-time Emmy winner, TV’s beloved Lou Grant and star of ‘Up,’ dies at 91

Ed Asner (Gage Skidmore/WikiCommons)

Edward Asner, known to millions as gruff but lovable newsman Lou Grant, died Sunday at age 91.

His publicist, Charles Sherman, confirmed to USA TODAY that Asner died early Sunday morning at home, surrounded by his family.

“We are sorry to say that our beloved patriarch passed away this morning peacefully,” read a tweet shared to Asner’s official Twitter account. “Words cannot express the sadness we feel. With a kiss on your head — Goodnight dad. We love you.”

Hard-drinking, tough-talking Grant, who originated on CBS’ “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and grew to headline on drama spinoff “Lou Grant,” made Asner a household name. But he was much more than one indelible character.

Asner, a U.S. Army veteran, took on a broad range of roles over an acting career that spanned seven decades, playing burly cops and 5 o’clock-shadowed heavies in pre-“Mary” ’60s dramas while endearing himself to younger generations who wouldn’t know Lou Grant from Ted Baxter in 2003’s “Elf” and 2009’s “Up.”

His seven Emmys, five for playing Grant on “Mary” and “Lou Grant,” are a record for a male actor, and Asner was the first actor to win Emmys for playing the same character on both a comedy and drama series. He won his other two Emmys for playing harsh, unlikable characters on two historic miniseries, “Roots” and “Rich Man, Poor Man.”

But if Asner, who compiled more than 400 screen credits, were only remembered as Lou Grant, that would be plenty.

The WJM news director was an immediate breakout in the “Moore” pilot episode. After conducting a job interview that would have today’s HR professionals assessing lawsuit damages, Lou smiles at polite but plucky applicant Mary Richards (Moore) and says, “You know what? You’ve got spunk!”

As Mary smiles back and starts an aw-shucks response, Lou, turning dark, cuts her off: “I hate spunk!”

It was jarring misdirection and a rebuke to predictable TV tropes of that era, as was so much of Moore’s groundbreaking sitcom. Most of all, it was hilarious.

Speaking fondly of Moore following her death in 2017, Asner parted ways with his TV alter ego. “She had spunk,” he told USA TODAY. Did he hate that? “No. Not when she has it.”

When “Mary” premiered in 1970, Asner had no idea how it would be revered 50 years later. However, he quickly realized it was something special. “As we began to work on it and shape it and round it, it became quite revealing to us that we were doing the Lord’s work,” he said.

Over the course of the series’ seven-season run, Asner’s Lou revealed different shadings: impatience, anger and even physical violence with Ted, and sweetness and friendship with Mary, although he had a sexist streak notable even for its time.

A married dad at the start of the series, Lou went through estrangement and eventual divorce, with Asner masterfully depicting the pathos and humor of a man sucker-punched in mid-life. His fear and loathing of sometimes paramour Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White, now the show’s last surviving main cast member at 99) was a comic delight and a solid-gold talent pairing, while his friendship with Mary, despite one awkward and quickly dismissed date, showed real character development. Lou had many faults, but there was always the chance for learning and redemption.

As Asner mourned Moore’s death, he thanked her, professionally and personally. She “never missed an (opportunity) to advance us. She took good care of us,” he said. “I loved her. The world loved her — and it should have. She was an inspiration to women and she was a good example as a human being.”

Moore indeed took care of Asner as MTM Enterprises, the production company she founded with then-husband Grant Tinker, transplanted Lou from Minneapolis TV news director in a half-hour CBS sitcom to Los Angeles newspaper editor in a one-hour drama.

Asner pulled off the impressive feat of avoiding typecasting with his signature role, toning down Lou’s drinking and temper — no more physically throwing Ted out of the studio! — while turning up his sobriety, literally and figuratively, and dedication to shoe-leather journalism in the post-Watergate era. The new version of Lou earned him two Emmys.

Earlier, before “Mary” ended its seven-season run, Asner showed his dramatic chops as angry immigrant father Axel Jordache in 1976’s “Rich Man, Poor Man,” the first blockbuster miniseries, and then as slave ship captain Thomas Davies in 1977’s “Roots,” a hugely popular ABC miniseries and cultural landmark that broke new ground in TV’s (and the country’s) conversation about race.

Asner’s commitment to acting went beyond the screen, as the pro-union progressive’s opposition to the 1980 actors strike settlement led to his candidacy and eventual election to the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, which he held from 1981 to 1985.

At a time when a former SAG president, Ronald Reagan, had become a conservative idol partly for his anti-union action, Asner was devoutly and defiantly liberal in his political views.

In the years that followed, he was outspoken about controversial topics, including support for freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal and single-payer health care, the kind of matters many actors steered clear of for fear of hurting their careers. In 2017, he expressed solidarity with NFL players taking a knee to protest racial injustice. He also had been involved in charitable work and worked to help Holocaust survivors, immigrants and the homeless and to protect free speech.

Asner, born in Kansas City to Russian-born parents and raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, was married twice, to Nancy Sykes from 1959 to 1988 and to Cindy Gilmore from 1998 to 2015, and had four children.

He took a circuitous path to acting. After attending the University of Chicago, he worked on a General Motors assembly line and served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Europe before helping found the Playwrights Theatre Company in Chicago.

He left for New York in the 1950s, where he joined an off-Broadway revival of “Threepenny Opera” in 1956 and appeared on Broadway in “Face of a Hero” in 1960. Hollywood and television beckoned, too: Asner made his first foray on “Studio One” in 1957, followed by roles on such shows as “The Outer Limits,” “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Fugitive” and “The Invaders.” His made his film debut in 1962’s “Kid Galahad,” an Elvis Presley movie, and appeared in a John Wayne film, 1966’s “El Dorado.”

Although his role as Lou Grant and the 1970s miniseries constituted Asner’s peak for awards and fame, he remained busy in subsequent years. Movie roles included “Elf,” one of the many times he played Santa Claus, and the Oscar-winning, animated Pixar film “Up,” in which he played curmudgeonly old widower Carl Fredericksen, the standout role from dozens of voice-acting credits over the years..

In recent decades, Asner was a series regular on such TV shows as “Thunder Alley,” “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill,” “The Bronx Zoo” and “Working Class,” CMT’s first sitcom, and he made many guest appearances. Highlights include revisiting art smuggler August March, a character he played in a 1975 episode of “Hawaii Five-0,” in the rebooted edition in 2012. He was in “Dead to Me” and, after reaching 90, he appeared in “Blue Bloods,” “Modern Family” and “Cobra Kai.”

Even before those later roles, Asner had earned the Screen Actors Guild life achievement award and induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

Asner also appeared on stage, including touring the country as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in “FDR” starting in 2010 and appearing in 2012 with Paul Rudd in “Grace” on Broadway. He also was the subject of a 2014 documentary, “My Friend Ed.”

We’ll always admire Asner’s impressive body of acting work and his equally accomplished life, but we can continue to embrace him, just like Mary, Ted, Lou and Sue Ann did in the “Mary” finale, as curmudgeon with a heart of gold Lou Grant.

“I treasure you people,” he told his colleagues in that iconic closing group-hug scene. And we treasure you, Ed.

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(c) 2021 USA Today

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