Ed Asner made TV viewers laugh during the ‘70s as blustery newsman Lou Grant on the classic TV series, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” But in the ‘80s, his comedic prowess was overshadowed by his passionate--and often controversial--political convictions.
“Because of my news exposure, one tends to forget about the comedic factor,” said Asner, who has attached himself to countless liberal causes.
The Emmy Award-winning actor has kicked off the new decade on a lighthearted note. He’s starring as a wily con man who bilks four young men out of their money in “Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less,” a two-part miniseries airing on cable’s USA Network. Based on Jeffrey Archer’s best seller, the British co-production airs Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m.
“It was fun,” Asner said. “I felt great making it. I have a feeling I put in more comedy than they initially envisioned.”
The gregarious 60-year-old actor was sitting in his comfortable Studio City office that is decorated with primitive masks and figures from around the world.
Resting on the shelf of a bookcase was a dog-eared copy of Garson Kanin’s play, “Born Yesterday,” which Asner starred in on Broadway last year.
“That was the first time I was on Broadway since 1960,” he said. “I loved doing the work on stage, but I think we came in under-financed and unprepared to weather the storm of the New York Times pan. You need money. If you are good--and we were--we could have survived it. We ran five months. I’m not ashamed of it.”
Asner was approached to do “Not a Penny More” during “Born Yesterday.” He jumped at it. “The Brits are fond of me because of ‘Lou Grant,’ ” he said.
While filming “Not a Penny More,” Asner also did two radio broadcasts for the BBC, which the actor fondly calls “The Beeb.”
“It was outta sight,” Asner said. “I did a wonderful hour play written for the BBC by Richard Nelson and then did a solitary reading of nine Thurber stories. I love working over there.”
Asner kept interrupting the interview to do a little interviewing himself. “What do you think of ‘Born on the Fourth of July’? " he asked. “Did you see ‘Glory’? I loved it. What was your favorite film from last year?”
He finally returned to the topic at hand: himself. “I would do a series in a minute,” he said. He’s particularly miffed at the way NBC handled his last series, “The Bronx Zoo,” in which he played the principal of a beleaguered Bronx high school.
“You only saw 18 episodes of the 21 we shot,” Asner said. “They were displayed over a two-year period, and you never saw more than three consecutively on the same night of the week at the same time. The network made it impossible to develop an audience. It was starting to show in England when I was there, and people liked it.”
When Asner isn’t in front of the cameras, he’s busy with political causes. Earlier this year, he was arrested with Martin Sheen for protesting U.S. involvement in El Salvador. In February, he participated in the vote observance in Nicaragua and last month went to Washington to spend a night on the streets with homeless advocate Mitch Snyder.
Asner took a long time to voice his convictions. He admitted he was afraid to speak out when he became an actor in New York in the early ‘50s, fearing he would fall victim to the McCarthy blacklist.
“I felt so lucky that nobody knew who I was,” he said. “It instilled a strong desire to keep my mouth shut.”
When he moved to Hollywood in 1961, political groups such as the ACLU approached him to participate. “I was delighted, but I moved slowly, keeping myself very circumspect so I wouldn’t fall prey to some future blacklisting.”
In 1981, Asner was on top of the world. He had a hit series in “Lou Grant” and he was the newly elected president of the Screen Actors Guild. Asner decided it was the right time to speak out against America’s involvement in El Salvador.
“I always carried guilt feelings vis a vis our country’s performance in Latin America, and I thought we had done wrong,” Asner said. “I wanted to rectify it. I decided to get other people involved. I was terribly naive, terribly amateurish.”
In February, 1982, Asner and several other actors went to Washington to announce the formation of Medical Aid to El Salvador. “Because I didn’t clarify until the question-and-answer period that I was not speaking as president of the union, a great hullabaloo engendered. It ended up with the series being canceled.”
In fact, his entire acting career was almost canceled. “I became too hot to handle,” Asner said. “With the way the attack was in the beginning, it was so severe, I was prepared never to work again. Only because the attacks kept up and got me so mad, overcoming my air of defeatism, I began to respond in kind to the attacks. That would go on for years. Finally, the sporadic jobs came along and kept me going.”
Asner insisted that he will never run for public office. “I couldn’t stand to,” he said with a hearty laugh. “I run from public office.”