Ed Asner: ‘I’m always thought of in Hollywood ... as the resident communist’


Ed Asner is well known to boomers as the gruff editor Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and an eponymous spinoff TV series. With his performance as the voice of Carl Fredericksen in last year’s Pixar hit, “Up,” Asner, 80, now has many more fans among their kids and grandkids.

Ed Asner: The Sunday Conversation column with Ed Asner in Sunday’s Calendar section said that his character Lou Grant was an editor on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the spinoff “Lou Grant.” Grant was a TV news producer on Moore’s series. —

These days, the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning actor is touring the country in the one-man show “FDR.” Last week, he took a break on a cruise to St. Bart’s before Saturday’s performance at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. He’s back treading the boards Sunday night, this time playing Karl Marx in “Meeting of the Minds” at the Steve Allen Theater.

When you come back to L.A., on Saturday, you’re FDR and on Sunday, you’re Karl Marx, so you’re having a busy weekend. Tell me about “Meeting of the Minds.” Did you choose your icon or did your icon choose you?

No. I’m always thought of in Hollywood and surrounding environs as the resident communist. It was very easy for Dan [Lauria, who produces and performs] to offer this portly character, Karl Marx, to me. I wouldn’t look right as Marie Antoinette. I’m not a pale eminence such as Sir Thomas More. I have played Ulysses S. Grant on “Profiles in Courage.” It truly is a rendezvous with destiny that I’m involved in.

So how did you get involved with “FDR”?

I was on this same cruise ship and didn’t have anything to do on that particular trip, and the resident cruise ship genius said there was this script that Dore Schary wrote subsequent to “Sunrise at Campobello” on FDR’s last years. And I’m somewhat like the Ghost of Christmas Past come back to enliven you, not haunt you. I’ve never done a one-man show, and I wanted to see if I could meet the challenge, and of course, I adore Roosevelt. So it was delicious material that I could prove myself on.

I found I could commit the hour and 45 minutes to memory, and I love to hobble around performing it.

Did you learn anything about him in creating the role?

Much that was in the script, and I read subsequent stuff. For instance, how many people know that he called [ Eleanor Roosevelt] “Babs”? We remember vague stories of him when I was growing up and all that, but you tend to forget what a great sense of humor he had, a lip-smacking sense of humor.

What do you think he’d say to today’s politicians in Washington?

Clean up your act. I still like the idea thrown around a month or two ago that congressmen should start wearing NASCAR uniforms with the logos of their corporate sponsors on them.

Were you surprised when “Up” received a best picture Oscar nomination?

No, I wasn’t. I thought with the expansion to 10 . . . I thought it was . . . a candidate for third place anyway with the people I talked to. But they’d be too intimidated to vote for an animated film for best picture. I think it is a wonderful balm for our society today.

What kind of impact has Carl had on your life?

The success of Carl has had a great impact on my life. I feel buoyed by his success. I am just delighted that I could receive the praise I did for the nuances I gave to a cartoon character, vocally, and I can’t wait to do more. I’m a better actor than I’ve ever been in my life, but I don’t leap tall buildings anymore.

So I read that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is your nephew.

My wife’s nephew. He’s too good-looking for me to claim as blood.

A lot of people don’t know that you and Mary Tyler Moore worked together before “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in Elvis Presley’s last film, “Change of Habit.”

I never saw Mary. They must have heard of my lust for her, so they made sure we were segregated occupationally.

What was Elvis Presley like to work with?

He was very nice to work with. I worked with him twice. I worked with him on “Kid Galahad,” and I worked with him on “Change of Habit.” In “Kid Galahad,” his hands were all bandaged and broken up because he was in his karate stage at that time, breaking bricks. But he was a delightful young man to be around, never offensive, always seemed to work hard. Then in “Change of Habit,” he was a different young man at that point and seeming to be concentrating very seriously on being an actor.

So I gather retirement doesn’t hold much appeal for you.

It is the yawning abyss. I will fight and scratch and claw to keep from falling into that abyss.