Ed Asner has developed a knack during his extensive showbiz career for portraying crusty characters armed with a gruffness that camouflages a decent nature and good heart. Those traits were at the core of Asner’s most famous role, the crotchety Lou Grant of the landmark “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its dramatic “Lou Grant” spinoff.
But there was a brief moment in Asner’s past nearly 40 years ago when he went over to the dark side, playing a villain on CBS’ “Hawaii Five-O.” On Monday’s episode of the revamped “Hawaii Five-O,” he gets to resurrect his bad-boy past.
The episode features Asner as August March, a wealthy art collector and smuggler who may — or may not — have changed his illegal ways after serving three decades in prison for smuggling valuable art. The twist is that Asner is reprising a role he played on the original “Hawaii Five-O” when he tangled with that show’s granite-faced hero Steve McGarrett, played by Jack Lord. The new installment contains footage from that 1975 episode that shows Asner with a streamlined three-piece suit — and a bit more hair.
Producers say it may be the first time in television history that a guest performer has played the same role on separate versions of the same show.
Revisiting history is only part of the thrill for the 82-year-old Asner as he resurrects the smooth-talking villain he played as a side gig at the same time he was on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” He enjoyed working in Hawaii and bringing new layers to what figured to be a one-off performance.
“The intrigue of it was that it was a such a contrast to Lou Grant,” Asner, touring in a one-man show, “FDR,” playing President Franklin D. Roosevelt, said by phone. “Lou was a good guy, while this role allowed me to salaciously salivate over the oiliness and evil of the man. It gave me a chance to be bad.”
Bringing August — and Asner — back to the new “Hawaii-Five-O” was the inspiration of executive producer Peter M. Lenkov, who had worked with Asner previously in an episode of “CSI: New York” a few years ago.
“When we first started doing the show, we wanted to do something that bridged the old show and the new,” Lenkov said. “I have vague memories of that original episode. But when we had idea of bringing back specific characters, I thought of Ed. I knew if we were going to do it, he would be great.”
The original “Hawaii Five-O” episode, “Wooden Model of a Rat,” revolves around August concocting a plot to frame McGarrett for the theft of a small but valuable piece of Chinese art from a museum. The criminal relies on a smooth manner and smile to accent his sinister nature as the fence for stolen art and gems.
But when he’s first seen in the 2012 installment, August couldn’t look less like a master criminal. Wearing a plaid shirt and suspenders, he’s clearly agitated when police show up to ask him if he knows anything about how a smuggling operation may have led to the violent death of two cops. He is insistent that he abandoned his criminal past after his prison stint.
Said Lenkov, “When we first saw August, he was originally very black and white. He knew he was a bad guy. Now he’s a lot more gray than black and white — there’s a lot of shading going on. He’s playing someone who really wants to be given a second chance. But is he conning the police or is he really there to help?”
Asner said he really didn’t reference his previous portrayal much when diving back into August’s skin. “The only thing I really retained was his dealing with stolen art. What I really focused was on the needs of the show: playing an innocent man being hounded by the police.”
Bringing the reliable Asner to the series should provide another boost for what has become one of CBS’ key dramas. Although the TV prime-time graveyard is filled with revamps of classic series such as “Bionic Woman,” “Knight Rider,” “V,” “Get Smart” and this season’s short-lived “Charlie’s Angels,” “Hawaii Five-O,” now in its second season, has thrived.
“It’s one of the most successful reboots ever,” said TV historian Tim Brooks. “These reboots usually play on nostalgia. They were smart not to do that. The show didn’t spend a whole lot of time aping the old series — it can be watched not as a revival but as a whole new show. And there’s always room for at least one Hawaii show on prime time.”
Brooks added that Asner, who will also appear on TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland” on Wednesday with his former “Mary Tyler Moore” costar Betty White, brings his own recognizable, appealing persona to his projects: “Ed Asner is apparently eternal. He ages well. I just hope he doesn’t do any back flips off tall buildings.”
The conclusion of the “Hawaii Five-O” episode leaves the door open for yet another return for August March. Said Lenkov: “We definitely want him back.”
Asner is more than ready: “It has to happen,” he said with a chuckle. “I do it so charmingly, don’t you think?”