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Ed Asner Biography


Home > Actors > A > Asner, Ed > Biography


Birth Name: Ed Asner
Born: 11/15/1929
Birth Place: Kansas City, Missouri, USA


Yitzak Edward Asner was born on Nov. 15, 1929 in Kansas City, KS, as was one of five children born to Lizzie and Morris, both Orthodox Jewish immigrants. While attending Wyandotte High School, the teen was a star athlete in football and basketball. Creatively, he also loved spending time at the local movie house, and got his own start as a performer by announcing sporting events for the school radio station. After graduation, Asner spent several years at the University of Chicago in the city's Hyde Park suburb, where he became active in the student drama group Tonight at Eight-Thirty. In 1951, he was summoned by the U.S. Army, and served two years with the Signal Corps. While stationed in France, he received an offer to join the Playwright's Theater Company in Chicago upon his return, which he did for several years before heading to New York to make a go of it on Broadway. Asner found plenty of work in Manhattan, including onstage parts in Shakespeare festivals, off-Broadway productions, and the long-running revival of "Threepenny Opera," as well as onscreen in a string of TV guest appearances. He finally made his Broadway debut in 1960 alongside Hollywood wunderkind Jack Lemmon in "Face of a Hero." The following year, the promise of the work in the exploding field of television prompted Asner to relocate his young family to Hollywood. It was a lucrative move, and within the first few years, Asner had already enjoyed guest appearances on some of the biggest shows of the day, including "Route 66" (CBS, 1960-64), "The Untouchables" (ABC, 1959-1963) and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS, 1955-1962). He found himself especially in high demand for playing villainous, Russian-looking characters in the abundant spy-themed shows and movies of the Cold War era. Elvis fans might have noticed him in small roles in the films "Kid Galahad" (1962) and "Change of Habit" (1969) in which future co-star Mary Tyler Moore played Elvis' love interest.

In 1970, Asner was surprised to receive a call from MTM Enterprises, Mary Tyler Moore's production company, which was interested in casting the mainly dramatic actor in a substantial role in a new sitcom. They had spotted Asner in a made-for-TV movie and felt there was something about his demeanor that seemed perfect to inhabit Lou Grant, a brusque but sympathetic bachelor news producer. Even Asner himself was skeptical, but the script was one of the finest he had ever read, so he jumped at the chance to participate. Over the next seven years, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" became one of the most respected comedies in television history, acknowledging a new era of modern womanhood with a single, professional woman in her thirties as the central character. The show further broke with stale TV traditions by eschewing plot-based sitcoms in favor of exploring a cast of complex, ever-evolving characters. When audiences first met Asner as Lou Grant, he famously informed potential employee Mary Richards (Tyler Moore) that she had spunk, before clarifying that he hated spunk. From that episode forward, Asner would find a decade's worth of richness in Grant's hard-drinking character to explore; first as Mary's jaded but soft-hearted boss and then as outspoken Los Angeles newspaper editor in the hour-long drama series, "Lou Grant." Asner's character was the only in television history to appear in both a comedy and drama, both incarnations earning the actor multiple Emmy Awards. In the period between the two series, Asner found time to also give a powerful performance as slave trader Captain Davies in "Roots" (1977), ABC's legendary miniseries based on the genealogical novel by Alex Haley.

"Grant" was canceled by CBS in 1982 under suspicious circumstances, but he continued to land film and TV offers, including the captain of the force in the feature "Fort Apache, the Bronx" (1981) and the lawyer defending accused Russian spies (modeled on the famous spy couple the Rosenbergs) in Sidney Lumet's, "Daniel" (1983). He also helmed a short-lived sitcom about the garment industry called "Off The Rack" (ABC, 1984) before returning to drama with "The Bronx Zoo" (NBC, 1987-88), a grim portrait of inner city high schools. He co-starred with Sharon Gless on "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill" (CBS, 1991-92), and was a formidable presence on the big screen as Guy Bannister in Oliver Stone's conspiracy classic "JFK" (1991), ironically, cast opposite his old friend and Broadway co-star, Jack Lemmon (Jack Martin). In addition to recurring spots on "Hearts Afire" (CBS, 1992-93), a starring role on the short-lived "Thunder Alley" (ABC, 1994-95) and a re-teaming with Tyler Moore for the TV movie "Payback" (ABC, 1997), voice acting emerged as the bulk of Asner's work in the 1990s and beyond. He enjoyed a steady schedule of voicing bad guys and cuddly creatures in animated television fare like "Batman: The Animated Series" (Fox, 1992-95), "Gargoyles" (ABC, 1994-97), "Freakazoid!" (Kids WB, 1994-97), "Johnny Bravo" (Cartoon Network, 1997-2004), and "The Justice League" (Cartoon Network, 2001-04). He also became, for some reason, the go-to guy for Christmas films, voicing "The Story of Santa Claus" (1996), "A Christmas Carol" (1997) and "Olive the Other Reindeer" (1999), as well as appearing in the TV flick "The Man Who Saved Christmas" (CBS, 2002) and the features "Christmas Vacation 2" (2003) and "Elf" ( 2003).

A recurring role in the 2003 season of "ER" (NBC 1994- 2009) led to a recurring role on "The Practice" (ABC, 1997-2004) in 2004; later that year, Asner was cast opposite John Goodman in the domestic sitcom "Center of the Universe" (CBS 2004-05), which was cancelled after its first season. In 2006, Asner enjoyed a series of guest appearances on "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (NBC, 2006-07) and was a holiday hit in the soldier-themed TV film "The Christmas Card" (Hallmark) for which he received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor. He spent the spring of 2007 touring with a stage production called "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial," a play based on transcripts of the famous 1925 court case which awarded the right to teach evolution in public school. His role in the play was the perfect culmination of Asner's two passions, as he had become as well known for his outspoken support of liberal political causes as he was for his enormous talent and body of work. His activist leanings first became widely known in 1980 when Asner, a stalwart "union man" who had, as a youth, worked in the General Motors factory, became an active organizer during that year's SAG strike. This led to his election as SAG president from 1981-85, during which time some detractors felt he was using his position as a platform to advance his own political beliefs. A high-profile clash with conservative SAG member Charlton Heston, in which Asner was looking for SAG to voice opposition to U.S. involvement in Central America, was suspected to be the cause of the sudden cancellation of "Lou Grant" in 1982. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America, death penalty opponent Asner protested for the retrial of convicted killer Mumia Abu Jamal and a pardon for Native American activist Leonard Peltier. A flaming liberal, he unashamedly spoke out in favor of gun control, campaign finance reform and animal rights causes.

In fact, Asner was so politically motivated, he not only assisted in the funding for a then unknown filmmaker named Michael Moore's first feature documentary, "Roger & Me" (1989), he also financially supported progressive organizations including Democracy for America, Moveon.org, and Progressive Majority. An outspoken critic of the presidency of No. 43, George W. Bush, Asner was among the earliest forces calling for an investigation into the events leading up to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Throughout the war, he lent his name and likeness to groups questioning the Patriot Act and American foreign policy in general. For his efforts on behalf of social justice causes, Asner was recognized with the ACLU's Worker's Rights Committee Award, the Anne Frank Human Rights Award, the Eugene Debs Award, the Organized Labor Publications Humanitarian Award, and the National Emergency Civil Liberties Award. Back on the big screen, he was the 80-year-old, pot-smoking grandfather of a mattress salesman (Paul Dano) attempting to adopt a baby from China in "Gigantic" (2009). After voicing the curmudgeonly Carl Fredrickson of the animated hit "Up" (2009), Asner earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama for an episode of "CSI: NY" (CBS, 2004- ).

He next portrayed billionaire investor Warren Buffet in director Curtis Hanson's "Too Big to Fail" (HBO, 2011), a compelling look at the people and events surrounding the financial crisis in 2008. He went on to have a small role as an angry investor in the lowbrow spoof "Not Another B Movie" (2011), while logging guest appearances on such varied shows as "Royal Pains" (USA Network, 2009- ), "The Middle" (ABC, 2009- ), "Hot in Cleveland" (TV Land, 2010- ), "Hawaii Five-O" (CBS, 2010- ) and "Law & Order: SVU" (NBC, 1999- ). In early 2012, Asner spearheaded a lawsuit that opposed the merger of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), a position he held as the former president of SAG. Asner was joined by fellow actors Martin Sheen, Ed Harris and Valerie Harper. Meanwhile, in March 2013, Asner was rushed to the hospital for exhaustion while performing his one-man show, "FDR," which had been touring the country for over three years. The 83-year-old actor began his performance 45 minutes late and struggled immediately with his lines, leaving the stage only 15 minutes into the show.