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Ed Asner in 2012

Ed Asner speaking at the 2012 Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona. (CC/Gage Skidmore)

My Friend, Ed Asner

Remembering an icon of the Hollywood left.

Ed Rampell

 by The Progressive

For more than twenty-one years, as a television and film historian and critic focusing on the intersection of politics and entertainment, I’ve covered many talents who use their star status to speak out on larger issues: They oppose war, fight oppression, and support a wide variety of causes and candidates. Seven-time Emmy Award winner Ed Asner epitomized this breed—an actor-activist who used his celebrity to raise public attention, awareness, and funds for social justice issues.

Over the decades, I was fortunate enough to encounter Asner on a number of occasions, and interview him repeatedly for The Progressive magazine. Through our conversations, I got to know this outstanding individual who was the lion of the Hollywood left.

Asner, who died on August 29 at age ninety-one, with about 400 big and little screen and stage credits, was a vocal opponent of the Iraq War. He told me in 2004, “I fear for this country if George Bush is reelected.”

An astute observer, the Kansas City-born Asner’s political interests went beyond war and peace, and it’s fitting that the thespian best known for portraying the newsman Lou Grant on the popular 1970s television sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then as the title character in CBS’s spinoff dramatic series, Lou Grant, had much to say about mainstream media, which had often vilified him for taking public progressive stands.

In 2018, Asner, who was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, told me: “Donald Trump, as big a putz as he is, is correct in saying that the news in many ways has been manufactured in the past and will continue to be. It’s always the one-percenters who create the agitation, the angst, to go to war. There’s always a core to attach to, there is a bottom line to the truth. Only research and endeavor on our part will make that truth surface.”

The occasion of that Q&A was Asner’s co-starring in the live stage show God Help Us!, a political satire about television pundits. On August 21, a week before he died, I dined with Asner and others; when that play was mentioned, he humorously made sure we all knew that he played the title role: God. Three years prior, he’d told me: “God’s offer of a compromise is certainly helpful. If Americans are willing to compromise with one another, they’d eventually find there’s no barrier to reach peace on Earth.”

During the 1980s, when he served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, Asner openly clashed with the Reagan Administration over its lethal policies in Central America. This was an especially sensitive point because Ronald Reagan had also previously served as SAG’s president from 1947-1951 and in 1959. Reagan presided over the actors’ labor union during the period of the Hollywood Blacklist, when hundreds of Communist Party and left-leaning talents, plus those who refused to inform on the political activities and associations of their colleagues, were banned from working in the motion picture industry. 

Reagan is believed to have collaborated with HUAC and to have been an FBI informer secretly finking on actors while he was their Guild’s president. In 2018, Asner told me: “He agreed to give his thoughts on the ‘commies’ in Hollywood privately to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Reagan was quite clandestine in the way he operated.”

Asner’s role as a former Screen Actors Guild president led to my interviewing him for The Progressive last April, when he candidly commented on the decision by the Guild’s National Board to expel Donald Trump—who’d starred in The Apprentice—from the union after the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Pulling no punches, Asner told me: “First of all, it’s laughable that Donald Trump would be considered a union man in anybody’s eyes or ears. We’re better off without him. He didn’t get us any brownie points because of the intensity of his followers out there. We don’t need him and he certainly doesn’t need us.”

In 2018, Asner co-founded the Ed Asner Family Center, for disabled children and their families. In an April 2021 telephone interview, he told me why he co-established this nonprofit: “I have an autistic son, Charlie. My son [Matt] has an autistic son.”

Like Lou Grant, Ed Asner was a compassionate, kind man who had a gruff exterior that cloaked a heart of gold, a dedicated champion of the underdog. Hollywood and the social justice movement have lost one of their top talents and staunchest stalwart defenders of human rights. And I have lost a man whom I am proud to say became my friend.

© 2021 The Progressive

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