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Ed Asner’s most beloved roles were curmudgeons with soft hearts

Ed Asner arrives at the 2010 Academy Awards in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

Don’t let the famous Lou Grant line fool you. Ed Asner loved spunk.

Consider Asner’s audition simply to land what he called his first “role of a lifetime”: the lovably gruff TV newsman on the legendary sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Before Lou could hire young Minneapolis transplant Mary Richards in the sitcom’s 1970 pilot, the show’s creators had to see just why they should hire this guy Eddie Asner.

His audition scene centered on Lou grilling Mary with sometimes overly personal questions during her job interview to become associate producer at WJM-TV. Asner must have nailed it, right?

“He did well,” “Mary Tyler Moore Show” co-creator James L. Brooks said by phone Sunday, holding his “well” to mean fine but no slam-dunk. Yet a moment of moxie altered the course of Asner’s career.

“He came back feeling he didn’t do well enough,” Brooks said. Asner did it again in a wilder, all-out manner. “And then he just topped it by a lot.”

“I still don’t know where that gumption came from, I had never talked like that before,” Asner wrote in his 2019 autobiography, “Son of a Junkman.” He noted: “I’m lucky I did though because I’ve heard that my [initial] audition was so bad that they were considering not bringing me back.” Instead, he delivered the second time by reading the scene “like a real meshugana.”

“I sounded crazy,” he wrote, “but they laughed their asses off.”

That laughter launched the actor’s lasting persona as one of Hollywood’s preeminent comedy curmudgeons.

Asner, who died Sunday in Tarzana, Calif., at age 91, would go on to play Lou Grant for a dozen years — first on the half-hour sitcom till 1977, then on the socially conscious one-hour dramatic series “Lou Grant,” co-created by Brooks, in which Lou becomes city editor at a Los Angeles newspaper, the version that the actor said was more like himself than any other role. He received 12 Emmy nominations — winning five times — for playing the character inspired by “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite” news editor John Merriman.

Obituary: Ed Asner, actor who twice had the role of a lifetime as newsman Lou Grant, dies at 91

Asner worked on stage and screen long before inhabiting Lou Grant, honing his comedic timing in Chicago theater alongside such future stars as Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Barbara Harris. And he said he was effectively blacklisted for years in Hollywood because of his liberal activism during the Reagan era, at the end of the character’s run — writing that he believed his political outspokenness prompted the cancellation of “Lou Grant.” Yet within his long scroll of memorable screen credits that includes “Roots,” “Rich Man, Poor Man” and “Elf,” he said, he eventually landed a “second role of a lifetime” besides Lou Grant: voicing the balloon-hoisted Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s 2009 Oscar-winning feature, “Up.”

“I remember when we first met, we showed him drawings of Carl,” Pixar chief Pete Docter, who directed “Up,” said by email Sunday. “He looked at the stocky, stoic, white-haired design and growled, ‘That doesn’t even look like me!’ We knew immediately he was perfect.”

In many ways, the two roles for which he is most beloved, Santa performances aside, are fitting mirrors of each other: The crusty grump with a soft center. He is the barking grouser who can be won over by a younger person’s optimistic, higher-pitched spunk.

“Ed was a real-life Carl Fredricksen: a thick veneer of grouch covering a loving, tender heart. He was full of life and strong opinions, and happy to share both with anyone,” Docter said.

Asner’s irascible image could melt away during conversation, leaving his gentler humor and compassion. Brooks said the actor was “all sweetness” in person: “You see the good guy — you see someone who’s stable and purposeful and funny.”

In the first episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” titled “Love Is All Around,” Lou Grant lets Mary Richards (Moore) through the door of his small office. He brusquely asks her age and religion and marital status and whether she types — the exchange heightening in hilarity as Mary answers previous questions whenever uncomfortable with the current one. It’s a note-perfect duet of crossed-wire communication.

Asner’s Grant is sharp and direct, projecting lived-in authority with his rolled-up sleeves and short tie — “and liquor in the drawer,” Brooks noted. (Thanks to Lou Grant, I felt immediately comfortable with the late editor who hired me for my first writing job — a no-nonsense, old-school newsman out of New Jersey and Philly who, like Lou Grant, was a colorful character in the newsroom and the barroom. Even when gruff, both had a twinkle in their eye.)

In “Up,” Asner’s Carl reluctantly lets the young scout Russell through the door of his small, floating home. Russell, like Mary in the early seasons, is all earnestness and positivity — a rich comedic balance to the hardened mentor.

Part of the magic of Lou and Carl is that Asner always let the humanity shine through. Even when Lou was divorced from his beloved wife, Edie — and even when Carl was widowed from his beloved wife, Ellie — we never stopped seeing the young romantic beneath the older man’s scowl.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” prompted audience sniffles in its finale, when the newsroom gang shared what Moore said was a “spontaneous” group embrace, and shuffled to a tissue box while maintaining their emotional huddle. And “Up” has made millions weep, especially during the wordless “Carl and Ellie” musical montage — what “Up” co-director Bob Peterson once told me was the best several minutes in all of feature animation.

The actor wore his heart on his sleeve — even when that sleeve was rolled up and ready for the next assignment. And he could pivot seamlessly. His WJM newsman could intimidate idiot-anchor Ted Baxter (Ted Knight, as the original Ron Burgundy) in one scene, counsel a self-doubting Mary in the next, and be embarrassed by the sexual overtures of Sue Anne Nivens (Betty White, one of the last living regulars from the “Mary Tyler Moore Show”) in another.

So just how good was Ed Asner, this down-to-earth son of a Kansas City junkman who broke free from his parents’ towropes of heavy skepticism by becoming an A-list actor?

Replied Brooks: “As good as you wished for.”

Read more:

Three suburban guys had a crazy dream: To make a sitcom. Then Ed Asner signed on.