Mark Larson with Ed Asner Credit: Courtesy Mark Larson

“Do you prefer I use Ed or Edward in my book about you? People always call you Ed, but when I see your name on the screen, it’s always Edward.”

“The reason I use Edward in credits is because Ed is over too fast. It doesn’t maintain the screen or the page. So, I prefer Edward. Edward Asner. Now, Mark Larson, that’s a name that holds the page.”

“It’s the exact same number of syllables as Ed Asner.”

“It is? So it is. Ha! Well fuck you, then.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re most welcome.”

On the day Ed Asner died, August 29, my Facebook newsfeed became a ceaseless waterfall of tributes and remembrances. Everyone had a story to tell, a picture to post, or an autograph to show, signifying their connection to this man who had spent so much time in their homes. To have met Ed Asner, however briefly, is to know him, and to know him, it seems, is to consider him a “dear friend,” to claim a place in his hallowed orbit. And that’s eminently understandable. When he sat with you, his probing eyes took you in and could swallow you whole. His curiosity about you was genuine. And it was at once intimidating and flattering. 

My own relationship with Ed began in 2015 when I interviewed him at his home outside of LA for my book Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater. I wanted to talk to him because his acting career had begun when he joined Paul Sills’s and David Shepherd’s Playwrights Theatre Club in the early 1950s while attending the University of Chicago. 

Though he would have a small role in Ensemble because his time in Chicago had been brief, he had made an outsized impression on me. Soon after Ensemble was released, I turned my attention to Ed’s story alone. He’d fascinated me from the first moment of that first meeting. It was more than just the wingspan and longevity of his celebrated 70-year career and his commitment as an outspoken activist. What drew me to him, first, was a gravitas, complexity, and depth of feeling I sensed when I sat with him at his cluttered, Emmy-flanked desk. I knew I would want to explore it more fully at some point. I later talked with actor Lindsay Crouse, with whom he shared the screen in the 1983 Sidney Lumet film, Daniel. She expressed with clarity the questions that would interest me most.  She said she would look at him at times and wonder, “Who are you? And how did you get that way? And where did you find the courage?” 

I felt irresistibly compelled to delve into those simple but elegant questions and to try to answer them. So, just before the pandemic, I scheduled a flight to LA to propose an idea for what I called a “composite portrait.” It would offer the reader a 360-degree view of Ed Asner the man, and Edward Asner, the man on the screen, in his many manifestations—actor, activist, Screen Actors Guild president, family man, friend, colleague, raconteur, provocateur, etc. etc. I had wanted to return to LA to ask him in person, so I booked a flight and an Airbnb, but the pandemic and travel restrictions in March 2020 smothered that plan. Like millions of others, I had not yet fully grasped the severity of the threat, and I had been determined to go anyway. But once I gave it a clear eye, I realized I did not want to be the guy who caught the virus on the plane and brought down one of American television’s great, most beloved, and most enduring entertainment icons. 

So instead, we talked on the phone. With the aid of a carefully crafted argument that I had printed out, including answers to questions I anticipated he would ask, I nervously explained what I wanted to do. When I finished, I said, “If you want to think about this, though, you don’t need to decide immediately. You can . . . ”

 “Sure,” he said. “Why not? Let’s start now.” 

“Really?”

 “Of course. It’s about me, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t I want to do this?”

Ed Asner and Mark Larson on Zoom. Courtesy Mark Larson

Confined to our homes by the pandemic––mine in Evanston, his outside of LA––Ed and I talked via Zoom almost weekly at first, then every other week, then less frequently while I worked on the material that I’d gathered from him and conducted interviews with many others. 

Like Lou Grant, Ed speaks loudly, brusquely, sometimes grumbling, sometimes growling––or was he clearing his throat crudely and with great force? It was hard sometimes to discern the difference. Other times he spoke in a low, mellifluous, intimate register with lengthy pauses, like Captain Davies, the conflicted slave-ship captain he played in the 1977 miniseries Roots––usually when he spoke of his doubts and regrets, which he did candidly and readily. I learned to wait out his long pauses because what followed was invariably worth the wait––a deeper insight, a more candid reflection.

He always had a second phone nearby. It would jangle loudly like a wind chime dropped down a cement staircase. And he habitually stopped our conversation cold to answer it. “Yeah?” he’d bark. “Who? The fuck you want?”

The first time I was on the receiving end of that kind of greeting was when I called him, perhaps for the second or third time. He said, “Oh, fuck, no, you again!”

When I mentioned this feature of Ed’s conduct to his longtime friend and fellow actor/activist, M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell, he laughed. “That just means you’re part of the club. It’s his way of saying ‘I love you.’”

The next time I called, his first words were, “I don’t love you anymore.” 

“What happened?” 

“I got to know you better.”

This time I laughed.

I’ve seen him enter a room and spray it, as if with a garden hose, with insults and crude remarks, and people would receive them as if he was a priest anointing them with blessings. For first-time acquaintances, it was a baptism. He had seen you and liked you enough to toss a rude observation or insult your way. Hey, Tartuffe, what’s with the hair? Or, Why don’t you go fuck yourself, if you don’t mind my asking.

Not everyone enjoyed it, though. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it,” actor Elliott Gould told me. “I’m sensitive to that kind of thing.” 

Ed was notoriously and relentlessly foul-mouthed, often vulgar, and goddamn he was good at it. “Get over here, asshole, and give me a kiss.” It was so much a part of who he was that when I received news of his death via text, I cursed reflexively, repeatedly, lovingly, Fuck! Goddamnit! and it seemed a fitting tribute.

As we talked, over the past 17 months I was often impressed by how vivid this nonagenarian’s memory was, but even so, he’d curse himself for the occasional name or title from decades ago that he couldn’t readily recall. “Never mind,” I’d say. “That’s stuff I can just look up. I’ll plug it in like you did remember.” 

“I know, but Goddamnit! Pisses me off.” I think the consummate pro wanted to be on top of it and to appear on top of it. I sensed how important that was to him, so I often just waited while he searched for the name. And he often found it.

Sometimes, when our conversations ran long, he’d experience physical discomfort from sitting too long in one place, having had multiple surgeries. That and being 91. One afternoon, he lurched forward, his ample shaggy eyebrows close to the lens. “Ah fuck. Goddammit!”

“What’s wrong?”

“My left ass cheek hurts like hell. I fell on it the other day.” 

I asked if he wanted to finish our conversation another time. “No, no. Keep going. I want to keep going.” And there, I think, is Ed Asner’s sustaining life force in two words: Keep going. 

Before the pandemic curtailed his opportunities to work, he had continued to appear in TV shows as recently as 2020, like Dead to Me, Grace and Frankie, Blue Bloods, and others, to do voice-over work for animated shows and video games, as well as two live shows he would take from city to city. He had reprised his role as the voice of Up’s Carl Fredericksen for Pixar’s new Dug Days, and had other projects in the works, like a short film written by his daughter, Liza, who also served as his booker and producer for the live shows. One month before his death, he had performed his live show God Help Us in Montana. He was scheduled to appear for a weekend with M*A*S*H star Jamie Farr in Two Jews, Talking at Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina just two weeks after his death. Anyone who knows Ed knows he would have been there if he could. No fucking question. “Sitting at home,” Liza told me a few days after he died, “wasn’t good for him.” 

A worldwide plague and his own death seem to have been the only impediments too insurmountable to thwart his bone-deep need (read: obsession) to work, which had propelled him from the beginning. As a former English teacher, I once asked him if he perceived an overarching (god help me) theme that ran throughout his life. He said, “Aw hell, I have no idea. What do you think it is?” 

“Persistence.”

“Well,” he said. “I think you’ve nailed it.”

I often asked his friends and colleagues what drove him. Susan Loewenberg, founder and producing director of LA Theatre Works, responded, “He’s very good at what he does, and he wants to do it. He never lost the love of doing it. He has a genuine, unfiltered love of being an actor and has a huge appetite for work.”

Actor Paul Rudd, who costarred with Ed on Broadway in Craig Wright’s Grace in 2012 (Chicagoan Dexter Bullard directed the show), admired his commitment. “Eight shows a week on Broadway!” he said. “That’s hard work! My God. And this is a guy who is what, 150 years old? He’s worked for decades, been successful for a long time, lives in California, but comes out to New York away from his house for months. And he’s not phoning it in; he’s not doing it just to work. I mean, he cares about the work. I think that was the thing that was the most amazing to me. And I would think, my God, I hope, I hope when I’m his age I can care that much about anything because that seems to me to be the secret to any kind of longevity: to just care and to stay interested enough, like Ed.”

Lindsay Crouse’s question, “Who are you,” could be tricky to answer. Ed often blurred the line between Ed Asner, the man, and Edward Asner, the man on the screen. In social situations he often played a bawdy, foul-mouthed but still soft-centered version of Lou Grant. When I asked his younger daughter, Katie, about that, she said, “Well, he loves to shock, loves to shine. And it’s gotten him into some trouble, but I think part of it is he doesn’t know what else to say sometimes, and I think this is just easier.”

“I think it’s what people expect from him,” author and playwright Jeffrey Sweet told me. “He once mentioned to me that half the people who approach him mentioned ‘spunk.’ And that’s a cue of what they want out of him. They want a taste of Lou Grant, and it’s less wearing to play that character than it is to reveal yourself, candidly. I think Ed’s got this persona which everybody enjoys, wants, knows, references, and I think it’s just easier for him to be that guy.” 

Ed was uncommonly available to his fans, and his adult children spoke with me about the toll that took on them as individuals and as a family when they were kids, especially after The Mary Tyler Moore Show changed everything. “We went from being able to go to sit in a restaurant and not have anyone bother us,” Matthew Asner, Liza’s twin brother, told me, “to a point where we’d go to a restaurant and it would be nonstop people stopping at the table. My dad is the kind of person who is very welcoming to that kind of thing.”

Ed had expressed his own regret about that impact on his family to me before, so after I’d talked with Matt, I asked Ed what he considered the downside of being a celebrity. He wasn’t in the mood for that conversation. He groused, “Aw, I don’t know, man. Come on. What kind of a cockamamie question is that?”

I waited.

“Ok. I can’t scratch my crotch as readily as I otherwise might. How’s that?”

I tried to get more from him, then dropped it. I knew that it was the nonstop attention that he welcomed. I mean craved. Or do I mean required? Ed so loved being with people.

Mark Larson, Ed Asner, and Mary Larson (the author’s wife). Courtesy Mark Larson

Another of his characteristics that I found fascinating was that Ed is both sides of a coin seen at once. Michael Shannon, another of Ed’s costars in Grace and an ensemble member of Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre, captured this duality well when he described Ed to me as “a jolly grouch.” It’s true. In the same breath or gesture, Ed could be affable and irritable, plainspoken and erudite, complex and basic, gentle and brusque, kind and dismissive, courtly-mannered and inappropriately bawdy, opaque and transparent. He was a sledgehammer and a kid glove. He was courageous and he was . . . well, he was courageous, as Lindsay had marveled. He fought hard, at times intemperately and at great risk, but always with his whole heart for causes he believed in, most commonly those that favored the underdog. 

On February 15, 1982, for example, during Lou Grant’s fifth season, CBS news anchor Dan Rather began the CBS Evening News with this:

Television’s Lou Grant, actor Ed Asner, was in Washington today. He was leading a group of show business personalities in opposing President Reagan’s policies in El Salvador. They announced a campaign to raise a million dollars as a donation to Salvadoran rebels.

Among the other “personalities” were actors Lee Grant, Howard Hesseman, and Ralph Waite, but it was Ed who acted as spokesperson. When he took questions from the press, he quickly but belatedly realized he had made a significant error. A reporter asked, “Mr. Asner, you said you’re in favor of free elections in El Salvador. What would you do if that resulted in a communist government?” He responded, “If it’s the government that the people of El Salvador choose, then I say, let them have it.” That response was interpreted widely in the press and among far-right conservatives, always hungry for a target, as support for the communists. All hell broke loose.

Ed would receive death threats and require a bodyguard. Major Lou Grant sponsors pulled out, one by one. But he kept speaking up, even though his producers urged him to stop or at least tone it down. And then suddenly, while planning was underway for a sixth season, the show was abruptly cancelled. CBS maintains it was because of ratings. Ed, to his dying day, believed it was political. 

He was most certainly bold and aggressive, but that didn’t mean he was impervious to the slings and arrows that came his way.

“After they took me off the air,” Ed told me, “I felt very alone, very deserted and alone. I was not living at home. I was separated from my wife by then. And then, out of the blue, Martin Sheen, who was already respected and adored by the left, took out a full-page ad in Variety and the [Hollywood] Reporter that said, “Ed Asner, you are not alone.” That so buoyed me up, I wept, and knew I would be forever grateful to him.”

“How do you feel about that press conference, today?” I asked.

“I felt honored. I was on an express train, a fast train. I wanted to leap on it, and to be the headlight as we plunged through the darkness.”

“Though that press conference would exact an enormous toll, I get the sense from you that it must have been an exhilarating moment.”

“It was. That it was. Being a leader at that time was newfound ground for me and a surprise, but . . . ‘devil take the hindmost,’ I guess is the cliché one employs. Didn’t think of the consequences. But yes, at the time, it was exhilarating.”

“Is it true you were blacklisted after that for quite some time?”

“I have the feeling that I’m not worthy enough to be considered a blacklisted actor, to be identified thusly. As we sit here, today, talking about it, I think maybe what I am is a poseur who yearns to be such a lefty that he wants to get buried among the great heroes who got blacklisted during the real blacklist in showbiz. Why? Is it that I don’t want to be left behind? I was blacklisted, yes, but it was not a major media blacklist other than getting the show cancelled. So yes, that was major, but it wasn’t sweeping like the original blacklist.”

“A poseur?” I asked. “Did you always feel that way?”

He paused and his voice lowered. “I don’t know. I guess I’m running most of the time, concerned that they’ll find out I’m a phony. Every time I get an honor, I wonder why honor me? Are you misguided? Are you a dummy? Are you seeing me wrongly? I don’t know.” He paused and I waited. “I was pissed off, though, that I was accused of being a commie because I was not guilty as assumed. I may have had inner communistic sympathies, but I never signed any paper, paid any dues that would convict me of such a . . . ‘heinous deed.’”

But these things linger. Ed’s family felt compelled, several days after his death, to tweet, “A lot of people are saying our father was a socialist. While he embraced that term, and certainly believed in Socialism, he preferred the term Humanist. There is no truer description of his beliefs.”

 As I gathered interviews from others, I would pull out snippets and play them for Ed for his reaction. With his worry about being a “phony” in mind, I played him a passage from my conversation with actor Jason Alexander, with whom he had costarred in the 2002 film, The Man Who Saved Christmas. “Ed,” he said, “is of the generation before social media that posed the question to all of us in the field of entertainment or communications about whether or not you take your politics to the world because it will cost you. Up until social media exploded, my responsibility [as a celebrity], for the most part, was to bring focus and attention to the people who knew more than I did, people with whom I was impressed, intrigued, and aligned. Ed trumped us, though, because he did the work. [He knew] it was not enough to be the mouthpiece. You have to be the motor, the engine, the hands. Ed believes, and I think he’s right, that because artists have the microphone, they have a responsibility to use it.”

“That’s a very intelligent statement, I think,” Ed said after I played the clip. “I’d put it this way: an unused microphone is like a limp dick.”

Bill Zimmerman was founder of Medical Aid to El Salvador and the man who had devised the press conference during which Ed handed a check for $25,000 to a doctor from the region. The money was intended for use by innocent victims of the war who were much in need of medical care. It was a humanitarian effort, not, as Rather and much of the press had reported, handed over to “Salvadoran rebels.” 

I told Bill about my conversation with Ed about those days, and he said, “I think he was acting as a patriot. I think he was risking his career and his livelihood to stand up for what he believed was right. The country at the time had been traumatized by Vietnam and it was still a near memory. People like Ed, people of conscience, felt that if there was a chance to avoid a similar experience in Central America, they had to stand up and speak out. And Ed did that with the courage of a real patriot.”

When I spoke with Liza after his death, we talked a bit about his activism, the many causes he supported, and how important that was to him. “I know that people respected him as an actor,” she said, “but I think it was very, very important to him to be a good man and do right by everybody. He was a good man, a good, good man.”

Ed Asner offering a dog biscuit to Mark Larson at their last meeting. Courtesy Mark Larson

The last time I saw Ed in person was May 19, 2021. Now vaccinated, I had finally been able to return to LA and spent two afternoons with him at his home. He was scheduled for in-home physical therapy that afternoon. I thought it would be a logical time for me to depart, so I planned my time and remaining questions around that. As the hour drew near, I packed up my recorders and notes. And we just chatted. Though I’d spent many hours with him in the past year and a half, talking without a recorder between us was something I hadn’t often had the luxury to do. The tone of our conversation and even the atmosphere in the room seemed to change. We were both more relaxed. Two friends waiting for a bus.

He told me Gavin MacLeod, who played Murray on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, had just entered hospice that morning. “That leaves Betty White, John Amos, and me,” he said. “Gavin was originally supposed to play Lou Grant, did I tell you that?” “No,” I lied. “Gavin told me about it, so why don’t you tell me your version?” He told the story and then said, “Can you imagine how different that would have been? For him, and the show, and for me?” 

I have since wished that I had taped that conversation so I could try to discern what made it so . . . well, forgive me, but: magical. And yet, I know that if I had taped it, it would have been a different conversation, entirely. It would have to be our most ephemeral conversation and remain just between us. When the physical therapist arrived, I asked Ed, as I was in the habit of doing throughout the pandemic, if I could shake his hand. “Of course, you can. Why the hell not?” 

“Well, the pandemic . . .” 

“Oh fuck that.”

I don’t want to make more of this than there was, but he held my hand tightly and at length and pulled me toward him. “You don’t have to go. Here, have a dog biscuit, you’ve earned it.”

“It’s time for your appointment.”

 “Come on. You can get physical therapy, too. You look like you could use it.” When I said I was scheduled to meet someone, he said, “Come back, tomorrow.”

I said I couldn’t. But I could have made changes, I should have, I wish I had, but you know how that is. You think you have time. I left saying, “I’ll be back.”

This past week, I have found comfort in a line from Robert Anderson’s play, I Never Sang for My Father. “Death ends a life,” he wrote, “but it does not end a relationship.” When I apply that sentiment to my relationship with Ed and remember Edward’s countless roles on the screen, I realize that his final contradiction isn’t final at all: Ed is dead, now, and living imperishably.

If you’d like to honor Ed’s memory and his commitment to worthy causes, please consider a donation to the Ed Asner Family Center which “gives children and adults of all levels of ability a chance at dignity, confidence, and self-respect.” For more info: edasnerfamilycenter.org.