This Day in Jewish History

1929: Yitzhak Ed Asner Is Born, Will Become Lou Grant Instead of Laborer

After a brief stint at a car factory and two years in the Korean War, Ed Asner found his calling, on TV.

Ed Asner as Lou Grant, from the television program of the same name. Sept. 20, 1977.
Wikimedia Commons

November 15, 1929, is the birthdate of Ed Asner, the actor who won five Emmy awards during the 1970s portraying the character Lou Grant, first in the sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and then in the spinoff drama “Lou Grant" – which he claims was canceled because of his political activism.

Yitzhak Edward Asner was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in the adjacent city of the same name in Kansas. He was the youngest of five children born to Jewish-Russian immigrants David Morris Asner and the former Elizabeth Seliger. The father David was born in the village of Nacha, outside Eishyshok, Lithuania. (The town was the subject of historian Yaffa Eliach’s 1999 “There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok,” whose Jews were annihilated in the Holocaust.)

David was the founder and owner of Asner Iron and Steel, a scrap-metal yard in Kansas City, Kansas, that is still in operation today.

Ed attended Wynadotte High School, in Kansas, where he played football, served as editor of the school newspaper, and began his acting career. Graduating in 1947, he then entered the University of Chicago. He began studying political science, but left the college after two years to focus on acting.

'A goddamned slave factory'

Asner worked briefly on an auto assembly line for General Motors (which he described as “a goddamned slave factory”) and served with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the Korean War, from 1951 to 1953. He returned briefly to Chicago before heading east to New York in 1955, where he appeared briefly in a revival of “Threepenny Opera.”

By 1961, however, he had moved to Los Angeles, and began to appear regularly on television.

By the time Asner was cast as the cruel-to-be-kind Lou Grant, in 1970, he had already had guest spots in dozens of popular shows, including “The Outer Limits,” “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” “Naked City” and “Route 66.” But it was in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” created by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, that he attained iconic status as the tough but ultimately decent Minneapolis TV producer who is better at bringing out the best in his employees than in running his own personal life.

So beloved was “Mary Tyler Moore” and its characters that it spun off three other series – “Rhoda” (starring Valerie Harper), “Phyllis” (with Cloris Leachman) and “Lou Grant.”

“Lou Grant” was a very different show, beginning with its one-hour length, and the fact that it was a drama. “Mary Tyler Moore” had sometimes touched on serious topics, but in “Lou Grant,” there was an opportunity to go into them in depth, by way of Lou’s team at the Los Angeles Tribune, the fictional paper where he takes a job as city editor after he is fired from his Minnesota TV job.

Fan of Lyndon LaRouche

The role of Grant earned Asner five of his seven Emmys, but despite its critical acclaim and high ratings, CBS cancelled the show after five seasons. Asner has often claimed that it was because of his own active political life.

Asner served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild (1981-85), during which time he spoke out against America’s support for the military government of El Salvador in its fight against the leftist guerrilla militias in the country's civil war. He also helped an organization that provided medical aid to the country, work that was mistakenly conflated by some with his work at SAG.

Ed Asner interview

Asner’s political activism has continued to the present day, and sometimes has crossed over to support for less-than-reputable causes. A decade ago, he campaigned for an “independent” investigation of the 9/11 terror attacks, hinting that he thought the U.S. government had to have had some sort of role in that day’s events.  He has also, according to the NNDB website, contributed financially to the perennial presidential candidacies of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche.

Today, at age 87, Asner is still going strong. He has great success doing voice-only roles in such animated films as “Up,” from 2009. During the last year, among other things, he was in New York performing in a one-man show called “A Man and His Prostate,” and last spring he lent his services to the shooting of a pilot for a low-budget, independent TV show called “Bennie’s Gym.”