Obituary: Ed Asner, actor and activist who shot to stardom as the gruff newsman in ‘Lou Grant’

Ed Asner, who has died aged 91, starred on television in Lou Grant, a drama set in the newsroom of a busy American daily paper, until his own outspoken and radical political views caused the series to be abruptly dropped. Late in life he lent poignance to the voice of the old man in the computer-animated film Up.

Lou Grant was a spin-off from the successful but lightweight 1970s sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, set in a TV newsroom; it was much grittier, serious, and more intelligent, with the stocky, bearlike Asner in the title role running the general news desk at the fictional Los Angeles Tribune.

Pretty much everything on and off the diary came his way: the idealist in him was particularly exercised by such controversial issues as refugees from the Vietnam War, gun control and child abuse. As the paunchy, balding Grant, Asner fitted his gruff character snugly, right down to his thunder flash temperament.

The show was axed in 1982 and Asner given 48 hours to clear out of his dressing room and get off the set on account of his vociferous support for communist rebels in El Salvador.

His espousal of liberal and environmentalist causes, and his activism on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union and other radical political groups might have been tolerated in Hollywood where a liberal consensus prevails. But in May 1982 his flight to Washington to deliver $25,000 in medical aid for the El Salvador rebels, rankled profoundly with the American Screen Actors’ Guild.

The youngest son of a Jewish scrap metal dealer, Edward Asner was born on November 15, 1929 in Kansas City, Missouri.

He acted while studying at the University of Chicago but dropped out after two years. He drifted through numerous jobs before being drafted into the US army in 1951 and sent to France with the Signal Corps.

Shortly before his discharge, he was invited to join a new repertory theatre company in Chicago by a man who had seen him act in university and over the following two years he appeared in 26 plays.

M​​​​​​oving to California led to a steady run of character parts in various television dramas, starting with the police procedural Naked City, and in 1964 he landed his first series, co-starring with Richard Crenna in the legal drama Slattery’s People. A film debut came the following year, playing a hired thug in The Satan Bug, followed by The Slender Thread (both 1965), in which he was cast as a detective. He played another cop in the Elvis Presley vehicle Change of Habit (1969).

A part as a bad-tempered police chief in a television film caught the attention of Mary Tyler Moore’s husband, the producer Grant Tinker, who was casting the role of Lou Grant in his wife’s new sitcom.  The show made its debut in September 1970 to critical and popular acclaim.

In 1977 Asner became the only actor to win, in a single year, an award from the Television Critics Circle for best supporting actor in a drama (Roots) and a comedy (The Mary Tyler Moore Show). He also won seven Emmys and five Golden Globes.

He spent much of the 1980s in professional purdah, not to mention therapy, as a result of the El Salvador controversy, but in early 1990 he flew to London to co-star as the villainous American Harvey Metcalfe in the miniseries Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less.

Among his later film roles — which included Santa Claus in the comedy Elf (2003) — the highlight came in 2009 with his touching portrayal of Carl Fredricksen in the Disney-Pixar hit film Up.

Ed Asner married, in 1959, Nancy Lou Sykes, a literary agent, with whom he had a son and two daughters. They divorced in 1988 and he married, in 1998, Cindy Gilmore; that marriage was dissolved. He had another son with Carol Vogelman.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]

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