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Remembering an Icon: The Life and Impact of Ed Asner

The late actor was a trailblazer, a soldier, a socialist, and an icon.

Over the weekend, beloved character actor Ed Asner died at his home in Tarzana, California. As celebrities chime in with personal outpourings of grief, it's important to also celebrate Asner's life and achievements.

Asner was born in 1929 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Kansas. At first, he aspired to become a journalist, but switched to drama after a professor told him that news jobs were unprofitable. While he honed his acting talents, Asner worked various odd jobs to sustain himself: taxi driver, steel mill worker, and soldier in the United States Army Signal Corps, among others. These experiences heavily shaped his political beliefs, and he later became an avowed socialist.

In the 1950s, he began to gain momentum as an actor, making guest appearances at The Second City and playing a small uncredited role alongside Elvis Presley in Kid Galahad. Over the following two decades, Asner had small parts in shows such as Route 66, Stoney Burke, and Mission: Impossible before landing his iconic role as news director Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970. He became an instant hit after growling the infamous line "You've got spunk. I hate spunk." on the show's first episode. Amid his rise to stardom, Asner became president of the Screen Actors Guild, a platform which he used to champion issues such as unionization, single-payer healthcare, and an end to US intervention in Latin America.

Seven years later, when Moore's comedy series ended, Asner took the Lou Grant character in a more dramatic direction with the one-hour drama series Lou Grant, which lasted until its cancellation in 1982 (Asner suspected that CBS ended the show due to his activism). Because of this transition, Asner became one of the privileged few to win an Emmy Award for the same role in both a sitcom and a drama. Afterwards, Asner continued to challenge himself with darker roles, such as slave ship captain Thomas Davies in the ABCminiseriesRootsand problematic patriarch Axel Jordache in Rich Man, Poor Man. Asner won Emmy Awards for both of these roles, cementing him as a successful dramatic actor.

Later in life, Asner became known for his voice acting. He voiced iconic characters such as irate news director J. Jonah Jameson in the 1990s animatedSpider-Man series and zesty gangster Roland Daggett on Batman: The Animated Series. This peaked when he provided the voice of hoary curmudgeon Carl Fredricksen in the Pixar film Up, which won two Academy Awards. During this interval, Asner also returned to his comedic roots with an appearance as Santa Claus in Elf alongside Will Ferrell and the recurring segment "Does This Impress Ed Asner? on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Shortly before his death, Asner granted an interview to Advocate Channel, where he spoke about his most iconic roles and reminisced about his friendship with The Mary Tyler Moore Show alum Betty White. At the time, the two of them were some of the series's last two surviving co-stars, alongside Cloris Leachman and Gavin MacLeod (who both passed away in 2021).

Asner's acclaimed autobiography, Son of Junkman: My Life from the West Bottoms of Kansas City to the Bright Lights of Hollywood, is now available on Amazon.

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