I have never lost sight of how fortunate I am to have Ed Asner in my life. The seven-time Emmy and five-time Golden Globe Award winning actor, and former Screen Actors Guild President and Life Achievement Award winner, is one of the most celebrated actor/activists in our industry’s history. With credits including THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, LOU GRANT, ROOTS, JFK, ELF and UP, he has managed to secure the love and respect of fans at every age. We met on a music video. Yes, you read that right. Ed agreed to be in a music video for me a few years ago, (TIL MY VOICE IS GONE by The Old Ceremony) – which will forever serve as a reminder that no one artist is too great to be approached. Every artist of character is, ultimately, someone who wants to do good work. He has since been gracious enough to appear on stage for me in 110 STORIES at The Geffen Playhouse, and provide a constant stream of support in my artistic endeavors. I affectionately refer to him as my “L.A. grandpa,” for he is someone who is there with advice, a lot of bark, too much honesty for his own good, and an often unreasonable belief that he can’t be happy unless everyone else is as well.
Life is busy, both for Ed and myself, but anytime I email him asking for a lunch date, he always gives me a time within the month, assuming that he is in town (that said, for a good portion of the last year, at the age of 81, he has been touring the country, with his one-man show: an honest, dynamic, 90-minute portrayal of FDR). This lunch is different though, and he knows it. This one is… on the record. However, no real agenda exists. It’s merely an excuse to capture a fraction of his wisdom in print.
I offer to pick him up at his home in Valley Village – he still drives, but judiciously. It’s a modest house, in no way indicative of the person who resides inside, that, like it’s inhabitant, contains a rich history of our industry. Every tabletop has a plethora of awards on it, not for need of self-reassurance, but more due to economy and lack of storage space. The coffee table, nightstand, mantle, office desk, and more all house Emmy Awards. A furniture piece in the kitchen contains five Golden Globes, all side-by-side. Another table contains a hodgepodge of awards from TV Guide to TV Land – all denoting some sort of life achievement. The rest of the mantle, which, as said, is bookended by Emmys, contains a variety of items that can only be associated with an icon. A handful of dolls representing the likes of everyone from Lou Grant to Carl Fredricksen (his character in Disney/Pixar’s UP), a photo of him playing Celebrity Jeopardy, his grinning mug gracing the front of a Wheaties cereal box, and a handful of photos with friends over the years – from embracing Betty White in a bear hug to playing games with Richard Dreyfuss. Everything feels commonplace in its space, but it adds up to an extraordinary life.
Even before Ed voices his choice of restaurant, I know where we are going, for often our elders become creatures of habit. The Eclectic Café in North Hollywood is near his house, boasts affordable meals, and the management always greets him with a hug upon entrance. I can’t blame him for being a repeat customer. We sit down and order. I know this lunch will not be as casual as those previous, because as I tell him, it’s my goal to in some small way, communicate to others how special these outings are to me. “You’re kind of like my Morrie, ya know?” He looks like he wants to throw up upon hearing that. I ignore it, and take it for what it is: an expression from a man who knows his bark is part of his charm. I know, in the end, the conversation will take its own path, as it always does.
“What was your first role?” I begin. “I was paid for the first time when