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 I joined a playwright’s theater club after getting out of the army. It was populated with people from the University of Chicago.” “Do you have a favorite role?” I ask. “Favorite role.” A pause, while he searches through a catalogue of parts that is likely well into the four digits now. “I loved doing KING HENRY IV PART I. It was my second year at that theater. It has some of the most interesting speeches in Shakespeare. I was also highly praised for my Prospero (from Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST).” I chimed in, “I think everyone inherently expects that you would say Lou Grant.” “Yes,” he starts, “but that is much later. When I think of the totality of Lou Grant, nothing is even close. Plus the fact that it is my singular achievement, in being awarded Emmys for portraying Lou Grant as both a comic and dramatic character. I am the only one who got Emmys like that.”
“You are known for being politically active,” I say, punctuating that this interview will cover a variety of ground, as his career is not one to be summed up in sound bites and easy answers. “Yea, but only since I acquired fame as an actor,” he responds. “I would contribute when I could and give my name. After the success of LOU GRANT is when it started to count – to the point that it led to the cancellation of the series. I agreed to be on a board supporting medical aid in El Salvador with other actors, including Howard Hesseman and Lee Grant. We went to New York and Washington to make an announcement of its formation and contribution to provide medical aid. Because of my popularity in playing Lou Grant, I became chief spokesman. I read the preamble of the group and we opened up to questions (at a press conference). The second question was from a cable news reporter who asked if I was in favor of free elections in El Salvador. I said ‘Yes,’ with which he followed, ‘What if those elections yield a communist government.’” Ed makes a face, indicating he was both frustrated and taken aback. “This is 1982 – the second year of Reagan’s presidency – and the question was out of left field. I gave some sort of waffle answer and went on to the next question, and gave a limp answer there too. The whole time I was thinking, ‘I have been avoiding putting myself on the line, taking a stance, all this time, protecting myself, to come here now and waffle?’ So I went back to the guy who asked the question and said that I wasn’t satisfied with my first answer. I said that if that is the government the people of El Salvador choose, then so be it. But in saying that I knew I was dooming myself, and to a degree, my career. And in all the controversy that followed, that particular statement was never mentioned, but I was immediately regarded as a Communist.” (It’s true that to date, more than once, I have friends or acquaintances ask me if Ed was, in fact, a Communist. He is not, though I find it intriguing that belief still occupies a space in some people’s mind above his work and craft.) “I was accused of giving union money to the organization, which is not true. I was immediately attacked by Charlton Heston for not properly identifying the fact that I was not speaking as President of the Screen Actors Guild at that time. Nothing less would have satisfied him than me cutting my throat in public.” (For more information, see this November 1982 feature in PEOPLE).
“Did you and Charlton Heston ever talk directly about your issues?” He pauses. “During my first meeting as President (of the Screen Actors Guild), he had assembled a group outside. The board was about to pass the absorption of extras into the union. He was outside with news cameras, along with some stuntmen and day players who supported his opposition, fearful that extras would take their jobs away. I went out there to confront the press. Charlton Heston acted like he owned the guild up until that point.”
“Were other known actors posing problems? Any other known actors in the opposition?” “He was representing the elitist actors. We had an election deciding the fate of the extras. It was to decide whether to bring in the 1500 extras who didn’t have SAG cards. Their union had gone belly up. The union represented them throughout the east, in Hawaii, and so on, and it was only in California and on the west coast that they weren’t represented. And the vast majority of extras had SAG cards already. We had two elections and to be fair, we went as far as to dictate that we didn’t need a majority, but a 2/3 plurality. But we never got it. Not then. After I left office though, it became automatic under some other law.”
“Where do you think the balance is regarding an artist/actor’s position in the greater political sphere,” I followed up, knowing that, in my mind, the line is gray and completely dependent on circumstance. “Do you mean, should he keep his mouth shut?” he asked, reminding me there is no need for formalities – and he is right, sometimes one should simply say what they mean. “No,” I respond. “Not that – everyone is entitled to an opinion. I just don’t ever want to speak with authority in an arena where I lack education. But at the same time I do believe that individuals have a duty to use their name and energy and talents to raise awareness for issues that aren’t receiving attention.” He seems pleased that this is now a dialogue. He responds, “There is no balance. Nobody takes into consideration that it is perfectly right for John Q. Public to say, “Who the fuck are you to be telling me what to think?’ Because I am a celebrity, people will open their ears when they might not give the time of day to another person. But you must also take into account that once an actor takes a position, he may well alienate 50% of his viewing public, and that becomes problematic for the producers. He is in essence endangering his career. People don’t consider that. I won seven Emmys and five Golden Globes before I had the courage to become outspoken.”
I wanted to dive into politics fairly early on, knowing it would eliminate the need for any type of proper question-and-answer etiquette. At the same time, I also wanted to ensure we dedicate time to what is at the heart of Ed, his work and his craft.
“So many actors, even after they ‘make it,’ fear that it won’t continue. Did you ever fear that it could stop?” “Sure. I came to California in 1961. I worked and worked, getting a little more money, some better roles and such, for seven years. Then the bottom fell through. I stopped getting roles. I went through years of fret and worry. I had three kids. I feared I’d have to walk away from my house. Then that third year was the busiest year I had ever had. I made $50,000. And the following year was Mary Tyler Moore. Young actors now can worry about winning and losing, but it’s always been like that. How do you get over the fear of not knowing where the next job is coming from? You learn to live with it.” He adds, as an after-thought, knowing that he should offer something a little more tangible. “Some actors decide to produce as well. But there are few successful actor/producers. Tom Hanks is certainly one. Danny DeVito is another. People seem to find that little dwarf exciting.”
“Did you always want to be an actor?” “I didn’t think it was something you did. I was a bourgeois from Kansas City. Doctor. Lawyer. Even Indian Chief. But actor? In college I went to a summer school and decided to try out for a play. T.S. Eliot’s MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL. I ended up being the lead. I was hooked.”
“What are your thoughts on the theater?” “I think it’s the place to start but I don’t care if I ever go back to the theater. There are as many phonies on stage as there are in front of a camera. That said, it’s the place to learn.”
“What actor have you most enjoyed working with?” “Mary (Tyler Moore), of course. Jack Lemmon was wonderful (shared credits include FACE OF A HERO on Broadway, and the Oliver Stone film JFK). And Steven Weber – I loved working with him (they collaborated on Aaron Sorkin’s STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP).
“Are you a workaholic? Are you ever going to stop?” “Is that the sign of a workaholic? What else am I good for?” I elaborate, “I didn’t know if you would ever reach a time where a 7am call time wasn’t attractive anymore.” “This is probably one of my many gaseous statements but I liken myself to a musical instrument. When presented with the libretto by an author, I aim to be the best instrument to hit the notes. I am a specialist.”
“How important is it as an actor to have a career that spans multiple mediums? At 81, and with your history, you still work in a variety of fields. Film, TV, theater, video games, music videos, voice-over, etc.” “You learn from it all. I feel I can get as great an epiphany from doing a voice-over as I can from being on a stage in front of 7000 people – which is too many anyways. The ideal theater seats 500.”
“Do you have thoughts on the current state of Hollywood?” “Oh I don’t think we’re progressing at all. There is more youth-oriented bullshit, more zany comedy – which to me is meaningless. To expect the appearance of a SOME LIKE IT HOT out of the comedies out there now – not a chance.” I knew that we were entering back into a dialogue, as this topic is one we frequently revisit. For him to believe that good work no longer exists is, to me, both unbelievable and false, as he himself is still currently a part of great art. I start, “But you have to admit, there is still a lot of good work being done as well.” “Where? Like what?” he yells, knowing his answers before I utter my questions. “Let’s look at the last few years I said. “WINTER’S BONE. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. For heaven’s sake, what about UP?” “Yes,” he concedes, “but look at 1939.” I remind him that believing there is good work now in no way discredits the amazing work that has come before. I also point out that crap has always existed; we just choose to remember the good work.
We are well into our second hour, so I make the decision to start approaching a finish line of sorts. “What do you want people to remember you for? What do you want your legacy to be?” He grunts. “You do know you will have one, right?” I kind of sheepishly respond. “I don’t know anything. That’s too awesome to assume.” I tell him that it is with the greatest confidence that I know his career is one that will be perpetually referenced and remembered. “Do you want to be remembered for acting?” He softens, “I look at Kirk Douglas. I look at what that son-of-a-bitch has put away in his life. Lonely are the brave. He has a lust for life.”
“Who do you still want to work with?” Without missing a beat, he gives his list, “Edward Norton. Roberto DeNiro. I would like to see what Philip Seymour Hoffman is like in combat. Harrison Ford. I think he could hold his own with me.”
“Do you have a method?” “It’s all innate. If necessary I will try to change the dialogue if it doesn’t reflect the feeling. But that’s with inferior writers. Note that there are also writers who should kill you if you try to change their words. What I was taught is that it is all about ‘doings.’ Every utterance by you is done to affect somebody. Be it God. Or your inner being. To convince yourself. To convince your friend. Active verbs. Convince. Demonstrate. Question.”
“Are you happy?” I question. As suspected, he answers with an emphatic no. For even if Ed was happy, I would still expect him to say no. “Why aren’t you happy?” I follow up. “Have you looked around you? The state of our nation? The state of our world? We live in a jungle. You are talking about divorcing our lives from what’s around us. Maybe someone successful during the Depression could do that. But I doubt it. They turned their back on the starving and the unemployed. I can’t do that.”
I remind him that out of thousands and thousands of actors in the world, his career is in the top 1%. If he is not happy, with all the opportunities and recognition he has received, what hope does the rest of the acting community have? “That’s their problem,” he laughs. He continues, seriously, “The point is, the work is the glory. It’s not that there are not rewards, but to be able to have a moment in front of a camera, or on a stage, where you hear the pin drop, that’s what we’re all here for. Acting is a job like any other, in that, when you do it well, that’s where the joy is. I think I am being honest. Yes. There is the selfish part that is being watched by thousands or millions, and when that leads to money, it’s all well and good. But it’s like when a tree falls in the forest, you know? It’s the same as having that moment. Having that moment in your mind and in your heart – that is when the solace comes. You will always have that moment.”
We get ready to leave the restaurant. They inform us that our bill has been taken care of by the joint’s owner. I know this can’t be completely foreign to Ed, but he still acts shocked and tries to fight it. Part of his rough exterior undoubtedly comes from the fact that he is continually showered with praise and lifted up so high. He has to somehow offset it, and indicate that it hasn’t gone to his head.
Ed stops for a second, his expression indicating he wants to end today’s lunch on a challenge rather than a mere statement. “I fear for all art. There is a wonderful quote from Brecht: ‘Art is not a mirror held up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.’ Is Tony Kushner our last hammer?” he asks. “So if you fear for art,” I say, “is it then up to artists to save it?”
“Yes,” he says, “We have to find the artist who will do that.”
Andrew and Ed, on set.
Andrew Carlberg is an independent film and theater producer, currently working for Executive Producer Laurie Zaks on the hit ABC series CASTLE. He also founded and chairs The 4th Wall, a theater initiative in partnership with The Geffen Playhouse. Theater: THE MERCY SEAT (L.A. Premiere; VS Theatre at The Ford); WISH I HAD A SYLVIA PLATH (West Coast Premiere; Rogue Machine at The Lounge); 110 STORIES (L.A. Premiere at The Geffen Playhouse); DAVID DEAN BOTTRELL MAKES LOVE (World Premiere; Comedy Central Stage and Rogue Machine). Film: AFTER-SCHOOL SPECIAL (written by Neil LaBute; starring Sarah Paulson and Wes Bentley; World Premiere: Palm Springs Int’l ShortFest) and I HAVE IT (written by Bekah Brunstetter; starring Larisa Oleynik and Devon Gummersall; World Premiere: Rhode Island Int’l Film Festival). Andrew also has a handful of music videos to his credit. For more information, visit www.westernskiesproductions.com.