Eddie Asner was born November 15, 1929, in Kansas City, Missouri to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant parents. He attended the University of Chicago, where he began appearing in campus productions like T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. He did odd jobs and then served two years in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, where he performed in plays staged at various bases around Europe.
Following his military service, Asner devoted himself full-time to acting, making his way to New York City in the mid-50s. He made his television debut in 1957 in an episode of Studio One, his Broadway debut in 1960 in Face of a Hero (with Jack Lemmon!) and his film debut in 1962 in the Elvis Presley musical Kid Galahad.
Asner is best known for playing the irascible Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff, Lou Grant; Asner is the only performer to win Emmy Awards for the same role on both a drama series and a comedy. In fact, Asner is the most decorated male performer in Emmy history, with seven acting awards total (Cloris Leachman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are tied for first place with eight apiece).
Twenty-first century movie fans know Asner as the Santa to Will Ferrell’s Buddy in Elf and as the voice of the cantankerous Carl Fredricksen in the 2009 Pixar classic Up.
Asner served two terms (1981-1985) as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and was instrumental in organizing the 1980 union strike that led SAG, AFTRA (for television and radio artists) and the American Federation of Musicians to successfully boycott that year’s Primetime Emmy Awards (fun fact: Powers Boothe, the only one of fifty-two nominated actors to attend the ceremony, said in his acceptance speech: “This is either the most courageous moment of my career or the stupidest”). Asner supported several left-wing causes, openly opposed US government intervention in Central America and was a member of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. When Lou Grant was cancelled suddenly in 1982, despite solid ratings, Asner believed it was due to his politics; CBS denied it, citing a ratings drop from the show’s first few seasons.
In 2012, already in his eighties, Asner led the opposition of a SAG-AFTRA merger, which he felt would destroy SAG’s health care plan. Asner and a group of other actors, including Martin Sheen and Ed Harris, filed a lawsuit against then-president of SAG Ken Howard; the lawsuit was eventually dropped, and the merger went through as planned.
On Sunday, August 29, 2021, Ed Asner died of natural causes in his Los Angeles home. He was 91 years old.