Ed Asner: “Lou Grant,” “Elf” and “Up”


Ed Asner was an American actor and television star whose most famous character was Lou Grant, who first appeared on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1970. He was so well-liked that when the series ended in 1977, he was given his own show based on the same character for five more years. He holds the record for winning seven prime time Emmy awards and being nominated 20 times. He was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame and received the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. He was always in demand for many roles in the theater, television, movies, and radio.

It looked as if he intended to work forever. When his tenure as Lou Grant ended, he spent the next three decades in a succession of film and TV roles and voice acting. As he aged, he hid his health problems from the media and his adoring public. His obituaries all stated that he died of “natural causes,” but it is most likely that he had a heart attack or a stroke.

Early Life
Asner was born in 1929 in Kansas City, Missouri, to Jewish immigrant parents from Russia and Lithuania who made a living by selling second-hand goods and junk. He was a good student and was accepted at the University of Chicago, where he studied journalism. While going to school, he worked in a steel mill and changed his major after a professor told him that most writers don’t make a lot of money. He switched to acting and starred in several plays on campus, but still had trouble paying his tuition, so he quit school and worked as a taxi driver and on the assembly line at General Motors. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951, where he had the opportunity to appear in plays that toured Army bases in Europe.

Acting Career and Political Activism
After leaving the Army in 1953, Asner appeared in several plays in Chicago and New York and got his first Broadway role in “Face of a Hero” with Jack Lemmon in 1960. He started doing television work in 1957 and made his film debut in 1962 in “Kid Galahad” with John Wayne. In 1970, he became world famous as Lou Grant on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and in 1977, at age 48, he became the star of his own show based on the same character, the one-hour drama “Lou Grant.”

In 1982, CBS cancelled “Lou Grant” at a time when it was one of the most popular shows on television, and Asner believed that it was cancelled because of his left-wing political views. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, he led the 1980 SAG strike, opposed United States policy in Central America, and actively promoted a single-payer health care plan in California. He was a member of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and later supported various conspiracy theories on the 9/11 attacks .

None of this kept him from an incredibly busy acting career, with a constant succession of movies and television appearances.  He played Santa Claus in “Elf” in 2003, and voiced Carl Fredricksen in Academy Award-nominated “Up” in 2009. He had more than 400 acting credits and remained active in TV and movie roles up until his death.  Yet, in 2009, he told a reporter that interesting roles were hard to come by. “I never get enough work. It’s the history of my career. I’d say most people are probably in that same boat, old people, and it’s a shame.”

Personal Life and Health
Asner was married to Nancy Sykes from 1959 to 1988 and they had three children. He had a fourth child from another relationship in 1987. In 1991, at age 62, he became engaged to producer Cindy Gilmore and married her in 1998. In 2007, when he was 78, she filed for legal separation, and in 2015, when he was 86, he filed for divorce. He was both a parent and a grandparent of children with autism and was a board member of Aspiritech, a nonprofit organization involved in empowering people on the autism spectrum to fulfill their potential.

In 1995, at age 66, he had a hip replaced, and throughout his later years he complained of leg pain and walked with a cane. In May, 2013 at age 84, he was performing a one-man show as former President FDR in Gary, Indiana and suddenly he was unable to speak or communicate and was hospitalized for several days. It sounds like he had a stroke, but the public was not told that.

At age 89 he told an interviewer that he expected to die soon. He was now failing to recognize old acquaintances and forgetting his friends’ names and even his old shows. At age 90, leaning heavily on his cane, he walked into an autograph session at Burbank’s Marriott Hotel and appeared not to even know where he was. In an interview conducted just 13 days before his death, he said, “If it weren’t for my bad left leg, I would feel younger. I’ve got many parts that need to be bolstered and refurbished, and I haven’t got time to undergo all those changes.” (The Hollywood Reporter, August 26, 2021). He commented on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on his lifestyle, saying, “My eyesight is not the greatest and my hearing is not the greatest, so I don’t go out much anyway. I sit here most of the time, bored as hell, not sure which way to turn. I don’t know. I’m waiting for the next gig, and they’re slower in coming in now, I can tell you.” However, he continued working up to the time of his death and was said to have had 12 upcoming roles in process.

Death from “Natural Causes” and Heart Failure
All of the media reports said that Asner died of “natural causes” at his home in the Tarzana neighborhood of Los Angeles, on August 29, 2021. He probably had a stroke or a heart attack, both caused by plaques breaking off from arteries to form clots that block the flow of blood to the brain or heart muscle.

The term “natural causes” used in obituaries explains nothing except that there is no evidence of murder or suicide. Every death has a cause, and in the absence of a known disease, the most common cause is heart failure that often occurs when a person becomes inactive. Your skeletal muscles strengthen your heart muscle, not the other way around. When you become inactive, you lose your skeletal muscles at an alarming rate, and losing skeletal muscle causes loss of heart muscle until your heart becomes too weak to pump blood to your brain. In 1914, Dr. Ernest Starling described what is today known as “Starling’s Law,” which explains how strengthening skeletal muscles strengthens heart muscle (Circulation, 2002;106(23):2986-2992). When you contract your skeletal muscles, they squeeze the veins near them to pump extra blood back to your heart. The extra blood flowing back to your heart fills up your heart, which stretches your heart muscle, causing the heart muscle to contract with greater force and pump more blood back to your body. This explains why your heart beats faster and harder to pump more blood when you exercise. The harder your heart muscle has to contract regularly in an exercise program, the greater the gain in heart muscle strength.  See Your Muscles Make Your Heart Stronger

Ed Asner
November 15, 1929 – August 29, 2021