Ed Asner: He's got spunk, and we love it
(CBS News) Ed Asner played quite the demanding newsroom boss on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" back in the 1970s. And all these years later he's commanding our attention once again, this time in a brand new role on Broadway. Rita Braver has this Sunday Profile:
He found his way into our hearts playing the cantankerous but endearing news director Lou Grant on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and since then he's played scores of TV and movie roles, from Santa Claus in "Elf," to voicing the adventure-seeking widower in "Up."
But now, Ed Asner is about to open on Broadway - his name an obvious draw on the marquee.
"Yeah, it's Lazarus risen from the dead," he said.
"I don't think so - I do think your name is so familiar," said Braver.
"Oh, stop hyping me . . . No, keep it up, keep it up!" he laughed.
But there's no need to hype Asner. You have to be impressed just by the fact that at 82 he's climbing a steep flight of stairs every night to his backstage dressing room, dutifully going over his lines for a new play, called "Grace."
He describes it as "a wonderful exercise in theology, and discussing the existence or non-existence of God."
Take this scene opposite Paul Rudd, who plays a gung-ho, born-again Christian:
Asner: "I got some news for you. One, there is no Jesus. Two, there is no God. Three, mind your own business and everything works out." . . .
Rudd: "So did the Earth make itself?"
Asner: "I don't know who made the Earth. I woke up one morning, and it's here. I make the best of it."
Asner plays Karl, a German Immigrant who works as an exterminator.
"I have a tragic past. I carry a lot of guilt," Asner said of his role.
"But yet he manages to be both a comic relief and one of the profound characters in this show," said Braver.
"Yeah - I'm a switch hitter."
Ed Asner did not set out to be an actor. Growing up in Kansas City as the son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants, he made a name for himself playing high school football, and was headed for a career as a reporter, until a conversation with his journalism teacher:
"He said, 'I wouldn't.' And I said, 'Why not?' He said, 'You can't make a living.' Oh, okay. So I went on to become the overnight sensation as an actor that you see before you."
In fact, as Asner told me in our conversation at a famed Broadway restaurant, his ascent was anything BUT overnight. After starring roles in college productions at the University of Chicago, he dropped out to make it as an actor while supporting himself with odd jobs...
"My first job was with an auto plant, Kansas City, they treated you like slaves. From there I went back to Chicago, worked in steel mills, drove a cab, stuff like that."
Gradually he started getting parts in plays, films and TV - and then, in 1970, along came Mary.
Mary Tyler Moore played an aspiring news producer, with Asner as her boss. He says he knew it would be a hit when they taped the first show and came to what would become a classic TV exchange:
Asner: "You know what? You got spunk."
Moore: "Oh, oh gee, golly . . ."
Asner: "I HATE spunk!"
"And that audience was like an animal," he recalled. "300 people. and they went Aaahhhhhhh!!! I felt like I could command them to walk off a cliff!"
The show ran for eight years, but that was not the last of Ed Asne's character. The show "Lou Grant" was a hit, too, and Asner is the only actor to win Emmys playing the same character in both a comedy AND a drama.
But in addition to acting, Asner has another passion: Politics. He feel his activism ended up getting 'Lou Grant' canceled.
He became President of the Screen Actors Guild, but created controversy with his liberal stances.
Even today, Asner is taking on hot-button causes, arguing against Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and narrating a video that questions official accounts of what happened on 9/11.
"No one wants to hear destruction of the American myth that some elements of government were involved in 9/11," Asner said, asking, "Why did it take an hour for the strongest nation in the world to get planes in the air - for an hour?"
"You underestimate incompetence?" Braver asked.
"I guess it was all around that day," he replied.
"Do people say to you, 'Okay, this guy is kind of a talented nut job'?"
"Yeah, but I'm old enough that I can say, Yeah, yeah, yeah ..."
Of course, Asner isn't the only octogenarian with political views. When asked what he thought of Clint Eastwood at the Republican National Convention, Asner replied, "I thought he was kind of cute, but I was distressed that his age was really betrayed by his performance. I didn't want the public to see that frailty -and I don't have it yet. And when I do I'm sure there will be people like Ed Asner to tell me!"
No one's telling Ed Asner anything yet.
"Do you ever feel like you're a really young person, trapped in an older body?" Braver asked.
"I am, I am, I am," he said. "They won't believe me!"
But you better believe it: Asner is more than ready to take on the intense work of live theater.
"I just think a lot of people as successful as you are, they wouldn't put themselves through this, out there every night," Braver said.
"Well then, they don't love acting," Asner said. "I love acting."
© 2012 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.