Ed Asner: He's got spunk, and we love it

Actor Ed Asner, now appearing on Broadway in "Grace." CBS News

(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!"

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