Watch CBS News

Ed Asner, Prolific Actor Who Briefly Attended University Of Chicago And Got Start In Chicago's Theatre Scene, Dies

CHICAGO (CBS Chicago/CBS News/AP) -- Ed Asner, the burly and prolific character actor who became a star in middle age as the gruff but lovable newsman Lou Grant, first in the hit comedy "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and later in the drama "Lou Grant," died Sunday.

Asner – who attended the University of Chicago and was a member of the Chicago theatre group that went on to found Second City – was 91.

Charles Sherman, of Charles Sherman Public Relations, confirmed Asner's death to CBS News. A statement from Asner's family on his Twitter account also confirmed his death.

"We are sorry to say that our beloved patriarch passed away this morning peacefully. Words cannot express the sadness we feel," the tweet said. "With a kiss on your head- Goodnight dad. We love you."

Asner was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1929. As pointed out in a 1987 University of Chicago Magazine article, he arrived at the Hyde Park campus in 1947 intending to study political science – but did not stick around.

"After a couple of years he found himself divested of what little academic ambition he had brought to Chicago, but in the process he discovered a new interest: acting," Mark Ray Hollmann wrote in the 1987 article. "He dropped out of the College and began to take part in (University Theater) productions, in which he played such roles as Thomas a Becket in 'Murder in the Cathedral' and Sir Pertinax Surly in 'The Alchemist.'"

The magazine documents one production in which Asner played a troll in a production of "Peer Gynt" put together by Paul Sills, who also attended – but did not graduate from – the U of C.

"He irritated me backstage about something and I brought the anger on stage. In my entrance as a troll, I came in and I swung off a beam. I guess I secretly knew karate, which I didn't know, because I came swinging on the beam and I flacked down on the stage with my bare feet. I broke the two-by-four or whatever we were landing on with my heel," Asner was quoted in the 1987 article. "So, naturally Paul was the two-by-four, but it really got it out of my system. That's the only time I can remember being mad at him."

In the fall of 1950, a group that included Asner called "Tonight at 8:30" established itself as an "avant-garde complement to UT," the 1987 article said.

Quoted in the 1987 article, Asner said: "It was the same raw energy that was occurring off Broadway in New York (or about to), in which the moribund stage was brought to life by young people—young people who perhaps did not bring jaded technique, but who brought energy. And [there was] nobody to say 'No, it's not done that way."'

Asner went on to serve in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and returned to Chicago afterward. He joined the Playwrights Theatre Company – a troupe that stemmed from that U of C core – but left for New York before that company regrouped as the Compass Players and later developed into The Second City.

The Second City noted that Asner came back to guest-star often on its stage.

Later, in New York, he joined the long-running "The Threepenny Opera" and appeared opposite Jack Lemmon in "Face of a Hero."

Arriving in Hollywood in 1961 for an episode of television's "Naked City," Asner decided to stay and appeared in numerous movies and TV shows, including the film "El Dorado," opposite John Wayne; and the Elvis Presley vehicles "Kid Galahad" and "Change of Habit." He was a regular in the 1960s political drama series "Slattery's People."

It was 1970 when Asner was hired to play Lou Grant on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." For seven seasons he was the rumpled boss to Moore's ebullient Mary Richards (He called her "Mary," she called him "Mr. Grant") at the fictional Minneapolis TV newsroom where both worked. Later, he would play the role for five years on "Lou Grant."

The part brought Asner three best supporting actor Emmys on "Mary Tyler Moore" and two best actor awards on "Lou Grant." He also won Emmys for his roles in the miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man" (1975-1976) and "Roots" (1976-1977).

He had more than 300 acting credits and remained active throughout his 70s and 80s in a variety of film and TV roles. In 2003, he played Santa Claus in Will Ferrell's hit film "Elf." He was John Goodman's father in the short-lived 2004 CBS comedy "Center of the Universe" and the voice of the elderly hero in the hit 2009 Pixar release, "Up." More recently, he was in such TV series as "Forgive Me" and "Dead to Me."

Nonetheless, Asner told The Associated Press in 2009 that interesting roles were hard to come by.

"I never get enough work," he said. "It's the history of my career. There just isn't anything to turn down, let me put it that way."

"I'd say most people are probably in that same boat, old people, and it's a shame," he said.

As Screen Actors Guild (SAG) president, the liberal Asner was caught up in a political controversy in 1982 when he spoke out against U.S. involvement with repressive governments in Latin America. "Lou Grant" was canceled during the furor that followed and he did not run for a third SAG term in 1985.

Asner discussed his politicization in a 2002 interview, noting he had begun his career during the McCarthy era and for years had been afraid to speak out for fear of being blacklisted.

Then he saw a nun's film depicting the cruelties inflicted by El Salvador's government on that country's citizens.

"I stepped out to complain about our country's constant arming and fortifying of the military in El Salvador, who were oppressing their people," he said.

Former SAG President Charlton Heston and others accused him of making un-American statements and of misusing his position as head of their actors union.

"We even had bomb threats at the time. I had armed guards," Asner recalled.

The actor blamed the controversy for ending the five-year run of "Lou Grant," although CBS insisted declining ratings were the reason the show was canceled.

Asner's character had caught on from the first episode of "Mary Tyler Moore," when he told Mary in their initial meeting, "You've got spunk. ... I hate spunk!" The inspired cast included Ted Knight as Ted Baxter, the dimwitted news anchor; Gavin MacLeod as Murray Slaughter, the sarcastic news writer; and Betty White as the manipulative, sex-obsessed home show hostess Sue Ann Nivens. Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman, playing Mary's neighbors, both saw their characters spun off into their own shows.

"Mary Tyler Moore" was still a hit when the star decided to pursue other interests, and so it was brought to an end in the seventh season with a hilarious finale in which all of the principals were fired except for the bumbling Baxter.

Asner went immediately into "Lou Grant," his character moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles to become city editor of the Tribune, a crusading newspaper under the firm hand of Publisher Margaret Pynchon, memorably played by Nancy Marchand.

Although the show had its light moments, its scripts touched on a variety of darker social issues that most series wouldn't touch at the time, including alcoholism and homelessness. Asner remained politically active for the rest of his life and in 2017 published the book "The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs."

Asner was married twice, to Nancy Lou Sykes and Cindy Gilmore, and had four children, Matthew, Liza, Kate and Charles.

(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.