Ed Asner: Seven Decades of Acting with Integrity
Sumner welcomes one of his lifelong favourite performers – and one of the world’s greatest living actors – the mighty Ed Asner, to Hard Agree for a candid discussion of his 60-plus years onscreen, during which Ed has starred in two of the all-time great TV shows (Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant), won more Primetime Emmy Awards than any other male actor, starred in a wide variety of unforgettable movies (including the beloved instant classics Elf and Up), worked with a variety of entertainment legends (including John Wayne, Elvis Presley [twice], Paul Newman & Sidney Poitier), played Jack Kirby’s classic Fourth World character Granny Goodness, served as the President of the Screen Actors Guild for two terms and dedicated himself to progressive activism & numerous humanitarian charity projects – all of which Ed writes about in his epic new biography, Son of a Junkman.
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Interview scheduled by Jeffery Haas
Ed Asner – Interview
[00:00:00] Ed Asner: Yeah, I’m fine. Now, who are you calling for?
Andrew Sumner: My name’s Andrew. And I’m calling for the spoiler country podcast, which is based in Seattle, but I’m the London corresponds. Good to meet you. It’s very nice to meet you. It’s a, it’s a, it’s a real pleasure to chat with you. Actually, the reason I’ve got the assignment is that, um, I’ve been a big fan of your career for a long time.
So, uh, so there’s a bunch of doors. When I, when I realized we had the opportunity to talk to you about your book. Um, I was, I, I had, I’ve got a long history of watching the stuff that you’re in. So I asked if I could do it. So how are you doing ed?
Ed Asner: Oh, we’re doing fine. We’re eagerly awaiting the end of the panic.
Andrew Sumner: meet me too. Yeah, I’m currently locked down in London and that’s it. That’s exactly my experience as well. I was just sad. I was just wondering if we could [00:01:00] start by talking about why you chose this time to write your
Ed Asner: biography. I was doing outed by potential authors.
Andrew Sumner: That makes sense. And
Ed Asner: I I’m certainly matured enough.
I thought, uh, shoot her, get off the pot now. Yeah,
Andrew Sumner: yeah. That, that, that makes complete sense. Could we start by talking about a few of the movies that I remember being in, in the sixties? Um, there’s a couple that before you were in a, before you hit you all your success and Mary Tyler Moore and Lee grant. I remember you very clearly.
In the movie Eldorado. Do you have any memories of making that
Ed Asner: movie?
Andrew Sumner: John Wayne movie? Exactly. What do you remember about making that? Yeah, of course. And James Khan, right? Gimme a con. Yeah, that
Ed Asner: was his, [00:02:00] I guess it was his, when he gave you,
Andrew Sumner: so w how, how, what was it like working with with Wayne?
Ed Asner: You, you walked softly, but uh, tried to carry a big stick to support you in case he knocked you over.
Um, and, um, uh, actually is, um, after the initial attempts on the first day of filming to intimidate me, he settled down the person who was really bugging him was the camera man.
Andrew Sumner: He
Ed Asner: was, uh, he had been married to, I think he had been married, a Lombard or somebody like that. And, uh, Wayne dotted, his, uh, efficacy would not be moved.
Andrew Sumner: Okay. Got it. Didn’t in the sixties, you also acted in two Elvis Presley movies, right? You [00:03:00] did kid Gullah hard. And he did change of habit. How so did you shoot change of habits before you were working on the Mary Tyler Moore show?
Ed Asner: before I started on the Mary Tyler Moore show.
Andrew Sumner: Yeah. So was that the first time you met Mary Tyler Moore? Oh, you didn’t share any scenes with her. How, how did you find Elvis? How was he to work with
Ed Asner: the first time with kid gal? Had he, um, uh, was surrounded by fellow southerners, his gang, and he was busy breaking his hands, learning karate.
Uh, but he was very nice and reasonable and personable. And the same thing occurred with the change of habit. Except by then he was far more polished.
[00:04:00] Yeah. He was very cooperative made no problems. Oh, sorry. Should be that, uh, rigorous and studious.
Andrew Sumner: Oh, that’s fair. That’s very interesting to hear. Um, and, and you appeared in the call me Mister Tibbs with Sidney Poitier, right?
Ed Asner: Yes.
Andrew Sumner: How, how, how was, how was that experience? I was
Ed Asner: very, very fine. He, um, he thought I should lose weight.
He was very cooperative and very genteel was very nice.
Andrew Sumner: Oh, that’s, that’s lovely to hear. Now, when you, when you went from what you’re, you’ve been here, everybody was a big hits in the Murray Tyler Moore show, which then became, um, Lou grant. And that seemed. So, so when you went from Marie Tyler Moore to Lou grant, how difficult was it to go from [00:05:00] presenting that character in a comedy format to presenting that character in the drama?
Ed Asner: um, started off during the hour show. Yeah. And, uh, early on I realized that the images I constantly used on the half hour of my two brothers, big time spenders, that image isn’t going to work for the lose that I had. I had to find a loot to carry my load. I had to. Essentially dive deep into myself to find the character that I presented on the hour show.
Andrew Sumner: You were able to go to places and the hour show. What were you proudest of about the hour show of those five seasons? What do you remember the most fondly?
Ed Asner: Well, we were the only [00:06:00] newspaper show. We were sure that focused on the problems of the day we handled them. Well, it was a good show. It dealt with problems and, uh, I, um, it wasn’t done for laugh.
Andrew Sumner: No, no, it was, it was an, it was an excellent show Lou grant. Um, I think, I think. People have people are very fond of Mary Tyler Moore because of the great work that you and the cast did in that show. And that was a great comedy. But when I was at college, the show everyone loved was Lou grant. And that’s at college in England.
You know, everybody loved Lou grant. They showed it late at night. Um, and we, and we all loved it. And of course you won you and Emmy awards for comedy and you won an Emmy awards for. For drama. And you’re just about the only person or maybe one of two people there who’ve ever done that. How does that feel when you [00:07:00] look back?
Ed Asner: Uh, I, I don’t feel any special thrill, but, uh, I’m glad that, uh, I achieved both and it’s nice to, uh, to have two ads. Of
Andrew Sumner: course. And how UN and, uh, add when w have you, can you remember anything about when you appeared in route?
Ed Asner: Well, I, I, I resented the makeup girl. I thought she gave me a bad wig and a bad, a bad beer, but, um, uh, other than that, I, um, I was proud to receive the AME for that too.
Andrew Sumner: Yeah, no, for sure. For sure. Absolutely. I, I, I, your performance in roots is a, is an indelible performance for me. It’s one that I always remember. When you look back in your, on your career since Lou grant, it has [00:08:00] been very varied. There’s been a lot of drama, but you’ve, you’ve made at least two movies. The have a lot, a big space in everybody’s hearts.
What do you feel about elf the movie elf given how much love that movie received? I, uh,
Ed Asner: I love being enough. I thought Fabro did a wonderful job writing and directing it. I thought a will Farrow was the funniest man I’d ever come across. Yeah. And of course the success of Ralph was due to him. I also liked doing an alternative Santa clause to the one Edmond, Gwen I had done in
Andrew Sumner: miracle on full yeah.
In miracle. Yeah.
Ed Asner: I thought he was too sweetie pie too, too. [00:09:00] Kitschy. And, uh, I liked doing a Santa Claus with ball.
Andrew Sumner: Yeah. Which is exactly, exactly what yours was. That is so true. And did you, did you, how long did you, were you on that movie for how long did you work on alpha?
Ed Asner: Uh, I don’t know. I guess I was there for a couple of weeks.
Andrew Sumner: Yeah. And you had some really great scenes with will Ferrell in that movie. It, I thought you guys had a great connection with each other on screen.
Ed Asner: His fight with Peter deeply was the crowning glory.
Andrew Sumner: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. So, so good at how did you come to be involved with making up? How did he, how did he get casting up as Carl?
Ed Asner: Well, it’s interesting. My, um, my, um, [00:10:00] agent submitted my tape to, for consideration as a call at the same time, I was doing a reading of a, uh, Holocaust feasts at a convention. And now I meet her and, um, my two producers on, uh, decided to go up and catch my performance in that to, uh, help them decide they saw, they saw my Holocaust performance there.
And then turned around and asked me, is Carl.
Andrew Sumner: And did you, how did that, how was the experience of recording the dialogue for the movie versus actually seeing the final movie when you saw the movie and its completed form? How, how did you [00:11:00] feel about it the first time that you saw it? I
Ed Asner: was tremendously honored to be in that movie.
I loved that movie. And, um, the, um, being identified with that movie.
Andrew Sumner: Yeah. I mean, it’s one of those movies that it’s among everybody’s favorites. I imagine you just get great feedback all the time about it. I
Ed Asner: do, I do. And it’s, uh, it’s, uh, it’s great to have that in the diagram of my crown.
Andrew Sumner: Yes, absolutely.
Absolutely. And your career, it seems to me has been so varied. You’ve done television. You’ve been president of the screen actors Guild. You’ve had a successful movie career. When you look back on it all, what are the things that you are most proud of? Uh,
Ed Asner: that my I am DB is so varied. [00:12:00] I like the eclecticism of it all.
Andrew Sumner: Yes. And do you remember recording the character, granny goodness. For the DC comics animation. Can you please tell me how that came about and what that was like? Well, I, I,
Ed Asner: I guess the first time I showed up, I was quite amazed when they gave me the directions on the character. I didn’t know that it was a, a trans character.
And, um, it was, uh, it was fun to, uh, exercise myself in that direction.
Andrew Sumner: Yeah. I thought you brought a lot of humor to granny goodness. Um, which really fleshes out that character. And you’ve done a lot of animation over the years. Haven’t you ed? Yes,
Ed Asner: it’s a lot of fun and it gives you a [00:13:00] chance to experiment.
Andrew Sumner: And you’ve worked with, um, Seth MacFarlane quite severely.
Ed Asner: I don’t know if I’ve ever even met him.
Andrew Sumner: When you, when you, when you go in and record, do you do when you record those, those animation appearances, do you go into the, this is before the pandemic, do you go into the studio, do record remotely.
Ed Asner: Uh, no, no. I generally go into the studio, uh, many times to gang bang, but there are times when, uh, I couldn’t make the gang bang and, uh, they have to record me separately.
Andrew Sumner: W when you look back at some of the great co-stars that we you’ve had, we were talking about John Wayne and Elvis before. What was your relationship with Mary Tyler Moore? Like.
Ed Asner: Uh, she, um, she was a, [00:14:00] uh, reserved lady. Uh, I always approached her with kid gloves and was grateful for whatever I got from her.
Andrew Sumner: Who else? On the Murray? Tyler Moore. Cat. Who did he, who did he get on? Well, with, on that cat? Well,
Ed Asner: the boys, I’m not together all the time. We three guys. Yeah. And, uh, yeah. I resented it in the early years, because it seems the girls were getting all the attention, but then as each girl got palmed off to do her own series married with just the boys.
So I, uh, I was delighted at that turn of events. Yeah,
Andrew Sumner: no, I, I understand that. And, and did you get on well with Gavin MacLeod and Ted Knight?
Ed Asner: I was closer to, uh, but Ted [00:15:00] I had met will all at the time. So Ted was the funniest man I’d ever come across replaced by will Cheryl?
Andrew Sumner: Yeah. Oh, that’s fair gut. I mean, that is a big accolade for Ted Knight. Yeah.
Ed Asner: He was
Andrew Sumner: funny. And how about you are you, of course, you work with a great cast on Lou grant and looking back now, what, what did you think of those guys that you work with on Lou grant?
Who were you close to when you made Lou grant on the cast? Oh,
Ed Asner: Alan Williams was our dialogue director. He also played the. The business Senator, um, Vietnam veteran. And I, uh, I I’m like this close to him and enjoy his protection. Um, then, [00:16:00] um, generally I live mingled with all of them equally Bannon, Mason Adams, Darryl Anderson, all of them.
Um, I regarded Nancy, Nancy, Marsha, and as, uh, eventually I came to regard her as the best actress in America.
Andrew Sumner: Yeah. That’s I think that’s certainly a well-deserved accolade. I think she was fantastic on the show. I think Jack Bannon was great on the show.
Ed Asner: His mother was being . I don’t know if you knew that.
Andrew Sumner: I, I, I didn’t know that she was, but I absolutely know who she is. That’s a fascinating connection. I was, I was unaware of that.
Yeah. And you had that great cast of actors on Lou grant, but it seems to me [00:17:00] that one of the great things you did as the lead was give all of those guys the room to breathe. So, you know, as a viewer, they own the show, you know, as much as your character did. And I think you had the confidence to do that, to give them that space, but it always seemed to me like there was, there was.
Lou grump was always so very consistent in terms of its quality. Was there ever a point where the show ended sooner than you wished it to? If I remembered that correctly, is that right? Ed?
Ed Asner: Yeah, it was the head of CBS at the time.
Andrew Sumner: Oh, that’s a good question. And wasn’t it around the same time that you, uh, were involved with the screen actors Guild as well?
That the show came to an end? Yeah,
Ed Asner: yeah, yeah. Uh, it was my attention in the press paid to El [00:18:00] Salvador and Nicaragua that tended to freeze my Lou grant
Andrew Sumner: Yeah, but I think, I think one of the things that’s very notable about your career is the fact that you’ve always been very politically engaged and you haven’t shied away from saying what you think and commenting upon current events and being very involved.
I think you’ve used your celebrity in a meaningful way. And so I think I w w when you put your book together, son of a junk man, what was, what was the most difficult thing to put to remember and get straight when you work with your co-writers, what was, what was, was it a challenge to remember everything that it come out of a series of conversations with them?
How did you actually assemble the book? Well,
Ed Asner: the book started by Sam, Joseph wanting. To do my [00:19:00] biography. And, uh, I said, okay, I’ll be the victim, uh, has an enormous number of questions that he asks to produce the results. Uh, I went through the questions with him and saw the results and I didn’t really like the fact that there was no narrative.
To the piece. At the same time, I had a friend who had nothing to do and, um, he offered to write a narrative of the biography. So I said, fine, go ahead. And I fought to get him a share of credit on the bottom of it. So he wrote his narrative. I fought for his credit and what he didn’t cover. Uh, I then resorted to the questions that, uh, [00:20:00] Sam had a prepared and we finished off with biography with those questions.
Andrew Sumner: have questions. That’s very interesting. I that’s. That’s a unique approach, I think, which you don’t see very often. And, uh, so it was, it was the guy who was coming up with a narrative. Was that Matthew Seymour. Yeah. Got it. And so was that an enjoyable process between those two things coming up with a narrative, but being asked all those questions by Sam?
Was it, did that, did that open the flood Gates of your memory being asked? All those questions,
Ed Asner: ring the bells on the chapel, but, uh, uh, I, uh, I got through it and I was just relieved to get through it.
Andrew Sumner: Yeah. Okay. That makes sense. Hey, add, I was just thinking actually, when you were saying that, um, another [00:21:00] film of yours that you were in, that I had a great fondness for was Fort Apache, the Bronx.
Can you remember anything about filming that movie or, or how it was working
Ed Asner: with those guys going to get drunk every night with the two detectives who were the tech advisors?
Andrew Sumner: Brilliant
Ed Asner: great boys. But, um, towards the end of the movie, I, I began to have a dislike of the ending that they had fashioned for the moment I came forward with a different idea, which I presented to the producers, but they didn’t buy
Andrew Sumner: it.
Yeah. Okay. That’s let’s see. So can you remember what that alternative ending was?
Ed Asner: Yeah. I said, I had my meeting with and then meeting, uh, I have him say, uh, okay, I’m going to take my [00:22:00] badge back, but I’m going to be watching you every minute of the day. And if you follow up, like you did in reality, so that you caused them a re a race riot.
Yeah, I’m gonna do everything I can to bring you down. They didn’t want it. And
Andrew Sumner: I think that’s a pity add because I I’m with you. I think, I think one of the weaknesses of Fort Apache is that ending where he pursed natur is just very light and is too much of a shift in tone. Whereas your ending is much more in keeping with the spirit of the movie.
Ed Asner: I, uh, I’m sorry, it didn’t happen. I have never, uh, being mad, aggressive.
Andrew Sumner: Well, it, I mean, but at the same time you stepped forward and tell them what you thought. Whereas I think one of the things. That your [00:23:00] performance is Kerry as a sense of emotional and intellectual engagement. I think you come across on screen is actually believing what you’re saying rather than you’re just saying the words and I, and I, I think that mindset that you have, and what’s great about the story that you just told me is.
That you were actually prepared to make that move. You didn’t just take the paycheck. You actually sat down and said, I think this would be a better idea. And I think, I, I think that doesn’t surprise me having watched many of your performances, because I think that spirit within you is what gives you your authenticity.
And I’m saying that somebody doesn’t know you, somebody just watches you on screen.
Ed Asner: You mean the cops didn’t realize. That they were, uh, victims of that, uh, of that, um, ending.
Andrew Sumner: No, that’s right. That is absolutely right. That that’s fair. That is very interesting. So can you [00:24:00] remember anything you are telling you what I thought you were great in actually ad was when you played dyed banister in JFK?
Ed Asner: that was
Andrew Sumner: character. So w so what was it like working with Oliver stone on that movie?
Ed Asner: Well, uh, if I could get something implanted in his mind just before shooting, then I could get away with it. If I allowed him too much time to think about the change that I suggested, then, uh, he would reverse himself.
Andrew Sumner: That’s interesting. And before you, before you shot JFK, how much did you know about Bannister yourself? So are you just working with everything?
Ed Asner: Great deal of history to banister? It was like two pages of material that I found on the FBI. So it was all a supposition.
Andrew Sumner: Yes. Yeah. Now he [00:25:00] was a R and D did you like Oliver stone?
Was you somebody that you warm to?
Ed Asner: Wow. I thought he made a good picture. He’s made several good pictures.
Andrew Sumner: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I actually, that makes me think hat of all the movie directors you’ve worked with over the years, who are the ones that you’ve had the most respectful.
Ed Asner: Oh, it’s funny. I’ve never been asked that question.
Never ask that question. Um, on little grant was, uh, Roger Young. You knew how to make it live and brought it to life in terms of films. Um, though I had complaints about him. I would say Sydney romance probably was more regulatory. Yeah, anybody else? Uh, another one, I can’t remember his name.
Andrew Sumner: And w what was it that you liked about Lumet in
Ed Asner: the [00:26:00] scene where he directed, uh, with the kids and, um, what the hell was the name of it?
I can’t remember it now that, uh, involved the, uh, the mother and father or the,
Andrew Sumner: um, Oh, it was, it was Daniel, wasn’t it? It was Daniel, right.
Ed Asner: Yeah. I had a scene in there where I, as the lawyer, uh, tried to prevail on the grandmother to shape up and take care of the kids. And, uh, when I did the scene, I, I, uh, use a lot of storm on drawn to, um, intimidator.
Then, uh, the mid came forward and. So once it’s really the one time he made an appearance that counted and they said, rather than do that, not doing the reverse, almost whisper the [00:27:00] directions to her. I said what she should do. So I did that and I intensively whispered my commands to her. And that’s the, uh, that’s the take he printed.
Andrew Sumner: Ah, that’s very interesting, very interesting. And that came directly from him, his suggestion to you. So that was, that was straight from Lou, Matt to you to the screen. Do you remember anything about appearing in the movie skin game with, um, with James Garner and Lou Gossett? I loved it.
Ed Asner: I loved that
it was not a big box office winner and the reason was it was beautifully acted. She was in Clark and, um, James and, and Louie, they were all wonderful. And I was pretty good too. [00:28:00] But, um, and the idea is wonderfully fascinating. Supposedly, I guess there was a reformers element of working in Hollywood at the time.
So that made people shy away from the box office, thinking it was a sex movie.
Andrew Sumner: Right. I think it’s a very, it’s a very evocative film. It succeeds on many levels. It’s funny, but it’s, it’s meaningful. I think you’re absolutely right yourself and your cast members. Are in great form in that movie. And I want shred is this right?
That Paul Bogart, the director got sick while he was making that film. And, um, and I think was it, Gordon Douglas had to finish it off for, yeah.
Ed Asner: And, um, um, I made certain advances with [00:29:00] Douglas directing. I found certain weaknesses in Paul Bogart. So I’ve benefited from both.
Andrew Sumner: Oh, that, that is very interesting.
And did, did he get on well with James Garner?
Ed Asner: Well, he’s a
Andrew Sumner: good man. He is one of those guys that whenever I’ve asked people about him over the years, they only have good things to say about him. Yeah.
Ed Asner: Well, there is a story that’s told about him that, uh, there was a, uh, when he was doing a detective series, I forget which one?
I think so. And I’m the producer of an opposing show, came to the guard at the gate and complained that, um, garner had poked him, um, for stealing ideas from [00:30:00] Rockford files. And, um, so he called garner India, questioned him about. Whether that was true, that he had poked this producer. And uh, I said, no, no, no, I, I didn’t poke him.
Then I poked him when he said this, and then he poked him.
Andrew Sumner: That is, that is brilliant. Hey, you know, talking about, uh, TV detectives makes me think, um, I correct me if I’m wrong yet, but I think you’re in the movie version of Peter Gunn. So, uh, Blake Edwards made that film gun. You didn’t, you play the police leader
Ed Asner: yeah. To Colby or whatever his name was. Yeah.
Andrew Sumner: Yeah.
Jacoby. That’s exactly right. So I I’ve always thought that that movie was actually much darker than the TV show was. What [00:31:00] was it like work? What, what was it like working with Blake Edwards on that? And why do you think he went darker than the show?
Ed Asner: I think he, uh, he likes to touch over reality. Yeah.
Andrew Sumner: Yeah.
I think, I think Glen is an underrated movie actually. And, um, I’d be interested to hear what you thought
Ed Asner: he was a lovely man. He, uh, he loved actors. And he loved, uh, playing with ideas. Uh, he did not make problems.
Andrew Sumner: That’s interesting. Well, ed, thank you so much for sharing these memories with me and thanks for writing sort of a junk man, which I’m really looking forward to reading you haven’t
Ed Asner: heard yet.
Andrew Sumner: Bum. Yeah, they haven’t sent it to me yet. Yeah, no.
Ed Asner: Yeah,
Andrew Sumner: I will do. No. I’m looking forward to it. Hey ed. Thank you. So thank you, mate. Thank you for everything. Um, thanks for all [00:32:00] the entertainment, you know, it’s a, it’s a pleasure to speak to you.
Ed Asner: Yeah.
Andrew Sumner: Oh, well, thank that. That’s that’s that, that is very kind of you, mate. Um, and I’m glad I managed to ask you a question you haven’t been asked before. That’s always a pleasure. Yeah, mate, keep up the great work. Um, that thanks again. And thanks for finding time to chat with me. It’s been a real pleasure.
Take care. Thanks again. Bye bye. [00:34:00] [00:33:00]