Ed Asner has played the hard-nosed, but softhearted TV producer, Lou Grant, in four different series: Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Lou Grant, and Roseanne. At seven Emmy’s, he’s won more than any other male entertainer, and is tied with his former co-star Moore. A two-term president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, Asner fights for causes he believes in, including gun control, banning the death penalty, and making sure people with autism find meaningful work. ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan and Chet Cooper spoke with him at his L.A. home.
Ed Asner: What do you do?
Lia Martirosyan: I show up, editing and journalism.
Asner: You saved my life.
Martirosyan: Have I?
Asner: Where would I be without a good editor?
Martirosyan: This is true. (Asner’s eye begins to run.)
Asner: Both in writing and in film. Would you hand me those Kleenex up there? Thank you. For a small fee you each can have one. (laughter)
Chet Cooper: Before or after?
Martirosyan: It’s only valuable after.
Cooper: On eBay.
Martirosyan: Or Craigslist? eBay and Craigslist, here we come.
Asner: What prompted you all to come see me?
Cooper: Great question. We were going to ask you that.
Asner: What do you mean? I didn’t invite you. What would I want you in my house for? (laughter)
Cooper: We were gonna ask you, “Why are we here?”
Asner: I have no idea. Get out! (laughter) Do you like my bear up there?
Cooper: Is that from the Inuits?
Cooper: Is that from Charlie? Do you know Charlie? There was a famous Inuit artist who had lost an arm, had his arm cut off, but he did dancing bears.
Asner: Did he? I don’t know where the documentation on that bear is. I’ve got it stuck away some place. But I love him.
Cooper: I was a partner in an art gallery, and we specifically sold Inuit carvings from the Northwest Territories of Canada. We would work with the different tribes and they would ship them down. It was in Newport Beach. I love that art.
Asner: I love it, too. I’ve got a lot of Northwest masks and everything we haven’t hung yet which I bought in my first trip to Vancouver. Where are you from?
Martirosyan: Well, I was born in Armenia, but I live out here in LA.
Asner: It’s a lot like Armenia.
Martirosyan: Actually, Glendale… familiar with it?
Asner: Little Armenia. (laughs)
Cooper: Okay, the reason we’re here is your connection with autism.
Asner: You know, Autism Works Now recently had a Temple Grandin & Friends: Musical Benefit for autism.
Martirosyan: You and your son, Matt, were honored there.
Cooper: I took a Kleenex.
Asner: Put it back! (laughter) [Asner’s late co-star] Ted Knight talked about driving by a guy on the freeway who was picking his nose. Ted honked his horn, and when the guy looked at him, Ted yelled, “Put that back!” (laughter)
Martirosyan: Where were you born?
Asner: In the Kansas City, MO, hospital, but I lived in Kansas City, KS.
Martirosyan: And you grew up in that area?
Asner: Oh, yeah.
Martirosyan: So how old were you when you came out to Hollywood?
Asner: I came to Hollywood in ‘61. I was 32, a man.
Martirosyan: What brought you out here?
Asner: I started acting in Chicago, carried on for six years in New York, and by then I’d had enough of New York. I did a Naked City [TV show] here in Los Angeles, and saw agents and producers and my appetite was whetted to move out here, and that’s what we did. While shooting Naked City, which I worked on for about a week, I called my wife back in New York and said, “I think I want to check the place out more. And then I spent another week talking to agents and people and called her back and said, “I want to move out here.” So we sublet our apartment in late February, early March. My mother and brother pooled their money to buy us a new Chevy Impala, and my wife hired some movers. We rented a 14-foot U-Haul and stuffed it to the gills. Everything was perfect. We had about 1,000 pounds left over, which we consigned to Mayflower to deliver. And every goddamn piece of furniture that we sent was damaged by them. A sofa, a beautiful cherrywood harvest table, gouged, gouged. Unbelievable, criminal.
Cooper: Mayflower’s our main sponsor for the show. (laughter)
Asner: Well, they can go to hell. (laughter) We stayed with a friend for about a week in Hollywood, and then went looking around and found an apartment above the garage on an estate in the Hollywood Hills. Rudy Vallee’s estate was at the end of the street, and he had tried to get the city council to change the street name to Rue de Vallee, but they wouldn’t do it. I don’t know who owned the estate we were on. We had a little TV, and my wife would make dinner and we’d watch it. The second night we were there we heard a rustling outside. She went and peeked through the blinds of the window. There was a large avocado tree growing right next to the apartment, and she beckoned me over. Two raccoons were on their backs, chewing avocados. And I said, “This is for me.” I’ve been chewin’ on avocados ever since I got here.
Martirosyan: Are you doing much acting these days?
Asner: I tour with a one-man show, and I do movies, if you’re making them. I’m quite viable, in every sense of the word.
Cooper: What’s the one-man show?
Asner: It’s called FDR. I’ve been doing it for about four years. It’s done well. Now I’m in a rehearsal period with a writer-producer from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ed Weinberger. That’s a one-man show and we’re trying to work it up into viability. It’s called A Man and his Prostate. We hope it’ll attract flies. Lia: Prostates always do. (laughs)
Asner: Mine certainly has. In fact, it flies.
Cooper: Where is it playing?
Asner: We performed it in Missouri in June.
Cooper: Do you show President Roosevelt using a wheelchair?
Asner: Oh, yeah. I enter in a wheelchair. The rest of the time I’m walking around with two canes. It’s from the point of his coming down with polio. It’s the successor to Sunrise at Campobello. Dore Schary wrote the initial play, and we monkeyed with it and touched up on it, deleted some, added some. It’s a nice piece.
Cooper: Will it play LA?
Asner: It did; you missed it.
Cooper: You didn’t call me.
Asner: I know. And I won’t be calling you. (laughter)
Asner: Maybe in my next life you can catch it.
Cooper: Has anybody filmed it?
Asner: About two years ago. I don’t know what happened to it. It’s lying around some place. I’m better in it now than I was then, so I would prefer to reshoot it, rather than use the older version.
Cooper: How many more bookings do you have?
Asner: Just the one. Today I’ve got a rehearsal for my next one-man show, and I may get very busy with that. So I’ll leave FDR in the dust, who knows? The Shadow knows.
Cooper: And the next one is about the prostate?
Cooper: Is that your personal story?
Asner: No. It’s about “Ed.” He wrote this charming one-man show about his troubles. I’ve heard one out of every two men will come down with that problem.
Cooper: I’ve actually heard that almost all men die with prostate problems. They don’t die of it, but they have them.
Asner: That’s right. There was a point there when they decided that rather than operate, to leave it alone, because you would probably die from other things before the prostate would kill you. I don’t know if that’s any longer the truth. Knock wood. I don’t seem to have any of those problems.
Cooper: Coming back around to autism, would you talk about your family’s connection to it?
Asner: Well, I have four children. The youngest, Charlie, is 27; he was deemed autistic when he was seven or eight, which is late. He’s high functioning, and the lady I was going with at the time tended to regard him as her primary endeavor. We eventually married, and he became her main charge. We’ve had him all over the place. He went to school in Chicago, and he loved it there. I did, too; it’s a great city. And he was at a health group here for about a year. We didn’t care for that. He eventually came back and tried Evergreen, in the state of Washington. And that was low control, low guidance. But he needed something more enveloping. After a year there, he spent a few months at Santa Monica City, and then we heard about Chapel Haven in New Haven, CT, which dealt in a wonderful fashion with autism and its associated disorders. They were excellent. I would also tell you that when he graduated public school we sent him to Cal Poly Middle School. They had never had an autistic kid and were hesitant in doing so, but they finally consented, and he had a marvelous three years there. I certainly recommend that school. It’s an excellent school.
Cooper: Where is that?
Asner: It’s in Pasadena. Well, it’s right across from Cal Poly U.
Cooper: So kind of the Pomona area?
Asner: Yeah. There’s also a high school associated with it, too. It was deemed that he probably could not tackle the high school sufficiently enough. We then sent him to Chicago. And right now he is involved in the New Haven hospital. It’s called volunteer service, where they sign up and they are then shifted from one department to another volunteering and assisting. He’s worked well at some of the departments and not well at some of the others. But it’s designed to prepare him for going into the outside world, to prepare him for work in the outside world.
Cooper: We have a program called ABILITY Corps. It’s for volunteers with disabilities to work with other nonprofits that have volunteer programs, just exactly what they’re doing. It’s a gateway, a mid-road, if you will, to see what they like, what they’re comfortable with, and hopefully engaging them into moving into a career choice and getting hired somewhere. That’s so important.
Asner: Yes. From seven or eight on, he’s been monomaniac. He gets locked onto a subject, which most autistic kids do, and hates to leave it. Black holes were a favorite of his when he was seven and eight. But he’s moved on since then.
Cooper: That’s a deep subject, though. (laughter)
Asner: He could stay on that subject forever. Thank God he’s moved on. He’s a very bright fellow, and I hope to God we find the area of life that will give him happiness and productivity.
Martirosyan: Were you aware of autism before your son—
Asner: Not at all, not at all. My lady at the time, who did such a great job with Charlie while we were bringing him up, often said that she doesn’t think he had autism, she thinks he has Asnerism. (laughter)
Martirosyan: She’s a smart lady.
Asner: She is, very clever, yeah. I don’t know where she is now, but I hope she’s happy.
Cooper: How long has your son been part of the hospital volunteer program?
Asner: Six months. His stint there is coming to an end, so I’ll be going to Connecticut soon. They’ll issue reports on him, grade him, judge him. At the same time, Chapel Haven’s advisors, caretakers have been there to help him, advise him and better him. I just want to make him happier. I haven’t gotten there yet.
Cooper: Do you know Joey Travolta’s Inclusion Films?
Asner: I know of his wonderful work in trying to find work placement [for people with autism]. I think what Microsoft is doing is fantastic. They respect the autist’s ability to retain information and think of a level of detail and depth or excel in math and code. And they try to place as many of these people as they can. I think it’s a—because I’ve often said that the world would be a happier place if it was run by autistics. And it may well be. But I think Microsoft’s got the right idea, and I hope other major corporations take the hint. I also know— what’s the name of that other group? (Calls “Liza.”)
Liza: Exceptional Minds?
Asner: Thank you. Exceptional Minds [Studio]. That’s a nice name, isn’t it? It’s certainly accurate. I’ve seen their work. It’s excellent, particularly in animation. It’s a job trying to sell major studio producers on the idea of taking on people with autism en masse.
Cooper: Do you know if your son has tried anything in that realm yet?
Asner: No. I’ve never seen any of his—graphically, there’s nothing breathtaking about what he does there. He pursues chess, working the mind all the time, mentally rather than graphically.
Cooper: Let me show you something, because you asked about the magazine.
Asner: An interview with Mary Tyler Moore? I’ve heard of her. What’s she doing these days?
Cooper: This was a while ago; we talked to her about having diabetes. [Moore, 78, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 33.]
Asner: (flipping through the magazine) You don’t show me in here one little bit, do you?
Cooper: There might be a picture of you.
Asner: There’s Ted Knight. He made it in, but not me… I’m so glad you made it to my house, now get out! (laughter)
Cooper: I was lucky to find that at the last minute.
Asner: What other surprises do you have for me?
Cooper: “Mary, come on out!” (laughter) Have you talked to her?
Asner: Not in a year or so.
Martirosyan: Have you met Temple Grandin?
Asner: No, but I’m a great admirer of hers. I think what she has done is—talk about bread on the waters… She earned her PhD. Her vocal ability is not extensive or clear, I would say, but I’ve seen the results of her work. She’s improved the method by which animals in stockyards go to their death. That terrible fear generated in animals prior to their being slaughtered is horrible for them, and throws a lot of adrenalin into the bloodstream and probably is very harmful to us, as well. So she has provided, as best she can, the methods and means by which animals are not confronted so blatantly with the horror of their impending death. I think the results of her efforts and her research will be far reaching.
Martirosyan: Are you a vegetarian?
Asner: I’d love to be. I wouldn’t be fat if I were. You ever see any fat vegetarians? As he got older, my father would complain when my mother put beef on the table. In Kansas, during the summers, the last thing you want to see is a big, thick piece of meat. He’d complain. In Kansas, you don’t get that much fish, either. It’s meat or swim. It has to be an admirable way to eat. My father avoids sugars, but he hasn’t defeated the gluten monster yet. You have to defeat that if you’re trying to be a non-fatty.
Martirosyan: Very insightful. (laughs)
Asner: Did you hear the story of the gal who comes into the pharmacy and tells the pharmacist what she wants, and he says, “Cyanide? I can’t give you cyanide. I could lose my license and be sent to jail if I did. What do you want cyanide for?” She says, “I want to kill my husband.” “Why do you want to kill your husband?” “Because he’s been sleeping with your wife.” “My wife? How do you know that?” She pulls out a photo and shows the two of them together. He says, “How much cyanide did you want?” (laughter) Seriously, though, I went to a dinner recently where the focus was the death penalty, and I saw several people who had been exonerated. There was a trio, one had spent 40 years in jail, the other two, like 38 years. Men, of course. At least two of the three were very well spoken, very good-looking, all put there because a 12-year-old kid lied about them being the perpetrators.
Cooper: The same kid?
Asner: Named all three of them. And the kid later recanted his story, and the detectives wouldn’t admit it. This goes on all the time.
Cooper: Was this a fundraiser?
Asner: Yes, for various justice projects… Everyday you read about a prosecutor who failed to disclose certain exculpating information. It’s horrible. I met a guy there who was accused of killing his mother, and spent 20 years in the joint.
Martirosyan: What happened?
Asner: At the time, they took the kid who was 17, and surrounded him with jailhouse snitches. They created a story that eventually got him indicted and sentenced. I don’t know if they sentenced him to death, because he was 17, but certainly for life. There was another kid staying in the house who actually killed the mother… ] undoubtedly to get the money that she had on her.
Asner: Fortunately, that young man who’d been wrongly imprisoned was there with his wife; she was a South African, and they seemed very happy.
Martirosyan: How long have you been involved with death penalty issues?
Martirosyan: Do you remember what got you into it? What sparked your interest?
Asner: I tried to help the accused before. I remember going to Missouri and trying to meet with the governor to try to save a guy’s life, but I wasn’t successful.
Cooper: That’s got to be heart wrenching: When you work to try to save somebody’s life, and the system doesn’t listen.
Asner: It is… Getting back to autism: One in 68 suffer from it. It’s probably a bigger number now. It affects a high percentage of kids.
Martirosyan: How have you seen the awareness of autism change throughout your son’s life?
Asner: The numbers themselves began to increase so much. One of the best things you can do about autism is to find jobs and careers for those affected by it, in part because they’re very good at what they do.
Asner: There was this time when he was riding with me as a kid and I already had some fame and a cop pulled me over, I did a wrong turn or something. As the cop came up to the window to write the ticket, Charlie leaned over towards the window and said, “Do you know who you’re talking to?” That’s one of the main efforts we have with autistic children, autistic adults. Because of their inability to lie and because of their lack understand that there are these types of people that they cannot exercise ordinary tough-cop bullshit. They’ve got to assess the situation and respond accordingly, and hopefully, amicably treat sufferers from autism.
Cooper: There’s a major correlation of the death penalty and imprisonment of people with different mental health issues.
Asner: Oh, God, yeah. A lot of ‘em.
Martirosyan: Is that a picture of your son there?
Asner: No, that’s my older son, Matt, who is a project director for Autism Speaks. He’s done a fantastic job there. Matt also has a son who is autistic. Asnerism all over again. He did a great job with an Autism Speaks event last year. They had a great march at the Rose Bowl.
Cooper: Yes, we were there.
Asner: You were there? With 50,000-some people, right?
Cooper: And three.
Asner: Oh, yeah, we don’t count you. (laughter) And then, shortly after that, he had their third concert at the Pantages Theater [in Hollywood] of Light Up the Blues. Steve Earle, Chris Stills, Shawn Colvin, and Neil Young were there. They played beautifully. There were a lot of good acts.
Cooper: Do you know Neil Young?
Asner: No, I never met him. Jack Black was the MC. Brad Pitt was there and contributed a very funny auction routine that he did with Jack Black.
Cooper: And your son helped put that on?
Asner: Mm-hmm. That’s his third year of staging it.
Cooper: Is he working out of New York?
Cooper: We met with Autism Speaks out of New York since we created the first employment site for people with disabilities on the web, back in 1995.
Asner: What was that called?
Cooper: ABILITY Jobs. We focus a person’s ability, ABILITY Magazine, ABILITY Corps. Autism Speaks raises a lot of funds for research and advocacy.
Asner: They have, really. I’d tip my hat if it had one.
Cooper: So you’ve had an incredible career.
Asner: It’s only the beginning.
Cooper: That’s an interesting comment. Is there anything you look at and say, “I would have liked to have gone this other direction”?
Asner: I do. I’m not heralded in every hallway in the world. I still have to be discovered by a lot of people. [points to a picture] That’s my father right there, by the way.
Cooper: Which one?
Asner: The one on the right. His brother came over from Russia after him, spent a few years with him in the junkyard. That’s the junkyard behind him. And then he went back to Russia, my uncle. He fathered seven kids, I think, almost all of them wiped out in the Holocaust. And the one remaining is in a senior citizens’ home in Windsor, Canada. He’s about 98, I guess.
When the Nazis came in, there were four healthy sons, the daughter, and a brother with a disability. The four healthy sons decided to take off to the woods, which is what the Jews did whenever they needed to escape. They decided that the sister would stay with the brother. The four brothers created a nucleus of a partisan band, and during the course of the war, three of them were killed, one by the Germans, one by the Polish fascists, and the third committed suicide before he was taken. Abram, the one who survived, married his wife in the camps and eventually came and settled in Canada.
Cooper: Interesting background.
Asner: How long have you been in business with this magazine?
Cooper: Twenty-some years.
Asner: You don’t have a watch on?
Martirosyan: Twenty-five-ish years.
Cooper: I started when I was six and a half. And Lia, here, sings opera.
Asner: You’re worth something. So you’re not gonna juggle?
Martirosyan: I might.
Asner: I’m tryin’ to work up an act where you can make some money.
Martirosyan: With fire or without? (laughter)
Cooper: Have you ever done stand up?
Asner: No. I can’t even do good sit down. That has to be the hardest job in the world. It certainly must be a suicidal pursuit to finally think that you can get out there and entertain people just shooting the s—. And people who do it with beautiful precision and order, I just marvel at them.
Cooper: You could do it. If you can do a one-person play—the good stand-ups are good actors. They made it look like it’s spontaneous, but it’s all—
Asner: I can be funny as stuff occurs to me, but to be able to sit down and order your material and create from beginning to end, with variations—naturally they vary it all the time. It’s to be envied. (to Lia) I’ll let you have a box of Kleenex if you sing. (to Chet) Maybe along the way you’ll find that picture of me from the Mary Tyler Moore article.
Martirosyan: Take it up with Mary. (laughter)