Ed Asner, who visits the Activist Support Circle on Friday, has spoken for progressive Hollywood from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “Up”

By Michael Aushenker

In the 1970s, the irascible Ed Asner had roles in two of the highest-rated TV events in history: “Roots” and “Rich Man, Poor Man.”

In the 1970s, the irascible Ed Asner had roles in two of the highest-rated TV events in history: “Roots” and “Rich Man, Poor Man.”

Ed Asner doesn’t remember the gripping read he did of “An Omelet for Vinnie” opposite actor John Savage for a Malibu Playhouse benefit in 2011. Nor he does recall chastising comedian Bobby Lee for wearing flip flops when both appeared as guests on “Tom Green Live” last year.

“Was I funny?” Asner asks softly —slightly disinterested, perhaps.

Careers can be forged out of what Asner forgets. At 85, the irascible, calls-it-as-he-sees-it actor promises to be a lively guest speaker at omnipresent Santa Monica activist Jerry Rubin’s next monthly Activist Support Circle meeting, happening Friday at Friends Meeting Hall.

“Ed Asner is not only one of the most talented and creative actors but also one of the most dedicated activists for progressive causes,” Rubin says.

Until “Frasier,” the long-running 1970s situation comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” held the record for Emmys won by a series. With talents such as James L. Brooks (who later co-created “Taxi” and “The Simpsons”) and Allan Burns (“The Munsters”) running the ensemble show, Asner, as curmudgeon news producer Lou Grant, knew even back then that, as sitcoms go, he was rolling in a Phantom, not a Pacer.

Oddly, when Asner starred in “Lou Grant,” the spin-off became a drama.

“It was trial by fire. They learned a lot on the job. It had never been done before,” he says.

Of course, the reason Rubin has invited Asner down to Santa Monica from the San Fernando Valley — Asner, a longtime Valley Village resident, just moved to Tarzana in March — is his history of activism.

But don’t refer to Asner as the former president of Screen Actors Guild, which he led from 1981 through 1985.

“I never ran SAG. I was run over by SAG,” Asner says, perhaps only partially in jest, before recounting — matter-of-factly and without animosity — how the late (and famously conservative) Charlton Heston led the charge to railroad him.

“I spoke my mind,” Asner says. “I was being a humanist and was turned into a communist. They found that I was a choice cut.”

If Asner learned a lesson from his SAG run, it’s “keep your friends close and keep your enemies closer.”

But Asner does not subscribe to the notion that an actor’s political leanings may limit a thespian’s career in Hollywood, as the late Republican-associated actor Ron Silver once claimed.

“That’s bullshit,” Asner says. “Jon Voight is the biggest loonie out there. He works all the time, thank goodness — he’s one hell of an actor!”

And that’s what counts in Hollywood, Asner reiterates: bringing the pork chops to the luau.

That said, he does feel that CBS’ cancellation of “Lou Grant,” which he starred in from 1977 to 1982, was political. Asner won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series twice before three sponsors — Vidal Sassoon, Cadbury’s and Kimberly-Clark — pulled out because of Asner’s support for sending medical aid to El Salvador.

Meanwhile, as Asner led the charge to include extras in SAG, “Heston, the stunt men and day players got pissed off and fought us savagely. Later on, because the extras had no representation, it became automatic that the SAG would rep them and now plebiscites would overturn it.”

Amid what Asner calls “clouds of controversy,” the head of CBS was not amused.

“Bill Paley barged into the room one day and saw that ‘Lou Grant’ was still scheduled on Monday nights [and was furious]. So we got yanked,” Asner says.

Asner’s shrug is almost audible. As they say in the business: on with the show.

“I learned from that experience,” Asner says. “When people want to lead a campaign against you, if they get enough of the media aroused, they can drive you to the insane asylum.”

Regardless, Asner hasn’t hesitated to make his voice heard on matters of politics and social justice over the years.

Longtime fans may not realize, however, that in the past three decades he’s also built a parallel career as a voiceover actor. Asner has amassed an impressive body of work, including turns as hardboiled Daily Bugle editor James Jonah Jameson in the 1990s “Spider-Man” cartoon series, villain Granny Goodness in  “Superman/Batman Apocalypse,” plus roles in “The Simpsons,” “The Boondocks” and Seth MacFarlane’s “The Cleveland Show” and “American Dad.”

“Given enough to work with, I can plunge into the character as deeply as anything I do onstage,” Asner says of his voice work.

He plunged deepest, perhaps, for Pixar’s poignant 2009 feature film “Up” — work that brought him a whole new fan base.

“Kids who never heard of ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ and ‘Lou Grant’ popped up. They had to be told that was me,” Asner says.

Activist Rubin is also a fan.

“It was so unique and creative,” Rubin says of “Up,” “and Ed’s portrayal of the lead character in the film, Carl Fredricksen, was truly heartwarming.”

Also heartwarming: how Asner scored the gig.

“My voiceover agent submitted me. I didn’t’ think anything of it. The next thing I know I got a job,” he says.

Asner was in Alameda County doing Emily Beck’s one-man show “Numbers of People,” directed by Shira Piven (Jeremy Piven’s sister), as part of a Jewish fundraiser.

“Up” co-directors Peter Docter and Bob Peterson “came to the thing, saw me do the one-man read about a Holocaust survivor and all the ugliness in his life, and decided to cast me. That was the clincher,” Asner says.

There was no down side to working on “Up” for Asner.

“Bob Peterson was terrific, he did all the animals,” Asner says. “I thought it was juicy. I never thought it would get the acclaim it got.”

Aside from his voice work, Asner’s face still appears frequently on the silver screen.

How was it that a nice Jewish boy landed the part of Santa Claus in the Will Ferrell Yuletide comedy “Elf”?

“How did the Catholic Church become Catholic?” Asner responds rhetorically.

“It was a two-week job,” he continues. “I thought Jon Favreau, in his execution, was wonderful. I was so impressed with what he did. I think of it as a big plus. I also think [as a contemporary Christmas classic] it gets away from the treacle of ‘Miracle of 34th Street.’”

As for why Asner has accepted Rubin’s invitation to speak before the Activist Support Circle, what he thinks of the work they are doing and what he intends to talk about tomorrow, the actor’s reply is once again comically candid: “I haven’t the foggiest notion.”

Ed Asner visits the Activist Support Circle at 6:30 p.m. Friday. The event is at Friends Meeting Hall, 1440 Harvard St., Santa Monica. Visit activistsupportcircle.org.

michael@argonautnews.com

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