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An interview with Ed Asner: Emmy-winning actor on acting, autism awareness and playing FDR

Katie Pryor
Arts & Culture Editor

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Ed Asner performed in the one-man show “FDR” at the Ware Center last week. (Photo courtesy oF ocregister.com)

Veteran actor Ed Asner has done it all, from his Emmy-winning role as Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Lou Grant,” to providing the voice of Carl on the Pixar classic “Up.” In recent years, he’s been stretching his acting chops even further by playing the beloved, polio-stricken 32nd president of the United States in the one-man show, “FDR.”

“FDR” explores the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, including his inauguration, the Great Depression, his fireside chats, the New Deal and America’s involvement during World War II, all of which shaped his legacy as one of the most beloved presidents in US history and shaped the US into the country that it is today. Asner was in Lancaster County last week during the tour of “FDR,” which he performed at the Ware Center Monday, April 6 and Wednesday, April 7.

Sitting in the television studio in Bassler Hall, wearing khakis and a shirt with “Ratatouille” characters on it, the actor said that playing Roosevelt was an honor for him. “Growing up, he was one of my heroes,” he said. “He was the hero for the poor [during the Great Depression]. I often say that for me, when he died, it was as if God the father died.”

Oddly enough, the actor, who was born in Kansas City, Mo., and raised in a Jewish family, didn’t get his start in acting until his college days. “Back then, if you ever openly admitted to enjoy theatre or performing, you were considered a sissy,” said Asner. “While I was attending University of Chicago, my roommate pushed me to audition for a production of a Shakespeare play the school was doing. I wound up getting one of the main parts.”

Asner became a household name in the 1970s with his role as the crusty “Six O’Clock News” producer (later executive producer) Lou Grant on the sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and then later in the drama “Lou Grant.” It was this character that has made Asner the only actor to win an Emmy Award for a comedy and a drama for the same role. “I remember getting the first script for ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and just thinking it was golden,” said Asner. “I didn’t care if we only did one episode or one season. I just knew I had to be a part of it.”

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ran from 1970-1977 and “Lou Grant” ran from 1977-1982. Unlike “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which was a half-hour long comedy, “Lou Grant” was an hour-long drama. Going from a comedy to a drama while playing the same character posed a challenge for the actor. “During the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ I primarily channeled my brothers in the way they talked and acted. However, whenever we started doing ‘Lou Grant,’ I realized that just wasn’t going to work for an hour-long drama. So, I started changing the character and playing more of myself.”

As a Democrat, Asner has also been involved in several political and humanitarian causes. He served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, and during the 1980s he opposed US policy in Central America, working closely with the Alliance for Survival. He also endorsed Barack Obama when he ran for President in 2008.

One cause in particular that Asner has devoted himself to is autism awareness. As a father and grandfather of a child with autism, he has become deeply involved with the nonprofit organization, Autism Speaks. “There is still a lot of miscommunication and misinformation out there about the spectrum of autism,” said Asner, noting that his son and grandson are at different ends of that wide spectrum.

Along with touring in “FDR,” Asner has also played several other parts in television and movies over the years, such as “Elf,” “Too Big to Fail” and “Up” and guest appearances on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “The Good Wife” and “CSI: NY.” Although he’s played villains on some of these shows, “They’re still human and interesting,” said Asner. “I mean, wouldn’t you want to play a former Nazi posing as a Jew [like my character in ‘CSI: NY’]? I know I would!”

Before leaving, the actor announced to the excited students in the television studio, “By the way, I’m going to be on ‘Criminal Minds.’”

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