Ed Asner passed away on August 29th at the age of 91, after living a fascinating life with uncompromising integrity, a tenacious curiosity, and, despite exhibiting a gruff, tough guy exterior, an open heart to both loved ones and strangers. Though beloved by Disney fans for his role in Pixar’s 2009 film UP and appreciated by hardcore tv and film fans since the 1950s, many are unaware of his incredibly diverse career as a voice artist for other animated tv and feature films. He was also a staunch and avowed liberal who fought for and won artists’ rights. He’s a personal favorite of mine, and I have followed his career since I was a baby tv and film geek. I even met him, and he lived up to every expectation. (More about that later in the blog.) So today’s blog is a tribute to Ed Asner.
AWARD WINNING WORK
Asner often played the sort of old school father figures a lot of us could relate to: a tough guy with high expectations, an irascible man who had quite a bark, but also a soft side he showed exactly when you needed it. He won two Emmys on two different shows playing a guy who fit that description as Lou Grant, the newsroom boss in Rhoda, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and later, Lou Grant. Over his career, he portrayed characters both good and bad, from Axel Jordache in 1976’s Rich Man, Poor Man and a slave trader Captain Thomas Davies in 1977’s Roots, to, most memorably, Lou Grant, who famously hated Mary Richards’ spunk but always had her back, Santa in 2003’s Christmas cult classic Elf, and the grumpy but surprisingly openhearted widower Carl Fredricksen in UP. He was in so many classic tv shows there are too many to list, but many fans remember the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, Route 66, The Outer Limits, Gunsmoke, The Fugitive, The Wild Wild West, Mission Impossible, and Mod Squad in which he appeared.
Here he talks about his love of the show The Outer Limits, and his disappointment in his episode, “It Crawled from the Woodwork”:
Here is a great video that hits some of the actor’s career highlights shown when he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Washington West Film Festival, which takes place right here in Reston Town Center:
It is impossible to separate Ed Asner from his politics, and he wouldn’t have wanted you to. An old school Democrat through and through, he came from Kansas City, Kansas, where the right vastly outnumbered the left. He also fought in WW2, so he had every right to expect the best from the government that sent him to war. He was a democratic socialist before Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made it cool. In an interview in 2019, he said, “a real Democrat is a euphemism for socialist. I like it. I think Americans were shucked into equating socialism with communism. People have been placed badly by that equation. They’ve screwed themselves. Until they get over that prejudice, our social progress will be slow.”
While working in film and tv, he was also making a name for himself as a trade unionist and political activist fighting for union and labor rights, including during his time as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He was an outspoken critic of former SAG president Ronald Reagan’s support of the right-wing military government in El Salvador and raised money for medical relief in the country. His activism led to CBS cancelling his show Ed Grant in 1982. He also took part in protests opposing the invasion of Iraq, and was instrumental in crafting the petition “Not in Our Name”, a declaration of dissent signed by thousands of people against US military involvement.
His opinion about the current political climate? “It’s like the monkeys escaped the zoo.” He put his thoughts about politics down on paper, and you can and should pick up his book about politics called The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs.
When asked why he decided to write the book (which was co-written by Ed Weinberger) he explained, “As a progressive, it’s a story I believe and believe in. If right-wingers truly understood what the Constitution meant they wouldn’t use it as a crutch every time they screw over the poor and the disenfranchised.”
VOICE ARTIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
Many of you know Asner voiced Carl Fredricksen in UP, but in over 30 years he won awards for lending his talent to dozens of major and minor characters on your favorite cartoons, and worked for nearly every studio. He was Goliath’s mentor Hudson, the founding member of the Manhattan Clan in Gargoyles. For DC, he played Perry White in All-Star Superman, Granny Goodness in Justice League Unlimited, and Roland Daggett in Batman: The Animated Series. For Marvel, he was Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man: The Animated Series. He was also featured on The Simpson, American Dad, King of the Hill, Family Guy, The Boondocks, and tons of other shows you know and love.
Here’s a great video compilation of his work:
Star Wars is another colossal franchise in which Asner played a part as voice artist. Not only did he play Master Vrook Lamar in the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic video game, he was Jabba the Hutt in the official LucasFilm radio drama of Return of the Jedi, which you can listen to in its entirety here:
Of course to many Carl Fredricksen will always be their favorite Ed Asner role. He talks about that role here:
MEETING A HERO
I was fortunate enough to meet the actor and activist and chat with him for quite a while at D23 a few years ago. I was behind the conference hall waiting to be picked up, and so was Asner. The process of reaching us was convoluted, so it took both our drivers quite a while to get through the maze of checkpoints. I said hello, told him I was a huge fan, and started asking him about his politics and activism. That has always been, to me, one of the most impressive parts of his career. Many artists and performers keep their business and their beliefs separate, but I have always believed those in the limelight should use their platform when they can. Gratefully, I knew his history. He was surprised and pleased with the direction of our conversation, since I think he expected just another delightfully enthusiastic Disney fan. We talked for almost half an hour, and honestly it got pretty deep, including thoughts on death, dignity, integrity and personal responsibility. If I hadn’t already loved him, I would have after that conversation. He reminded me of my dad, who is also big and burly and has never been afraid of deep conversations. When our cars came, we said our goodbyes. His daughter Liza was there, and she’s still my friend on Facebook. She took these great pics of us together:
If you’ve ever wondered if he was a nice guy, I can tell you he really was. For that half hour, especially after signing autographs and talking to fans for hours just beforehand, he couldn’t have faked being nice in the kind of interaction we had. I’ve also heard and read lots of stories since his passing from other folks about what a lovely person he was, whether meeting him for a minute, spending days with him on the road, or as part of a production. I think probably everyone except Charlton Heston was a fan of his!
One of Asner’s last voice projects was for Disney+, on the newly released and incredibly charming Dug Days. Dug Days is a series of 5 shorts from Pixar starring Dug (voiced by animator Bob Peterson, screenwriter and co-director of UP, who also wrote and directed all Dug Days episodes), the lovable dog whose high tech collar translates thought to speech, and his human guardian Carl (Asner). Each episode features a different theme, including Science, Puppies, and of course, Squirrel!. The production took place, in part, during the pandemic, which meant the voice artists had to improvise where they recorded their dialogue. Peterson’s ‘recording studio’ was a spider-infested closet in his house. The fact that Peterson was calling the shots meant that he could add little Easter eggs. Carl and Dug’s new home is #333, the same house number that Peterson’s grandmother lived in back in Ohio. Also look for a reference to Toy Story: 4 in the “Flowers” episode. The Ferris wheel is the same as the one in that feature. As a lover of below the line artists, I love knowing that the camera on one of Carl’s shelves is named after Mark Nielsen, production designer on Dug Days.
The trailer shows you all you need to know about why you should put a little time aside for this new series:
UP ART FOR ASNER FANS
For fans of UP, here are a few fine art images that capture Ed Asner’s character Carl Fredricksen’s adventures. You can click on any one of them to buy or for more information.