Actor Ed Asner

The Emmy-winning actor reflects on his career, discusses his new projects, and shares on his advocacy for the autism community.

Edward Asner is one of TV and film's most acclaimed actors. He's the only actor to win Emmys for playing the same character in a comedy (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and a drama (Lou Grant). He also has an extensive voice acting career, lending his instantly recognizable voice to such animated projects like TV's American Dad and Pixar's hit film Up. The Kansas City, MO native began his career with the Chicago Playwright's Theatre Company and moved to off-Broadway productions. A long-time activist, he's a former two-term president of the Screen Actors Guild and an advocate for numerous causes, including human rights, environmental preservation, and support of the autistic community.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: I got to wake him up, but I’m honored to welcome Ed Asner back to this program.

Ed Asner: Oh, I’m here. I died and went to heaven filled with black angels [laughter].

Tavis: The iconic star of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and his dramatic spinoff, “Lou Grant”, remains the only actor–I love this–the only actor to win Emmys for playing the same character in both a comedy and a drama. Did you know that trivia?

Asner: Of course, I knew that.

Tavis: Did you know that?

Asner: I had to do it twice to get it right.

Tavis: Asner’s acting and voiceover career haven’t slowed down and he has nine projects–I mean, nine–currently in production. We’ll talk about it tonight. In addition to his onscreen and voiceover work, Asner has been one of the nation’s leading advocates, thankfully, for the autistic community. Before we start our conversation with the iconic Ed Asner, a scene from that classic show, “Mary Tyler Moore”.

[Clip]

Tavis: Classic scene. I love it. Thanks to TV Land, this is on all the time. TV Land and MeTV, I watch it all the time.

Asner: So I’m an icon, huh?

Tavis: Yeah, you are an icon. How does that feel to be an icon?

Asner: I feel ennobled.

Tavis: Ennobled.

Asner: Yes.

Tavis: Uh-huh.

Asner: And I’ll make you a Duke in my Duchie [laugh]. When I last saw you, you were onstage at the old Globe in San Diego doing FDR and you were phenomenal.

Asner: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: You were phenomenal.

Asner: I always said I don’t sound like him, I don’t look like him, but saying his words eventually that’s all people need to know and they become buoyed, joyed, remembering what a great president we had.

Tavis: I guess that’s the essence of what it means to be a great actor as you are, but when you don’t look like someone and when you don’t possess that physical thing, crazy question, but how do you bring a guy like FDR to life?

Asner: Because I believed in him so intensely, I loved him, I treasured him, that I just wanted to get his words out there. And believing in him, his words, and thanking the Lord he was here, it’s an energy that takes me and carries me no matter who disbelieves me.

Tavis: Is there an energy, to use your word, an energy, a spirit, a modus operandi that FDR employed that you would recommend that President Obama take more of from him?

Asner: Oh, FDR loved to create humor. FDR was quoted often as saying, “I love my enemies.” And I don’t think Obama realizes that the more his enemies attack him, to gleefully respond to the attacks. Glee. Oh, you sapsuckers [laugh]. You can’t hurt me. I love my enemies, yeah.

Tavis: When you look back on not just your career, but your advocacy in this industry for all kinds of issues that I could list that you’ve been passionate about, was it worth it? Was there a price that you paid for being such an outspoken advocate? How would you situate that for me?

Asner: I had a show canceled, a successful show, a meaningful show, and I didn’t know what else to do at the time. I spoke from my heart and got involved which I hadn’t done up until that point. And having stepped into the morass, the show caught hell and my enemies gleefully leaped up to make it as bad as they could for me.

So the show was finally canceled and what I felt bad about was not being distinguished by being put up on some kind of cross. I hate to say that word, but there it is.

But for the people I put out of work momentarily, almost all of them found other jobs eventually, but I didn’t like that part. And I didn’t like the part that–as one of my producers tried to get me to calm down to the attacks said, “We think there are two ways of presenting ideas, our way and your way. We think our way is better.” [laugh].

Tavis: That’s generally how it works in this business.

Asner: Yeah. And “Lou Grant” did present ideas and it was a great show.

Tavis: What have you found–all things considered, what have you found most rewarding about this career that you’ve had in this industry?

Asner: I got to do the thing I loved and sporadically got paid for it [laugh]. You’ll remember that one [laugh].

Tavis: Earlier in your career when you were such an outspoken advocate–still are. We’ll come to autism in a moment here and the personal connection that it has in your own family. But earlier in your career when you were such an outspoken advocate, did you ever give serious consideration to running for public office? I’m thinking Arnold Schwarzenegger and all these other folk who’ve…

Asner: Well, I thought…

Tavis: Ronald Reagan…

Asner: And when I became outspoken, people thought I was doing it as president of SAG to follow in Reagan’s footsteps. I didn’t do it for political office. First of all, I think most performers have a better platform to speak from than whatever office they may be running for.

They probably get paid better once they run for office. We have nothing but millionaires in Congress, so it’s probably a much more secure job as far as money goes. But creating an audience to speak as an actor, if you can get away with it, is ideal.

Tavis: I mentioned your advocacy continues particularly on this issue of autism which has impacted your family in a very personal way. One of your sons, Charlie, and your grandson, Will. Tell me how this has impacted your family.

Asner: Oh, we’re totally involved and, as I look at most families, they may not be on the autism spectrum, but they’re approaching it by ADD, by this, by that. They’re wonderful people, they’re wonderful, precious people who speak the truth, who know the truth or who look for the truth and will talk to it.

When he was younger and I tried to get Charlie to tell a white lie, oh, no, no. I can’t do that [laugh]. Hey, this is a little white lie! But, no, no. And I end up admiring him.

Tavis: And that same Charlie just graduated college recently.

Asner: Yes.

Tavis: That same Charlie. What do you make of that? I mean, the numbers on this, when you look at how the numbers for autism have grown so dramatically over the last decade or so…

Asner: 1 in 68.

Tavis: You know this. There is this huge debate about whether–still ongoing–whether vaccinations are–what do you make of that? Anything?

Asner: Well, my point is this. First of all, the first supplier of the information, a British doctor, on Thimerosal, which is the preservative that the three shots are kept in, he manufactured a lot of his information and he was proven discredited.

So isn’t it better to be sure that you have protection against those three diseases–I can’t even remember. Measles, I think, is one and maybe Whooping Cough. I don’t know–than to risk your child’s life on a fractured non-supported theory about Thimerosal? Did I make myself clear there?

Tavis: Perfectly clear. I understood it. I guess the flip side of these numbers, 1 in 68, being so distressing is to see those pictures of Charlie on that graduation stage. I mean, it suggests to me that it doesn’t have to stop you.

Asner: No, but, unfortunately, 50,000 kids will turn 18 years old this year and, two years from now, less than half will have jobs. Microsoft’s doing a wonderful job of promoting jobs for autistic and like young people.

And if more corporations can take the hint of using the tremendous values these people have, autistic people, who can function, I don’t expect them to take them in sight unseen, to at least look at them, try them and use the talents they have in their corporations, there would be far less unemployed among the autistic.

Tavis: I could do this for hours. As a matter of fact, you’re going to come back–this is not a question. This is a statement. I’m telling you, yes [laugh]. You’re going to come back…

Asner: I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies.

Tavis: Yeah, whatever [laugh]. You are going to come back because, as I mentioned at the top of the show, you have nine different projects underway, so I want you to come back. We can spend an entire show talking about your work. Congratulations. Good to see you, my friend.

Asner: Thank you.

Announcer: For more information about today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: August 21, 2015 at 2:00 pm