Ed Asner, who cornered the market on gruff guys with hearts of gold on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Lou Grant,” and the Disney/Pixar animated feature “Up,” has died at the age of 91. He passed away peacefully on Sunday morning, as a representative confirmed to IndieWire.
“He was a brilliant actor. Amazing activist, a true friend, and great man,” said Asner’s manager Perry Zimel.
Asner had a long and prolific career in film and television, boasting the distinction of being the most honored male performer in Primetime Emmys history. He was nominated 17 times throughout his career, winning seven trophies in total. He was also nominated 11 times for Golden Globes, winning five.
Edward Asner was born in Kansas City, Missouri on November 15, 1929. He attended the University of Chicago after high school and worked the assembly line at General Motors for a time before serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. During his time with the Army in Europe, Asner would perform in plays. After his military service he helped found the Playwrights Theatre Company in Chicago (they would eventually become the Compass Players in the mid-1950s).
He start dabbling with comedy groups like Second City before getting his first Broadway role opposite Jack Lemmon in “Face of a Hero” in 1960. He made his television debut around the same time, in an episode of the anthology series “Studio One.” He made memorable appearances in the early ’60s on shows like “The Outer Limits” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and in 1962 he’d make his film debut in an uncredited role in the Elvis Presley feature “Kid Galahad.”
Asner appeared in numerous television shows throughout the decade, and with the arrival of the 1970s came the role that would make him a household name. In 1970 he’d debut as Lou Grant, news director of fictional television station WJM-TV, on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Grant was a grumpy and gruff boss whose outer exterior belied a kind and welcoming nature. Asner would appear on the series through 1977 before getting his own spin-off, “Lou Grant,” from 1977 to 1982. Asner would hold the distinction for playing the same character in both a comedy and a drama series, and was nominated for an Emmy nearly every season the show was on.
He also received an Emmy around the same time for playing the morally conflicted captain on the adaptation of the 1977 television show “Roots,” which he would follow up with another award-winning performance in “Rich Man, Poor Man.”
Asner, whose gruff tone was immediately identifiable, was also well-known as a voice performer. He voiced roles on the animated “Spider-Man” cartoon, “Captain Planet,” “Gargoyles,” and various “Star Wars” shows. Children today know him for his Lou Grant-esque role in “Up.”
In recent years, the actor hadn’t slowed down his work pace; in 2018 he was cast in the Christina Applegate-led dark comedy “Dead to Me” on Netflix. Asner voiced Carl in Pixar’s five-episode spinoff series of shorts, “Dug Days,” streaming September 1 on Disney+.
Offscreen, Asner also served two terms as the president of the Screen Actors Guild during the 1980s and was vocal about the number of political causes he supported; he described himself in 2017 as an “old lefty.” Asner maintained that the cancellation of “Lou Grant” was due to his personal politics than anything else. Asner was on the board of directors for The Survivor Mitzvah Project, providing emergency aid to elderly and impoverished Holocaust survivors in Europe, as well as a member of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and Humane Borders. He was also a fervent supporter of Autism Speaks.
He is survived by his four children, and grandchildren.
Additional reporting by Ryan Lattanzio.