It’s with a heavy heart I write this as tributes continue to pour in mourning Ed Asner’s passing this past Saturday at age 91. I’m gratified, however, they’re also celebrating Ed’s remarkable career and range as an actor, his two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild and a lifetime of humanitarian work on behalf of human rights, civil rights, the environment and autism. (Ed had a son and grandson on the spectrum.)
Spanning six decades Ed appeared in over 400 films and TV shows, including the renowned mini-series Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man. His seven Emmys are a record and so is his having won for playing the same character, Lou Grant, on two different shows, one a comedy and the other a dramatic role. (Ed jokingly downplayed the seven Emmys by noting he also had seven hip surgeries, adding that when his surgeon suggested he might need another Ed quipped, “Not until I win another Emmy.)
Among the many reasons I was proud to consider Ed a friend was the manner in which he led his life. A definition of the expression “walked the walk” is “to do what one claims one will do.” And that was Ed, though he often paid a dear price. For example, the once top-rated “Lou Grant” was canceled in 1982 many believe because of Ed’s outspoken objection to America’s support of repressive governments in Latin America. Though Ed’s popularity waned, he never wavered in his beliefs. Sure enough, over time the public’s affection returned bigger than ever as Ed seemingly became America’s grandfather.
Twenty years ago, my relationship with Ed began with his phone call regarding a screenplay I had written, The Amazing Mr. Z. It featured Irving Zupermann, a Polish immigrant who had been the teenage strongman in the Warsaw Circus in the late 1930’s.
But now in his late 80’s, Mr. Z lived in a welfare Alzheimer’s facility in Miami because, though he was thoroughly sane and had a biting wit, he insisted he was a superhero. Unwilling to take no for an answer, Ed bellowed, “Your movie will be my last hurrah!” I countered, “Gee Ed, I don’t think I’ve ever had a ‘first hurrah.’”
Ed got Mr. Z to director friends of his Rob Reiner and Jon Favreau both of whom passed on the project. Favreau directed Elf, in which Ed played Santa Claus, a movie that grossed a whopping $233 million. Naively, I hoped Santa, which Ed played five times, and a geriatric superhero, were pretty much in the same league. Evidently, they weren’t.
Thankfully for me Ed and I maintained a friendship all these years. He read other screenplays of mine and once said, “You’re so talented, it’s an honor to know you.” Overwhelmed, instead of simply saying “Thank you,” I did a Mary Tyler Moore impression, “Oh, Mr. Grant. I think I’m going to cry.” While Ed didn’t suffer fools gladly, luckily in this case he overlooked it.
Ed was remarkably generous with his time and money to causes he believed in and to people needing a break. In his tribute to Ed, Michael Moore revealed that when he was desperately trying to raise money for his first documentary Roger and Me, Ed sent him a check for $500 with a note. “I don’t know who you are, but good luck.”
After one of my numerous columns about Ed, I received an email from an English professor at Rutgers. As a college freshman she had been in a Latina writer’s group that couldn’t stay afloat with rent and even photocopying expenses. Somehow Ed got word and sent a check that sustained them for a year. I was touched by the professor’s gratitude decades later. I forwarded Ed the email asking, “Could there be two Ed Asners?”
Sheila Lafey, a longtime Adjunct Film Studies Professor at SMC, also shared a heroic story about Ed’s caring soul. From 1998 to 2004 Sheila produced three environmentally oriented documentaries including: The Last Stand: The Struggle for the Ballona Wetlands; Update: 2000; and Heroes at Ballona Wetlands. All aired on PBS stations, won many awards and most importantly, helped save over half of the wetlands. Magnanimously, Ed volunteered to host the series donating his time, credibility and passion. (Impressed with his endless energy, Sheila referred to Ed as “a force of nature.”)
I’ll close with two strange coincidences. Last Friday night I sent Ed an email asking if my friend, Darya Jones, an “Advocate Ambassador” for Autism Speaks could interview him. When I awoke Saturday morning I was stunned to learn Ed had passed away. And this past Tuesday I signed an option renewal for Mr. Z with the independent film company WOF Entertainment, Inc. While I hope and pray (says the atheist) the movie finally gets made I’ll never forget that without The Amazing Mr. Z I might never have met the amazing Mr. Asner.
For those ever entertained by Ed, please return the favor by going to TEAFC.org. Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.