Having Pride in Your Past with Ed Asner

July 14, 2020

One of the most honored actors in the history of television, Ed Asner has been the recipient of eight Emmy Awards and 16 nominations, as well as five Golden Globe Awards and he served as National President of the Screen Actors Guild for two terms. He was inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame in 1996, and he was honored by the Screen Actors Guild as the 38th recipient of the prestigious Life Achievement Award for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishment.

Asner is best known for his comedic and dramatic talent as the gruff but soft-hearted journalist Lou Grant, the role he originated on the landmark TV news room comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and continued in the newspaper-set drama Lou Grant, which earned him five Emmys and three Golden Globe Awards. Asner received two more Emmy and Golden Globe Awards for the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. We are so privileged to have with us today one of the most honored actors in the history of television. Ed Asner has been the recipient of eight Emmy awards and sixteen nominations as well as five golden globe awards and he served as the national president of the Screen Actors Guild for two terms. He was inducted into the tv academy hall of fame in ninety ninety-six and he was honored by the Screen Actors Guild as the thirty-eighth recipient of the prestigious life achievement award for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishment. Welcome to the Impact podcast. One of my favorite actors in my entire life, Ed Asner.

Ed: How do you do?

John: I am very well. How do you do today?

Ed: I am doing real good. And [inaudible] that is an introduction. I think I have to run for president.

John: You should run for president. You know more than most people. That is what I will tell you that right now.

Ed: Certainly no more than the guy whose fat ass is sitting on the chair.

John: Alright, we are going to get into all of that but the first thing- before we get into that, can you just share with our listeners. I mean, listen, I am junkman. You see, I am so excited to talk about your book Son of a Junkman which you recently wrote and I have the book in my hand right now. I have read it. I am a junkman, that is my business. I recycle electronics so to read your story and growing up in Kansas. I want you to share your background before even becoming the legendary actor that you became. Can you please share just some of your upbringing that is in this great book: Son of a Junkman which is available of course in every bookstore and on Amazon.com.

Ed: How lovely. That is an unexpected plug I did not expect to hear.

John: Okay.

Ed: But I am glad to have it.

John: Yeah.

Ed: Because I am proud of the book. I am proud of my past. I am proud of my parents. There is a lot I am proud of. I wish I was a better conductor for keeping the purity and the sanctity that they demonstrated. I wish I could claim it as well as they did.

John: I am loving the book. One of the best parts of the book is how you give thanks to so many people and you really look back with such warmth, admiration, love, and gratitude to so many people but one person, I want to just mention here is a gentleman I have never heard of, George Corporon for teaching me the possibilities in this world concerning news and Ed Ellis my beloved football coach for teaching me the meaning of tough but fair. When I think back to my childhood as watching you on television, as the now legendary Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore show and I think of myself as a boss today, and who I try to emulate myself after. I really do think of the tough but fair Lou Grant. Is this where you got a lot of that Lou Grant persona from, George Corporon and Ed Ellis?

Ed: George was a highly principled man. During the invasion of Europe by the allied armies. He seemed to have suffered from that experience but he kept his dignity and he was married to a hottie and I found him to be an inspirer of ideals no matter how much he may have suffered. He was a beautiful man. My football coach was a beautiful man.

John: Yes. You said, my beloved football coach.

Ed: Yes.

John: That is a nice way to remember somebody.

Ed: He was.

John: Tough but fair. When you said he taught you how to be tough but the meaning of tough but fair. That is what I always saw you as, as Lou Grant, tough but fair.

Ed: Well, I try to be. Probably he said, that is what the writer is trying to [inaudible] me.

John: Did you enjoy writing your life story in this great book, Son of Junkman? Was that a pleasure for you or is it work?

Ed: Not that great a pleasure. Yes, the initial writer Samuel Joseph Warren came forward with maybe four hundred questions. I do not know how many.

John. Wow.

Ed: That made it easy for me because I could open up on each one but then when I saw it was q and a, q and a, it did not please me. I wanted it to have more flow to it. So Matthew Seymour came in and he gave it a flow.

John: Got it.

Ed: And between the two of them, I can happily say that is my life.

John: In the book, you talked about a really colorful childhood in West Bottoms, Kansas City. How would you describe for those who have not had the benefit of reading your book like I have, how would you describe to our listeners the lifestyle of your childhood?

Ed: Well up until, I guess, the beginning of the second grade, I went to Cooper grade school.

John: Okay

Ed: And Mrs. Miller, or Ms. Miller, I can not remember. She was the principal. Since we were one of the well-off families in the Bottoms. I suppose I was kind of spoiled. But my companions, my schoolmates, were made up of nothing but ethnicities. Austrians, Croatians, Serbian.

John: All immigrants. Everyone was an immigrant.

Ed: Yeah. Mexican.

John: Right

Ed: We were segregated so there we no blacks in our school but we had Mexicans and we had the middle Europeans.

John: Got it.

Ed: Eastern Europeans.

John: And you yourself were Orthodox Jewish

Ed: And I myself was a Jew.

John. Right.

Ed: From birth, I was made to see that I am a minority.

John: A minority, even among those other immigrants, the melting pot that you grew up in?

Ed: Yeah

John: Really? Wow.

Ed: Oh yeah. There were no other Jews.

John: Right.

Ed: I mean a block away from my dad’s junkyard was the catholic church.

John: Got it.

Ed: I used to see this troubled old priest and I would be afraid of him. I had no idea what he might do to me.

John: It was fear. So part of being a minority, part of your mindset, and your emotional status at that point was fear.

Ed: Well I was a nothing. I was a nobody. I was the youngest of five kids.

John: Right.

Ed: My daddy was a strict, orthodox Jew, and my mama was a beautiful, lovely plump baby in mama. Needless to say, the junkyard was a crush and a packing house.

John: Right.

Ed: I saw nothing but blood and guts all day.

John: Right.

Ed: I am still looking for myself.

John: Yes but you are the last, if I read this right in the book, you had a bunch of older siblings. Like you just said, you were the youngest of five but now you are the last surviving. What are some of your favorite memories and lessons learned from your older siblings that will stay with you forever?

Ed: Well no matter how much I would have felt when my six-year older brother would pick on me and I would be his patsy. I felt that my sisters were the most beautiful in the land and lovely and liberal. My brothers were the toughest, physically, and mentally who could squeeze six pennies out of a nickel.

John: You know, you are known, we are going to get into later on, how you have used your platform for your activism, and for the impacts that you have made but right now, I want to get into the transition from West Bottoms Kansas to California. When was the turn in your life? For our listeners out there, that you were going to become an actor not to stay in the junk business. As it shows in the book, your family business is still going out in Kansas, it is still in business. So you could have stayed very well and probably stayed in that business if that is what you are dream was, if that was your goal.

Ed: Well it was a wonderful business, an adventurous business. I liked it. If I got into any business, I would have got into that one but I got snared by the acting bug and they lost me forever. My brother and my father both extended their desire to have me come into the business. They were generous in that respect.

John: That is great.

Ed: But I had other visions.

John: Right.

Ed: Those visions took place. I did a radio in high school. I love the radio. I grew from radio. I became an actor because of radio. I concentrated very much on voice in those early years. That is how you made radio. Then we had a local drama show on the local station. We would write scripts and we would produce them. We would act in them and do the music for them. All of that crap.

John: Got it.

Ed: I loved that. I loved it but that was it, you know. In Kansas City, Kansas you did not think of acting as a career.

John: Right.

Ed: That is for big-time folks. Though I went on to the University of Chicago and I thought vaguely of getting into Political Science because I love politics. You had to take required courses from testing, that determine what you had to take. I had about the average. I had about 12 courses I had to take as a high school graduate. So I began and we lived in the Burton-Judson Courts. Very gothic, pre-historic court dormitories that bordered the midway. They were beautiful. I do not know where the girls lived. I never found that out. I should have found that out. I was a slow maturer.

John: Right.

Ed: So I lived in Vincent house and not too long after the year began, somebody, one of the other houses decided to, tried to create a closed-circuit radio show. They start to put on Richard the second as the first dramatic attempt. My roommate was involved in the theater group. I said, “Well, I did a little radio acting in high school. Do you got a read for this radio show?” He threw out it all on me to read. I said, “Okay.” Because he thought of himself as the greatest [inaudible]. This is a farmer boy from Kansas City who would go audition for him. So I sort of went into the room and he sat at the other on his plump ass. I read some Walt Whitman to him. I did not realize it at that time, everybody regarded Whitman as a very difficult poet to read. A brilliant poet, but a difficult one. So I read him Whitman and his jaw fell open. He said, “Where did you learn to read like that?” And I kind of grunted, “I do not know. I do not know.” And he said, “Oh that is good, by all means, read for it.”So I ended up doing the Duke of York. I have never done a Shakespeare but I did the Duke of York and Richard the second. Then time went on, spring came. He came bustling home from school one day. He said, “Listen, the theater group is going to do for the summer show. T.S. Eliot’s, Murder In The Cathedral. You can do any of the roles in it, go check the book out, read for it.” So I checked the book out but I do not think I have read it. I took my girlfriend or I thought to be my girlfriend, to the tryouts and then I read. Once again, I wowed them and they came back and said, “Okay.” They gave me a whole bunch of roles to look over. Finally, I told them why I was going home for a couple of weeks before I started summer school. I said, “Hey make up your mind, what do you want me to do?” So they were kind of between here and there. People were saying yes and no. So they said just to read for Thomas and the fourth tempter. So I did and I ended up doing it two out of the three nights as the show played. It sank me into the theater. Never to be dislodged. I had an epiphany.

John: That is what you are going to do for a living.

Ed: Yes.

John: Lou Grant, growing up, I had never missed an episode. You were, that literally put you on the map, that role for the general population.

Ed: Uh-hmm.

John: You played a journalist. You know, I know, I have heard you speak before many many times. Where do you think we are, comparatively speaking to the era that you played Lou Grant and the mindset and the role of journalism then compared to where we are today in the world of journalism?

Ed: Well I guess the simplest way to say it is that the poor are only blessed in the eyes of God.

John: Hmm.

Ed: I would say as far as professions go

John: Yes.

Ed: Journalists are only precious in the eyes of God. I was a feature page editor on our high school paper and one day, I am at my desk and Mr. Corporon walked by and he looked at me and you know, TU is forty miles away. MU was a hundred and some miles away

John: Right

Ed: Both are good journalism schools.

John: Right.

Ed: He walked by me and he said, “You thinking of journalism as a career?” I said, “Yeah, I was.” I certainly was. He said, “I would not.” I said, “Why not?” “Because you can not make a living?” And it struck me. What is what I want to do, marry, and have a child? The man was saying “Go away, go away.” He was a journalism professor at the high school.

John: Right.

Ed: His job was taken cared of.

John: Right.

Ed: But he was not a practicing journalist.

John: Right.

Ed: I have seen since then, I have seen newspapers close. Fight to exist, fight to exist, be sponsored. To resist being a right-wing dominated newspaper was difficult. So I have always subscribed to the New York Times. I see even there that, with the pandemic, etcetera.

John: Yeah.

Ed: That they have put out local money trying to keep the readership with lots of color, lots of specialties, lots a, lots a, lots a. So even the New York Times is played and bewitched, bothered, and bewildered.

John: The grey lady, you are saying, have seen better days.

Ed: Yes. That is a god damn shame.

John: Your career is fascinating to me. Now that I am older, when I was a young little boy, sixty-one or sixty-two or sixty-three were sort of the time people are supposed to retire and you are one of these unbelievable leaders of your profession and your craft and your art, as there are others in other professions. Warren Buffet being one, and so many others that stay in and actually get better as they evolve and age with not only grace but with just such- It is just fascinating to watch your career. You are now what, ninety years old? And you are still working and seemingly enjoying it and having very relevant roles. I know I have not seen this show but I know Rosario Dawson is on the show Briarpatch which you are on and you are a newspaper publisher. Can you share a little bit about that role and evolving, talking a little bit about our old norms of retirement and why you just kept going and not only going, but like running. You did not walk, you did not crawl, sixty to ninety, you were running.

Ed: Well, besides loving to work and loving the art of acting of whatever you want to call it.

John: Yeah

Ed: It pays. It is a job.

John: Right.

Ed: I am ninety, yes but I am working now to make a living.

John: Right.

Ed: I did not create a good pitfall of money to live on in my old age. I know that most actors do unless they are mechanical or physical geniuses.

John: Right.

Ed: I did not. I should have gone on my daddy’s junk business and I would have learned but I did not.

John: Besides working and staying in so many- I mean, I have seen you and I have enjoyed you personally, Fort Apache the Bronx, JFK, Elf and so many others including broadway. Besides, working for a living?

Ed: Where are you located?

John: I am located in Fresno, California but I grew up in New York City in New York.

Ed: Yes. Well, I found New York to be very unhospitable to me as an actor.

John: Really?

Ed: Yes.

John: Why is that?

Ed: I got my start in New York, of course.

John: Right.

Ed: When I left Chicago, I went to New York and put six years into New York and been swept in an opera half of that time. I just found that New York critics did not care for me. You will have to put some knuckles on their head.

John: Do you still enjoy, is there still the light and joy when you get sent and your agent gets sent new scripts whether it would be for film or for tv? Is it fun opening up the package and seeing what they are sending your way and what possibilities are still out there?

Ed: Yes but at the age of ninety. I do not leap tall buildings anymore.

John: I want to change this topic. From your art and your craft, I want to talk about using your platform that you have honed and developed over all these years of success for making an impact. You are known and I have known you and I am just delighted in watching you, you have become a dedicated activist over the years. Can you share what are some of the worthiest causes you have put your heart, your soul, your resources, your brains behind, and why you chose some of those?

Ed: Well, I should be ashamed because if I was such a god damn activist, why did not I go out there with a placard saying, ‘Black lives matter.’ I worked with blacks all my life. When I worked on the assembly line and steel mills, I worked with blacks, [inaudible] by far, as much as that more so than…

John: You were in Roots!

Ed: Yes. I took Roots because I thought “Well hell.” Because of my innate prejudice in my life, I figured “Well, hell they will not get any white actors to do these jobs. So I must throw myself on the funeral pyre and let them do what they will because I have to serve on this noble cause.” White actors were eager to break each other’s legs to be part of it. That is how badly I misjudged white actors.

John: Wow.

Ed: I was not the only black lover in town by far and if I had used the basis of the blacks I had worked with all my life, in the steel mill, in the auto plants, they would have been numero uno, as far as I am concerned.

John: I saw a picture of you in your book which again I love and for all the listeners out there who have just joined us, we have got legendary actor Ed Asner on with us today. He is so generous with his time. I have read his book. I highly recommend you to read it as well. It is called Son of a Junkman. It is of course available at Barnes and Noble and other great bookstores and on Amazon.com. In this great book, I saw a photo of you with Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro. Can you share a little bit about what that was like meeting two iconic worldwide figures? And what your thoughts were back then and what your thoughts are now on what they represented to you?

Ed: Well, I was invited to go to Cuba on behalf of Bob Schwartz who headed a charitable group which provided pharmaceuticals to Cuba that they could not get on the open market.

John: Got it.

Ed: Donations, etcetera, and Bob Schwartz is a saint. He fought for Cuba. They should have a statue of him in Havana. I was asked to go, offered to go. Bob was not going so I was given the opportunity to go as a reward for being a letter writer for medical aids for Cuba. I eagerly accepted and so did Muhammad Ali and his wife Lonnie. We went together and it was a great eye-opener for me because to find someone who is so truly adored by everybody, that was Muhammad. God almighty. The kids just automatically fell in love with him. It was quite an experience. Castro really did not have much time to give you the ‘how do you do.’ But you know, he was busy with Ali. Ali was the [inaudible].

John: -the main event. He was the main event, maybe.

Ed: Yeah. We went everywhere. I can remember that I ran into a guy who I had worked for NBC news I think. I do not know how true this story is, but I will you because it is a good story.

John: Yes.

Ed: He said that he had gone to Cuba in the early days somewhere in there. I think he had gone to Harvard or Yale, I forgot which one, whichever one that Castro went to.

John: I think Harvard.

Ed: Harvard, yes. He mentioned the guy that Castro used to end up in a pub with. In a, Where is Harvard again?

John: In Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ed: Cambridge, yes.

John: Right.

Ed: He mentioned the guy to Castro and Castro did not say anything. That was in the morning. Then at noon, he brought it up again and Castro still did not say anything. In the evening, going to dinner again and he mentioned the guy again. This time Castro just [inaudible] and talked a great deal about this guy blah blah blah blah. This fellow from NBC was quite puzzled by this. So he turned to, I guess an American agent or a Cuban agent and said “How come, how come?” and he says “You do not know huh.” He said, “They are doubles.” The first guy was a double for Castro. The second guy was double for Castro.

John: No.

Ed: And finally at dinner time, he met the real Castro.

John: Wow.

Ed: You know, who knows?

John: That is a great story. You know, just like Rosario Dawson, you are passionate about the environment also. What are some of your causes? I know one of your causes I have read about in the book is autism and I am happy if you want to share a little bit about that. Also, about the environment, I would love to know because you have done so much. This is an open discussion for you to share where you felt you have made some great choices in using your platform to make an important and lasting impact on the world that we live in.

Ed: It is hard to follow that introduction.

John: Let us just talk about things you care about and why you work on things you care about outside of that.

Ed: So I think anything about animals and land is for me. The Trump passage of depredation on our parklands, on our forest lands, is a disgrace. Ignoring of global warming is a disgrace.

John: Right.

Ed: The fact that the barrier reefs have been consumed right and left. This affects all of our lives, humanity’s lives. I mean if you care about humanity and I am not sure if we should.

John: Right.

Ed: You should take care of the barrier reef.

John: Right.

Ed: Because it is all part of our protection. When I read that before the election, Trump’s sons went on a killing expedition to Africa. They got a [inaudible] or maybe an elephant or two, who the hell knows, I soured on them from that point on. I now see that their father is the President, it is like father like son. They are all killers. Enough of that. I fought for Cuba. I fought for a less autocratic rule in El Salvador that was my first plunge into the world affairs followed by Nicaragua and I was sorry about that one because the people I fought for Nicaragua turned out to be schmucks.

John: What year was that? Who do you fight for back then? Who were you working with?

Ed: The Sandinistas

John: Oh the Sandinistas. Okay. Got it. Okay.

Ed: It turned out to be worst. I mean they were gold too. There were good Sandinistas who are gold like the catholic fathers, the Jesuits who were killed by the reigning administration in El Salvador. I can not remember the names now, unfortunately.

John: That is okay. You know we live in confusing times from so many and people are really, there is a lot of confusion out there. Not that other times, there was not confusion and opposing opinions to “Should we be in this war, should we not be?” But the war that we have on-going right now against the COVID 19 virus and the civil war in America, what seems to be a civil war in America with regards to understanding how to make it a better and a more fair and just society for all of us. You have had so much life and experience in you. You are a war veteran. You have done so much in your craft and your career but also done so much in politics, are you hopeful for where we are going? Or are you less hopeful for where we are going right now?

Ed: I am generally a negative, sour person but I must say that with the mobile activity that America has undergone, people moving to Atlanta, people moving to South Carolina, North Carolina…

John: Right.

Ed: Even with Mitch McConnell being a senator from Kentucky is it?

John: I believe so. Yes.

Ed: Amazingly enough did not join the confederacy but somehow, as embodied by him, demonstrates a lot of the habits and traits of the old south. But I think this mobility of America, the transplantation of the people everywhere and the capability of turning red station to blue. I think when this began about a year ago, let us say, I was thinking the civil war is still going on. It is still happening. It is still a possibility blah blah blah but when I look at America now, I see that transitions are taking place at the old south, is somehow being graded over or replaced or transplanted. Going through a transplant, yeah. I think there is a possibility that we could find a common ground. The black lives matter has given an enormous boost in recreating this outpouring in the south. I think if we give it enough time, we will not have to worry about the Coup Clutz Clan or the American Nazi party and this one and that one.

John: Other radical groups. Extremists.

Ed: I think we will have a majority of good middle-class people. [inaudible]

John: Beside legendary actor and dedicated activist and the son of a junkman, you are ninety and you are still doing it. Now, I am almost sixty years old so I am so happy now that sixty-one and sixty-two is not retirement anymore and I am so happy that there is people like you out there, can you just share, before we sign off and say goodbye for today to our listeners, can you share some of your wisdom on just living a long and productive life that really is relevant. That is what you have done, a relevant, long, and productive life.

Ed: I noticed when I took any job that came along that paid the bills. I was not a very selective creature. You can call me a whore but at the same time I created a record in terms of the number of jobs posted.

John: Right.

Ed: Which was enjoyable. Call me a journeyman actor. I will be happy to rest on that. Let the others go to hell.

John: You know what, that might be the best place to end. I just want to say thank you from all of us here in the United States that have gotten the chance to enjoy your great work. Of course, it has been seen around the world but growing up in New York City, a little boy in Queens New York, also from an immigrant family and seeing your great success and following your career, it is beyond an honor to have you on our podcast today. It was wonderful reading your book. For our listeners out there, please buy Son of a Junkman. It is in Barnes and Noble and other great bookstores and on Amazon.com. He is a legendary actor and dedicated activist Ed Asner, I am so grateful for you joining us today on the Impact podcast.

Ed: I kiss you.