Acclaimed actor Ed Asner, whose show Lou Grant dealt with social issues including gay rights, has died at age 91.
Asner died Sunday of natural causes at his home in Tarzana, Calif., his family and publicist confirmed.
He won seven Emmy Awards for playing journalist Lou Grant, an irascible yet soft-hearted and deeply ethical man. He was the newsroom boss at struggling Minneapolis TV station WJM on The Mary Tyler Moore Show from 1970 to 1977. Then, in an unusual move, when that comedy ended, the spin-off for Asner was a drama, Lou Grant, with Grant working as city editor at the fictional Los Angeles Tribune. The show ran from 1977 to 1982.
Lou Grant saw the Tribune journalists covering a variety of stories involving social issues, including, “in the first season alone, domestic abuse, gang rivalries, neo-Nazi groups, nursing-home scandals and cults,” as The New York Times notes.
Then in 1979, the third season premiere was “Cop,” with two storylines involving gay issues. Lou’s neighbor, a gay man, is murdered, and police do only a cursory investigation, but Lou presses for a more thorough probe. The Tribune also reports on a fatal fire at a gay bar, and staffers debate whether to publish the victims’ names, as being outed could harm the men’s reputations.
The fire story mirrors a real-life tragedy at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, a gay bar where 32 people died in an arson fire in 1973. It was the biggest mass killing of LGBTQ+ people until the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which took the lives of 49 patrons.
Asner was a social activist in real life. He was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1981 to 1985 and, as an outspoken liberal, often clashed with conservative Charlton Heston, who preceded him as president. Asner spoke in favor of striking air traffic controllers and against the military dictatorship in El Salvador, which was supported by the U.S. government under President Ronald Reagan. He once said he thought his activism led to the cancellation of Lou Grant. Later, he worked to raise awareness of autism, as he had a son and three grandchildren on the autism spectrum.
Asner continued to be a busy actor. He appeared in a variety of TV shows and films, and he won a new generation of fans by voicing widower Carl Frederiksen in the animated movie Up (2009) and playing Santa Claus in the Will Ferrell film Elf (2003). He had noted he was probably the only Jew to have portrayed Santa multiple times; one of those appearances was an uncredited one in Ellen DeGeneres’s second sitcom, The Ellen Show, in 2001.
His other roles include Emmy-winning turns in two 1970s miniseries, Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, and appearances in The Closer, ER, The Practice, Dead to Me, and Grace and Frankie. Onstage, he portrayed President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a one-man show. At the time of his death, he had several projects in post-production and had been announced for several more, according to Internet Movie Database.
In his last interview, given to The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month, he was asked how old he felt and answered, “If it weren’t for my bad left leg, I would feel younger. I’ve got many parts that need to be bolstered and refurbished. And I haven’t got time to undergo all those changes.”
As to his remaining goals, he said, “I haven’t climbed Suribachi! No, I think just ensuring that I’ve left enough for the family.” Survivors include four children and nine grandchildren.