AMU Army Editor's Pick Veterans

Why Army Vet Ed Asner Was a Hollywood Legend

When Ed Asner died on Aug. 29, 2021, at age 91, he had 397 acting credits on his IMDb page, with a couple of dozen projects planned and definitely a few of them completed. That’s going to push his final credits total past 400.

That’s the resumé of a man who treated his profession like a regular job, one where he said yes to the gigs he was offered and clocked in every day to share his skills with almost anyone who wanted a chance to share the experience with him.

Asner was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1929 to immigrant parents. His mom was from Russia, and dad was born in Lithuania. Asner dropped out of high school and worked as a taxi driver and on a General Motors assembly line before he was drafted into the Army in 1951.

Assigned to the Signal Corps, Asner discovered acting and appeared in plays that toured U.S. military bases in Europe. After he left the Army, he founded his own theater company in Chicago and worked his way to Broadway.

He started making television appearances and, if you’re paying attention, you’ll see him in a brief, uncredited role in fellow Army vet Elvis Presley’s 1962 boxing movie “Kid Galahad.” He found most of his work on television, but made a few memorable movie appearances.

Here are seven of Asner’s most famous roles in chronological order.

Bart Jason in “El Dorado” (1966)

Asner holds his own with John Wayne as Bart Jason, a crooked rancher who tries to hire the Duke’s Cole Thornton to take down the local sheriff (Robert Mitchum). It’s the last great movie by Howard Hawks, the versatile director who also made World War I classic “Sergeant York,” “The Big Sleep,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Red River” and “His Girl Friday.”

Asner’s got the chops for movie acting, but he found his biggest success on television.

Lou Grant in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977) & “Lou Grant” (1977-1982)

Lou Grant is one of the greatest television characters of all time, both in his original, grumpy comic version and the later, grumpier dramatic version on “Lou Grant.” He won Emmys for both versions, first in the comedy category and later in the drama division.

In “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Asner played the boss of the newsroom at low-rated Minneapolis television station WJM, overseeing a cast of outrageous characters that included news anchor Ted Baxter (WWII vet Ted Knight), newswriter Murray Slaughter (Air Force vet Gavin MacLeod) and “Happy Homemaker” host Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White). The show centered on associate producer Mary Richards, played by Moore as the only relatively sane character in a workplace filled with deluded egos and off-the-wall behavior.

The only show since “MTM” that has managed to capture a similar chemistry among cast members might be “Friends.” Back in the 1970s, the show was a massive hit and remains a huge influence on television comedy.

That made the spinoff series “Lou Grant” kind of a shock. After Lou is fired by WJM at the end of “The Mary Tyler Moore” show, he takes a job as the editor of the Los Angeles Daily Tribune newspaper and is transformed into a crusading journalist out to right wrongs in the big city. Blustering Lou became a tough-but-fair taskmaster and the show.

Politicians often decry “liberal Hollywood,” but actual left-wingers in Hollywood are a rarity. Asner was one of the few and loudly protested U.S. foreign policy in Central America at the beginning of the Reagan administration. Sponsors were uncomfortable with his very public stance, and “Lou Grant” was canceled in 1982 even though it was still winning awards and enjoyed strong ratings. For the rest of his life, Asner was a familiar figure among community activists in Los Angeles and seldom was joined in his causes by anyone else from the show business community.

Hank Cooper in “Gus” (1976)

A Yugoslavian mule becomes a placekicker and takes the terrible California Atoms to the Super Bowl in a classic Disney comedy. Asner plays the owner who will lose the team to gangsters unless they reverse their winless ways. It’s a Disney movie, so you might be able to guess the outcome.

Asner is supported by beloved comic actors, including WWII vet Don Knotts (Barney Fife from “The Andy Griffith Show”), Army vet Tim Conway (“The Carol Burnett Show”), Army vet Dick Van Patten (“Eight is Enough”), Air Force vet Ronnie Schell (Duke on “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”), Army National Guard vet Bob Crane (“Hogan’s Heroes”), WWII vet Harold Gould (Kid Twist in “The Sting”) and WWII vet Tom Bosley (Howard “Mr. C.” Cunningham on “Happy Days”). That’s in addition to Pro Football Hall of Famers Dick Butkus (as an Atoms player) and Johnny Unitas (as himself).

Capt. Thomas Davies in “Roots” (1977)

The “Roots” miniseries was the first attempt to give an honest representation of the slave trade on American television and rocked the country when it first aired on ABC in 1976. Asner makes a big impact as Capt. Thomas Davies, a man who has decidedly mixed feelings about finally getting command of a ship and learning that he’ll be transporting slaves from Africa to Annapolis, Maryland.

Asner won an Emmy for Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Series, and “Roots” won nine Emmys overall, including Outstanding Limited Series.

Guy Banister in “JFK” (1991)

Asner plays New Orleans private investigator Guy Banister in Vietnam vet Oliver Stone’s epic version of the John F. Kennedy assassination story. Stone maintains that Banister, New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (played by Tommy Lee Jones) and former pilot David Ferrie (played by Joe Pesci) conspired with elements in the CIA to assassinate President Kennedy, with Lee Harvey Oswald (played by Gary Oldman) as their patsy.

Asner’s character is drunk and reactionary and has a memorable scene where he attacks his employee, Jack Martin (Jack Lemmon), on the day of the shooting in Dallas. The movie earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screening and won the Best Cinematography and Best Editing awards.

Santa in “Elf” (2003)

Asner played Santa Claus in this classic holiday comedy about Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human child raised as an elf at the North Pole. After Buddy heads to New York City in search of his biological family, he has more than a little trouble adjusting to civilian life away from the elf barracks.

At the end of the day, Buddy teaches his dad (James Caan) to be a better person and helps Santa save Christmas after his sleigh crashes in Central Park.

Carl Fredricksen in “Up” (2009)

In this Pixar classic (which won the Oscar for Best Animated Film and received a nomination for Best Picture), Asner voices a widower who fulfills a lifelong dream of visiting the jungles of South America with the aid of a young wilderness explorer named Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai).

The movie character’s craggy face was inspired by Spencer Tracy’s late-life appearance, but it also bears a striking resemblance to Asner’s own. “Up” is a moving story about carrying on in the face of loss and honoring those we’ve lost by carrying out their dreams.

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