Outspoken Asner’s Activism Is No Act

Yitzhak Edward Asner vocally opposes the war in Iraq, a position that has probably angered some fans of the 76-year-old actor. But that’s nothing new for Asner, whose political activism, years earlier, may have cost him the best acting job he ever had — the role of journalist Lou Grant in two separate award-winning television series.

Asner’s unshrinking activism, his willingness to use his fame as a platform for causes he considers vital, made him a logical choice for Women’s American ORT’s Tikkun Olam Award to be presented at a luncheon on Sunday, Aug. 7, at the Beverly Hilton. The goal of the award is recognize those who honor the concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

“Our Tikkun Olam Award is given to an individual who has demonstrated commitment to strengthening the community,” said Judy Menikoff, the charitable organization’s national president. “Ed Asner has consistently dedicated himself to the rights of the working performer and labor rights issues, as well as advocating for human rights, world peace and political freedom. We feel he represents our ideals and commitments.”

Asner is the only actor to receive an Emmy for playing the same character on two different television series. He first created Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977), in which he typically played his gruff news director character for laughs. By the time he reprised the role, in a drama, on “Lou Grant” (1977-1982), the character, who’d become a newspaper editor, had evolved to be staunchly principled and humane, despite his rough edges. More recently, Asner, who’s always been busy, got good notices for his interpretation of a weary Santa in 2003’s “Elf.”

Throughout his halcyon years as Lou Grant, Asner was evolving and emerging as an activist. During the 1980 actors’ strike, Asner’s outspoken comments and visible presence on the picket lines during the hot summer days raised his profile.

In 1981, the Screen Actors Guild nominating committee selected Asner as its presidential candidate, a first for a candidate with no previous service as a board member or guild officer. Asner was guild president from 1981 to 1985.

During his term, he and several other prominent actors, including Howard Hesseman and Lee Grant, presented a $25,000 check for medical aid to the guerrillas in El Salvador, who were fighting the U.S.-backed right-wing military government, in 1982. The money, collected through a fundraising campaign, made Asner a target of widespread criticism and negative media coverage. Published reports and Asner himself suggested that Asner’s politics played a part in CBS’s decision to cancel “Lou Grant.”

The experience did not silence Asner, as his current anti-war position demonstrates. He said the affairs of the entire world ultimately impact our lives at home.

“I think just as we are learning in Iraq now, that the greatest power on earth can’t necessarily command peace,” he told The Journal. “Imposing a peace is not as precious as winning by compromise and peaceful, cooperative talks.”

Asner also has taken a public role in the debate over the future of Israel and the Middle East. He’s an advocate for Americans for Peace Now, an American Zionist organization whose goal is to achieve a secure peace between Israel, the surrounding Arab states and the Palestinians. He’s active, too, in Meretz USA, a nonprofit organization that supports a negotiated land-for-peace solution that includes a Palestinian state.

“I’m amazed by Israel’s militaristic achievements and accomplishments,” he said, “and yet I think I gloried more at the Jewish image of the Children of the Book. I can only hope that when a peace is finally arrived at in the Middle East, Israel can beat some of those swords into plowshares and return to being the great light of the world the Jews have always been.”

Asner also has served causes that are less in the spotlight, acting as a spokesman this year for a national autism foundation. His teenage son has an autism spectrum disorder.

“My experience with autism has done so much to pull me out of my normal state of selfishness and egoism,” Asner said. “It’s an affliction that forces us out of our box if we wish to aid, comfort and teach the autist. It teaches us that the usual perseverance on our part is not enough.”

Born in Kansas City and reared in a non-Jewish community, Asner was shaped by parents who viewed religion and community involvement as inseparable.

“We were Midwestern Orthodoxy,” he said. “My mother didn’t wear a sheitel and my father drove to shul. I was raised to believe that giving back to your community is the good and right way above all, and that we were needed to uphold the faith, and if we upheld it, we would be doing right.”

Asner’s father was in the junk business. “We were the first recyclers,” he quipped.

Asner starred in football in high school and organized a basketball team that toured most of liberated Europe. He began performing while working for his high school radio station, and moved to Chicago in the ’50s, where he was a member of the Playwrights Theatre Club.

“I discovered acting in college,” he recalled, “but if I had chosen to go into my father’s business, I would have been proud to be a junk man.”

After starring in an off-Broadway production of the “Threepenny Opera” and gigs in movies and industrial films, he eventually became established for his skill playing villains. He moved on to a regular stint on “Slattery’s People” in 1964.

In 1969, he played a police officer in the Elvis Presley movie, “Change of Habit.” It was his first time on screen with Mary Tyler Moore. A year later, he began his run as Lou Grant, head of the WJM newsroom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” He won three Emmy awards in the role, and another Emmy for his work in the miniseries, “Roots.”

His parents never encouraged his acting, but they accepted it: “It was amazing for foreign born, uneducated people that they were so gentle about my choice and didn’t create a lot of obstacles.”

Once, years later, after his father had died, “I called home to tell my mother about my guest shot on some TV show after a few years here,” Asner said. His mother then confided to him. “‘Vell,'” said Asner, imitating her accent, “‘I just want to tell you we was wrong and I’m glad.'”

As a Jewish parent himself, Asner said, it’s important “to pass on this legacy of ‘giving back’ to my children, to fill the vacuum in this sector of Judaism I will leave with my passing.”

He added: “Our contributions to art and literature, the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes and the literature Jews have created, particularly in the 20th century, are something to be very proud of. However, I am saddened the references made to Jews of old as Children of the Book do not occur that often these days.”

There is nothing Asner would rather do than act, but if he had to choose another profession, it would be archeology.

“I love history,” he said, “and I believe every time someone digs up a relic or bone, it’s like finding gold.”

Looking forward, he said, “My hope is that people will tire of looking for the great ‘leader,’ tire of expecting government to heal the wounds and tire of feeling the media will give them all the information they seek.”

He’d like to see more people “begin to band together to learn from themselves and accomplish for themselves.”