Betting on winners at benefit for autism

Within Ed Asner’s family, you don’t just play the hand you are dealt; sometimes you take risks.
August 4, 2016

Within Ed Asner’s family, you don’t just play the hand you are dealt; sometimes you take risks. 

Asked his customary maneuver when dealt a hand of 15 in blackjack, Will Asner, the actor’s 14-year-old grandson, answers without hesitation: “Hit” — even though drawing a card higher than a six will result in an automatic loss.

“He’s aggressive,” said Will’s father, Matt.

Ed Asner, the family patriarch, likes the game of poker. Inspired by his close relationship with his grandson, who is on the autism spectrum, Ed Asner has gone all-in supporting a celebrity poker tournament and casino night that bears the Emmy-winning actor’s name. Proceeds from the fourth annual Ed Asner & Friends Poker Tournament — to be held Aug. 6 at USC Tower at South Park Center — benefit the Southern California chapter of the nonprofit advocacy group Autism Speaks. 

Ed Asner has long been an advocate for and contributor to many autism-related events and organizations — one of his sons, Charlie, also is on the spectrum. Five years ago, when Matt gave up his career as a TV producer to become the executive director for the Southern California chapter of Autism Speaks, he dreamed up a creative way for his famous father to lend a hand.  

Matt Asner, director of corporate development for Autism Speaks, dreamed up a poker tournament fundraiser as a way for his father, Ed, to help the cause. 

“I thought about what does my dad like to do? He likes to play poker,” said Matt Asner, who is now the director of corporate development for Autism Speaks. “What better way of kind of celebrating him and making a contribution than a poker tournament?”

The tournament, now in its fourth year, started out small but has grown in number of players and dollars raised, with the 2015 event bringing in more than $50,000. For the Aug. 6 event, which also will feature silent and live auctions, Autism Speaks is hoping to break the $100,000 mark. Actors Dylan McDermott, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McKean and Rosie O’Donnell are among those confirmed to attend.  

Actor Don Cheadle playing in the Ed Asner & Friends Poker Tournament.

Ed Asner, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household in Kansas City, Kan., fully expects a certain amount of this year’s proceeds to come out of his losings. 

“Probably by the third hand, I’m looking at about half of what I came in with,” he said. “People get so enchanted by the clumsy way that I lose.”

Because this is for a cause close to his heart, perhaps he might be losing not only creatively but maybe even deliberately? The 86-year old actor shot his interviewer a deathly stare at the suggestion.

“I’m not that stupid,” he said. “I’m stupid, but I’m not that stupid.”

There is a certain amount of his TV character Lou Grant’s gruffness, bluster and salty language in a chat with Ed Asner. Non-family members might be intimidated, but, according to Matt Asner, young Will has long been able to negotiate the crankiness of the man he calls zayde.

“Will doesn’t take his [nonsense]. He hands it right back to him,” Matt Asner said. “He has this uncanny ability to know when my dad is joking and when he’s not. Will has a way of completely transforming him from that gruff, angry person to this soft teddy bear, and it’s a wonderful thing to behold.”

When the subject turns to autism, Ed Asner is both philosophical and humorous. Charlie — Matt’s half-brother — was diagnosed 21 years ago at age 8. At the time, Asner knew nothing about the autism, and battled to understand unusual elements of Charlie’s personality as he tried to find the right school environment and help for his son. Charlie eventually earned a college degree. He lives in Connecticut and is trying to find a steady job.

“There are hang-ups and there are piss-offs, but he’s a refreshing individual,” the actor says of Charlie. “And a frustrating individual. Refreshing and frustrating, the two ‘fr’ words.”

Where Charlie has found some educational success and can function in a work environment, Will — who is less high-functioning than his uncle — may face greater challenges. Ed Asner observes the boy interacting with his siblings and cousins and notices Will’s isolation. 

“While his cousins are roaring through the house creating mayhem, Will keeps his piety,” Ed Asner said. “He creates his own mayhem, too, but it’s not communal, and he’s alone. You see the alone. The alone is the state of the autistic, and that’s what kicks the [stuff] out of your heart.”

Matt Asner says that a long-term goal is for Will to get vocational training, and he is hopeful that Will eventually finds a partner to share his life. He frequently likens autism to an unending quest to find a key to a locked door. Once that door is opened, another locked door is revealed, and you have to try new keys. Will, who was diagnosed at age 4, is part of a blended family that includes two stepsiblings who also are on the autism spectrum. 

“The great thing about Will is that he has this incredible attitude about life,” Matt Asner said.  “Most of the time, he’s the wisest man in the room. He’s not an angry person. He’s just a sweet, gentle soul who is really kind of trapped behind some locked doors.”

After nearly 30 years of watching the outside world relate to people with autism, Ed Asner counsels patience and understanding.  

“The world is filled with people with quirks,” he said. “Most of them find a way to finally live with society, but many autistic people don’t know how to perfect it. Our job — I guess anybody’s job — is to make people realize how many quirks there are out there. We try to preach tolerance, and tolerance of autism and quirkiness is certainly one of the leading areas that can be improved upon.” 

For more information about the fourth annual Ed Asner & Friends Poker Tournament to support the Southern California chapter of Autism Speaks, click

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