CHICAGO – Mention the name Harry Lennix, and images of his many character roles are bound to emerge – Harold Cooper in the TV series “The Blacklist,” General Swanwick from “Batman v Superman” and Commissioner Blades from Spike Lee’s recent “Chi-Raq.” The deeply knowledgeable Lennix brings his years of dramatic expertise, as he directs the Congo Square Theatre Company’s world premiere stage play “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red.’
Interview: Ed Asner Keeps Moving Forward in New Comedy ‘Let Go’
CHICAGO – Bring up the name Ed Asner, and immediately his legendary TV character Lou Grant comes to mind. Asner created the only TV character to successfully transition from a sitcom – “Mary Tyler Moore” – to the cutting-edge TV drama “Lou Grant.” But Asner has also been steadily working since those days, including his latest film “Let Go.”
“Let Go” is a crazy quilt ensemble comedy, following the exploits of a parole officer (David Denman). One of his clients include Artie, portrayed by Ed Asner. The iconic TV and film actor gives a subtle late career performance as a small time robber who can’t understand why things change. There is a beautiful scene with Asner and actress Peggy McKay at the conclusion of the film, as Artie makes one last attempt at redemption. Ed Asner is no lion in winter, he is still roaring.
Photo credit: Entertainment One
Edward Asner was born in Kansas City, Missouri. He began his acting career in the Army, touring in plays while in the Signal Corp. He attended the University of Chicago, and joined an early version of the Second City troupe, the Playwrights Theatre Company of Chicago (Asner is considered a Second City alumni). He was a consummate character actor in the 1960s, appearing in such diverse series as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Route 66,” “The Untouchables,” “The Outer Limits,” “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and “Mission: Impossible.” His recognition breakthrough came with the role of Lou Grant on the “Mary Tyler Moore” classic sitcom, and he continued that role on a dramatic series for five more seasons after the MTM run.
Recently he has been doing voiceover work, such as “The Boondocks,” “The Cleveland Show” and the box office animated hit, “Up,” as Carl Fredricksen. His work in front of the camera has included the recent “Too Big to Fail” (2011), “Working Class” (2011) and “Hot in Cleveland” (2012). HollywoodChicago.com talked to Ed Asner via phone, as he promoted release of “Let Go” on DVD and other media.
HollywoodChicago.com: Has the process of developing a character changed for you over the years, and how does that apply to developing the character of Artie in ‘Let Go’?
Ed Asner Every piece has its own challenges. I thought the character of Artie was a wonderful character, he can project a threat while at the same time hopefully be a funny creature.
HollywoodChicago.com: You are playing Artie as an individual who comes to realize that what defines him is no longer valid for his life. Have you ever had a crossroads like that, and how did you apply that experience into Artie?
Asner: Yeah, it was a few years ago when I couldn’t find work. The idea that maybe I had to ‘turn in my card’ or maybe I just had to buy a motor home and forget about putting done roots anywhere, and become a perpetual traveler without responsibility.
HollywoodChicago.com: How many years ago did that happen?
Asner: Not many, probably around the time of ‘Elf’ . There was a big hiatus, where I had a period of staring at the walls.
HollywoodChicago.com: You made your major film debut in the first directorial effort by Sydney Pollack, ‘The Slender Thread.’ What do you remember about Pollack, in handling his first directorial chore?
Asner: Well, number one, Sydney Pollack was a brilliant director, and his work stands by itself. I have always found that directors who have been actors are quite often the best directors I’ve worked with. Sydney was still an entertaining actor, and he knew how to work with other actors, and his work reflected that constantly.
Photo credit: © Disney/Pixar
HollywoodChicago.com: You’ve had the fortunate acting timeline to portray characters in virtually all age groups. How does it feel to have the opportunity to communicate roles at the age you are now, and give them the kind of depth that puts your distinctive style and mark upon them?
Asner: Well, for one thing I don’t have to work very hard now – I’m a genuine graybeard. [laughs] It just sits there waiting to be bespoke. That age factor really creeps up on you, man, it’s just amazing. I feel like I’m a better actor than I’ve ever been in my life, in terms recognizing the nth degree in a line of dialogue – how to approach it, save my energy and ‘keep me powder dry.’ The acting part is easier than it’s ever been before, but of course the opportunities are far fewer.
HollywoodChicago.com: Going back to the early days of your on-camera career. What kind of energy did you need to hustle so many one-shots on classic TV series?
Asner: I have to tell you, my friend, I’m just amazed on how good I was. [laughs] Of course, in those days, I had to fight to preserve the hair on my head, darkening that half-dollar spot on crown. [laughs] I am surprised about some of those good appearances considering how young I was. The shows that I stunk in, I knew that I stunk at the time that I did them.
HollywoodChicago.com: As a person of my generation, I absolutely adore the production team that gave us the gift of the ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ show. Who did you guys see as your main competition on television at the time for the type of quality work and comedy you were producing and why?
Asner: There is an old expression, isn’t there? ‘The cheese stands alone.’ We were the ‘cheese.’ We knew that there were higher rated shows, but it didn’t matter because we knew we had posterity in our pocket.
HollywoodChicago.com: TV historians always reference the classic ending to ‘Mary Tyler Moore.’ As far as an ending to a television sitcom, do you think anybody has done it as well as you guys did?
Asner: Probably not, but the ‘Newhart’ show came close. It had a uniqueness that was far different from ours, and what a delightful idea.
HollywoodChicago.com: During your MTM run, you also appeared in such classics as “The Girl Most Likely To..” “Gus,” “Rich Man, Poor Man” “Roots” and “The Gathering.” How important was it for you to keep your character actor credibility beyond just Lou Grant?
Photo credit: MTM Enterprises
Asner: Very important. From the get-go, my agent and I realized we had to create as much variety in whatever roles I chose, both prior to the ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ show and during it. Whenever I had an opportunity to do a role in contrast to Lou Grant, I wanted to make sure the contrast was there.
HollywoodChicago.com: As a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, why do you think the merger of SAG and AFTRA is wrong for the industry as a whole, and how do you think the proliferation of new technology like YouTube and online videos are changing the definition and rights of the actor?
Asner: The new technology affects everything. It affects news, the press – you thrive online because of it and you’re competing because of it. I think the merger was a great mistake because it will cheapen the life of an actor. It will not benefit and create the solidity and strength that actors enjoyed with the old Screen Actors Guild that they had.
HollywoodChicago.com: You are well known as a progressive activist. What is the truth regarding the reaction of CBS to your activism in connection with the cancellation of Lou Grant?
Asner: I am a progressive, and it’s harder and harder to be a progressive these days, as the world keeps being marched towards conservatism, and in some cases fascism. The truth about CBS, the flurry about my political choices were carried to an extreme, and they thought it would reflect back to advertisers. They wanted to get away from the trouble spot, which was me. I think there is fairly good evidence that Bill Paley [Chairman at CBS] did not want the series around.
HollywoodChicago.com: Well, you created a classic TV character with the same name in two distinct genres, and nobody else can say that nor can it be taken away.
Asner: I’m glad to hear that, and all in all I’m not sorry to have been the pigeon, in this case.