Raised in the only Jewish family in his neighborhood, American actor Ed Asner grew up having to defend himself both vocally and physically. A born competitor, he played championship football in high school and organized a top-notch basketball team which toured most of liberated Europe. Asner's performing career got its start while he was announcing for his high school radio station; moving to Chicago in the '50s, the actor was briefly a member of the Playwrights Theatre Club until he went to New York to try his luck on Broadway.
Asner starred for several years in the off-Broadway production Threepenny Opera, and, toward the end of the '50s, picked up an occasional check as a film actor for industrial short subjects and TV appearances. Between 1960 and 1965, he established himself as one of television's most reliable villains; thanks to his resemblance to certain Soviet politicians, the actor was particularly busy during the spy-show boom of the mid-'60s. He also showed up briefly as a regular on the New York-filmed dramatic series Slattery's People. And though his film roles became larger, it was in a relatively minor part as a cop in Elvis Presley's Change of Habit (1969) that Asner first worked with Mary Tyler Moore. In 1970, over Moore's initial hesitation (she wasn't certain he was funny enough), Asner was cast as Lou Grant, the irascible head of the WJM newsroom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The popular series ran for seven seasons, during which time the actor received three Emmy awards. His new stardom allowed Asner a wider variety of select roles, including a continuing villainous appearance on the miniseries Roots -- which earned him another Emmy.
When Moore ceased production in 1977, Asner took his Lou Grant character into an hour-long dramatic weekly about a Los Angeles newspaper. The show's title, of course, was Lou Grant, and its marked liberal stance seemed, to some viewers, to be an extension of Asner's real-life viewpoint. While Lou Grant was in production, Asner was twice elected head of the Screen Actors Guild, a position that he frequently utilized as a forum for his political opinions -- notably his opposition to U.S. involvement in Central America. When Asner suggested that each guild member contribute toward opposing the country's foreign policy, he clashed head to head with Charlton Heston, who wrested Asner's office from him in a highly publicized power play. Although no tangible proof has ever been offered, it was Asner's belief that CBS canceled Lou Grant in 1982 because of his politics and not dwindling ratings. The actor continued to prosper professionally after Lou Grant, however, and, during the remainder of the '80s and into the '90s, starred in several TV movies, had guest and recurring roles in a wide variety of both TV dramas and comedies, and headlining two regular series, Off the Rack and The Bronx Zoo. Slowed but hardly halted by health problems in the '90s, Asner managed to find time to appear in the weekly sitcoms Hearts Afire and Thunder Alley -- atypically cast in the latter show as an ineffective grouch who was easily brow-beaten by his daughter and grandchildren. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi