"I LOVE spunk," says Ed Asner.
So much for the assumption that he holds the same view as the legendary character he played over two hit TV series: namely, Lou Grant, gruff news director for WJM-TV on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970-77) and gruff city editor for The Los Angeles Tribune on "Lou Grant" (1977-1982).
Both TV station and newspaper were fictional. But the characters inhabiting them were entirely real to their generations of fans ever since.
When Asner's cranky Lou greeted Mary Tyler Moore's ebullient Mary Richards, newly hired as WJM's associate producer, he famously observed: "You have spunk."
Followed by the briefest, most brilliantly calibrated of pauses.
"I HATE spunk!"
That line has dogged Asner, now 88, ever since ... smack into his current gig in the one-man comic spin on a serious theme, "A Man and His Prostate," coming Saturday to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.
"I hate that line, I really do," confesses the man many have confused with Lou, for better or worse.
We vote better.
As any fan of Lou knows, below the exterior gruffness thumps the biggest, most principled heart in the room, forever poised to do the right thing.
That same vital organ has been at the heart of Asner's real-life role as one of Hollywood's most outspoken and committed liberal activists.
Chalk some of this humanist world-view up to his practical Midwestern upbringing, which began on Nov. 15, 1929, in Kansas City, Mo.
As part of his education, Yitzhak Edward Asner became "features page editor" of his school paper at Wyandotte High School, a little rag called The Pantagraph.
"That's the name of your paper in Bloomington?," he marvels. "Really?"
Asner says he's delighted to know of this newfound bond he shares with Twin Citians (see accompanying story for yet another).
"At the time, I didn't question it. I just thought, what a weird, (expletive deleted) name for a newspaper," he laughs. "Do you know what it means? I still don't."
After being advised of its Greek derivation from a term meaning "to write all," Asner flashes back to his own newsroom beginnings.
"I was going out for football, and my journalism teacher questioned whether I could handle the job. I said 'I think we can work it out.' He let me have the editor title, and I did the job, but it was mostly reporting gossip," he confesses.
From Kansas City, Asner headed to the University of Chicago, "but I dropped out to pursue acting," he recalls of his stint with the Playwrights Theatre Company in Chicago, a forerunner to what we know today as Second City.
His early years encompassed some stage successes in New York and work in early-’60s TV drama series like "Route 66," "Studio One" and "The Outer Limits."
"At one point, I got hired for a series called 'Slattery's People.' I did the pilot," he recalls of his first TV encounter with journalism, playing a veteran Capitol Hill reporter in Washington, D.C.
"I smelled a thing that would be good for me: that what I could supply to raw character was a good conscience ... the sacred soul of the reporter."
But Asner sensed some of the same qualities in the show's top-billed star, Richard Crenna.
"I realized that's what he was good for, and that, as a result, there would be very little for me to do if he was busy supplying the conscience of the show. So even though I was hardly busy, I asked out of the series."
That "sense of smell" about himself and what he could offer prevailed: Asner withdrew from the show, with the understanding that he would be willing to do the scripts already written for his character.
"I had two really bad years following that, where my income dropped to nothing. I was really in the dumps ... I'd go get the L.A. Times and look in the want ads. And there was nothing for me. Nothing."
Then, on the brink of a bleak-sounding middle age, a turnabout: " I had the best year of my life: I auditioned for 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show'."
The rest, of course, is small-screen history, including his amassing a record seven prime-time Emmy Awards — the most ever won by a single actor (three times for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," two times for "Lou Grant," single wins for the miniseries "Roots" and "Rich Man, Poor Man").
"I was in therapy at the time, and I had been used to dealing with a single camera on hourlong shows with no audience," Asner recalls of adjusting to the sitcom format.
"Why do you grimace so much?" asked the therapist.
"And that hit me, bam!, like a stone hammer to the middle of my head. I woke up immediately, and I stopped acting like a fool. I stopped grimacing."
The advice, he says, led to his playing Lou Grant in the looser, less tensed-up manner that made the hater of spunk such an ultimately lovable character.
Concurrent with his award-winning acting in front of cameras, the actor's activism off-camera was in full flower.
His well-publicized political views were blamed for "Lou Grant" being canceled in 1982, despite its decent ratings and towering stack of Emmy wins.
"I'd broken the law and needed to be exterminated," recalls Asner of the sponsors who began bailing because of his unfiltered off-camera persona.
"Lou Grant" may have been rubbed out in 1982, but Asner's career has continued unabated in the 36 years since.
Among the highlights: his acclaimed one-man stage show, "FDR"; his perfect-pitch role as Carl Fredricksen in Pixar's Oscar-winning "Up"; his recurring "Does This Impress Ed Asner?" segment on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"; and, now ... "A Man and His Prostate."
"I really do love this show," he says of the script penned for him by Ed Weinberger, author of many a "Mary Tyler Moore Show" episode.
The piece is based on the true-life experience of Weinberger, who took a trip to Italy with his wife, and was diagnosed there with prostate cancer.
But no heavy drama this: Weinberger mines it for its inherent dark humor, while also doling out some sound advice on what men should be aware of "down there" after a certain age.
"Audiences love it," Asner says. "I call it the male response to 'The Vagina Monologues'."
And, the gender-specific medical condition not withstanding, "women just laugh their (bleeps) off at this."
He pauses, just like Lou Grant talking spunk.
"I think they like to see men on the short end of the stick."