One of the great joys of a marathon career like that of Ed Asner is the endless opportunities it affords his fans for prospecting.
The gold nuggets that can be mined and bagged are seemingly endless, especially for those of us willing to pull our boot straps up and dig back further in time, pre-Lou Grant.
That career is still a major work in progress, of course: As of press-time, Asner's IMDB page lists no fewer than 16 projects in various stages of production, including pre- and post.
And that credits-freighted page doesn't even acknowledge the ongoing live stage work, like the current project bringing him to the BCPA Saturday night ("A Man and His Prostate," 7:30 p.m.).
Or his work as an author, reflected in the recent (October 2017) publication of his "The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs" (co-authored with his "Prostate" collaborator, Ed Weinberger).
We went prospecting recently and dug up these half-dozen of our favorite non-Grant performances from Asner, both pre- and post-Lou:
- "Route 66: Shoulder the Sky, My Lad" (1961): In one of Ed's half-dozen-odd guest-starring roles on the great Martin Milner-George Maharis series, all shot on location, this one's a shocker. Tod (Milner) and Buzz (Maharis) are working as punch-press operators in Phoenix, where they're befriended by their boss, a kindly Jewish family man (Asner) with an 8-year-old son. In a scene of startling, unexpected violence, the boss is stabbed to death by a mugger on a street corner. It's a character cut short, but Asner doesn't sell it short. The result is one of his most powerful early showings.
- "The Outer Limits: It Crawled Out of the Woodwork" (1963): Our first-ever close encounter with Ed (though we didn't know who he was at time) came via the best network SF/horror series of its decade. In this wonderfully berserk episode, Ed plays a cop on the case of an energy monster unwittingly hatched at a power station. The creature, one of the best analog F/X creations of its era, eventually dines on Ed, whose death scene is a keeper ... not as powerful as the one in "Route 66," but equally unforgettable.
- "El Dorado" (1967): The urban-leaning Asner might seem an unlikely choice as the frontier nemesis for both John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in an A-list super-western from director Howard ("Red River") Hawks. But here you go: burly Ed, black-Stetson-clad and pistol-packing, as a power-mongering rancher named Bart Jason. Not only does he hate spunk, he hates any pilgrim infringing on his water rights. All this, and a climactic showdown with Duke, too. (Spoiler alert.) No, he doesn't live to ranch another day.
- "Change of Habit" (1969): Not a good film. But it does feature Ed and Elvis ... together again. Ed's very first feature film credit came playing an unbilled supporting role as an assistant D.A. in Elvis' "Kid Galahad," released in 1962. Moreover: It marks Ed's first encounter with Mary Tyler Moore, as a nun who goes undercover in the ghetto ("In the Ghetto" was the film's big hit) to work with Elvis' idealistic doctor. Platonically, of course ... though it starts to look like a close call as things heat up. Ed plays the cop navigating the dangerous activities of Sister MTM and Dr. Presley. If there hadn't been a "Change of Habit," would there have been a Lou Grant? Asner was invited to audition for MTM Enterprises' new sitcom later that same year. We're just sayin'.
- "Roots" (1977): At the peak of the Lou Grant era, Asner detoured into what is likely his most notable "other" role of this era, winning another of his record seven acting Emmy Awards along the way. In the adaptation of Alex Haley's novel, he's cast as slave ship captain Thomas Davies, portrayed as a religious man who is morally conflicted taking part in his first slaving voyage. Asner once described his character on no uncertain terms: "Capt. Davies created the good German, the person who goes along with evil." It's one of the defining performances of his career.