Local author Mark Larson, author of “Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater,” spent the pandemic mostly working from home, interviewing friends, family, and colleagues of Ed Asner. At the Levy Lecture on June 15, Mr. Larson presented some of his research – photos and audio clips – and also shared memories with two special guests: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted,” and Joyce Bulifant, the actor who played Marie Slaughter, wife of Murray Slaughter, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The nearly two-hour long Zoom webinar was filled with little-known stories, moving tributes, and gales of laughter.
The two men had met while Mr. Larson was researching “Ensemble,” as Mr. Asner’s interest in theater began while he was a student at the University of Chicago. They agreed to work on a composite portrait of Mr. Asner’s life – his family, his professional pursuits, and his social activism – and had completed at least one in-person interview when everything shut down. But the magic of Zoom allowed Mr. Larson’s work to continue.
The audience heard, and in some instances saw, clips of interviews with Hollywood heavyweights such as Paul Rudd, Lindsay Crouse, the late Gavin MacLeod, Peter Docter, Jonas Rivera, Mike Farrell, and Jason Alexander, each one offering praise about the genius of Ed Asner.
Mr. Rudd observed that “every generation has a relationship with Ed Asner” and that “he always showed up to do the work,” never taking the easy way out. Ms. Crouse spoke about how relaxed he seemed during their scenes together, which belied the concentration, intensive listening, and attention paid to every detail.
Mr. Alexander and Mr. Farrell spoke about Mr. Asner’s bravery and commitment to his social activism, care of the underdog, and beliefs about worker-protection, something that more than once led to negative professional consequences.
Mr. Asner told Mr. Larson that one of the consequences he absorbed as a result of his beliefs as a systemic “grey listing” by the Hollywood establishment. At the time, Mr. Asner was president of the Screen Actors Guild, and he fought loudly and publicly for those who he felt were underpaid and undervalued by the industry. His work in the labor movement, combined with protests against then-President Reagan’s policies in El Salvador, garnered widespread attention. His bosses at CBS were not happy that one of their stars was attracting the “wrong” kind of media coverage. They felt the lines between Ed Asner the person and the character Lou Grant were blurring, and they worried the viewing public would not be able to distinguish one from the other.
The upshot was cancellation, though CBS claimed the reason was a “sharp decline” in audience response. The critically and financially successful hour long drama “Lou Grant,” which first aired in September 1977, four months after the finale of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” was abruptly canceled before the start of its sixth season in 1982.
The second half of the lecture program was invigorated by a conversation among Mr. Larson, Ms. Armstrong, and Ms. Bulifant. Mr. Larson started by asking the women if they felt comfortable sharing a memory of Gavin MacLeod, who had recently passed away. Ms. Bulifant nodded and said she will be one of those speaking at his memorial service. The exchange that followed was pure comedy gold, better watched than explained in print. Each speaker clearly adored Mr. MacLeod, as they adore Mr. Asner. His gruff exterior belied a huge heart, a deep sense of helping those less fortunate, and an impressive work ethic. He was widely respected as an “actor’s actor” who could convey a depth of emotion through his facial expressions and the pauses between lines. He has more Emmys (seven) than any other male actor, and many other accolades for his work in television, voice overs, movies, and the stage.
Mr. Larson said he is eager to finish his research and complete his book, to be titled “Ed Asner: A Composite Portrait.” Those interested in Mr. Asner’s career and the research accumulated to date may watch the presentation on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.