The late TV icon's television credits in just the past five years include Grace and Frankie, Cobra Kai, American Dad!, Doom Patrol, Central Park, Briarpatch, Modern Family, Dead to Me, Blue Bloods, MacGyver and Bones. "One need look no further than his IMDb page to see a legacy, especially on the small screen, that stretches from the sponsored TV anthologies of the ’50s and ’60s (Kraft Theatre, Play of the Week, etc.) to guest turns on nearly every imaginable classic TV drama (from The Untouchables to Dr. Kildare to The Fugitive)," says Daniel Fienberg, in an appreciation of Asner, who died on Sunday at age 91. "In the ’70s, Asner had the most decorated run that any TV actor has ever experienced, winning five Emmys for his performance as grouchy and dogged editor Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then Lou Grant, as well as a pair of Emmys for the iconic Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man. As peaks go, you can’t top Asner’s work in the ’70s, when, in addition to the unprecedented Emmy wins in both drama and comedy categories as Lou Grant, he found a way to make appearances on shows including Mod Squad and Police Story and Hawaii Five-0. Ed Asner loved being an actor, and his next three decades of work trace the media’s evolution from broadcast-centric to the expanded parameters of cable to the ubiquitous world of streaming. The way to have a career that stretches from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Cobra Kai is to never stop working. Dozens upon dozens of shows, from generic procedurals and schlocky sitcoms to memorable hits and franchises, were improved by Asner’s expert comic timing and committed intensity. From Dead to Me to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to Grace and Frankie to Briarpatch, I never saw a show that didn’t benefit from an Asner cameo. And I’m betting that extends to shows I don’t watch that he appeared in, among them Criminal Minds, Blue Bloods and CSI: NY, on which he made an Emmy-nominated appearance. It was easy to see some of Asner’s seemingly random cameos and go, 'What on earth is Ed Asner doing here?' The answer was always some version of 'Remaining active and making TV better.'" Fienberg adds: "TV today wouldn’t be the same without his beloved (and lovably flawed) characters, nor would the industry be the same without his tireless and vocal presence."
Ed Asner's transformation from sitcom sidekick to drama series lead sums up his entire body of work: "Asner’s ability to translate Lou Grant from a multicamera sitcom to a gritty, issue-oriented drama — to make the character recognizably the same man in both formats, despite such wildly different tones — stood out because of the era in which he did it," says Alan Sepinwall. "Today, genre lines are so blurred that a show like (Orange Is the New Black) could plausibly be considered either a drama or a comedy; performers like Barry's Bill Hader win comedy acting awards for largely serious work on half-hour shows. But turning Lou from sitcom sidekick into dramatic lead simply wasn’t done back then. And that unprecedented transition beautifully sums up Asner’s entire body of work." Sepinwall says Asner was essentially the viewers' surrogate on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore's Mary Richards was, says Sepinwall, a revolutionary for television, as a single woman far more focused on her career than finding a man. Moore was already beloved by audiences from her days on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but Mary Richards was still something new for them, and Lou’s grudging acceptance of her place in the office, and his life, made him an appealing viewer surrogate. If a man with Lou’s gruff disposition couldn’t help being impressed by Mary, then the rest of us were powerless to resist. As other characters came and went, their friendship remained the foundation that made the rest of the series work." On Lou Grant, Asner's Lou "was a bit less clumsy and voluble than the version viewers knew and loved, but he was tough and firm in the same way, and Asner provided essential gravitas to a series dealing with hot-button issues like sexual assault, gay rights, child abuse, and more," says Sepinwall. "It ran for five successful seasons, and could have had more if not for (CBS boss William H. Paley’s) alleged distaste for Asner’s political activism. (The year before, for instance, Asner had publicly thrown his support behind striking air traffic controllers.)"
Asner's Lou Grant showed that masculinity is vulnerability: Asner's iconic "You’ve got spunk… I hate spunk!" scene with Mary Tyler Moore is "the perfect summation of the Mary/Lou dynamic that would fuel seven seasons of television, win a truckload of Emmys, elevate the sitcom to a higher plane of artistry, and it lays the foundation for easily dozens of beautifully, hilariously fraught boss/employee relationships on numerous later sitcoms," says Brett White. "This became Asner’s legacy for a reason—but it shouldn’t be all of it. There’s another half of that legacy that’s not talked about enough, another half of the character and performance that’s the opposite of 'I hate spunk.' Lou’s remembered as the archetypal cranky boss. He was absolutely that, but it’s important to point out the moments when this paragon of masculinity showed tens of millions of 1970s TV viewers that manliness can and does comfortably exist alongside vulnerability and empathy. Lou Grant had a softer side that MTM gamely explored time and time again, while never letting it overtake that gruffness. This side of Lou reveals itself slowly, the kind of gradual character evolution that an actor could really lean into when given the chance to play the same role for 168 episodes."
For a younger generation, Asner's legacy was as the crotchety king of cartoon voiceovers: "Younger generations... might remember him best for one of his mightiest assets: That impossibly powerful voice," says Kenneth Lowe. "Asner was a short, stocky guy, one who in his earlier career looked older than his age. One of the reasons he seemed so imposing though was that crusty, rough, nuanced voice, and the obvious glee with which he deployed it to portray a lifetime of characters filled with tenderness underneath their prickly exterior. Asner clearly reveled in the power he had to create characters whose angry facade hid vulnerability, and relished the chances he got to play a bad guy so that he could wink knowingly at the audience. Nowhere was that gift better put to use than in Asner’s mile-long list of credits in cartoon voiceovers. Voices like Asner’s were what got me interested in voiceover actors and the intricate craft involved in creating characters through voice. Simply put, Asner’s voice was so recognizable that when I heard him in more than one place, I wanted to know the name of the guy behind that crusty growl. You can tell from Asner’s voice that his was a life thoroughly lived. He served his country in the Army Signal Corps and worked in a factory for General Motors, and you can somehow hear the depth of that kind of experience in his voice. You get the unmistakable impression, when he portrayed bit players in The Simpsons or chewed scenery as J. Jonah Jameson in the ’90s Spider-Man show, that he was making deliberate choices as an actor."
Asner’s portrayal of Lou Grant, in both a three-camera sitcom and an hour-long drama, was influential with many journalists of a certain age: "Lou Grant was much smarter than it needed to be, as was the titular character, who demonstrated a deft touch and nuance in balancing local coverage with the business of publishing," says Colby Hall, adding that Asner's character "was tough but fair. Principled yet adaptable. Strong-willed but able to laugh at the absurdities of life (such as the funeral of the beloved Chuckles the Clown.) Lou Grant not only embraced the career of Mary Tyler Moore but also served as a mentor, at a time when that sort of thing was often mocked. He was, above all else, about treating people equally and telling their stories fairly. At a time when journalistic integrity is increasingly more difficult to come by, that is a legacy worth celebrating."
Thanks to Lou Grant, Asner became a face of American journalism: "You could argue that for more than a decade, Lou Grant was as much the face of American journalism as Walter Cronkite, and Cronkite had the overwhelming advantage of being a real person," says Shannon Robinson. "Somehow Hollywood got it right: Ask any journalist, and they’ll tell you that at some point in their career, they worked for someone a lot like Lou Grant. Credit his scriptwriters for some of that, but ultimately it was Asner who wowed us, with his homely everyman looks and his cynicism always checked by his humanity. He was such a good actor that he disappeared entirely into the role, so much so that we forgot all about Asner as soon as Lou Grant showed up on screen. Drunk or sober, who wouldn’t want to cop a ride home from him? Flat out, Lou Grant was more real to us than Ed Asner. Asner was merely an actor, maybe a bad husband (he left his first wife after copping to fathering a child out of wedlock), and a very outspoken liberal. But none of that affected how we felt about Lou: When Asner, then the president of the Screen Actors Guild, started sounding off about U. S. involvement in El Salvador, the brass at CBS suddenly cancelled Lou Grant after its fifth season. Maybe some advertisers got cold feet over Asner’s candor (Charlton Heston called him a commie). But the public didn’t seem to care at all. They certainly didn’t blame Lou Grant. In its last season, the show that bore his name had consistently high ratings, and in its last month it stayed stuck firmly on Nielsen’s list of the top ten most popular shows. Lou was lovable to the end."
With a résumé as dense as Asner’s, it’s difficult to develop a unifying theory as to his work: "But the key may in any case be in his contradictions," says Robert Lloyd. "All good actors contain multitudes, but Asner seemed to embody them; even the fact that he was raised as an Orthodox Jew (he rebelled) in Kansas City, Kan., feels somehow appropriate. An everyman who didn’t look like everybody, he was physically formed to be a character actor. Built like a Eugene O’Neill coal stoker, with ears that stuck out and heavy eyebrows above kind eyes, he could read as cuddly or threatening, or even cuddly and threatening, as necessary. But he didn’t play single attitudes; he could make the expected or unexpected choice from moment to moment without ever seeming out of key. If you think of him as 'gruff,' an adjective that easily springs to mind, you only have to watch for a minute and you might revise your estimation to 'practical,' 'boyish' or 'shy.' His transitions from one state to another are seamless; they overlap, blend, form chords. His businesslike characters are also dreamers; the weary ones are balanced by wistfulness. His Santa has an edge to cut the sweetness. His comedy calls on a well of hurt."