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Ed Asner on the life that won him life achievement award

Ed Asner says the award from the Screen Actors Guild is especially meaningful because it comes from fellow actors.
Ed Asner says the award from the Screen Actors Guild is especially meaningful because it comes from fellow actors.  

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- He will forever be linked to the irascible newsroom boss he played on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and its dramatic spinoff, "Lou Grant."

But since Edward Asner's 1961 arrival in Hollywood, the seven-time Emmy Award winner has performed countless roles on TV and film, including memorable appearances in "Rich Man, Poor Man" and "Roots."

On Sunday, Edward Asner will receive the 2001 Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild during its annual awards ceremony, which will air beginning at 8 p.m. EST on TNT.'s Thurston Hatcher spoke this week to the actor, who was the SAG president from 1981 to 1985, about the award, his career, and his political and social activism.

CNN: You've won quite a few awards over the years. Does this one hold any special meaning for you?

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ASNER: I never sloughed off any award, but this one is really socko because it's an outpouring of my fellow actors and that to me makes it a very special peachy one. This is not just for acting. It's an award wherein I've been recognized for having a life such as it is, outside of theater.

CNN: I assume that refers in part to your service for the Screen Actors Guild?

ASNER: I would gather it would also mean wherever else I have served people.

CNN: If you were writing the speech describing your career, what would you hope would be accentuated? What would you hope would be on the top of the list?

ASNER: That what I did wasn't for achieving higher office, I'd like that pointed out. And what I did certainly did not mean an advancement and gain for me. It perhaps resulted in some loss of livelihood.

CNN: I assume you're referring to what some would describe as outspokenness in pursuing political causes?

ASNER: I call them social causes.

CNN: In the past few months since September 11, there have been several comments, including, most recently, ("West Wing" creator) Aaron Sorkin's comments to The New Yorker regarding the Bush administration and the comment on "Politically Incorrect" that got Bill Maher in trouble. I'm wondering if you have any concerns about the current climate right now.

ASNER: I have great concern. ... What amazes me is that this president, who theoretically should not have expected to be elected and nobody expected him to, with the activity of the Supreme Court and with the activity of weak-willed Democrats, was presented a presidency. And from that presidency I have never seen such a phenomenally well-tooled organization implementing the conservative agenda of George W. Bush. It just amazes me what a blitzkrieg it's been, how supine the Democrats have been.

CNN: On to another type of politics, I wanted to ask you about what's going on with the Screen Actors Guild right now. Some have described it as pretty ugly, this race for the presidency. (Full story) What's your take on that?

ASNER: Sadness. Two sides that I think are unbelievable dedicated, servants to the union and to their fellow actors, are reading two sets of books, and I suppose the truth may fall down in the middle. But nobody ever signs up for the middle, do they? I signed up for one particular faction, and at the same time have undying respect for the other faction, or at least some prominent members of it.

CNN: Do you think series like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Lou Grant" could be produced today, and could succeed?

ASNER: Actually, "Mary Tyler Moore" would not succeed today. "Lou Grant" might have a chance. "Lou Grant" deals with news and the vicissitudes of news and the never-ending battle. I suppose "Mary Tyler Moore" today would be regarded as a little too naive of a show. I mean, we had "Mary Tyler Moore" then, now we've got "Sex and the City." That's one hell of a Grand Canyon in between.

The conditions are not good for recreating the wonderful, wonderful magical touch of "Mary Tyler Moore," but I suppose modifying it for present-day conditions, you could acquire a show of a different magic.

CNN: You have been linked to your Lou Grant character. Has it been tough to avoid being typecast over the years?

ASNER: It's been tough, but even while we were doing it we did our best to invest ourselves in hiatus work which contrasted those roles with Lou Grant -- "Roots," "Rich Man, Poor Man," stuff like that. My agent and I fought a good battle to try to get as varied work as we could, and it was difficult to get over, and people will still always remember me as Lou Grant, I suppose.

CNN: Although really when you shifted to Lou Grant the series, your character kind of mellowed. You became a little bit less of a ...

ASNER: Bombastic type.

CNN: Exactly.

ASNER: But that had been going on for some time. I think if you find the Lou Grant that's "Mary Tyler Moore" year one and the one in year seven, there's a great deal of difference. The one in year seven was kissing Mary to see if they could make it. So there already was a big stretch.

CNN: What do you have coming down the pike?

ASNER: I just finished seven weeks in Italy and Bulgaria in a four-hour miniseries as Pope John XXIII. It was daunting because I couldn't find any freckles. I mean, this man was pure as the driven snow. Unbelievably pure. I read three biographies, saw a film, talked to people who had assisted him, and there were no blemishes on John XXIII. It's hard to play a saint.

CNN: What's this being produced for?

ASNER: It's Italian PBS, which will be shown throughout Europe in the languages of the country it appears in.

CNN: Is there anything about Sunday's event that you'd like to comment on that we haven't touched on?

ASNER: My only regret is that I can't leap the seven stairs going up to the stage in one bound. That's my only regret. I could have done it on the first Emmy but I can't do that now. But I guess leaping three steps at a time may be just as effective.



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