Veteran Actor Edward Asner on His Career with Directors, His Trademark Grumpiness and His Howling Ability

Ed-Asner Big Break in Hollywood
Caroline Andrieu for Variety

Edward Asner enjoys playing the curmudgeon. He was memorably acerbic as Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and as the elderly balloon adventurer in “Up.” In TV movie “Love Finds You in Valentine,” bowing Feb. 14 on UP TV, he plays a crotchety grandfather. But for his first mention in Variety, in an Off Broadway play, it was his howling that gained notice.

What drew you to “Venice Preserv’d”?

They made me one of the conspirators. As a kid, I’d developed a good wolf howl, so I suggested I use it as a means of gathering conspirators. That’s about the extent of my performance.

How did you develop the howl?

I’m slightly autistic, and I had a long walk to school. I had to fill the aloneness, and I practiced howling like a wolf. I still do it. I’m probably not as good as I was in my childhood, but I’m still good. (Lets out a howl.)

What was the theater scene like in 1950s New York?

I arrived in September, and by December, I was doing that one-night show at the Phoenix. Two months later, I joined “The Threepenny Opera.”  (After that) I did “Ivanov.” It had a wonderful cast. Paul Stevens was the star. The best character-women in New York were in the play at the time, (including) Jacqueline Brookes.

What did you learn from those character actors?

I can’t remember an electric light going off. If I learned, I learned by osmosis, and merely applied it later. But I certainly didn’t learn from directors. I’ve worked with maybe five directors who had an interpretation that took me beyond what I was thinking of doing and enlightened me. They were Leo Penn, Paul Sills, Sydney Pollack, Roger Young and, in Chicago, a director from the Group Theater who directed us in a Shaw play — Al Sachs. He was good.

Was it hard to transition to TV?

I didn’t give it a second thought. Other actors worried, “Do I (play to) the audience” — when we had an audience for “Mary Tyler Moore.” You do it at the volume you think you should be talking. It settles itself.

Why did you decide to do “Valentine”?

At my age, it’s a job. I read it, and it was a good enough job. My charisma would work well with this part. And, as you know, I like to play a grump.