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R.I.P. Ed Asner, Man of Spunk and Socialism

I always think of him as Lou Grant. I didn’t even realize his name was Ed Asner until I already knew him well as that rare but iconic, bad-tempered boss who talks like he doesn’t give a damn about you or any of the workers on his team, but deep down, he really does.

Of course, most bosses are just the opposite; they take sensitivity seminars to learn how to talk as if they are very concerned for your welfare, but really, they couldn’t care less. In fact, they think welfare is for bums.

Lou Grant was a different kind of boss, the crusty curmudgeon with the heart of gold, perhaps a dying breed, and Ed Asner was a very special kind of actor. Sadly, he just passed away at the age of 91. I imagine him grabbing a bunch of balloons like old Carl the grumpy but romantic balloonist he voiced in “Up,” soaring up-up-and-away into the clouds to meet Karl Marx, F.D.R.and Mary Tyler Moore.

One of America’s greatest television actors—winning seven Emmys, five for playing his signature character Lou on two different shows, one comedy and the other drama, as well as the conflicted Captain in RootsEd Asner was also one of America’s most prominent leftist activists. As proud of his Eugene V. Debs Award as he was of his Emmys, Asner was a dynamic labor organizer, a “union boss” and President of the Screen Actors Guild, sparring frequently with a past SAG president, his nemesis Ronald Reagan. Always out there, putting his burly body on the front lines of protests to improve wages and working conditions for his fellow SAG members and in solidarity with other workers, he was active in the famed air-traffic controllers strike of 1981, among countless others.  A fan of America’s 32nd President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (F.D.R.) and “Scandinavian” socialism, Ed Asner was a bonoboësque Democratic Socialist before Bernie Sanders, in the “Greed is Good” era of Reaganomics.

He also fought for animal rights and passionately against the U.S. military intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and against capital punishment in the U.S. In between protests, he kept acting, winning the hearts and opening the minds of new generations, playing Santa in Elf, the avuncular narrator in Tax the Rich and many other character roles.

But he was always Lou Grant to me. One of his signature lines was in his first Mary Tyler Moore (MTM) episode. In it, gruff old Lou Grant tells eager television news job seeker Mary Richards, “You’ve got spunk,” then pauses to savor her starry-eyed hopefulness before pouring cold coffee on those hopes, “I hate spunk.”

It was 1970, just before “All in the Family” would change the politics of television, when that kind of blunt talk on TV sitcoms was rare, and the audience ate it up. Those spunky, hyper-peppy TV personalities could be so irritating (still can!). Lou Grant’s frankly articulated annoyance spoke for many of us.

At the same time, we knew Lou Grant was all about spunk (the good kind), fire, courage, muckraking journalism and driving erotic energy, and so was Ed Asner. Yes, Ed was full of spunk, in all senses of the word.

I got a good whiff of that spunk, so to speak, when I had the honor of conversing with Ed Asner on a sleepy Sunday afternoon in January 2014 at the Hollywood Show. I’d been interviewing various Hollywood old-timers (like the also recently departed Gavin MacLeod of “The Love Boat,” Dan Haggerty, aka Grizzly Adams and Danny Glover), as well as adult film veterans (like Ginger Lynn, Seka and Kay Parker) from the “Other” Hollywood’s Golden Age.

I then spotted Lou Grant—I mean Ed Asner—and I was so starstruck, I was a little tongue-tied, but there was the great man himself all alone at his little booth wearing the weary but patient smirk of the veteran he was. “I wish they hadn’t dropped a bomb,” he grumped, gesturing to the almost-empty cavernous hall.

But enough about him. “How are you, Baby?” he probed conspiratorially as if he really wanted to know. Good actor, that Ed.

I gushed that I’d been his fan since MTM, to which he parried teasingly, “Well that establishes that you’re of a certain age.”

When I asked him what he thought about the porn stars down the hall, he replied philosophically, “I have yet to make my first buck at porn, maybe it’s not too late to start… Are you busy?”

All in good flirty fun, of course, though he assured me, “I would not have you do anything that you didn’t want to do gladly.”

Even when teasing a goofball fan and even before #MeToo, the always gallant Lou Grant/Ed Asner was respectful.

Then he got serious, giving adult cinema’s Golden Age the dignity of response and historical perspective that we both knew his fellow actors deserved, even if their “acting” happened to be while naked. “They pre-date Hollywood,” he pointed out. “I can remember the stag films I’ve seen. I think most of them were silent when I first started seeing stag films. The art work was great though. Great artists.”

Turning to political matters, he drawled, “I be a liberal” with a fake country accent, and we both knew he didn’t mean anywhere on the evil neoliberal spectrum, but in the old fashioned sense of being an “old-time lefty.”

And still spunky!

When I asked his thoughts on the political climate at the time, he paused before replying, “I think it sucks.” Then he explained, “I’m waiting to come out of the tunnel we’re in, and I hope we do.” Did he feel Obama could lead us out of the tunnel? He shook his head, looking as gloomy as Lou Grant when the liquor bottle was empty, and the coffee machine was broken.  “I wish he’d be more effective than he’s been.”

Of course, he loathed the Tea Partiers, and worried how they might metastasize within the already cancerous American body politic. “They’re chameleons,” he warned me. “They’ll change their color and drift into another growth like warts or moles.” He may not have known those warts and moles would turn into the Trumpus’ wild-eyed, ammosexual MAGAts infected with a terminal case of QAnonsense, but he knew they were malignant.

Back in January 2014, America’s deep and numerous problems seemed, at least, treatable… but how? “Overthrow the existing jackasses who keep confounding, misinterpreting and debasing the name America and Americans,” was Dr. Asner’s prescription.

That prescription was resoundingly “socialist.”  Asner firmly believed that socialism “will curb the excesses of capitalism: the increasing wealth of the rich and decreasing wealth of the poor…  I’d like to see a national guarantee of health, a national guarantee of education (through college), fair housing, and sufficient food… When we can discuss socialism rationally, it will be as if a heavy curtain has been lifted from man’s eyes.”

Yes indeed, it will be. In the meantime, Ed Asner fought hard for the little guys, practiced his trade and appeared to very much enjoy his life, including his sex life. “How has that sex life changed?” I wondered.

“All I do is think about it now,” he confessed, which sounded like a set-up for a Lou Grantish complaint about how old age sucks. Spunky no more.

Instead, it turned out to be the springboard to a beautiful bonoboësque revelation. “Just thinking about it gives me great pleasure.”

Always a man of the theater, Ed Asner understood the power of the Erotic Theater of the Mind. He’d already lived it up on and off camera a lot more than most of us, and now he was enjoying the mind movies of his choice in the multiplex of his memories.

“So, what’s your philosophy of sex?” I had to ask.

“Relax,” he intoned hypnotically, but with that brusque, no-nonsense compassion. “We are so driven by our erections. We’re afraid it’s going to melt. When we should just enjoy the strokes.”

Wise words from a spunky old socialist with talent to spare and the heart to share.