“When we can discuss socialism rationally. It will be as if a heavy curtain has been lifted from man’s eyes.” Those were not the words of Karl Marx or Eugene Victor Debs, though either of those radical thinkers might well have uttered them.
Those were the words of Ed Asner, the actor who became a household name in the role of gruff but lovable Lou Grant, the boss at a TV station, in the 1970s TV comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He then carried the character over, with a new job as a Los Angeles newspaper editor, to one of the most socially conscious programs in the history of television, the eponymous Lou Grant of the late 1970s and early ’80s.
When he died Sunday, at age 91, after a storied career that included multiple runs on Broadway, dozens of TV and movie roles, and even a star turn as the voice of Carl Fredricksen in the Academy Award–winning 2009 film Up, the Associated Press obituary described Asner as a “liberal.”
Asner chose more robust language.
A self-proclaimed “old-time lefty,” he proudly embraced the label “socialist” at a time when many of the most radical people in public life avoided it. In the 1970s, as author and activist Michael Harrington led the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, Asner was among the early supporters of the group—along with US Representative Ron Dellums, feminist Gloria Steinem, and International Association of Machinists president William Winpisinger. When DSOC merged with the New America Movement to form Democratic Socialists of America, Asner became not just a member but an enthusiastic advocate for the organization, penning fundraising appeals.
There was a time, before Bernie Sanders ever thought about running for the presidency, and before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born, when Asner was arguably the best-known democratic socialist in the United States. As an instantly identifiable celebrity, with an image as a no-frills newsman with a big heart, he used his prominence to define the word for generations of Americans who rarely heard it mentioned in a positive light. “Socialist means a thing that will curb the excesses of capitalism: the increasing wealth of the rich and decreasing wealth of the poor,” Asner explained. “I’d like to see a national guarantee of health, a national guarantee of education (through college), fair housing, and sufficient food.”
At the peak of his fame, Asner ramped up his activism. When Lou Grant was one of the best-rated shows on TV in 1981, he ran for and was elected as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Under his leadership, the union took militant stances in defense of its own members and in solidarity with the broader labor movement. “There have been few actors of Ed Asner’s prominence who risked their status to fight for social causes the way Ed did,” said current SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris. “He fought passionately for his fellow actors, both before, during, and after his SAG presidency. But his concern did not stop with performers. He fought for victims of poverty, violence, war, and legal and social injustice, both in the United States and around the globe.”
With a top-rated TV show, and as the head of a major union in the first year of Ronald Reagan’s right-wing presidency, Asner emerged as one of the country’s most outspoken critics of the new president, a former actor who had himself served as SAG president during the “red scare” era of the 1950s. When Reagan fired striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, Asner joined their picket line in Los Angeles. A former GM assembly-line worker, he preached an old-school gospel of labor solidarity, telling members, “Our union is our bill of rights.”
Asner’s battles with Reagan became legendary. “I was brought up believing that the presidency was a very honorable office,” Asner said in 1985. “I would prefer being able to trust the guy. But I can’t and I don’t.” That was especially the case when it came to foreign policy. Asner was an outspoken critic of apartheid in South Africa. And he came to be known as one of the most prominent foes of the Reagan administration’s support for right-wing regimes in Central America. Asner cofounded the group Medical Aid for El Salvador and was active with the Committee of Concern for Central America. When he and a group of actors and activists appeared outside the US State Department in February 1982 to announce that they had raised $25,000 to aid Salvadorans who were victimized by the regime, The Washington Post described Asner as “the most articulate and the most politically savvy” of the group.
The Post noted that
Asner—so closely identified with his successful television show that he was introduced as “Lou Grant, er, Ed Asner” yesterday—has emerged as a political beast. His sincere-looking, gruff mug is turning up in magazine and TV ads, at fund-raisers, and demonstrations. During the past few years Asner has lent his name to the ERA, the Freedom of Information Act, Ralph Nader’s consumer organization, Public Citizen, and most recently, El Salvador. He has called himself a “union loyalist” and a “staunch unionist.” He was an outspoken critic of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, charging the panel with opening a vendetta similar to the anticommunist crusade in Hollywood in the 1950s.
As his political profile rose, Asner announced, “I delight in the issues we deal with. I long for greater activity in the presentation of them.” Did he fear red-baiting and retribution? “I’m quite comfortable and believe I have an ability to speak out, perhaps sometimes too rashly, but I think in this day and age there are far too many who don’t speak out at all,” he said. “I would consider it an attribute.”
The powers that be did not share that view. Though Lou Grant won 13 Emmy awards for its groundbreaking examinations of issues ranging from nuclear proliferation to LGBTQ rights, and was garnering top ratings for CBS, it was canceled in the fall of 1982. “CBS has never convincingly denied that the cancellation was based partly on Asner’s politics—his sponsorship of a medical relief committee for war victims in El Salvador and his activist rampage as president of the Screen Actors Guild,” observed TV critic Tom Shales. Asner shared that view, telling the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation, “Most insiders seem to think that the show would not have been canceled had it not been for the controversy that arose over my stand on El Salvador. I thought at the time that I’d never work again.”
He would work again. A lot. Asner won a second term as SAG president with 73 percent of the vote. He appeared onstage and screen regularly, remaining busy until his last days. And he kept agitating for economic- and social-justice movements. (Asked about Republican attempts to undermine voting rights in an interview earlier this year, he replied, “What kind of bullshit is that?”) A proud recipient of the Eugene Victor Debs Award—an honor named for the five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate that he accepted at the height of his wrangling with Reagan—Asner once replied to an inquiry about what he stood for with a single word: “socialism.”