Born on November 15, 1929 in Kansas City, Kansas, Yitzak Edward Asner was the child of Orthodox Jewish immigrants. He attended the University of Chicago and served in the United States Army Signal Corps from 1951-53. He is best known for his work as a television actor.
Asner began his professional acting career with the Chicago Playwright's Theatre Company, later did some off-Broadway productions, and went to Hollywood in 1961. In 1970 he won a starring role in the Mary Tyler Moore Show as the TV news manager Lou Grant. After the comedy's run was over, Asner took the starring role in the drama Lou Grant and went on to become the only actor to win Emmy awards for playing the same character in both a comedy and dramatic series. He also had prominent roles in the epic 1970s television movies Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, and he helped fund Michael Moore's 1989 movie Roger & Me. Asner has won five Golden Globe Awards and seven Emmy Awards.
Asner's first foray into political activism came when he led a 1980 strike by the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG), an organization for which he would subsequently serve two terms as President (1981-1985). During this period, Asner became a vocal critic of the Reagan administration's policies, especially regarding foreign affairs. Condemning U.S. involvement in Central America, Asner took part in a fundraiser to send medical aid to El Salvadoran communist guerrillas who were fighting against the Reagan-backed government in that country, and he lent his name to a rebel-supporting direct-mail piece.
Shortly after Asner's political beliefs were publicly revealed, Lou Grant was cancelled in 1982. “I believe my political activities created a storm that affected network thinking,” he says. “Even if the accelerated cancellation was due to low ratings, doing it at the time automatically gave satisfaction to the people demanding a boycott. It made the cancellation political.”
Ever since the demise of Lou Grant, Asner has become increasingly active on the political front. He has been honored with the ACLU's Worker's Rights Committee Award, the Anne Frank Human Rights Award, the Eugene Debs Award, the Organized Labor Publications Humanitarian Award, and the National Emergency Civil Liberties Award.
A supporter of MoveOn.org, Asner has given money to a number of Democratic political campaigns, including those of Tom Harkin, Richard Gephardt, and Dennis Kucinich. He has also contributed to the organizations Democracy for America and Progressive Vote. Asner’s wife, Cindy, has made donations to Dennis Kucinich, John Kerry, Barbara Lee, Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, and Tom Daschle. Groups she has funded include Progressive Majority, Midwest Values PAC, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Ed Asner advocates gun control, campaign finance reform and animal rights, and gives financial support to organizations like the Humane Society of the United States and Defenders of Wildlife.
An opponent of the death penalty, in October 2000 Asner testified as a character witness for accused cop killer Kenneth Gay; he has also made many public appearances to protest the death sentence of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal.
A self-identified socialist, Asner is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and has raised money on that organization's behalf. Says Asner: "Socialist means a thing that will curb the excesses of capitalism: the increasing wealth of the rich and decreasing wealth of the poor. … For me, solidarity, civil liberty, and social justice can all be summed up with three simple letters -- DSA."
Asner avidly supports Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and blames the U.S. for its strained relationship with the communist leader: "When Castro first took over, we all celebrated enormously. Cuba … had finally found its freedom. ... The United States could not tolerate … a little Hispanic country 90 miles off the United States declaring its independence of the United States, so immediately embargoes, everything began to take place, forcing him into the sphere of Soviet influence."
When Asner was told in May 2003 that Castro had "denied" Cubans "free elections for 40 years," the actor replied that "We [the U.S.] didn't have a free election [either] in 2002." (He may have meant to say 2000, the year of the Florida recount crisis.)
A harsh critic of the Bush administration, the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and American foreign policy in general, Asner in December 2002 (three months prior to the invasion of Iraq) charged that Bush officials "have keyed and geared the war machine … [to the point] that they've got to unload it someplace. Iraq is the likeliest place."
In April 2004 Asner wrote a letter "to the Peace and Justice Movement" stating that "9-11 has been used to justify 'endless war' and a continual rollback in civil liberties that seems to have no end in sight." “George Bush's actions,” he said on another occasion, “are desecrating the America that I grew up in and believed in. He [Bush] is making us an imperialist government.” "I also think," Asner added, "that there is a strong streak of racism whenever we engage in foreign adventures. Our whole history in regime change has been of people of different color." When fellow actor Ron Silver said that Saddam Hussein was not the "imprimatur of morality," Anser responded, "Nor are we [Americans]. Nor are we."
Asner has advocated for the 9-11 Visibility Project, which promotes the idea that the U.S. government knew the terrorist attacks were coming and yet did nothing to stop them.
Asner was a signatory to the 2002 Not In Our Name petition organized by C. Clark Kissinger and the Revolutionary Communist Party.
The actor was formerly a member of the "International Committee to Free Geronimo Pratt. (Pratt was the onetime Deputy Defense Minister for the Black Panther Party, who was arrested in 1970 for the murder of a Los Angeles schoolteacher.)
During the Egyptian revolution of 2011, which saw longtime president (and U.S. ally) Hosni Mubarak deposed -- and set the stage for the rise to power of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood -- Asner commented: "What is known is that [Mubarak] has generally been regarded as a dictator for a lot of years. The whole American policy of fostering and furthering dictators has to be questioned."
When asked what he thought of the Tea Parties, Asner replied: "Not much. I haven't the foggiest idea what they stand for, and the more you watch President Obama, I don't see what they have to complain about.... The Tea Party uprisings are based on ghost images such as taxation." Regarding the notion that taxes in the U.S. were too high, Asner said, "We're less taxed than almost any other western country."
On September 20, 2011, Asner was asked, "Who is Ed Asner? What have you always really stood for?" Asner replied: "Socialism."
In 2012 Asner narrated a nearly eight-minute video that was posted online last week by the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), titled Tax the Rich: An Animated Fairy Tale. The CFT website’s brief description of the plot included the claim that “Things go downhill in a happy and prosperous land after the rich decide they don’t want to pay taxes anymore.” Asner's narration included the following:
"[O]ver time, rich people decided they weren't rich enough, so they came up with ways to get richer. The first way was through tax cuts. They didn't mind that this meant fewer services for everyone. They said, 'Why should I care about other, non-rich people?' I can hire teachers, safety, waste-disposal people to work for me, for less money than taxes cost. And I can keep the rest of my taxes for me.
"A second way rich people got richer was through tax loopholes.... A third way rich people got richer was to pay no taxes at all. This is called tax evasion.... This is illegal, but many did it anyway.... Schools, public safety, the roads, parks, libraries, public transportation all went into decline. The rich people didn't care. They said, 'everyone gets what they deserve,' andthey bought their own teachers, police, garbage collectors, and transportation. They also bought something else: elections....
"When the 99% became upset, the rich people and their politicians said, 'There is no other way!' ... Meanwhile, instead of investing in things that most people could use, and instead of providing jobs that paid people well like they used to, rich people found they could make more money on Wall Street. ... Here, the 1%made money so fast, that they devoted more and more money to it. They took some of that money and sent it far away, where workers had no rights, to produce things that workers used to produce here.
"When ordinary people wondered why rich people needed so much money, the 1% said, 'Don't worry. This is good for you too, because it will trickle down from us to you.'" [At this point in the video, the image of a wealthy man urinating on the poor appeared.] ..."
The video then blamed the economic crisis of 2008 on the allegedly inequitable tax structure that benefitedonly the wealthy. Notably, all the wealthy exploiters (businesspeople and politicians) in the video are white males; the victims and noble public service employees, by contrast, include black and brown faces as well as white. The video continue:
"People began to say, 'Maybe rich people have too much money now. And maybe our problems have something to do with the 1% not paying their fair share of taxes."