Yitzak Edward Asner was born to Orthodox Jewish immigrant parents on November 15, 1929 in Kansas City, Kansas. He attended the University of Chicago and served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1951-53. Asner is best known for his work as a television actor on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and Lou Grant (1977–82). From 1981-85, he served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild.
A proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Asner has long identified himself as “a socialist” who wants the United States to emulate “the Scandinavian countries,” where people are “well taken care of … medicinally, economically, educationally.” He has a high regard for the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt, calling him a “great president” who embraced “certain socialist practices.”
In the 1980s Asner supported the communist revolutionaries who were fighting for political supremacy in Central America, and he became a vocal critic of the Reagan administration’s effort to thwart them. For instance:
Asner made plain his contempt for Reagan in a discussion about the use of taxpayer money to fund the production of obscene artwork like photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous “Jim and Tom.” Said Asner: “I consider the Mapplethorpe picture—one man urinating into the mouth of another—as merely a depiction of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down [economic] theory.”
In 1984 Asner co-sponsored the Ninth Annual Banquet of the Labor Research Association, a Communist Party USA front that worked cooperatively with the World Federation of Trade Unions, a Soviet international front.
In 1985 Asner was a key participant in the Chicago DSA’s annual Eugene Debs/Norman Thomas/Michael Harrington Dinner Banquet, named in honor of three prominent American socialists. Two years later in Terre Haute, Indiana, Asner was honored for his left-wing activism at a Eugene Debs Award Banquet.
In a May 1990 fundraising letter which he wrote on behalf of DSA, Asner condemned the “arbitrary power” of capitalism and urged his readers to support the DSA goal of “fundamental redistribution of wealth and power in this country.”
Asner was an avid admirer of longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro:
A longtime opponent of capital punishment, Asner was once a member of the “International Committee to Free Geronimo Pratt,” the former Black Panther who was serving a prison sentence for murder. In October 2000 Asner testified as a character witness for cop-killer Kenneth Gay, stating that because Gay had once written a “wonderfully encouraging” play about children—a play that “highly impressed” Asner—a prison sentence would be more appropriate than execution. And over the years, Asner made many public appearances to protest the death sentence that had been issued against convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal.
Actress Morgan Brittany recalls how her friendship with Asner—which developed when the two starred together in a stage-play during the infamous Florida recount that marred the 2000 presidential election—was destroyed by Asner’s political intolerance. Says Brittany: “… Every night he [Asner] just loved me and came in and gave me a big hug. Then one night he was going crazy about Gore and Bush, and [Bush allegedly] stealing the election. I’m backstage and I said, ‘Ed, chill, not everybody thinks the way you do.’ Well, where do I begin? I swear. It was like a light switch. He turned to me and said, ‘you’re not a Republican?’ I said, ‘yep.’ And he said, ‘I can’t even look at you. I can’t even talk to you.’ From that moment on, he never spoke to me again, except on stage. This is what we’re dealing with. The intolerance of the left.”
In the post-9/11 era, Asner advocated for the 9-11 Visibility Project, which promoted the idea that the U.S. government knew in advance that the infamous al-Qaeda terrorist attacks were coming, yet did nothing to stop them. Similarly:
In 2002 Asner was a signatory to the highly publicized Not In Our Name “Statement of Conscience,” initiated by Revolutionary Communist Party leader C. Clark Kissinger. This document condemned not only the Bush administration’s “stark new measures of repression,” but also its “unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world.” For a list of additional signers, click here.
A harsh critic of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, Asner in December 2002—three months prior to the U.S. 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 a 2002 television appearance, actor Ron Silver challenged Asner’s assertion that the United Nations was the only authority that could legitimately stand in judgment of the world’s various governments. When Silver stated that the UN was not the “imprimatur of morality,” Anser responded: “Nor are we [Americans]. Nor are we.”
In April 2004 Asner wrote a letter to the leaders of “the Peace and Justice Movement” stating that “9-11 has been used to justify” such things as “endless war,” “a continual rollback in civil liberties that seems to have no end in sight,” and the rise of “an imperialist government.” “I also think,” Asner added on another occasion, “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.”
In the summer of 2006, Asner and such notables as Danny Glover, Cynthia McKinney, Willie Nelson, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Cindy Sheehan, and Lynn Woolsey participated in a type of hunger strike known as a “rolling fast”—sponsored by Code Pink—where each participant, in his or her turn, refrained from eating for one day.
During the Egyptian revolution of 2011, in which longtime president (and U.S. ally) Hosni Mubarak was toppled—setting the stage for the Muslim Brotherhood‘s rise to power in that country—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 in 2011 what he thought of the conservative Tea Party movement, 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 [excessive] taxation…. We’re less taxed than almost any other Western country.”
In 2012, Asner, who supported the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, narrated a nearly eight-minute video that was posted online by the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), titled Tax the Rich: An Animated Fairy Tale. The CFT website’s brief description of the video’s plot said: “Things go downhill in a happy and prosperous land after the rich decide they don’t want to pay taxes anymore.” Asner’s narration, which gave voice to numerous OWS themes, 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 an inequitable tax structure that supposedly benefited only the wealthy. Notably, all the wealthy exploiters (businesspeople and politicians) in the video were white males; the victims and noble public-service employees, by contrast, included black and brown faces as well as white. Said the narration: “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.”
In 2013, Asner appeared in a MoveOn.org video lamenting America’s economic inequality, the dwindling of its middle class, and the unfairness of its tax system (which allegedly demands too little of the wealthy).
On June 19, 2013—the 60th anniversary of the executions of atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—Asner and fellow actor/anti-death penalty activist Mike Farrell marked the occasion by co-sponsoring a screening of the film Daniel at the Communist Party’s Los Angeles Workers’ Center. A fictionalized account of the Rosenberg case, this 1983 Sidney Lumet movie focuses on the hardships allegedly endured by the children of persecuted Communist activists. Addressing those who attended the film screening, Asner drew parallels to Joseph Stalin‘s infamous show trials and suggested that the Rosenberg prosecution was tainted by anti-Semitism. Further, Asner made reference to his own vocal opposition, as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, to the Reagan administration’s anti-Communist policies in Central America during the 1980s.
In early January 2017, Asner was one of numerous celebrities and activists who attached their names to a full-page ad in the New York Times titled “No! In the Name of Humanity We Refuse to Accept a Fascist America!” Written by the organization Refuse Fascism, and calling for a month-long protest against President-elect Donald Trump, the ad said: “Donald Trump … is assembling a regime of grave danger. Millions of people in the US and around the world are filled with deep anxiety, fear, and disgust. Our anguish is right and just. Our anger must now become massive resistance –before Donald Trump is inaugurated and has the full reins of power in his hands.”
In September 2017, Asner was angered when President Trump said that National Football League team owners should fire any players who chose, in a display of protest popularized by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, to kneel during a pre-game national anthem. Thus the actor joined many other celebrities in condemning the president and urging athletes from all over the sporting world to “take a knee” during the anthem. “I am taking a knee on Sunday,” Asner tweeted. “I might need someone to help me up.”
In a December 2017 interview with the Daily Beast, Asner said: “If right-wingers truly understood what the Constitution meant they wouldn’t use it as a crutch every time they screw over the poor and the disenfranchised…. The NRA is the worst offender. The Republican Party basically uses it to advance their own agenda, often at the expense of their own members.” At one point, the interviewer asked, “Do you believe [President] Trump is an anti-Semite?” Asner replied: “No. He might be, but how can he be, because he counts on the Jews to lead Wall Street?”
In December 2018, Asner used his Twitter account to share a National Geographic report about a poacher who recently had been devoured by lions at a South African game preserve. The actor added the caption, “Has anyone seen Eric Trump or Donald Trump Jr. lately?” — implying his hope that perhaps one of them was the victim of that mauling.
In March 2019, Asner tweeted: “When we can discuss socialism rationally. It will be as if a heavy curtain has been lifted from man’s eyes.”
Asner has served on the advisory board of the Rosenberg Fund for Children since at least 2003. In 2009 he was a member of the of the Independent Progressive Politics Network‘s advisory committee. In 2010 he was listed as an endorser of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, an antiwar organization with socialist roots. He spent time as an executive board member of the Office of the Americas. And he served a stint on the advisory board of the Harry Bridges Project, which was named in honor of the late Bay Area labor leader and secret member of the Communist Party USA‘s Central Committee.
Over the years, Asner has been honored variously 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.
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 organizations such as Defenders of Wildlife, Democracy for America, the Humane Society of the United States, and Progressive Vote.
Asner’s wife, Cindy, has made political donations to such notables as Barbara Boxer, Sherrod Brown, Tom Daschle, Alan Grayson, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Barbara Lee, Chellie Pingree, and Bernie Sanders, among others. Groups which she has funded include the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Midwest Values PAC, and Progressive Majority.