Multiple Emmy winner Ed Asner brings one-man show to Saint John

Ed Asner is so much a part of television history, not even a wonky cellphone connection can disguise his identity. 

Sure, the voice on the other end of the phone shows signs of his 89 years, but it's still unmistakable.

His abrupt, growled "Hello, who's this?" is exactly what you expect to hear from the actor who turned gruffness into a seven-decade career. But that growl disappears quickly.

The gifted character actor has received 17 Emmy Award nominations, and won seven, making him the most honoured male actor in the history of the awards.

Still touring

These days, he's touring a one-man stage show called A Man and his Prostate. He'll bring it to Saint John's Imperial Theatre on Oct. 24.

It's the comedic tale of author Ed Weinberger's efforts to find relief from an attack of prostatitis while living in Italy.

"It's very funny, believe me," Asner said in an interview. "I think it gets very great laughs."

It's likely no surprise Weinberger and Asner are teamed up here. The former is one of the creative minds behind the show that made Asner a star.

He rose to fame portraying Lou Grant, Mary Tyler Moore's tough-as-nails boss in her hit 1970's sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 

CBC

"I worked at making him an everyman, so to speak," Asner said. "I brought him down to street level, I think. He approached things honestly, He answered honestly. People liked to see that." 

But it almost didn't happen. His first audition for the TV show didn't go well and ended with the producers explaining he'd need to be far less restrained if they brought him back to read with the show's star.  

Asner headed for the door but, sensing he wouldn't be invited back, did something he'd never done before.

"So I turned and I said, 'Well, what if you had me do it that way now, and if I don't do it, don't have me back?'" Asner said. "So I did it like a wild ass, and they laughed their asses off." 

I found out years later that she had turned to them and said, 'Are you sure?' And they said, 'That's your producer, that's your Lou Grant.' - Ed Asner

He got that reading with the star, but it presented a problem.

"I couldn't remember what I did," Asner said. "But I faked it. After I left, I found out years later that she had turned to them and said, 'Are you sure?' And they said, 'That's your producer, that's your Lou Grant.'" 

Clearly, they were right about the chemistry. The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran for seven seasons. Asner was nominated for an Emmy every year. He won three times.

But he's humble about his part in that chemistry.

"Mary and I did very well, but she could have worked with the devil," he said. "She could have worked with anybody."

He would win two more Emmys playing the same role in the spinoff series Lou Grant.

Emmy number six was for his conflicted slave ship captain in the miniseries Roots. And, number seven was for portraying Nick Nolte's violent father in Rich Man, Poor Man. 

Politics ended hit show?

Lou Grant was cancelled in 1982, while the show was still getting strong ratings. Asner, a vocal left-wing Democrat, always believed his criticism of the Reagan administration's policies in Central America led to the cancellation.

He's still sharing his thoughts on politics in the U.S., now in the era of Trump. 

"It seems like a pigsty," he said, "I guess there's going to be a movement to impeach, which will be nice if it succeeds. It will be awful if it doesn't. His ego knows no bounds now."

Reed Saxon/Associated Press

Since Lou Grant went off the air, Asner has worked on more than 200 TV projects, including voice work for many animated series. He also voiced Carl, the widower who just wants to float away on his balloons, in the Pixar Oscar-winning animated film Up!

He'll celebrate his 90th birthday in November but still has projects on the go.

When asked why he chose touring over retirement, his answer is as straightforward as the character that made him a star. 

"Well, I could use the money. … I hate touring, but performing the play gives me so much energy and so much life. I would age much faster at home."