Ed Asner may be best remembered as the gruff newspaper editor Lou Grant, but as he prepares to receive a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) this Sunday, he is closer to the spunky girl-reporter role immortalized by Mary Tyler Moore.
"I love the fact that this award is coming at this time in my life," says Mr. Asner, in a distinctly un-tough tone. "I would have been worried if it had come when I was 20 years younger." ("The 8th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards" airs live from Los Angeles on TNT this Sunday, 8-10 p.m.)
Since the award comes from a jury of his peers, it gives it an added sweetness, says the actor, whose career has spanned a half century. "There's no fudging the fact that these are people who are willing to grant that I've done something worth remembering, and that these are people who are decent judges of my work."
Asner is one of the most honored actors in the history of television, with seven Emmy Awards and 16 Emmy nominations. His more than 100 TV credits include numerous series ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Lou Grant," "Thunder Alley"). His films include "Daniel" and "Fort Apache, the Bronx." He also served as president of SAG for four years (1981-85) and continues to be active in the guild.
But for this award - and this actor - the work is only part of the story. Unlike the regular SAG awards, Golden Globes, or Oscars, the 38-year-old SAG Life Achievement Award demands more than an excellent on-screen résumé: Strong and sustained extracurricular commitment to humanitarian causes is the only asset that will clinch it, says Yale Summers, chair of the SAG awards committee.
"It's a very important thing for the guild to be able to say that actors ought to be humanitarians," says Mr. Summers. "Especially when they reach a certain point in their career, actors are role models that everyone looks up to...."
Asner's activism has early roots. He grew up as one of the few Jews in Kansas City, Kan. The actor recalls being required to attend Hebrew school while his classmates were playing football. While he was sometimes ostracized for being different (his school fraternity didn't allow Jewish members), Asner has said that he was influenced by the motto of the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, "If I am only for myself, what am I?"
Many, including Asner himself, have noted that his activism has come with a cost. "Ed's career has suffered," Summers says. "There were many things he did that were politically unpopular.... Some of the positions that Ed took were highly unpopular with the establishment."
Asner paid his most bitter dues after he took on the role as chief spokesman for Medical Aid for El Salvador. He was widely denounced during the Reagan years as being a collaborator with the leftist guerrillas the United States was trying to crush. Although CBS maintained the show died for lack of ratings, the network canceled his "Lou Grant" series after two major corporate sponsors - Vidal Sassoon and Kimberly Clark - withdrew their sponsorship over concerns about the star's political positions.
That professional setback has not dulled his devotion to causes. The septuagenarian actor took the lead in recent legislative hearings on ageism in Hollywood and actively opposes the death penalty. What discourages Asner today is the lack of activism in the next generation of performers.
"There are no new celebrities that I see who are opening their mouths," he says. The fight against terrorism is taking its toll, he adds. "It doesn't take much to get them [young performers] to shut their mouths. What was done to Bill Maher will blanket the industry for a while. People will be very leery about opening their mouths...."
(Comedian Maher, host of ABC's late-night TV show "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher," was widely criticized for calling the US military response to the Sept. 11 events "cowardly" on the show.)
The SAG award is intended to point the way for younger performers, Mr. Summers says. "We see Ed [Asner] as a good example of what a full human being should be, besides being an actor."