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Ed Asner, television legend who starred in 'Mary Tyler Moore Show,' dies at 91

He played the same grizzled newsman on two programs, the drama "Lou Grant" and the comedy "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
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Ed Asner, the seven-time Emmy Award-winning actor best known for portraying the gruff newsman Lou Grant on two iconic television shows, died Sunday, his family and a representative announced. He was 91.

Asner, who also endeared himself to a new generation of fans by playing a grumpy Santa in the 2003 movie "Elf" and was the voice the grieving widower in the animated 2009 movie "Up," was with his family when he died.

"We are sorry to say that our beloved patriarch passed away this morning peacefully," his family said on Twitter. "Words cannot express the sadness we feel. With a kiss on your head — Goodnight dad. We love you."

Asner's representative, Charles Sherman, told NBC News in a statement Sunday that he "passed away today peacefully surrounded by family."

Inducted into the Emmys Hall of Fame in 1996, Asner took home seven statues in his long acting career — five for portraying Grant. He won consecutive Emmys for best supporting actor in a comedy series in 1971 and 1972, playing Grant on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Balding and burly, Grant was a journeyman character actor before he was paired up with Mary Tyler Moore, who played the perpetually earnest lead character, Mary Richards, at the fictional Minneapolis TV newsroom where they worked. It was TV magic right from the start.

Ed Asner as Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in a scene from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in 1970.
Ed Asner as Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in 1970.CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images

In the first episode of "MTM," Asner's Grant appears to compliment Moore's Richards: "You know what? You got spunk."

As the bashful Richards soaks up the apparent accolade, Asner's Grant growls back with a piece of comic timing that is still revered in TV history: "I hate spunk!"

"This is a stinking lie, because I love spunk," Asner told "TODAY's" Al Roker in 2017, joyfully reflecting on the famous scene.

The character was so popular that when "MTM" ended its run in 1977, the grouchy Grant was revived as newspaper man "Lou Grant" that fall, as the city editor of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune for five seasons.

He was the same grouch but this time in a dramatic show. And he was still a hit, taking home Emmy honors for best lead actor in a drama series in 1978 and 1980.

The Grant character worked because everyone knows such a lovable and sage grump, Asner told "TODAY."

"He's the avuncular person we all know in life who we tolerate at first and then learn that he's not such a monster," Asner said.

Tributes from fellow actors poured in Sunday.

"He was a giant on the screen, and a philanthropist, too," George Takei tweeted. "A man of true heart and talent. He will be missed."

Filmmaker Michael Moore recalled that Asner was the only famous name who coughed up cash to help fund his first big documentary, "Roger & Me."

"'I don't know you, kid, but here's 500 bucks' said the note attached to the check," Moore said in a tweet. "Sounds like it'll be a great film. I was an autoworker once."

The Twitterverse was quick to note that Betty White, who turns 100 in January, is the lone surviving main "MTM" cast member.

Asner himself tweeted this year that his "heart was broken" when another "MTM" mainstay, Gavin MacLeod, died in May.

"I will see you in a bit Gavin," Asner wrote. "Tell the gang I will see them in a bit. Betty! It's just you and me now."

Although Lou Grant made Asner famous, few roles in comedy or drama were beyond his wide range.

He won a 1977 Emmy for best single performance by a supporting actor, playing a slave ship captain in the seminal drama "Roots."

Asner also took home a 1976 Emmy for best lead actor for a single performance, playing the father in the hit miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man."

Younger movie fans embraced Asner as the voice of the cranky widower Carl Fredricksen in the 2009 Oscar-nominated animated movie "Up."

At the time of "Up's" success, Asner said he wished there were more roles for older actors.

"I keep telling people that I'm a better actor now than I've ever been in my life, in my ability to choose and my ability to interpret," he said.

Image: Ed Asner and character at the premiere of the Disney-Pixar animated film "Up" in Hollywood
Ed Asner with the character Carl Fredricksen, whom he provided the voice for, in the Disney-Pixar animated film "Up" at the film's premiere in Hollywood, Calif., on May 16, 2009.Fred Prouser / Reuters file

"I'd say most people are probably in that same boat, old people, and it's a shame that they're not given the opportunity to demonstrate that intelligence along with their emotion, that it's not utilized," he said.

Looking back on his long career, Asner said he had no preference between comedy or drama — but he admitted he enjoyed the immediate gratification of audience laughter.

"I never thought I was good at comedy. When I found out I could get some laughs, I concentrated on it," Asner told WGN radio in April, 2020. "It's much more rewarding, I must say. In drama it's quiet. You think the point is sinking it. It's possible they're just asleep."

Asner's more recent TV roles included appearances on the series "Grace and Frankie, "Cobra Kai" and "Dead to Me." His last film appearance was as a psychologist in "The Garden Left Behind," a 2019 drama about a young Mexican transgender woman.

Never shy to express his opinion, Asner was one of Hollywood's leading liberal voices. As president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1981 to 1985, he was highly critical of one of his predecessors as SAG president, Ronald Reagan.

He had long blamed conservative activists connected to Reagan with the surprising cancellation of "Lou Grant" in 1982. Not long before the show was taken off the air, Asner outraged conservatives by helping form a group that rushed medical supplies to rebels in El Salvador.

Edward Asner and Jim Beaver on "Thunder Alley" in 1995.
Edward Asner and Jim Beaver on "Thunder Alley" in 1995.ABC Photo Archives / Walt Disney Television via Getty

Over the years, Asner spoke passionately about civil rights, gun control, organized labor and separation of church and state and against capital punishment.

"Oh, I don't think there's any question" political activism brought a premature end to "Lou Grant," Asner told the Deseret News of Salt Lake City in late 1990. "I was sorry to get the show canceled because of it. But I'm not sorry I took a stand."

Yitzhak Edward Asner was born Nov. 15, 1929, in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of Lizzie Seliger and Morris David Asner, Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland. Accepted at the University of Chicago, Asner dropped out after a year to become an actor, working as a cabdriver and an autoworker to support himself. His quest to become an actor was interrupted by two years in the Army from 1951 to 1953.

Asner also won five Golden Globes, one for "Rich Man, Poor Man" and two each for the two series in which he played Lou Grant. And he made several appearances on Broadway, most recently in 2012, when, at age 82, he played an abrasive exterminator in the play "Grace."

Asner had four children: Matthew, Kate and Liza Asner; three with first wife, Nancy Sykes; and Charles Asner, a son he had with then-partner Carol Vogelman.

CORRECTION (Aug. 29, 2021, 5:30 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a surviving son. He is Charles Asner, not Charles Answer. The article also misspelled the name of the newspaper to which Asner spoke in 1990. It is the Deseret News of Salt Lake City, not the Desert News.