Many Jewish celebrities tend to get more involved in Jewish causes as they get older, and that includes Ed Asner, who, at 81, was a co-host at Monday night’s benefit for the Jewish Partisans Education Foundation.
Asner, of course, is best known as the grumpy but lovable newsroom editor Lou Grant on the classic 70s sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” I believe he may also hold the distinction of being the only actor ever to star as the same character on both a comedy and drama series, after reprising the role in "Lou Grant," the CBS series that moved the editor from a Minneapolis TV station to a fictional LA daily (with a really small editorial staff.)
I watched both shows as an impressionable kid, so it felt something like meeting a journalism icon when I had a chance to talk to Asner at the dinner. He turned out to be a gracious and approachable man who worked the room like a politician, rather than stay in a corner or surround himself with an entourage. Since he hasn’t worked regularly in years — other than appearances on the Tonight Show’s “Who Can Impress Ed Asner?” segments — it must have been gratifying for him to have so many people ask to take pictures with him. (All right, I admit I was one of them.)
I mentioned that while I was old enough to have seen “Mary” in its first-run, Saturday night time slot, my kids knew him as Cosgrove, the police chief on the Steven Spielberg cartoon “Freakazoid” to which he lent his voice a decade or so ago. Asner laughed and said that was a fun gig. Of course, I had to mention the classic line from the pilot of “Mary” in which, as an editor giving Moore, as a woman novice, a then-uncommon break in a big city newsroom, he said “You got spunk … I hate spunk.”
I had to ask some questions, too, so after Asner spoke about his 92-year-old cousin Abraham, now living in Canada, who fought the Nazis in Poland, and his gratitude that Jews who fought back were recognized, Jewish Week video blogger Aaron Herman and I asked about his memories of finding out about the magnitude of the Holocaust as a teenager.
"You’re overwhelmed," he said. "You keep hearing bits and pieces and when finally the totality hits you … it’s impossible to make sense.”
While he was talking, I remembered that Asner has been a critic of Israel and joined with Jewish Voices for Peace in supporting boycotts and divestments against the Jewish state. Apparently he backs a boycott against artists performing at West Bank venues, if not the larger boycott of Israel itself. (He told the Forward last year “I was an ardent Zionist at the beginning, but a lot of the fervor has cooled,” adding that he was disappointed that Israel was not “a beacon for the nations,” but he still believes “in Israel, but not in Israel with settlements.”)
It seemed surprising that someone with so much respect for Jews who fought the Nazis wouldn't be at least a bit sympathetic to Israel's belief that the West Bank is strategically important for its security, especially while attacks on Israelis continue on a regular basis.
So I broached the subject and asked Asner about his view of the current state of the Israel-Palestinian peace process. “How can I be pleased about the peace process, it’s not providing peace and until it does I will not be happy with any of the false moves that attempt to achieve it. ” When I asked who thought was to blame for the lack of progress, the actor seemed to sense where I was going and essentially spiked the interview. This was apparently not the right venue for that.
“You’re asking me a very provocative question, and I’m not gonna answer it,” he said.
So, apparently Lou Grant doesn’t hate all spunk. It was OK against the Nazis, but not so much for Israelis, or reporters.