Tough but kind-hearted underneath the gruff exterior, Grant was the role of a lifetime for an actor who hardly seemed destined for leading-man status, as Asner freely acknowledged in interviews. Before “Mary Tyler Moore” he primarily appeared on TV shows in an assortment of dramatic and tough-guy roles, even playing the villain opposite John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in the western “El Dorado.”
Beyond Lou Grant, though, Asner carved out a splendid career within the kind of supporting roles that preceded that episodic breakthrough. That included Emmy-winning parts in two of the most popular miniseries of all time: “Rich Man, Poor Man,” playing the brutal, broken-down immigrant father of the central brothers; and “Roots,” as the morally conflicted ship’s captain who brought slaves to America.
Asner worked constantly, including several projects that will debut after his death. He remained much in demand for voice work, most notably in Pixar’s animated classic “Up” as the grieving balloon salesman who embarks on a late-in-life adventure, but also in a variety of other series and movies, from playing Santa Claus in “Elf” to providing the voice of newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in “Spider-Man: The Animated Series.”
In a 2003 interview, Asner acknowledged that taking such public stances might not be for all actors. “You have to make a choice,” he said. “If you want to get in trouble, then you’ll open your mouth. … If you think you can do greater good by your acting, then stay that way. If you feel that you can buttress your acting by being a citizen, then you’ll do it. I think it’s a hard decision to make.”
Asner’s death produced an outpouring of tributes for his work both on screen and off, lauding his talent as well as his humanity. Not surprisingly, more than a few played off the line that Asner himself made one for the ages: He had spunk.