By Ed Rampell, Jacobin = 31 August 21
The legendary actor Ed Asner, who died at 91 this week, was an unflagging supporter of socialist causes. And he paid a price for his leftism, taking a stand against Ronald Reagan’s bloody Central America interventions and losing a show over it.
Legendary actor Ed Asner died on August 29 at the age of ninety-one, and I am grateful to have spent last Saturday with him before he passed. Ed had a star on the fabled Hollywood Walk of Fame, won five Golden Globes, and had more Primetime Emmy Awards than any other male actor in TV history. Yet the costar of the beloved Mary Tyler Moore Show played his greatest role off-screen and offstage, courageously challenging the Reagan regime’s blood-drenched Central America policy.
Throughout his life, Ed continued to epitomize the actor/activist, using his celebrity to support causes, candidates, and charity. And this is how I was lucky to meet and get to know Ed, interviewing him many times over the years. But let me begin with what turned out to be my final encounter with the man whose most famous role was the gruff yet lovable newsman Lou Grant on Mary Tyler Moore’s long-running sitcom, then as the title character in a spin-off dramatic series.
On August 21, I was invited to attend a party at the home of Jan Goodman and Jerry Manpearl. Jan and Jerry are well-to-do, left-leaning attorneys who often donate the use of their Santa Monica enclave for progressive purposes. We were there to discuss the ongoing, contentious struggle over the direction of the Pacifica radio network.
When I arrived around 6:45 p.m., Ed was ensconced in a chair out on the western end of the patio, engaged in conversation with our host. I pulled up a seat and joined them, noticing that Ed had grown a goatee since I’d last interviewed him in person, pre-pandemic, at his sprawling home in Tarzana. The nonagenarian, who was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, still had a stocky build, although I believe he’d lost weight since I’d last laid eyes on him. For the first time that I’d noticed, Ed also had a walker, which was parked in front of him.
The trio were talking about politics, of course. In the course of their discussion, Ed stated that he was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), something he’d never told me before. We discussed CNN’s recent hour-long program on his fellow DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that had studiously avoided asking America’s second-most famous living socialist a single question about socialism.
Before we moved to the dinner table, the subject of political persecutions came up, and I mentioned that Ed himself was no slacker in that department, having taken a heroic stand against the Reagan administration and paying a steep price for opposing US interference in Central America. In a previous interview, Ed discussed details of what had gone down in the 1980s when he was making the series Lou Grant while serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and how he got into a big brouhaha with President Ronald Reagan, who was himself a former SAG president.
“I was approached by a Catholic nun named Sister Pat Krommer,” Ed recalled. “She showed me footage shot by a Belgian cinematographer about the dead left in El Salvador. I was shocked and couldn’t believe it. This is happening under US aegis by an ally of the United States. Then Bill Zimmerman came to me, having been successful with medical aid for Indochina, and he said, ‘We’re going do the same for El Salvador. Will you be on our board?’ I said, ‘I’d love to.’”