If you’re an American of a certain age, you certainly know who Ed Asner is, and you’re probably very fond of him. And you should be: he’s a terribly likeable guy and a terrific actor. For seven years back in the 1970s, he played the gruff-but-lovable boss Lou Grant on the hit CBS comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There followed several more years in his own spinoff series, Lou Grant. He’s since starred in innumerable TV movies and made guest appearances on a number of sitcoms. Now pushing ninety (he turns 87 tomorrow), Asner continues to keep busy as an actor.
During all these years, however, he’s also found time to involve himself in politics. From 1981 to 1985, he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. In addition, he’s been active in a great many left-wing groups, campaigns, and causes, the list of which is at least as long as his list of acting credits on IMdB.com. So important a player has he been in far-left activism that his name figures in a 2000-word history of the American left at the website of the Democratic Socialists of America – a group he’s belonged to for years.
Just a few items from that list. In the 1980s he joined groups that provided aid and comfort to Communist guerrilas in Central America. In 1984 he sponsored the annual banquet of the Labor Research Association, a Communist Party front organization that compiled statistics for use by unions and activists. In 2002 he signed a statement formulated by a leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party that accused George W. Bush of repression and imperialism.
From time to time, Asner has managed to combine acting with activism. While playing Karl Marx in a 2010 Los Angeles stage production, he explained to a reporter that he’d been cast in the part because “I’m always thought of in Hollywood and surrounding environs as the resident communist.” (Imagine what it takes to be the “resident communist” in Hollywood!)
Years earlier, in 1983, Asner appeared in Sidney Lumet’s film Daniel, based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel about a young man whose parents – based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – were executed many years earlier for being Soviet atom spies. The movie, which was scripted by Doctorow, was widely, and properly, panned as a piece of clumsy propaganda: while celebrating the purported nobility and idealism of the radical 1930s activist milieu that shaped the Rosenbergs’ values, it delicately skirting the evil reality of Stalinism and the issue of treason.
Asner’s belief in the film and its Soviet-friendly message, however, was demonstrated three years ago by his sponsorship of a screening of it that was co-presented by the Communist Party and held at a Party-operated venue in Los Angeles. At the screening, which was dedicated to the memory of the Rosenbergs, Asner gave a speech in which he accused the Rosenbergs’ prosecutors of anti-Semitism, drew a moral equivalency between the Rosenbergs’ trial and Stalin’s show trials, and criticized the “antipathy in this country for people of differing opinions.” As we’ll see tomorrow, however, Asner has shown great understanding for the brutal treatment of “people of different opinions” in another country – namely, Cuba.