It was a thrill to get a chance to talk to Ed Asner — best known as Lou Grant on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spin-off and having a very big year as the voice star of one of the biggest critical and box office successes of 2009, “Up” from Pixar and Disney. Asner is a talented actor with a wide range who has played everything from Santa Claus (in “Elf”) to real-life mobster Meyer Lansky (“Donzi: The Legend”) and Franklin Roosevelt (on stage). But his best-remembered roles have him playing tough, sometimes irascible, forceful characters who may, somewhere, have some hidden tenderness. That quality links his roles as the powerful industrialist estranged from his family in The Gathering and the grumpy widower in Up. Mr. Asner spoke to me by phone from his office.
NM: I am so happy that The Gathering is available on DVD! It is one of my favorite holiday films. What led you to accept the role?
EA: I had a choice between two Christmas films, one about a rich family and one about a poor family. I liked this script better and it had nothing to do with riches, it was the story and the characters. So I opted for this one and came to Chagrin Falls in Hudson, Ohio and it was a stellar cast.
NM: You got to work with one of the truly great actresses, Oscar-winner Maureen Stapleton, who played your ex-wife. What was it like working with her?
EA: She was a doll. She gained a little weight during the show so towards the end of the filming we had to pin the wardrobe together but I loved working with her. She was a tough broad but sweet as she could be. And she gave me the nicest compliment in the world. She said that working with me as as good or better as she hoped it would be.
NM: She was famously a method actor. Did your styles as performers work well together?
EA: I am not a method actor, though I studied for a year with Lee Strasburg. But our styles had no conflict; we meshed as actors. We did not need to work out a whole history about what drove our characters apart. I didn’t know it the time but since have realized that people can get bored with each other unless they have the most profound belief in each other. As a powerful executive he may have wanted to play around or whatever and finally discovers that he is going to die. So he makes the plans — that was the most outspoken scene between us, when she realizes what I’m hiding, it was a delicious moment.
NM: I know it was a long time ago, but what do you remember about working on “The Gathering?”
EA: I loved getting to Chagrin Falls, being by the falls, what a cute place it is. I loved working with all the people I had to work with, and the story — the dissensions and dislikes but also the rapprochement when people are willing to open up to each other. The script had good highs and lows. Everything else is all cushioned by his wealth, so all that is left is the person to person contact and the person to person love. And the cast was outstanding: John Randolph, Laurence Pressman, Veronica Hamel, Bruce Davison, Gregory Harrison, Rebecca Balding. And I was delighted at the reception it got. A friend of mine, an award-winning journalist, led a vigilante group to bludgeon the network to put it on every year. And she succeeded most of the time!
NM: I have to ask you about “Up.”
EA: It was a lovely experience for me. The directors, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, are unbelievably talented. They created a menacing phalanx to have to survive under in the story and we had a marvelous time just making it — the genius is all theirs!