Ed Asner: An extraordinary life, from comedy to drama, and on screen to off

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(CNN)Ed Asner played Lou Grant for a dozen years, first in a beloved sitcom ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show") and then an episodic drama ("Lou Grant"). But if you only associate the actor and activist with that character, you've just scratched the surface of an extraordinary life and career.

Nominated for 17 Emmy awards, and the winner of seven, Asner -- who has died at the age of 91 -- achieved TV immortality as the cranky news director at a Minneapolis TV station in the 1970s comedy, who could recognize spunk in his new employee, Mary Richards, and famously hated it. In an all-but-unprecedented move, he then moved to become the editor of a metropolitan newspaper, shifting into a dramatic setting that addressed major issues not long after "All the President's Men" had romanticized newspaper work at the movies.

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."

    Ed Asner's extraordinary life

    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."

      Asner's activities hardly ended there. He served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild and remained outspoken about its affairs, last year joining in a lawsuit over cuts to the organization's healthcare plan that would impact older members. His activism included such issues as gun control, the Equal Rights Amendment and capital punishment, and Asner later said that speaking out about El Salvador in the 1980s hastened the cancellation of "Lou Grant" by CBS.

      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 was thoughtful and honest about aging in his later years, tweeting when "Mary Tyler Moore" co-star Gavin McLeod died earlier this year, "I will see you in a bit Gavin. Tell the gang I will see them in a bit." He added to Betty White, whose scenes with Asner remain among the show's most memorable, "Betty! It's just you and me now."

        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.

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