My Hero, Ed Asner

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April 2, 2011 · Posted in Commentary 

By LIONEL ROLFE

Twenty five years ago, my mentor and hero was a city editor of television fame. The actor’s name was Ed Asner and he played a city editor named Lou Grant, which was also the name of the television series. Asner played the role so well I came to believe he made manifest the two real editors I had worked for who taught me every thing I knew about the journalism racket.

One was a wild Irishman, Dana McGaugh, at the Livermore Independent, a small town paper in Northern California. The other was Scott Newhall, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, then the major newspaper in Northern California.

The joke of “Lou Grant” was that its fictional Los Angeles Tribune was a fighting liberal newspaper that had been a real competitor to the Los Angeles Times in the 1880s.

When I met Asner in a slightly shabby looking office building in North Hollywood, I told him that Lou Grant was McGaugh and Newhall rolled up in one – the two editors in real life who were my mentors and heroes.

I could tell Asner had heard it all before. Asner was very convincing as the tough, talented, honest city editor, because every one knew that was that in real life. Too often he had been hit with the predictable and inevitable back of the hand meted out to the good guys by the powers that be. “Lou Grant” – most reasonable observers concluded – was kicked off the air for political reasons, despite the high ratings of the famed CBS television show.

While I’m not normally much interested in Hollywood gossip, I never missed an opportunity to view “Lou Grant.” Grant was important to me because most of the editors I met in my years of small town newspapering in the ’60s were self-satisfied provincial men, corrupt and mediocre, incapable of ever being more than the small town Rotarians they usually were.

McGaugh was a drunken Irishman type who sang Irish revolutionary ballads when he was drunk, which was often. He’d come up behind me as I was writing a story, and criticize my work. One time he said I was writing badly because I needed to go downstairs to the bar that the cityroom was on top of and have a quick whiskey. I had a couple and went back to the story giving me so much trouble.

From McGaugh I learned how to get the facts and how to write a story under pressure, and he had a photographic memory full of appropriate Shakespeare and James Joyce, and his monologues were incredible. He had written a biography of Parnell, one of the great heroes of the Irish resistance.

The other editor who deeply affected me, Scott Newhall, was from an upper crust New England Wasp family, still the second biggest landowners in the Golden State.

From him I learned about power – its uses, abuses and absurdities.

I went to talk with Asner for what turned out to be a good two or three hours as the editor of the B’nai Brith Messenger, the old Jewish newspaper which at that point was nearly a century old.

Such an archetype of a hero and mentor was Lou Grant, I immediately was struck by a more prosaic thought, namely who was this guy? What nationality was he?

Asner answered my question this way. He said he always had thought his face “had the map of Israel written all over it.”

Lou Grant first appeared in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the producers of that series said they always thought of Grant as being a Catholic.

“I felt so automatically recognizable as a Jew,” he said. “I’m always amazed when I’m not spotted as such.”

Asner grew up as a Jewish kid in an intensely gentile society in Kansas City, Kansas. Ever since, “I’ve made sure that nobody was mistaken about my being Jewish.”

In Kansas City, he grew up the son of Morris Asner, once of Vilna, who in the new country had built up a prosperous junk business and had a fruitful marriage to Lizzie. Morris was an observant Jew.

Asner, who was born in 1929 and therefore a product of the Great Depression, did not remain an Orthodox Jew.

Later in life, he joined the Stephan S. Wise Temple. “I went into Reform,” he said, “because I was damned if I would subject myself to Orthodoxy. I have no beef against them, but it’s not for me. Orthodoxy controlled my life. In a world in which we seek to break down the barriers between people, for me Orthodoxy merely raises them. Yet I didn’t want to totally renounce my affiliation with my religion.”

When he said that he had no particular beef with the Orthodox, he spoke the truth. When Chabad’s main West Coast facility burned in mysterious and tragic circumstances, he joined a telethon to get them the money to rebuild it.

Still, he probably would have never gone to a Chabad synagogue. For one thing, even though he felt the need to go to a temple, he was not entirely convinced of the existence of God. “I choose not to expend the energy to approve or deny his existence,” he said. “My own identification with my people is a kind of celebration, an outreach to the future under the title of Judaism, a humanist alternative to Orthodoxy, and the ability to still call myself a Jew, and feel that is something I will not turn my back on, which will be there when and as it needs me and I need it.”

Asner is probably better known for his political than his religious convictions and Asner’s fabled politics are decidedly on the left. “The idea of Jewish fascists enrages me,” he said. “All my life, the term Jewish progressive was a redundant term.” He’s been “somewhat active in the sanctuary movement,” and on considerable occasions, he has had cause to be quite upset with Jews who believe that they owe nothing to those fleeing oppression in Latin America.

When I spoke with Asner, he had recently retired as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He was succeeded in an election by the candidate he backed, Patty Duke, rather than by a candidate backed by the Reaganite faction led by actor Charleton Heston.

It had been duly noted that Ronald Reagan had been president of the same guild, and had used it as a springboard to the U.S. presidency. Asner was every bit as much a political activist as Reagan, and even if he hadn’t made it to the Oval Office, could have quite plausibly become a U.S. Senator or perhaps governor of California, if he had wanted to.

His Jewish politics told the story. He was a big supporter of New Jewish Agenda, affiliated with the Peace Now movement in Israel. He had been picketed by the Jewish Defense League as a result.

He had narrated New Jewish Agenda’s The Shalom Seders, which told of Jewish liberation and its relationship to nuclear disarmament, the link between Jews being led out of bondage in Egypt and women’s liberation, the link of the Warsaw ghetto and peace in the Middle East.

“I’m as dedicated to eradicating the yahoos of Jewry world wide as I am dedicated to removing the yahoos from American life. To me, they go hand in hand–both fights are different parts of my soul,” Asner said.

When I interviewed Asner, he had never been to Israel. He said he planned to one day, but also noted most recently he had been in the (then) Soviet Union and Switzerland, on assignments.

But he had strong opinions about Israel.

He said, “Just as the old saying goes, what does it profit a man if he gains the world but loses his soul – what does it profit Israel if she gains all the arms in the world and only ends up achieving a denial to the Arabs of their rights as a result. More firepower for Israel doesn’t mean a damn thing. Israel already receives enough military aid that the country might sink beneath the weight of the arms.”

Neither did Asner hide the fact that he was peeved with Israel because of its surrogate role for Washington, D.C. He said that much of what Israel had done in Latin America in its covert role as American surrogate, was “reprehensible.” He particularly noted Israel’s actions “in the shady little game that keeps on” with arms for repressive regimes in Latin America.

He also noted that “The Mother Teresa of Israel, Golda Meir, way back suggested that an Arab mother doesn’t grieve for her offspring the same way a Jewish mother does, or words to that effect.”

Asner was concerned because the Jewish political action committees supported any candidate, “be he pederast, a child molester or even an anti-Semite” as long as he endorsed more arms for Israel.

Asner said this situation filled him with loathing. “How can such people be of my blood, seed of my seed, to allow such prejudiced, biased blindness to develop?”

Within the Jewish community, the Jews who have grown wealthier and more conservative, have “outshouted their co-religionists with money” in the organized Jewish community.

Still, he was glad that the demise of Jewish liberalism has been vastly overstated.

His own father was a Republican because he was a businessman, Asner explains. Asner also knew that as he was living under his father’s roof, all he was allowed to live was an Orthodox one.

He also knew the minute he left home, he probably would not keep being Orthodox. His father knew that was most likely going to be true of all his offspring, but in his house it was Orthodox law that prevailed.

And Asner did stray from Judaism once he left Kansas City.

“I went from Kansas City to the University of Chicago, dropped out after a year and a half, being enamored of a non-Jewish girl, and having succumbed to the theater,” he said.

Asner later separated from Nancy, and said he was sorry that he insisted on her conversion. “I’m sorry to say it was something that I needed, to free me. I regret now that I couldn’t have offered marriage without conditions.”

His three children were reared as “mild Jews” because he wanted his own children to “receive that connection with Judaism. As a kid, I felt the occasional barbs of anti Semitism,and that made me rush into Judaism with a passionate fervor, to both defend it and myself.”

On the other hand, to regard other people as inferior or unclean is not something which “at this stage of my life, anyway, I would care to identify with.”

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