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TV legend and the most honored male performer in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awards (seven, in case you were wondering), Ed Asner, passed away at the age of 91 in August 2021, leaving behind a legacy that includes iconic performances on shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant, as well as a number of film roles, including those in Up and Elf.
In honor of his passing, we’ve put together a list of great Ed Asner movies and TV shows and how you can watch them right now. There’s a lot to unpack as we pay our respects and look back on Asner’s most memorable characters, so let’s get started.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970 - 1977)
Revolutionary for its time, The Mary Tyler Moore Show followed Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore), a single woman who's the associate producer of the fictional WJM-TV's Six O’Clock News, as she navigated her professional and personal lives. On the show, Richards is joined by producer Lou Grant (Ed Asner), a tough-as-nails newsman with a heart of gold who has a no-nonsense approach to the world of broadcast journalism.
Why it’s worth checking out: Besides being one of the most iconic sitcoms in the history of television and breaking down multiple barriers for female-led programs in general, The Mary Tyler Moore Show showcases, perhaps, Ed Asner's most iconic character, a portrayal that earned him three Primetime Emmy Awards. And, since Lou Grant, the show’s dramatic spinoff, isn’t available anywhere online (at least for now), this is the best place to see the grumpy newsman in action.
Following the death of his wife, 78-year-old widower Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) grows tired and frustrated with the world (and himself) and decides to finally fulfill the dream he and Ellie had been planning since childhood: travel to Paradise Falls in South America. But, instead of flying or traveling by boat, Carl, and 8-year-old stowaway, Russell (Jordan Nagai), embark on the epic journey to the mythical wonder by attaching hundreds of balloons to his house. After landing in the scenic location, Carl comes face-to-face with wonders and dangers he could have never imagined, in Up.
Why it’s worth checking out: Ed Asner was no stranger to voice-over work when he signed on to star in Up, but his turn as the crotchety recluse will more likely than not go down as his most memorable and emotional such role. Released in the middle of a series of Pixar’s best movies, Up made us laugh, cry, and took us to a magical land that many of us continue to revisit year after year.
The 2003 modern Christmas classic Elf centers on Buddy Hobbs, a.k.a. “Buddy the Elf,” a human who snuck into Santa’s (Ed Asner) bag when he was just a baby at an orphanage and was raised at the North Pole. When Buddy finally discovers (as an adult) that he is not actually an elf, he sets off for New York City to find his father, a work-obsessed children’s book published named Walter Hobbs (James Caan). What follows is a hilarious and oftentimes emotional journey to help his long-lost father find the holiday spirit.
Why it’s worth checking out: It’s a toss up between Ed Asner and Richard Attenborough in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street for the best portrayal of Santa Claus in the past 30 years, but Asner’s version of the old St. Nick does a tremendous job of finding the perfect balance of cheerfulness and cynicism. Even though he’s only in a few scenes, Asner makes the most of every second of screen-time.
The 1977 landmark television event Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton, John Amos) from the time he was a young man taken from his home in Gambia and sold into slavery in the American South. Over the course of the eight-episode miniseries, Roots explores Kinte’s time in enslavement as well as focusing on his descendants and how they hold on to his legacy.
Why it’s worth checking out: Ed Asner won a Primetime Emmy Award for his portrayal of Thomas Davies, the conflicted captain of the slave ship Lord Ligonier that crossed the Atlantic Ocean to deliver hundreds of enslaved Africans to America on a three-month journey. Though not the most savory of characters, Asner’s performance adds weight to the moral dilemma Davies, a fundamentalist Christian, faces on the journey and the task he’s carrying out.
Rich Man, Poor Man (1976)
The 1976 ABC miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, follows members of the impoverished German-American Jordache brothers as they take diverging paths to support themselves and fulfill the American Dream. Rudolph (Peter Strauss) and Thomas Jordache (Nick Nolte) couldn’t be any more different, as the former creates a successful business and political career for himself while the latter enters the world of boxing to make a name for himself.
Why it’s worth checking out: Besides the noteworthy performances by co-leads Strauss and Nolte, Rich Man, Poor Man also features Ed Asner as their father, Ael Jordache, and won a Primetime Emmy Award for his portrayal of the tough-as-nails figure.
Cobra Kai (2018 - Present)
Set 34 years after the events of The Karate Kid and Johnny Lawrence’s (William Zabka) defeat at the hands of Daniel LaRusso’s (Ralph Macchio), Cobra Kai shows just how the fortunes of the one-time bitter enemies have reversed since high school. Following a series of poor life choices, Johnny puts a plan in motion to return the Cobra Kai dojo to its former glory, but only if his demons and past relationships don’t bring it all crashing down.
Why it’s worth checking out: Ed Asner shows up in the first and third seasons of Cobra Kai as Sid Weinberg, Johnny’s wealthy, antagonistic stepfather who makes it a point to hold his wealth and power over his step-son, whom he despises. Asner’s portrayal of the character helps show why Johnny turned out the way he did in high school with his constant berating.
El Dorado (1966)
In Howard Hawks’ 1966 western classic El Dorado, cutthroat businessman Bart Jason (Ed Asner) wants a piece of land belonging to the MacDonald family so he can claim it as his own. To carry out his dastardly plan, Jason hires a group of bandits to come into town and run the family out, since the town’s sheriff is too drunk and compromised to do anything about it. But, then Cole Thornton (John Wayne) and Alan “Mississippi” Traherne (James Caan) come in to right the wrongs of the injustice in El Dorado.
Why it’s worth checking out: Ed Asner plays one of the all-time great western villains in El Dorado, giving a menacing and forceful performance as the tyrannical and greedy Bart Jason. This makes the film’s heroes — Cole Thornton and Mississippi — look all the more noble when they come strolling into town.
Oliver Stone’s 1991 epic political thriller JFK dives into the investigation into the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, led by Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). Set years after JFK was shot, killed, and buried, the movie explores various conspiracies that spawned from national tragedy, one Garrison doesn’t fully believe.
Why it’s worth checking out: Ed Asner shows up as Guy Banister, an FBI employee, New Orleans police officer, and private investigator who many believe played a role in JFK’s assassination and alleged cover-up. There’s one scene in particular where a drunk and paranoid Banister severely beats Jack Martin (Jack Lemmon) with the butt of his gun after a mental breakdown that really drives home the character’s insanity.
Too Big To Fail (2011)
The 2011 HBO film Too Big to Fail serves as shocking dramatization of the events that preceded the 2008 financial crisis and the major players who attempted to save the failing American housing crisis that led to one of the worst economic downturns and cultural shifts in the country’s history.
Why it’s worth checking out: The Too Big to Fail cast is, from top to bottom, stacked with outstanding and talented actors. With William Hurt as U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Billy Crudup as Federal Reserve Bank President Timothy Geithner, Paul Giamatti as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and Ed Asner as Warren Buffett, there’s star power around every corner. Asner’s portrayal of the surprisingly modest and prolific investor is as good as anything else he’s done in his esteemed career.
Spider-Man (1994 - 1998)
For people of a certain age, there are few animated series as good as Spider-Man, which ran from 1994 to 1998 and featured everything young comic book fans would want in a Saturday morning adaptation of Marvel’s resident web-slinger.
Why it’s worth checking out: Spider-Man happens to feature, arguably, the best version of J. Jonah Jameson thanks to brilliant voice work by Ed Asner. Throughout the show’s run, Asner’s version of Spider-Man’s biggest enemy/fan finds himself in the middle of multiple iconic storylines, including the “Jigsaw Jameson” episode where he stops being an editor and becomes a dogged reporter like the old days.
After going through all of these movies and TV shows, it’s easy to see why Ed Asner remained such a driving force in Hollywood for decades. And, it’s safe to say we’ll be feeling his impact for years to come. Maybe now we can get Lou Grant streaming somewhere so a younger generation can watch one of the best newsmen in action.
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Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.