Now that he's got the part, Ed Asner can afford to laugh at the irony of it all, at the cosmic casting joke that has brought him onto the set of CBS' "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill" to play Walter Kovacs, a world-weary conservative ex-cop who will constantly be at odds with theshow's liberal-minded title character, played by Sharon Gless.
"I like the idea of a battle between Rosie and this right-of-center creature," said the 61-year-old Asner, sitting with his feet propped up on a coffee table in his Studio City office. "I like the idea of departing from the avuncular types I've played before."
Producer Barney Rosenzweig and CBS are clearly looking to Asner's marquee value to give "Rosie O'Neill" a boost entering its second season, particularly since the show has been moved to a deathtrap Thursday night time slot where it will go against top-rated "Cheers" on NBC and teen favorite "Beverly Hills 90120" on Fox. And Rosenzweig is looking forward to the attention that's bound to come from casting Asner, an outspoken liberal activist, in the part of a right-wing curmudgeon.
"Everybody knows Ed's political background," Rosenzweig said, "and in a sense, that's the hook."
But a year ago, Asner's political outspokenness wasn't considered much of an asset. When Rosenzweig was beginning to assemble the elements of "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," a dramatic series set in a public defender's office that he had created as a vehicle for Gless, his wife-to-be, he sat down with CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky to talk about casting.
In the course of the meeting Rosenzweig brought up the idea of having Asner play the part of Rosie's boss, Ben Meyer, an Orthodox Jew whose parents had been active socialists in the 1930s.
Rosenzweig had never met Asner, but both were strong public advocates of liberal political causes, outspoken in their criticisms of government policies on issues ranging from homelessness to the environment to U.S. military involvement in Central America. Both had been the subject of right-wing letter-writing campaigns, boycotts and even, in Asner's case, death threats.
"Jeff was intrigued by the idea," Rosenzweig remembered of the meeting when Asner's name was mentioned. "But then I pointed out that some elements of the press who equate me with a certain kind of programming and also thought of Ed in the same way might say, 'Ohhh, it's going to be one of those shows,' that (if we cast Asner) we'd be painted with a very large and liberal brush.
"And both Jeff and I said, 'We don't need that. Let's not do it.' "
Asner didn't know about the meeting. Not at the time. But he wouldn't have been surprised. He said he believes that for much of the last decade, similar meetings have taken place all over Hollywood, casting meetings where his name came up but was quickly passed over.
"There's always a rationale. 'He's too fat. He's too gray. He's too bald,' " Asner said, making the case that for much of the last decade, ever since a much-publicized 1982 speech announcing his support of medical aid for rebels in El Salvador, he has, in effect, been blacklisted.
"It's certainly faded in the last few years, but not totally," said Asner, who has won seven Emmy Awards, five for his portrayal of the gruff but lovable Lou Grant, the only character in television history to have successfully made the transition from a sitcom ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show") to a one-hour dramatic series ("Lou Grant"). "Because there'll always be that person who's not so much afraid of what I have said in the past, but what I might say."
Asner is quick to make the point that he's not looking for pity, that in fact he's worked a lot in the last year, getting a juicy role in Oliver Stone's "JFK" film as well as the part in "Rosie O'Neill." "It's been a fantastic year," he said. But the year before that I worked once, that's it. So yeah, it's had a real effect. I lost jobs.
"What I've realized is that no blacklist works without the cooperation of people who call themselves liberal. There are so many people, particularly in this town, who parade under the banner of being liberal, but who would never dream in a million years of comitting that terrible sin of possibly offending a corporate sponsor or a network head. It's business. It's all business."
Which is why Asner is all the more grateful that Rosenzweig has given him another chance at series television. Asner is still convinced that the 1982 cancellation of "Lou Grant" was directly related to the press conference he held on the State Department steps after announcing formation of Medical Aid for El Salvador. Asner, asked how he'd feel if free elections in El Salvador were to result in a Communist government said, "If it's the government the people of El Salvador choose, then let them have it."
"At that point," Asner said, quietly, remembering, "I felt very strongly that I'd never work again."