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Seven-Time Emmy Award Winner Ed Asner On His Life of Political Activism and His Opposition to War

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On Sunday, thousands will gather in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and over a dozen cities to oppose an invasion of Iraq and take the “Not in Our Name” pledge.

Seven-time Emmy Award-winning actor Ed Asner is one of them. Born in Kansas City in 1929, he started his performance career as an announcer for his high school radio station. He then moved from stage work in the 1950s to television in the '60s. He won several Emmys for portraying the character of Mary Tyler Moore's boss Lou Grant in the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977) and a crusading newspaperman for the spinoff series “Lou Grant” (1977-1982).

While “Lou Grant” was in production, Asner was twice elected the head of the Screen Actors Guild, a position that he frequently used as a forum for his political opinions — notably, his opposition to U.S. involvement in Central America. When Asner suggested that each guild member contribute toward opposing the country’s foreign policy, he clashed with Charlton Heston, who seized Asner’s office from him in a highly publicized power play. Though no tangible proof has ever been offered, it was Asner’s belief that Lou Grant was canceled in 1982 due to his political beliefs and not because of dwindling ratings. Asner is outspoken in his opposition to the Bush administration and its so-called war on terror.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, October 6th, on the anniversary of the bombing of Afghanistan, thousands will gather in New York City, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Wisconsin, over a dozen cities, will take part in the Not in Our Name pledge. Among them will be five-time Emmy Award-winning actor and activist Ed Asner. Ed Asner has won his Emmys for portraying the character of Mary Tyler Moore’s boss Lou Grant and the crusading newspaperman for the spinoff series, Lou Grant. Ed Asner’s public persona is also that of a crusader, a celebrity activist, who was a two-term president of the Screen Actors Guild. And he joins us in our firehouse studio now.

How does it feel to be back in a newsroom, Ed?

ED ASNER: Very, very casual, very easy. Very nice. I’m not used to these things, though.

AMY GOODMAN: The headphones. You’re used to having them in the ear, as opposed to people seeing them?

ED ASNER: Yeah, I get it written, written pieces, rather than over these things.


ED ASNER: They hide my beautiful protracted ears.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’re welcome to take them off. But can you talk about why you’re in New York right now?

ED ASNER: I’m here to participate in a performance tonight at Cooper Union. We are doing various selections. I am doing a piece with Wally Shawn and André Gregory from Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? There are many other performers. Hopefully Danny Glover will be showing up. And it is showing our unity and our feeling for Not in Our Name.

AMY GOODMAN: What is Not in Our Name?

ED ASNER: It’s merely a declaration, a very calm, peaceful declaration by many gifted people, many thousands of people, to protest the headlong rush to a military performance by this country — by this administration, I should say. It’s not by the country, because I don’t think anybody’s asked the country. They use polls, which can be, of course, faked or triggered to show the results that the poll takers wish to show. And this is to demonstrate that these acts will not be done in our name, we do not sign on to these acts, such as a unilateral invasion of Iraq, and to the abrogation of civil liberties in this country to pursue these warlike acts by this administration.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a long history of dissent, which is very significant in Hollywood. When you were doing Lou Grant, you were twice elected head of the Screen Actors Guild. And you were very vocal in your opposition to U.S. involvement in Central America. When you suggested that each guild member contribute toward critiquing U.S. foreign policy, you clashed head on with Charlton Heston, who later became head of the National Rifle Association. Can you talk about those days and what it meant for you to speak out and take on Charlton Heston?

ED ASNER: Well, it was quite an experience. I was naive up until that point and became fairly embattled and intelligent over the years from those battles. I must say that while I was president — I took the presidency in 1981, and Lou Grant was canceled in 1982, May of 1982. So, while I was president of the Screen Actors Guild, I did not have a show left, actually. It was canceled after five years.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think it was canceled?

ED ASNER: A lot of it was due to the announcement that we made in Washington of the formation of Medical Aid for El Salvador, designed to help the people of El Salvador, who were not getting medical aid from their government.

AMY GOODMAN: This at a time during the Reagan-Bush years.

ED ASNER: Exactly, exactly. It created a storm of outrage, including Mr. Heston’s, although he said this had nothing to do with it. He was making all of his noise because we were admitting extras into the Screen Actors Guild and he was offended by that. So that various sponsors pulled out of the sponsorship of the Lou Grant show because of my announcement on El Salvador. There were a couple of congressmen who wanted to boycott the show and sponsored petitions governing that. And yet, the ratings were still high enough not to warrant cancellation. So, it was a peremptory cancellation by the network. And it smelled.

AMY GOODMAN: Did it make you think about or reconsider voicing your opposition to powerful U.S. administrations?

ED ASNER: At the time, yeah, I carried a great deal of guilt, first of all, because of threats to my family and the cancellation of the show, which involved the employment of a couple of hundred people, plus the fact of canceling a show which at that time was probably presenting more ideas than any other show on television, a forum for ideas that you couldn’t find elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to just switch your mics to give you a better one. We’re talking to Ed Asner. Ed is a longtime actor, activist, a former head of the Screen Actors Guild. And now you’re speaking out again. You’re speaking out against U.S. policy when it comes to the bombing of Iraq. Can you talk about what you’re doing?

ED ASNER: Well, I’m opposed to the whole attitude on Iraq. It seems that country has a tendency to only work out of war. That is the only way we can prosper or the only way we can function. We fought the Cold War for lo those many years, 50 years, and we were armed and constantly improving our weaponry at the time. And we always had that external enemy. Then we had Vietnam and the domino effect. Then, when Vietnam faded, the Reagan people manufactured Grenada, who was probably on the verge of invading the United States at any time; the same time, the Central American horror of aiding and abetting military juntas who kill their citizens at will. Then there was Panama, where we bounced, for the first time, one of the chiefs of a country who had aided us in the past, just as we’re about to bounce Saddam Hussein now. So, we have to keep manufacturing foreign enemies to keep our military-industrial complex going — and, frankly, in this case, to save George Bush’s ass.

I’m shocked at the congressional leadership doing what they did in today’s news. And I would like to personally say that whoever votes for this, I will do everything I can to defeat them in the next election. And I think our purpose is to alert the American people to, please, make those congressmen realize that they are alienating themselves from you by this precipitous, headlong rush to invade a country. The last time we invaded Iran [sic], we used 700,000 people.


ED ASNER: Iraq. I mean, they’re interchangeable. After Iraq, they’ll probably start on Iran. Seven hundred thousand people. Two hundred thousand of those people, American servicepeople, suffered Gulf War syndrome. They are still sick, both from the consuming by fire of chemical weaponry, by the uranium-tipped missiles that we destroyed Iraqi armor with, by friendly fire, you name it. That’s one-third of the force used. Those are terrible statistics. And we’re about to begin again, achieving those terrible statistics. Five hundred thousand children have died in Iraq since the embargo has been established. Five thousand children die every month. We’re not going to improve those figures.

AMY GOODMAN: Ed Asner, you come from an industry — you come from Hollywood — that is increasingly cooperating with the Pentagon. You have movies like Black Hawk Down, which the Pentagon poured millions of dollars of resources into troops, weapons, which rewrites the history of what happened in Somalia.


AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts on this, and now Karl Rove going out to Hollywood to up the relationship, to further the — what you could call cooperation or collaboration?

ED ASNER: Well, I believe it all goes back to — it was either Khrushchev or — I think it was Khrushchev who said, “Give me Hollywood, and I can conquer the world.” And I guess General Rove feels that it’s certainly worth giving presidential boosting to Hollywood to follow the party line.

AMY GOODMAN: How much dissent is there inside?

ED ASNER: In Hollywood? Oh, there’s a great deal of dissent. Nobody surfaced yet. I mean, with Congress behaving the way it is, it’s no wonder actors are not eager to jump up and fly in the face of Congress. Fly in the face of a president is one thing. Fly in the face of Congress, that can mean investigations, and beyond the presidential types, and perhaps future persecution. So actors are very low-keyed until they feel they can’t take it anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve taken on Charlton Heston for years. He became head of the NRA. What does it — does that contest continue, not even just between you and him, but between these two different camps?

ED ASNER: Yeah, the camps have changed colors, and then they blend and merge and change constantly. There are two different camps now, but they’re very different camps from what Charlton Heston once proclaimed. Charlton liked to think that he owned the union. And though he was president emeritus, he was always happy to come in and throw his weight around and hopefully influence decisions of the guild. With my presidency, that was not easy to achieve. So we became enemies.

Right now I wouldn’t say where he would stand in terms of the two opposing camps. But an election was just held. One camp won, and we will now see how they handle the affairs of the union. And the camp that was defeated will wait and see how much is given away by the union and how precious and valuable those things may be. And in a year’s time, they’ll be back to fight again.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to actor Ed Asner here in our firehouse studio in New York, blocks from ground zero. When we come back, Ed will be joined by others who are participating in the Not in Our Name protests and events that are taking place over these next few days. This is our series on art and revolution. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now!, Resistance Radio. I’m Amy Goodman. “Quiet Warz,” Warclub, as we go to Saul Williams reading the “Pledge of Resistance,” that has been appearing in different newspapers around the country, the latest in The New York Times just a week ago. Saul Williams reading “Not in Our Name.”

SAUL WILLIAMS: “The Pledge to Resist.”

We believe that as people living
in the United States it is our
responsibility to resist the injustices
done by our government, in our names

Not in our name
will you wage endless war
there can be no more deaths
no more transfusions of blood for oil

Not in our name
will you invade countries
bomb civilians, kill more children
letting history take its course
over the graves of the nameless

Not in our names
will you erode the very freedoms
you have claimed to fight for

Not by our hands
will we supply weapons and funding
for the annihilation of families
on foreign soil

Not by our mouths
will we let fear silence us

Not by our hearts
will we allow whole peoples
or countries to be deemed

Not by our will
and Not in our name

We pledge resistance
We pledge alliance with those
who have under come attack
for voicing opposition to the war
or for their religion or ethnicity

We pledge to make common cause
with the people of the world
to bring about justice, freedom and peace
Another world is possible
and we pledge to make it real

AMY GOODMAN: Saul Williams reading the Not in Our Name Pledge.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

Musician and Playwright Oscar Brown Jr., Palestinian American Poet Suheir Hammad and Miles Solay of Refuse & Resist Join Ed Asner for a Roundtable Discussion on the Not in Our Name Movement

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