As a boy, Mr. Asner became interested in dramatics and worked on a school radio program. After high school he was accepted at the University of Chicago, but dropped out after a year and a half to work at odd jobs — taxi driver, encyclopedia salesman, metal finisher at an auto plant — while he tried to build an acting career.
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In 1951 he was drafted into the Army and sent to France. Mustered out in 1953, he returned to Chicago to work with the Playwrights Theater Club and the Compass Players, a precursor of the Second City comedy troupe. But he soon moved to New York, where he found work onstage (a small part in “The Threepenny Opera” at the Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village and a short-lived Broadway play, “Face of a Hero,” starring Jack Lemmon) and in a handful of television shows.
Moving to California in 1961, he found the acting jobs more lucrative, and was cast in a short-lived CBS political drama, “Slattery’s People,” starring Richard Crenna. He made a point of largely avoiding comedy — out of fear, he said in a 2002 appearance at Vanderbilt University, and because “in those days you got discovered by doing the drama shows as a guest star.” But he agreed to audition for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” because, as he said in an Archive of American Television interview, Lou Grant “was the best character I’d ever been asked to do” in either television or film.
Lou was a hard-drinking, straight-shooting, short-tempered journalist who had tender emotions but did not plan to show them; a strong aura of professional and personal integrity; a fear that he had outlived his era; and “a great common core of honor,” as Mr. Asner told Robert S. Alley and Irby B. Brown, the authors of “Love Is All Around: The Making of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’”
In the post-Lou Grant era, Mr. Asner worked on both screen and stage. He returned to Broadway in 1989 to play the pugnacious Harry Brock opposite Madeline Kahn in a revival of “Born Yesterday.” His last Broadway play was “Grace” (2012), a tale of gospel-themed motels and murder, in which he played an exterminator.
He provided the voice of the lead character in the Oscar-winning animated movie “Up” (2009), about an elderly widower who flies to South America by attaching roughly a zillion colorful balloons to his house. Manohla Dargis’s review in The New York Times, which praised Mr. Asner and the supporting characters — including a portly stowaway scout and several talking dogs — called it “filmmaking at its purest.”