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Six of Ed Asner’s Emmy statues sit haphazardly on the bookshelves of his modest North Hollywood ranch home, like bric-a-brac picked up at the local flea market. The seventh is on the large wooden desk that takes up most of the dining room, propping up a photo of Asner and his now- 25-year-old son Charlie, the youngest of his four children. Handsome, dark-haired and grinning, Charlie sits beside his dad in a fishing boat. “The son of a bitch caught a 180-pound halibut in Alaska,” Asner says, “and I had to reel it in.”
Like much of his conversation, this comment is said with a gruffness that evokes both Lou Grant, the bristly newsman Asner played on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a later spinoff drama, and Carl Fredricksen, the crotchety airborne hero he voiced in the 2009 Oscar-winning animated film Up. But there is undeniable pride beneath the practiced grumpiness, and something else—a delight in describing what seems like an uncomplicated father-son outing.
Things are not so simple. Charlie, like roughly 1.5 million other Americans, is autistic. On the high end of what’s known as “the autism spectrum,” he’s working toward a college degree and has a talent for writing. “He constantly writes haiku, in both English and Japanese,” Asner says. “And he can turn out good prose, but only if you have a pitchfork at his butt and a flamethrower at his groin.” As Asner colorfully suggests, Charlie lacks focus and maturity. He also has the poor social skills that are a hallmark of the developmental disorder. “He’s lonely,” Asner says, “a lonely fellow.”
The 82-year-old actor has a grandson with autism as well, 10-year-old Will, and today Asner is joined by his older son—and Will’s father—Matthew, 49. Although Will can be chatty and charming (“especially with the ladies,” Matthew says), he is far more impaired than his Uncle Charlie. “We’ll give him every tool we can,” Matthew says, “but I’m not sure he’ll ever be able to hold a job or have an independent life.”
Along with sharing the challenges of raising an autistic child—though Asner points out “Matthew’s burden is far greater than anything I’ve had to go through”—father and son also share a determination to make the world a more hospitable place for those with the disorder. Last March, Matthew gave up a successful producing career—his credits include the Showtime mini-series Hiroshima—to become the full-time executive director for Autism Speaks in Southern California. The national nonprofit organization is dedicated to funding autism research and advocating for individuals with autism and their families. Matthew considers his father a partner in these efforts. “People sit up and pay attention when my dad talks about autism, and I want him by my side at events as much as possible,” Matthew says. “Nothing holds me back from asking him to do anything, and I’m sure he would tell me, ‘Don’t hold back.’ ”
Asner has appeared with his son on Dr. Drew and other TV shows, and at Rotary Club meetings and fundraising receptions. In April, he was at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl for the 10th annual Autism Speaks Walk. His team, Asner’s Avengers, raised nearly $63,000. “It’s not easy for him to show up at the walks,” Matthew says. “He doesn’t like the heat, and his hips don’t really work—he’s had four hip surgeries. But his being there is like a gift to people, and they really appreciate his speaking out on behalf of the cause.”
Asner has been speaking out on a wide range of political issues and human rights causes for decades. A two-term president of the Screen Actors Guild, he has received honors that include the Anne Frank Human Rights Award, ACLU’s Worker’s Rights Committee Award and the National Emergency Civil Liberties Award.
“I haven’t the foggiest idea where this comes from,” Asner says of his activism. But a moment later, sitting behind his desk in shorts and a white T-shirt, he reconsiders and suggests that his zeal might be rooted in guilt that dates back to his teen years. When he was a high school football player in Kansas City, Kan., an important game fell on the evening of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Asner’s parents were Orthodox Jews, and his father—“a grim and foreboding man”—forbade him from playing. Asner sneaked out while his father was still at work in the family junkyard and played anyway. His father never confronted him, and Asner never confessed. “It burnt into my conscience,” says Asner, who’s been trying to repent ever since.
While Asner has chosen most of his causes, autism advocacy chose him. Charlie was the product of a casual relationship after the collapse of his first near-30-year marriage. At first he admired what he calls his son’s “wild individuality,” a daredevil on the monkey bars, tireless on the trampoline, and he’d run from table to table at New York’s Russian Tea Room, which eventually got them both booted from the high-end restaurant. “He was always fetching and wonderful, though he exceeded society’s ideas of propriety,” Asner says.
When Charlie had a difficult time fitting in at school and his mother moved him from one school after another, Asner blamed it on her flightiness rather than any possible limitations of his son. To make up for Charlie’s lagging reading skills, Asner bought a phonics book and tutored him in his ABCs. “I didn’t have any inkling then that anything was seriously wrong with Charlie,” Asner says, “but I thought, He’s falling behind and we’re getting into dangerous territory here.” Asner decided to seek full custody. One of the psychologists who assessed Charlie during the custody battle remarked that he seemed to lack empathy. Asner eventually won custody and, prodded by his then-fiancée, had Charlie tested for autism. After two weeks of evaluation at UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment, the doctors determined that the boy, then 7 or 8, like one in every 88 children today, was indeed on the autism spectrum.
With what he describes as his future wife’s “constant yammering and hammering,” they were able to get Charlie the help he needed, a “shadow teacher” who sat behind him in the classroom throughout grade school, helping with both academic and social skills. Today, Charlie attends the University of Southern Connecticut, sharing an off-campus apartment with another student who has autism. (Asner and his wife have since divorced.)
When Asner meets with members of the autistic community, he preaches unity. “What I want to get across is that you are not alone,” he says. “We’re here suffering through the same battles. We are with you, you are with us. At Autism Walks, there’s an amassing of thousands of people of all classes, and the mingling of all of us who are afflicted by the same thing creates a sense of community that we don’t see very much in life.”
His message is a different one when he addresses the general public at Rotary Club meetings or benefits: “Then my main task is to educate people that there is a part of our society made up of this decent wonderful group of people who have a lot to contribute but must have special care.”
What’s more, he says, because autism is a disorder that is largely invisible, it’s important for the “so-called normal” world to recognize that it exists. “We want to reach the cop who comes across an aberrant kid and has a billy club he may decide to use on him,” he says. Asner cites the 2010 case of Reginald Latson, an 18-year-old African-American with mild autism who was sitting outside a Virginia library waiting for it to open when he was approached by cops who’d received an alert that he might have a gun. Latson was searched and no gun was found, but when Latson refused to give his name he was told he was under arrest. That led to a scuffle that left the deputy with a shattered ankle. Latson would be sentenced to 10½ years in prison on charges of assault (later reduced to two).
Though Asner sometimes walks with a cane, he shows no signs of slowing down. In 2009 he began touring the country in the one-man show FDR, which is to resume in January; he has reunited with Betty White, his Mary Tyler Moore co-star, on her TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland; and in March he appeared on the revamped Hawaii Five-O, reprising his art-smuggler role from a 1975 episode in the original series. This fall, he’s retuning to Broadway, for the first time in nearly 25 years, to play an exterminator—a cranky one, of course—opposite Paul Rudd in the dark comedy Grace.
So Asner is not to be believed when he says, “I have nothing else to do,” as a way of dismissing his autism activism. And, says Matthew, “Don’t let him try to pull the wool over your eyes” when he describes himself as a “terrible grandfather” to his seven grandkids. “He’s a wonderful grandfather,” Matthew says. “He may be a grump, but he’s a deceptive grump and the kids can feel his warmth. Will is constantly bringing trinkets home from his house, from stuffed animals to a talking George Bush doll. If Will picks up anything, my dad will say, ‘Do you want it? Take it.’ I have to stop him from giving away his Emmys.”
Among kids, autistic or not, says Matthew, “He’s the grandfather everyone wants.” The way to find him amid the tens of thousands of people at an Autism Walks event? He’s the one in the middle of a huddle of children, giving out hugs and roughhousing. “My dad can give adults chills with a glare,” Matthew says, “but kids get him. They understand his honesty and his playfulness.” And, of course, his love.