HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- "I thought my award days were over," said a surprised Ed Asner on hearing he would receive the 2001 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.
The much-honored Asner -- seven Emmys and 16 nominations -- has more than 100 TV acting credits and as many movies in his 40-year Hollywood career.
If ever there were a journeyman actor it's the bulky, balding Kansas City-born Asner who already is a member of the Television Hall of Fame for his unforgettable characterization of Lou Grant -- first in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and then in the abbreviated "Lou Grant" series.
A feisty, politically active actor who presided as president of the Screen Actors Guild for two consecutive terms (1981-1985), Asner is a war-horse union man and liberal idealist.
He will collect his life achievement award March 10, 2002, at the Actors Guild's Awards telecast.
"I'm already thinking about my acceptance speech," Asner said with his infectious grin.
"Maybe I'll say, like Sally Field did, 'You like me! You really like me!'
"Or perhaps I'll thank the guild and say, 'I'm just glad to be alive.'"
At 71, the burly, affable Asner is very likely to be alive and kicking for another couple of decades to work in movies and TV, in drama and comedy.
"I've loved my career as an actor," he said. "It's a wonderful, decent way of life. It's nice to have audiences love and applaud you.
"I enjoy movie work, but doing a television series is the best possible situation for an actor who loves living and working in Southern California.
"If you're in a good series it's like having a nine-to-five job, at home every night with your family and in a half-hour comedy series you have a working family too. It's great.
"But half-hour comedies aren't what they used to be. The ratings aren't as good, and the premises doesn't measure up.
"If the right show came along, however, I'd like to do another series. Of course I would."
Asner is enthusiastic about a new movie scheduled for later this year. It's titled "Mission Brendon."
Said Asner, "It's a Paramount picture and I play a father who fought in World War II. During the Vietnam war one of his sons is decorated in Vietnam and another is a conscientious objector who goes to Canada.
"The father and both sons go to Vietnam to find the remains of his third son who was killed in battle. It's a story of family bonding."
It also offers a degree of controversy, which suits Asner very well.
A longtime activist, Asner spoke out against American foreign policy in Central America, setting off a verbal battle within and without the guild over his suggestion that guild financial aid be sent to insurgents.
The SAG award is given to performers whose contributions to the community and to society surpass their professional work.
A passionate supporter of liberal causes, Asner lends his name and energy to many organizations: Defenders of Wildlife, Peace Now, the ACLU, Food First, Socialists of America, Amnesty International and others.
His TV awards include the Anne Frank Human Rights Award, the Eugene V. Debs Award, the Organized Labor Publications Humanitarian Award, the American Civil Liberties Union's Worker's Right Committee Golden Lunchbox Award and the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal.
Asner is a frequent speaker on labor issues and is an ally to the acting industry's older artists.
His moxie was clearly demonstrated 20 years ago when he accused the powerful CBS network of canceling "Lou Grant" over his public dispute about American policy regarding Central American politics.
On other occasions he could be as full of bombast as editor Lou Grant at his most authoritarian and as caustic as Grant reprimanding an errant Mary Richards.
Yet out of character and the public eye Asner is something of an avuncular huggy-bear; a kindly, warm, amusing man whose inner strength is not apparent.
What isn't surprising is Asner's professional versatility. He plays comedy and drama with equal aplomb, always managing to be convincing in his roles.
He often plays rough-and-tumble characters with no trace of the soft-hearted man behind the twin masks of the professional actor.
Asner and his wife Cindy (Gilmore) make their home in the San Fernando Valley where the actor has an active production office.
He was previously married to Nancy Sykes for 31 years and they are the parents of three children.
Among Asner's most memorable performances were those in the TV mini-series "Roots," "Thunder Alley," and in the movie "Fort Apache, The Bronx" in 1981.
But he is one of those rare actors who created his own doppelganger in Lou Grant, a character with whom Ed Asner will always be equated.
Grant was so convincing he became Asner's alter ego, or perhaps it is the other way around.