Ed Asner As Huey Long, 1976: On Location With The Beloved Star In Baton Rouge, LA
I played his bodyguard in the period CBS TV-movie, "The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish," while also holding down a full-time job behind the mic at a local FM rock station!
This is a vastly-updated “Encore Presentation” of an article originally written, in much shorter form, within the first month of the founding of Front Row & Backstage (late August 2021), at about the time Ed Asner passed (August 29, 2021 at age 91).
At the unfortunate August 29, 2021 passing of Edward Asner, I, like many fans of the venerable actor, sat back and reflected on the joy and appreciation his talent brought to many of our favorite productions on TV and the big screen.
For decades a sought-after dramatic actor, his turn at comedy on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) added a new, and probably unexpected dimension to his career (at the very least, we discovered his Lou Grant character “hated spunk”)!
Well-known roles like the dramatic spin-off Lou Grant series followed Mary, from 1977-1982, as did his participation in the landmark Roots ABC-TV miniseries (which aired in January 1977), and his voice work in 2009’s Up from Pixar.
The Musical Landscape circa ‘76
Sometime in the spring or summer of 1976, I began a job working a daily, 7-midnight shift behind the mic at WFMF-FM 102 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This followed a year at Houston’s top FM rocker, KLOL (about which you can read more here).
A “progressive” rock station, as we called it in the day, our WFMF playlist in any given hour, encouraged airplay of such varied and disparate artists as ZZ Top, Stevie Wonder, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Earth, Wind & Fire, Black Sabbath, Jimmy Buffett, Santana, Alice Cooper, and Aretha Franklin.
In the decades since, it’s jaw-dropping to think that while many of those artists have (or have had) their own dedicated satellite radio stations, most of the musical output by those same artists would now be classified as MOR (middle-of-the-road) or Adult Contemporary, and quite far from anything that might be called “progressive”!
Landing the Kingfish
In August 1976, while doing my shift one evening, I came across a PSA (public service announcement) about a CBS-TV movie, “The Life and Assassination of The Kingfish” coming to Baton Rouge to film for about three months. As it happens, Asner was on hiatus from The Mary Tyler Moore Show during this, its final season.
Mandated by the FCC to read at least one PSA an hour, we had a Rolodex at the console to easily page through all the Red Cross, library, and other community-oriented announcements that passed as suitable PSAs for jocks to read.
“Looking for extras!” the PSA began. Now called “background artists” in this far-more-politically-correct-than-it-needs-to-be century, “extras” were, and still are, a necessary component on film sets and during location shoots.
“CBS is coming to town to shoot a TV-movie on the life of the former governor of Louisiana, Huey ‘The Kingfish’ Long! If you’d like to apply to be an extra, call this number!”
Being 21, and either a glutton for punishment or more ambitious than I thought I ever could be, I called the number. I must’ve gone somewhere to meet someone in the local talent agency contracted by CBS to handle local casting. Assured they’d only be shooting days for the part they had in mind for me, they assigned me to be one of Asner/Long’s small handful of on-screen bodyguards.
This not only meant a gangster-ish, 1920s-era 3-piece suit (and fedora) as my costume, but a realistic (if not real) machine gun as a constant prop! Somewhere, I’ve still got a color snapshot taken of me in complete costume with my foot resting on a period jalopy’s front bumper, machine gun at the ready!
This role added an 8am-6pm-ish daily shoot schedule to my already-packed daily 7-midnight on-air routine at the station! Having a two- to three-hour production schedule (each jock had local commercials to record onto 4-track cartridges used for purchased station air time) after my shift meant I was crawling into bed around 3am each morning, only to get up and be on set for our daily 8am call for filming!
“Every Man a King!”
Off all the days I worked on the TV movie (which aired on CBS sometime in the spring of 1977, and would pop up occasionally as a late night movie on cable), I can’t recall a day working indoors.
They all seemed to be location shoots around Baton Rouge, the state capital. Being autumn (sometime in the September through November ‘76 window), temperatures were a bit milder than they otherwise would be in the dead of summer.
I remember a crowd scene at a train station: We did several takes, each one ending with a shout by the AD (assistant director), “Back to one!,” film parlance for “return to your starting spots.”
As a Long bodyguard, my job on that day, was to help run interference for Long/Asner through a madding throng of Long supporters, made up of several dozen fellow “background artists.” For the final product, I managed to get a brief moment of screen time as I passed before the camera!
A daily occurrence, of course, was a break for lunch. As with all productions, a craft services table was available, too, for scrounging around for fruit, cookies, sodas, and other snacks between scenes. But for meals, the location shoot always had a catering truck, with several cooks, positioned somewhere nearby with white table-clothed tables surrounded by folding chairs.
Only for a couple lunches do I recall sitting directly next to Asner. While certainly a friendly guy, I can’t remember doing anything more with him than small talk. Even if not told directly, it’s common knowledge that the background talent are to keep their distances from the principle actors on sets.
But, when you’re sitting together over lunch, all bets are off!
Every Extra a Star?
Other memorable scenes included two that were shot on the Capitol steps. One, Long’s actual assassination scene, and the other, a speech from the top steps. In the latter, I got rather significant screen time, as my bodyguard character was stationed a step or two directly below, and in front of, the podium!
Few clips from the TV movie are available online. One, just over seven minutes long, can be seen below, and includes two scenes that feature my black-suited visage (with fedora) rather prominently: During a campaign speech by Long/Asner, three bodyguards can be seen directly in front of the stage where Asner is standing.
Our backs are to the stage, of course, as we’re supposed to be keeping a keen watch over the crowd for nefarious characters who may emerge to do Long harm (hey, it’s what we do). I’m the middle of the three bodyguards, visible from the 3:15 mark to 3:30, and again at the 4:49 mark for about ten seconds.
My favorite scene, though, occurs at the 5:19 mark, and ends around 5:26: Long/Asner is standing in the back of his chauffeured 1930s-era limousine, being driven fairly slowly through what I recall as a grassy and bumpy field. The camera is positioned in front of the car, maybe 10-15 yards away. Cheering supporters/extras are following alongside and behind the car, as Asner waves.
As his bodyguard, I’m standing on the car’s driver-side running board, scanning the crowd, as always. The scene, in the seven seconds it plays here, is pretty unremarkable (from one bodyguard’s perspective, anyway).
However, it’s the same scene, played out quite a bit longer—maybe over a minute—during the closing credits that places me front and center, screen-wise, as the car drives to within a few feet of the camera!
As the car approaches, Asner can be seen growing closer, and even more clearly. But, so can I! From my position on the running board, my big, fedora-ed head sometimes eclipses Asner’s, until, at the last frame of film, my face is about all the screen can hold!
In real life, as it turns out, evidence eventually surfaced that suggested Long was accidentally shot by his bodyguards. Proponents of this theory assert that Long was caught in the crossfire as his bodyguards shot his assailant, and a bullet that ricocheted off the Capitol’s marble walls hit him. Well, don’t look at me!
We Kinda Liked Spunk
While this Huey Long portrayal didn’t end up being remembered as Asner’s finest work, he nevertheless entertained many millions as the quintessential and hilarious “hard-nosed newsroom boss with the heart of gold,” along with countless other comedic and dramatic roles that will live on for generations.
RELATED: On location, as an extra, in 1997 with cast and crew of the 20th Century Fox motion picture, “The Newton Boys”:
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