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'Americas in Transition': the issue as Edward Asner sees it

Ed Asner, the actor, is as unrelentingly outspoken as Lou Grant, the character he plays in the CBS series which has just been canceled.

The controversial Mr. Asner, president of the Screen Actors Guild, recently made a speech in which he seemed to be supporting the Salvadoran guerrillas at a time when the official US government position was against them. And according to former SAG president Charlton Heston, Mr. Asner did not make it clear enough that he was speaking for himself, not the union.

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Shortly afterward, CBS announced that it was canceling ''Lou Grant,'' even though it was several Nielsen points ahead of other shows retained on commercial schedules. CBS officials denied that Mr. Asner's politics, or the public's reaction to the controversy, had anything to do with the cancellation. They cited the fact that its audience share was dropping. And although Mr. Asner claims Kimberly-Clark had cancelled a planned ''Lou Grant'' spot commericial, spokesman for both CBS and Kimberly-Clark insist that no commercials scheduled for this season were cancelled.

When Mr. Asner and I spoke by phone recently, I explained to him that I had screened the film Mr. Asner narrates, Americas in Transition (PBS, Monday, 10-10 :30 p.m., check local listings), and felt it was seemingly factual but was perhaps one-sidedly critical in its view of US involvement in Latin America. I asked him how he felt about the fact that WNET in New York was preparing a panel discussion to be aired right after the film to give it more balance. The whole hour is tentatively titled ''The U.S. Role in Latin America.'' At press time the participants had not yet been chosen.

''That's wonderful,'' he said. ''It is a very provocative show and there was a lot of material which could not be incorporated into the half hour. I think it is a great idea to add a half hour to enlarge on what is already there.''

''Americas in Transition'' is a forthright, step-by-step record of US intervention in Latin American affairs. Mr. Asner, in his narration, points out that 12 times in this century the United States has interfered militarily in that part of the hemisphere. The show focuses on our military and covert operations in Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Chile. Over and over again, specialists interviewed stress their feeling that the people of these countries merely want change to improve their economic status and increase political freedom, but they claim the US constantly attributes all change to Soviet influence.

Mr. Asner explains, ''If the show seems heavy-handed and one-sided, you must remember that it was designed primarily as a rebuttal to past right-wing diatribes.''

Were his remarks about El Salvador the result of having done ''Americas in Transition''?

''No. I am a board member of Medical Aid for El Salvador, and my speech was an effort to get contributions in order to buy medical supplies and get them into the provinces of El Salvador, which are out of the control of the junta and which have no medical aid of their own.''

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Does he feel that ''Americas in Transition'' will affect his image as a kind of ''off-the-wall'' political dilettante in some circles?

''I would think it will be of some value to those who are uninformed and who may have prejudged me due to mislabeling in the press. I welcome my identification with the PBS show and hope the information therein will help to enlighten people as to the nature of the revolutionary movements in Latin America.''

Was CBS ill-advised in canceling ''Lou Grant''?

''I think CBS made a mistake. 'Lou Grant' is a fine show with an authentic newspaper background and something important to say, and it could have gone on for a few more seasons. But CBS exhibited a lack of fortitude in wishing to counteract the political attacks which were occurring against me.''

Mr. Asner has been quoted as saying that if the ''Lou Grant'' cancellation indicated a new era of political blacklisting, the blacklisters will find a lot more outspoken people opposed to them.

Is there a parallel in the recent alleged ''blacklisting'' treatment of Vanessa Redgrave?

''Well, in the recent Boston case in which she was not allowed to perform with the Boston Symphony, SAG sent a lengthy and emotional protest calling for her reinstatement. We wanted the world to know that we disapproved.

''In the case of 'Playing for Time,' I thought it was a callous gesture to cast her in the role in the first place, but once the casting was announced, I believed in moving heaven and earth to retain her in that role. In that case, CBS really stood by its guns.''

Is there a chance that CBS may change its mind about ''Lou Grant'' or that it may be picked up by PBS, as in the case of John Houseman's ''Paper Chase''?

''Once a network takes a stand, it cannot change its mind. Even if they have blundered. Once CBS has made the statement that they are canceling Lou Grant because of ratings, not because of politics, they will stick to that decision. But I'd like to see 'Lou Grant' continued somewhere, because it was one of the few shows with something to say. Maybe PBS can do it.''

Is it true that one of Mr. Asner's forthcoming projects is the portrayal of Jacobo Timerman in an NBC adaptation of Timerman's book, ''Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number'' (Random House, paperback price, $2.95), about Argentina's human rights violations and its alleged anti-Semitism?

''Budd Schulberg is now writing it, and I certainly hope it will be aired, despite the criticism of Timerman, which comes mostly from the right-wing people. They have worked very hard to discredit Timerman.''

Does he think NBC will back out of the project, since Ed Asner has become a political hot potato?

''I certainly hope not. But I hope that NBC does it, with or without me.''Is there anything else Mr. Asner would like to say.

''No--but tomorrow morning I am appearing on a local news show to talk about this CBS thing. I have a lot I want to try to say. . . .''

And you can be sure the outspoken, controversial Mr. Asner will say it all.

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