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ED ASNER: THE 1980S HAVEN'T BEEN KIND TO TV'S 'LOU GRANT'

What was Ed Asner, ever-famous as TV's gruff Lou Grant and currently starring on Broadway, doing in Montreal recently playing a puddle in a kiddie's show?

"It's a nice-paying gig, it sounded cute and interesting, and I've never been to Montreal," said Asner, 59, shortly after completing the last 13 episodes of "Happy Castle," produced by Cinar Films.It is a children's series in which Asner, seen only as a shimmering reflection in a pool of water, plays the part of "The Well of What in the Land of Betwixt." If it sounds like a bit of a comedown from his TV glory days, well, so be it.

"I've got bills to pay," says Asner affably, and takes a bite of his pancakes.

In fact, Asner sounded as if his Montreal sojourn was a welcome relief from the Broadway role - in what seems like perfect casting - as Harry Brock (a role originated by Paul Douglas) in Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday," with Madeline Kahn as Billie Dawn. It sounds great on paper, but it has been torture in practice; Kahn has been warmly praised, but Asner, in his own words, has been "crucified" by the critics, who found him too loud and overbearing.

These are not the golden days of Ed Asner. Not that he conveys an ounce of self-pity - in fact, he seems to greet the current pressures on him with an "I'll get over this" stoicism.

And he is as frank, forthright and likable as Lou Grant at his best. Still, you can't help feeling things should be a little easier.

On the personal level, his oblique reference to the "bills to pay" may refer to his divorce three years ago and the surprise discovery that his relationship with another woman had made him a father the fourth time over.

But the professional level has been just as eventful, specifically when "Lou Grant" was canceled in 1982.

Asner feels "Lou Grant" was canceled because of his involvement as the national president of the Screen Actors Guild (from 1981-86), in which he led the membership on a strike and publicly opposed actors such as Charlton Heston on issues such as the U.S. government's involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

"My conflict with the Reagan administration damaged my career," he says. "I know I was blacklisted for saying some of the things I believe in."

He still says them and still believes in them. A few days after leaving Montreal, he flew to Washington to join the American Civil Liberties Union as its members delivered petitions to Congress protesting against the attorney general's involvement in the abortion issue.

The week before, he walked in a march calling for peace in the Middle East.

In addition to being a founding member of organizations such as Medical Aid for El Salvador, he has narrated documentaries or done public service announcements on such topics as AIDS, battered women, rape treatment centres and the call for a nuclear freeze.

Was this a case of the role of Lou Grant - the caring, passionately involved news hound - affecting the actor playing him? Asner says no but acknowledges that the role gave him powerful credibility as a left-wing spokesman.

"I was always involved in these issues," he says, "but nobody gave a . . . . until `Lou Grant.' Celebrities attract attention, and everybody wants to use them. Entertainers or sports figures who won't embarrass you - it's a great catch."

But it hasn't turned his head toward another role.

"To be a politician requires an unbelievable collection of virtues," he says.

Besides, "I realized there is the dilettante in me. There are too many issues I'd have to stand up for that I wouldn't give two diddlies about representing."

As an actor, there has been work that he hasn't given two diddlies about doing, "but at least, when it's over, it's over."