Whether Ed Asner is best known as an Emmy-winning actor or as an actor involved in liberal causes is open to debate. But there's no debate that his activism has affected his image and his career. And his is not a path he'd recommend for all actors.

"Well, you have to make a choice," he said, "If you want to get in trouble, then you'll open your mouth.

"But there's only so much you can do. And if you think you can do greater good by your acting, then stay that way. If you feel that you can buttress your acting by being a citizen, then you'll do it. I think it's a hard decision to make."

However, the former co-star of "Mary Tyler Moore" and former president of the Screen Actors Guild said he didn't make a conscious decision to become a political figure, let alone such a polarizing one.

"I first got involved with El Salvador," said Asner, who spoke out against the Reagan administration's policies in that country. "I didn't know I was getting politically involved. I thought I was speaking about humanity. But it became political.

"But as soon as you discover that you've been political, you have to be prepared to either run back quickly . . . or prepare to walk into the wind."

And he said he has no personal regrets about becoming politically active. "Never for myself. Only for the people I put out of work," he said.

(To this day, Asner believes that his series "Lou Grant" was canceled not because of its ratings but because of his political activities.)

Asner is not, of course, the only actor identified with issues and politics.

"One of the things that amazes me is the phenomenal success that Martin Sheen has enjoyed no matter how many times he's been busted," he said with a laugh. "And that is truly a unique creature.

"On the other hand, I take a lot of my cues from Mike Farrell, who is a wonderful contributor to society. And Susan Sarandon. People like that. But they are few and far between, and I think they accept the load and accept whatever the consequences may be."

And he's by no means suggesting that other actors follow in his footsteps and step into political minefields.

"You've got to reach that dividing line. And it's a very huge Grand Canyon," Asner said. "When the moment happens . . . you decide which way you're going to go. And a lot of times you haven't the foggiest idea what the fallout will be. And you'll always be surprised.

"And, at the the same time, you may become proud."

TRADING PLACES: In an age when infotainment dominates what used to be the TV news business, I guess it's not a big surprise that Katie Couric and Jay Leno are going to be swapping places on Monday, May 12 — she'll host "The Tonight Show"; he'll co-anchor "The Today Show."

I'm sure she'll do fine, and he probably will, too. But it does seem a blatant admission that "Today" isn't a news show, it's a talk show.

We all knew that, anyway, but NBC has been loathe to admit it. Until now.

WHAT A DOPE: Hayley Arp, the woman who will choose from one of 20 masked men in Fox's "Bachelor" rip-off "Mr. Personality," told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she came to depend on the show's host, Monica Lewinsky.

"There were so many times where we got together and she really helped me with my decision," Arp said.

Oh, yes. The infamous former White House intern is certainly the one any thinking person would turn to for advice about relationships and dating.

And you thought Evan Marriot ("Joe Millionaire") was dumb.

E-MAIL: pierce@desnews.com