Asner portrays an ‘Olympian’ president in ‘FDR’

Legendary TV actor Ed Asner performs in the one-man show  ‘FDR.’ 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

This story was originally published on April 23, 2014, and is being republished to honor Ed Asner. 

To describe iconic actor Ed Asner as “larger than life” is an understatement. Asner won seven Emmy Awards (and 16 nominations) for his role as Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoff, “Lou Grant,” as well as five Golden Globe Awards. He also is a member of the TV Academy Hall of Fame.

Asner will be in St. Louis this weekend to reprise his solo show “FDR” in a benefit for the New Jewish Theatre. The one-man show is based on the late Dore Schary’s 1958 Tony Award winning play “Sunrise at Campobello,” which ran for 70 weeks on Broadway and was adapted for the screen. Both starred Ralph Bellamy in the lead role.

Asner grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Kansas City and is known for his passion for social justice and progressive causes.

The Jewish Light caught up with Asner for a phone interview before his St. Louis visit. From the outset, he was good-humored, friendly and candid in his replies.

I admire that you keep such an active schedule of acting and other work in your 80s.

I am 84, and when you keep working, it keeps you young.

President Roosevelt has been portrayed by Ralph Bellamy in the film version of Schary’s play and by Bill Murray in the more recent film, “Hyde Park on Hudson.” What was your take on these portrayals?

Ralph Bellamy, like the FDR many of us remember, had a certain robust physicality about him that rang more true than Bill Murray’s portrayal in which he appeared very frail.

One of the reasons I so admired Roosevelt, aside from his political and leadership genius, was evident from pictures of him, even after he contracted polio. He was a godlike creature. He was Olympian in his build and capability. The day he came down with polio, he had been running, swimming, and sweating and working all over the place. So, he was a hell of a man.

Do you think that FDR’s polio made him more compassionate toward people less fortunate than himself?

Yes, but it also gave him the drive to press forward. I think he wanted to prove that he was still a powerful man, and his achievement in politics created his activities. It gave him goals, aims, and he achieved great success. Granted, he was in a lot of pain, but he never appeared to the public as a so-called “cripple.”

FDR was immensely popular in the American Jewish community, and when he died, many of his supporters felt as if God had fallen from the sky. Did you have a similar reaction?

Exactly. I was a sophomore in high school, and I heard the news. And indeed it was like God. The Father had died.

Yet, as much as FDR was admired, he has more recently been strongly criticized for not doing enough to rescue the Jews during the Holocaust. How do you as an actor with a strong Jewish background process such criticism?

That’s a lot of B.S. For the time, he did quite a lot. Remember, this was a very anti-Semitic country during the war years, relatively speaking. He had to make his moves carefully. He had to be cautious so as not to engender further anti-Semitic reaction. Eleanor fought for it, and sadly, he did not oblige her. I must say, having read about four or five FDR biographies, neither one did as much as they could have for Jews and blacks. After the full evil of the Axis became widely known, assistance did come forward, but too late to save as many as could have been saved.

Playwright Dore Schary believed that Roosevelt did the best he could with the resources he had, regarding saving Jews from the Holocaust. Do you agree?

FDR saved the American people twice. He saved us from the Great Depression, and his actions put us in the best position to fight and defeat the Axis and thwart their goal to kill all the Jews. Under FDR, we were the “Arsenal of Democracy,” helping Britain and Churchill. But at the same time, Russia contributed 30 million lives to the war effort, which defeated Hitler. When Hitler stupidly invaded Russia, he probably thought he was invincible.

In practicing for the role of FDR on stage, did you go read his speeches and listen to recordings of his voice? Did you try to duplicate his amazing voice?

I tried up to an extent. I realized that this short, pudgy Jew from Kansas City could not achieve full verisimilitude in my portrayal of FDR. The best compliments I have received were those from people who have seen it, that when the play begins, they “hear” FDR, and by the end of the play, they saw him.

The play apparently does not present a rose-tinted, completely idealized version of FDR, and in fact deals with the affair he had with Lucy Mercer. How is that handled in the play?

Briefly. But it is dealt with. As you know, people are like icebergs. They reveal only what they need to reveal. Relationships like the one FDR had with Lucy Mercer was like the tip of the iceberg, but it was part of his life. The original affair was probably caused by the lack of a sexual relationship between FDR and Eleanor, and it did stop for years. But it was revealed that Lucy Mercer was there with FDR at Warm Springs, Ga., when he was posing for a portrait when he suddenly had a stroke and died.

You grew up Jewish in Kansas City, where earlier this month a white supremacist is suspected in the shooting deaths of three people at a Jewish Community Center and Jewish retirement home, none of whom turned out to be Jewish. Your reaction?

I think one has to have a macabre sense of humor to see the irony of this horrible act. Nothing shows the stupidity of the mentality of the Nazis and fascists than a man so driven by hatred against Jews that he would kill people because they were in a Jewish setting – and it turns out they were not Jewish. It shows the blind hatred of the Nazis, which FDR was so brilliant in opposing.