Ed Asner takes on presidential role as FDR in upcoming one-man show

Ed Asner as FDR

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Many of us think Lou Grant when we hear the name Ed Asner; after all, he played the legendary editor for 12 years on two iconic TV shows. But on Saturday at Lindenwood University, the seven-time Emmy-winning actor takes on another legendary figure, that of Franklin D. Roosevelt in a one-man show based on Dory Schary’s 1958 Broadway hit “Sunrise at Campobello.”

In “FDR,” Asner leads audiences on a journey through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House years, from the depths of the Great Depression, to Pearl Harbor, and World War II. The show also explores FDR’s battle with polio, his marriage to Eleanor and his affair with Lucy Mercer and the manipulation of Congress to get the draft.

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In a recent, wide-ranging interview with the Jewish Light, Asner, who will turn 82 on the 15th of this month, talks about growing up Orthodox in the Midwest, his decades-long acting career, politics, journalism and the role of “that man in the White House,” scorned by many and admired by most.

You were born in Kansas City, Mo. to Jewish immigrant parents and grew up in Kansas City, Kan. Was there much of a Jewish community there when you were growing up?

No, there were only about 100 families. My dad knew a landsman (countryman) from Kansas City so he came there. He was a young buck and started a junkyard.

And you grew up Orthodox?

Roughly. I would call it Midwest Orthodox.

What does that mean?

My dad didn’t walk to shul. The distances were too great. We kept kosher. There was one Jewish butcher in Kansas City at that time. My first lehrer (teacher) at Hebrew school couldn’t even speak English. To discipline the boys he’d beat them on the back with the flat side of a yardstick.

Did you come to St. Louis much as a kid?

I remember coming for an AZA (Aleph Zadik Aleph) convention, the Jewish fraternity for young boys… I was dazzled by the big city of St. Louis and what big city boys were like.

Did you go to University of Chicago with the intention of becoming an actor?

You had to take required courses. While doing so, I tried out for a play and ended up doing the lead. It hooked me. After about a year and a half of college classes, I dropped out and was going to be an actor.

Let’s talk about your upcoming St. Louis appearance. What was it about FDR that made you want to do this show?

I was about 15 years old when FDR died. It was like God the father had died. He was the only president I ever knew and I had come to worship the idea of what FDR was and is. I thought our country would disappear without him. Nothing ever diminished my feelings of adoration, despite all the naysayers and despite all the people who worked very assiduously to destroy the programs he instituted.

Are your own politics aligned to FDR?

I certainly think so.

How would you describe your politics?

I prefer to call myself a Socialist.

Can you compare the approach FDR had to the Great Depression and the one President Barack Obama has to the current recession?

I realize as similar as the situations are, there are different players and different hands being dealt out. I like to do the play because for me it’s a message of hope. It’s a hope I give the audience as they witness there once was a time when we were beset and a man arose and offset the beset. I hope they will feel strengthen and encouraged. If Obama doesn’t achieve it, I hope they feel they will find somebody or some group who will do it-save us and get us on the road to normalcy.

Do you see any someone or group emerging?

Certainly not on the Democratic side. On the Republican side, how could you believe what they say? They deny what they’ve done in the past and deny what they will do in the future.

Doing a one-man show is hard work at any age, let alone at 82. Is the play physically challenging for you?

It’s invigorating but it’s a workout as well. We’ve been to about 80 cities with it in the last few years.

What do you want audiences to take away from the show?

To be emboldened.

How does working in theater compare to working in TV and do you prefer one medium over the other?

I don’t. I love them all. If the words are good, they all have their pluses. With a one-man show, I don’t have anyone to blame except the writer and myself.

Mention Ed Asner and one thinks Lou Grant. Was that your favorite role or is there another that you enjoyed more?

I have to say it was a favorite role because I got to do it for 12 years. That’s a lifetime in the theater. Perhaps even in TV. There are other roles I have found more exciting and identifiable. I did a role (Eddie Madden in 1979 TV movie) “Family Man” and I identified with that a great deal. I identified with Axel Jordache in (1976 TV mini-series) “Rich Man, Poor Man.” There were others along the way.

Was it strange going from being a comedic Lou Grant in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to the serious Lou Grant in “The Lou Grant Show”?

It was an impossible task. Nobody’s done it before and they’ll never do it again.

Gruff but loveable describes Lou Grant. Does it describe Ed Asner as well?

That’s what they tell me.

“The Lou Grant Show” dealt with the world of daily journalism. How do you see the plight of newspapers today?

Dreck.

Care to expound?

When I was doing Lou Grant, I was made heavily aware of the fact newspapers were besieged. They were all owned by corporate powers and those corporate powers were shrinking into smaller and smaller groupings. It certainly hasn’t improved since then. They’ve become even more powerful… With corporate powers controlling most papers you can expect that most of them will be influenced by conservative Republican thinking. The New York Times helped justify our entrance for the invasion of Iraq and I hope that they never get over the guilt of what they did there.

Has being Jewish influenced your career in any way?

I don’t know that it has influenced my career. It gave me the romance as an individual I have, which led me into theater. I’m not sure that I identify strongly with Jews and Judaism. I am not a practicing Jew.

 

You’ve done a fair amount of voice work for animated films, including the acclaimed “Up.” Are there special challenges to that kind of work?

Not if you’re used to working alone. I have no preference in terms of venue. I like it all. All have their advantages. When you can become part of an ideal family of performers, that has to be the (pinnacle). That rarely happens. There will always be some lemons in the crowd.

How did “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” stack up?

That had to be one of the best ensemble casts you could ever find. There would be those who would say that the ensemble cast we had on “The Lou Grant Show” was even finer.

What’s next for you?

I supposedly am in line to do a movie in Alaska in January. I’m supposed to do a movie in Montreal for three days in February. I did a guest role on a new Canadian series that I enjoyed enormously. If it’s picked up I’ll be back next year to do more of it.

Do you ever think about retiring?

You can substitute death for that.