In St. Louis performance, Ed Asner will star as Holocaust survivor struggling with memories

Ed Asner will star in “The Soap Myth” on Thursday, May 2 at Temple Israel.

By Judith Newmark, Special to the Jewish Light

This story was originally published on April 25, 2019, and is being republished to honor Ed Asner. 

Lou Grant wasn’t Jewish.

He was Roman Catholic, opines the one person who really ought to know: actor Ed Asner.

Asner famously portrayed the crusty journalist on two different programs, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Lou Grant.” That makes him (along with Uzo “Crazy Eyes” Aduba) one of only two actors to have won Emmy awards for playing the same character in a comedy and in a drama.

In fact, five of Asner’s seven Emmys were for his portrayals of Grant. That’s more than any other male actor has garnered (not to mention his four Golden Globe awards and his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild).

Of course, those awards acknowledge Asner’s excellence — playwright Jeff Cohen considers him a member of “the pantheon of the greatest American actors.”

But over the years, he’s also provided the judges with a lot — a LOT — to choose from. Ever since he dropped out of the University of Chicago to act, he’s worked steadily. Today, at age 89, he’s still at it, starring in a national tour of Cohen’s play “The Soap Myth.”

It plays here on Thursday, May 2, at Congregation Temple Israel.

Why wouldn’t he, Asner inquires mildly during a phone interview: “It’s a beautifully written play, a worthwhile subject and a perfect part for me.”

A concert reading of the play, the touring production stars Asner as Morris Spitzer, a Holocaust survivor. He has terrible memories, including memories of the Nazis using the corpses of murdered Jews to make soap.

Spitzer has learned that scholars — Jewish scholars — cannot find sufficient evidence to prove that that actually happened. Aware of the legal principal “false in one, false in all,” these scholars do not want to give Holocaust deniers anything they can use to misinterpret history. (Asner’s costar here, Dee Pelletier, takes the double role of a Holocaust scholar and a charming Englishwoman famed for  Holocaust denial.)

Besides, the scholars concluded, they had no real need to confirm the truth behind that accusation — not when so many other atrocities come with superb documentation, provided by the Nazis themselves.

But Spitzer doesn’t see it that way. He needs no evidence besides his own memory. “The whole idea of history is documentary evidence — letters, photographs, things that are tangible. That’s a source of tension between eyewitnesses and historians,” Cohen says.

“But to paraphrase Elie Wiesel, those who have not lived through it cannot know.

“And this has to be really clear: When somebody denies that this happened or that happened, that’s anti-Semitism masquerading as scholarship.

“These people are not scholars. They are looking for any excuse to deny that the Holocaust happened because of their deep-seated hatred of Jewish people. They are despicable.”

Asner and Cohen — who sought him out to play Spitzer — agree that the play, now 10 years old, could not be more timely.

Even on the phone, Asner’s familiar voice sizzles with rage when he talks about the president (whom he never refers to by name). “Anybody wants to point to anti-Semitism, you can cite him,” he says, each syllable dipped in venom. “He follows the American bullshit, might makes right.”

A former president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, Asner over the years has been associated with a host of causes, most left-wing, some (concerning the 9/11 attacks and the origin of the AIDS epidemic) pretty fringe-y. He attributes his politics to his upbringing in Kansas City, the youngest of five children born to Russian-Jewish immigrants.

“My dad was a junk man,” said Asner, the divorced father of four. “He certainly wasn’t a screaming liberal, and my mother was the same. But they steeped me in their gentle attitudes.”

Perhaps they would have preferred that their youngest song pursue a different career – just about any other career. But from the first, he worked. Like most actors, he didn’t make a living right away, “but God knows, you don’t care about money, not as long as you are doing plays and enjoying the thrill of it all.”

But as he matured into his gruff voice and character-actor looks, his career grew to enviable breadth. Sure, there’s Lou Grant — but there’s also lovable Santa Claus in “Elf,” touching Carl Fredricksen in “Up” and a morally-troubled captain of a slave ship in “Roots.”

“I love all of them, the whole kit and caboodle,” says Asner, who in recent years has also continued on stage. He’s performed the title role in plays including “F.D.R.” and “God Help Us.” That’s right: He plays God.

According to Cohen, that’s only fitting. “At almost 90, his performance is so ferocious and so moving that Ed alone is reason enough to see the play,” he said, then sighed. “I wish my play weren’t relevant. But sadly, it is.”

‘The Soap Myth’

WHEN: 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 2. Doors open at 6.

WHERE: Congregation Temple Israel, 1 Rabbi Alvin D. Rubin Drive (at Ladue and Spoede roads)

HOW MUCH: $36 general admission; special seating tickets old out

MORE INFO: This event is part of Temple Israel’s Holocaust Education Week. The week will also feature a screening of the film ‘Big Sonia’ on May 6 (see ChaiLights calendar for more info.)