Remembering Ed Asner: Our Conversation from 2011

Me and Ed Asner backstage after his spectacular performance as FDR at the Woodstock Opera House.  Photo credit: Mike Fagerholm.

As soon as news broke that the great Ed Asner died today at age 91, my mind immediately raced back to the interview I conducted with him a decade ago for The Woodstock Independent prior to his spectacular performance in the one-man show, “FDR,” at the Woodstock Opera House in Woodstock, Illinois. He started our conversation by asking, “What is a Woodstock Independent?”, and by the end, he told me, “I’m very impressed with the kind of interview you do,” and invited me to meet him backstage after his performance. This led to the moment you see pictured above, which is a memory I will forever cherish. The following article is a reprint of my interview with Asner, which was originally published in the March 9th issue of The Woodstock Independent.

At age 81, Ed Asner has more spunk than actors a fraction his age. With several projects currently in production, the celebrated veteran of stage and screen shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Asner’s recent voice-over work as the cantankerous Carl Fredricksen in Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s Oscar-winning Pixar feature, “Up,” brought him some of the finest reviews of his career. Yet he will always be best remembered for his brilliantly textured performance as WJM news producer Lou Grant in the timeless ’70s sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and his subsequent long-running spinoff series simply titled, “Lou Grant.”

With seven Emmy awards and five Golden Globes on his mantle, Asner has earned a place in television history, yet his hunger for the theater also has proven to be insatiable. He’s currently touring the country with his solo performance drama, “FDR,” and will bring it to the Woodstock Opera House Tuesday, March 15th. “FDR” is a sequel to Dore Schary’s 1958 play “Sunrise at Campobello,” charting the ascent to power of the 32nd U.S. president. The Independent spoke with Asner about his passion for Roosevelt and his advice for aspiring journalists.

How did you first become involved in this production of “FDR”?

Well, you have to remember I’m an actor. A job looms up, and if it’s appetizing, I leap at it. This all began on a cruise with the Theatre Guild at sea. I did a short reading of it, and Phillip Langner, the producer, thought it went well, so he talked me into doing a touring one-man show of it. I haven’t been disappointed one bit. It’s been a marvelous experience.

What section of FDR’s life have you found most challenging to portray?

I can’t really speak of any particular period or time that was challenging. Let’s face it, the play isn’t embodied in a time capsule. It’s an unreal situation. I talk to the audience, and as I begin to describe my past, the audience realizes that this is a dead man talking. I relive the events of my past with the audience, incorporating individuals from my family and my staff and hoping that I achieve a sufficient embodiment of them.

Do you allow yourself room for improvisation and experimentation during each performance?

I do a good bit of that, particularly in terms of shaping something that has the indication of humor. I like to pat myself on the back and think of myself as a wonderful comic master, so I try to take it further. This play is an hour and 40 minutes, and the more laughs you get, the less people think about going to the restroom. 

Why is Franklin Delano Roosevelt an inspiration to you?

He was the first president in my life that I was aware of. He achieved so much and overcame surmounting obstacles, not only in his own health but in terms of the Depression and World War II. He had a lust for life. He speaks of loving his enemies, because of course they were the spur to urge him on to wage the war against them that he did. I was about 15 when he died, and it was like God the Father had died. I’ve certainly lived a good long while since then, and, in my opinion, nobody compares to him.

You’ve described FDR as chameleon-like. What shades of his personality did you find most surprising during your research?

His righteousness. No matter how great the obstacles, he was going to assail them, but he got his ducks in a row before he did assail them, and he didn’t have that many failures. The national Recovery Act was certainly one of them, and his attempt to enlarge the court failed, which was his response to the rejection of the national Recovery Act. I think he knew how to use people. His cabinet was meddlesome. They quarreled with him. [In light of] the far left parade led by people like Huey Long, Roosevelt was forced to go further left than he would have on his own. But
of course, those leftist legislations are what he’s remembered for. That’s what the Republicans have been trying to destroy ever since.

What do you think the current administration could learn from FDR?

How to govern. How to propose and dispose. I think they’ve failed miserably, and I regard Mr. Obama as an empty suit.

Did the current economic crisis influence your approach to the material?

I actually became involved in the project before the plunge into hell occurred. The people who attend the play are often those who believed in Roosevelt. It’s preaching to the choir, but to my mind, it’s heartening the choir to show what we were capable of; to show what someone was capable of at one time, that it was worthwhile and that we can do it again.

You’ve been a vocal supporter of the 9/11 Truth Movement. Do you still believe it to be the most pressing subject of the peace and justice movement?

There is an expression called, “MEGO Syndrome,” which stands for, “My Eyes Glaze Over.” When you attempt to talk to people about 9/11, they look at you as if you grew horns. They will not listen. If the majority of Americans were willing to listen to the facts on 9/11, it could result in a full-fledged, no-holds-barred investigation. Of course, the crime scene has been destroyed. The steel has been shipped to China. Many of the [witnesses] have already died, particularly the rescue workers. So a lot of the information will be absent, but even by working with the information that we can get now, the result would certainly be different than what we’re faced with. Unfortunately, not many investigations into national crimes turn out to be all that productive.

You are renowned in Chicago for being a member of Second City’s extended family. How great of an impact did your experience with the Playwright’s Theatre Club have on your acting career?

Are you kidding? [laughs] I would be nothing without it. It gave me a spine, it gave me experience, it gave me knowledge, it gave me relaxation before an audience. It gave me everything. And, above all, I’m most appreciative to [Second City co-founder] Paul Sills. I won’t say that I became an accomplished improv actor. Our theater was legit. We did resort to improv sometimes during a rehearsal. It was only with the Compass Players and Second City that it began to really blossom under Paul. I was long gone by then. What can I say? [The Club] gave me my stage and it gave me my audience, and thank god that it was in the area of classics and fine new works.

What was the working atmosphere like at Pixar during the production of “Up?”

It was very energetic, but not that playful. You’re there to work. During one of my recording sessions, there was a step that I missed, which was a common mistake in the sound room. I pitched forward and split my head open. I went to the hospital and got patched up, came back and did the day’s work. It was always a challenge to try satisfying the greedy monsters Pete Docter and Bob Peterson.

A great deal of the film’s success relied on your chemistry with your 8-year-old co-star Jordan Nagai.

That’s right, and that performance was pulled out of him line-by-line, almost word-for-word by Pete Docter.

What was the experience like of taking your beloved character of Lou Grant from the realm of comedy into a dramatic series?

“The Mary Tyler Moore show” was always a joy, always fun. It was the top of the world. It was a phenomenally easy schedule and very rewarding to perform those wonderful scripts in front of that audience. “Lou Grant” became work, hard work. No live audience, single camera, and still an occasional attempt to get a laugh, which would not be rewarded with a response. It took a good long while for people to accept the show because no one had gone from being a comedic actor, supposedly, to a dramatic actor. So we tried to create a so-called dramedy with “Lou Grant.” Mostly, though, it dealt with the issues that the characters were covering. No show had ever succeeded in portraying the daily creation of a newspaper before, and I think we did that. When we presented the issues, we presented them while giving a nod to the opposing side, which I think was fairly rare as well. I asked Allan Burns and Jim Brooks, the producers of “Mary Tyler Moore,” to be my producers on “Lou Grant,” and they accepted. It was their decision to go where no man or woman had trod before, and where no one will tread again — taking a character from a half-hour comedy into an hour-long drama.

What do you think modern journalists could learn from Lou Grant?

Well, even at the time of “Lou Grant,” he was fighting corporate control. Fortunately, he had his boss, Mrs. Pynchon, on his side most of the time, but it’s a losing battle. At the time of “Lou Grant,” Ben Bagdikian, a renowned editor, wrote about the fact that 50 mega-corporations controlled the information industry. Now it’s probably down to about three or four. It gets even smaller as the government exercises more and more control. I’ll have to tell you that when I was in high school, I was editor of the paper. My beloved teacher came in one day and said, “Are you thinking of journalism as a career?” I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “I wouldn’t.” I asked, “Why not?”, and he said, “You can’t make a living.” That was in 1947. So it certainly hasn’t improved, has it? I wish I could uplift you. I tell young people who are just coming into acting that they shouldn’t expect to make any money. If you can afford to do it for the joy of the profession, then go ahead, but you’re not going to get rich. And I would say the same to an aspiring journalist. You have to have joy in uncovering the truth. You not only have the challenge of finding the inches to put in, but you’ll have the bosses, who are greater slaves to corporate power than you are, who will be saying, “No, no, no,” to you. So it’s about surviving those two forces: the poor economy and repressive bosses. It’ll teach you to be a great writer.

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