Blog Post

Talking with actor Ed Asner

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By Frank Burd

Milestones writer Frank Burd interviewed Ed Asner when the renowned longtime actor performed his one-man show, “A Man and His Prostate,” at Bucks County Playhouse last month. Burd met him backstage after the performance, which he is touring with.

You’re 88 and still performing. How do you remember all your lines?

Rote. You constantly go over the lines and make them familiar to you and you to them. And pretty soon, you’ve got a show.

How did you get started in acting?

I went to school in Chicago, thinking of a career in political science. They announced that they were going to start a closed-circuit radio station. So I asked my roommate, who was involved with the theater group, “Should I try out for this radio show? They’re gonna do Richard II.” He said, “Let me hear you read.”

So I stood at one end of the room and I read something, and his jaw fell open. He said, “Where’d you learn to read like that?” In the spring, he told me “They’re going to do “Murder in the Cathedral” for the summer production. So check the book out and go audition for it ’cause you can do any of the roles in it.” I was trying to impress this girl at the time … It’s a long story, but I ended up doing the lead.

Tell me about the development of the play you’re in now, “A Man and His Prostate.”

Ed Weinberger was a writer-producer on “Mary Tyler Moore.” And he went on to great success in other shows after that. And this is his story. It happened to him on a cruise ship to Italy. And he wrote it exactly as it happened.

This play seems to have a dual purpose – both comic and educational.

The majority of it is dedicated to humor, of course, but we get to that middle section where I read off the names of all those famous people who have died of prostate cancer.

It’s a chilling fact that every 16 minutes, a man dies of prostate cancer.

Is your health pretty good?

It’s all right for an old cocker.

What’s the biggest difference between acting at 88 versus acting at 48?

I can’t leap tall buildings. Not that I really ever could.

I’d love to hear the story of what happened regarding the cancellation of your “Lou Grant” TV show.

The head of CBS, William Paley, wanted me off the air because of my political stance on El Salvador at the time. I was part of a group to raise money for drugs and medicine to help the people there and for free elections, although one of the [CBS] vice presidents said it had nothing to do with that but that they were afraid that with the ending of “Mash,” they would lose Monday nights. When we were replaced for the summer, at least 1,000 people protested for two weeks outside CBS. And we weren’t brought back.

Can you share some good memories from those shows?

It was all glory. Beautiful. Seven years with Mary [Tyler Moore] were wonderful. It was like a trip to Disneyland to go to work every day. “Lou Grant” was tough. It was not a comedy. We had to work harder. We also had to adapt to a new system and nobody knew their a** from a hole in the ground. We weren’t going to have our half-hour comedy with three cameras and an audience of 300 people. It was an hour show with one camera, no audience. It took a while to figure it out, without an audience reaction.

What was it like for you, a liberal, to play the captain of a slave ship on the TV miniseries, “Roots?”

It was a good role and a variation from anything I’d done before. In fact, I was playing a good German who wanted to make it better for the slaves. But yes, in performing a function in this occupation, I did sell my soul.

You’ve done lots of voices for animated characters. How does being a voice actor compare to other acting skills of yours?

I love doing it. I act as intensely and as prodigiously. I suppose I benefit by not being seen.

You support many charities, including elderly holocaust survivors and the Rosenberg Fund for children.

I support such groups whenever I can and do whatever I can and give money whenever I have it.

I’d like to hear what’s next for Ed Asner.

I’m doing a movie in L.A. in June. I may be doing one in New Jersey before that.

If you’d gone into poly sci, what would you be doing today? What fight would you be fighting?

I thank God I didn’t do it. Because the falsity, the bull***t we have put out – “give me your tired, your poor, your downtrodden” – and then to watch what we do to immigrants, what we did to the African-Americans, what we do to the Latinos who come here – the aura that we put out over the world is false.

And the militarism which we practice is excessive. “America über alles.” It’s scary.

Photo courtesy of Ed Asner