Ed Asner has spent the last several decades quietly becoming one of Hollywood's most indelible character actors. The man has lent his unique presence and voice to countless television shows, films and even audio books. Whether it's as Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or Carl Fredrickson from “Up,” Asner's career has had amazing longevity, crafting one of the most instantly recognizable on-screen personas in the business.
I had the opportunity to speak on the phone with Asner in anticipation of his performance and had quite the interesting conversation, covering everything from Roosevelt to current politics to Asner's varied career as a voice actor.
As for the stage show, Asner said he found the script to be “the perfect vehicle to present a capsule presentation of one of the greatest men that ever lived.” It covers the major points of Roosevelt's life, beginning with his initial battle against polio and tracking all the way to his death, providing a wide profile of the man and his accomplishments.
“It's essentially the high points and it even includes the affair he had, the recognized affair. It's the high points of his administration. The fact that he took the best ideas around him and he fought for them. Above all that he was a decisive decision maker, once he made up his mind,” Asner said. “He was a man of action, and a man who weighed and pondered, weighed and pondered and then moved. He came up with ideas and then acted on them. He should be an example to all politicians in this day and age.”
Even in his youth, Asner had a deep-rooted respect for and admiration of the man and his presence, stature and accomplishments as president.
“I loved the man. I was walking home from school and when I heard the news (of his death), it was like God the Father had died. The only president I had ever known. I knew a lot about him. I identified with him. I have since read five biographies, none of which surprised me. Wherever I go, I keep strengthening my belief and my arguments,” Asner said.
“We always listened to him. My dad tended to vote Republican, mostly because people tended to say that 'Republicans are good for business,' but my mother, very assiduously, voted Democrat every time. So she made sure to cancel his vote, if he did indeed vote Republican.”
Asner said Roosevelt, if he were alive today, would likely be frustrated and disappointed with the state of modern politics, and particularly with how modern Democrats have handled themselves.
“He'd be disappointed that the existing Democrats have allowed his programs to be diluted. We haven't marched forward. He created a second Bill of Rights in 1944, or maybe 1945. (It had) Freedom of Education, Freedom of Housing, Freedom to Work, Freedom to Health, an additional Four Freedoms,” he said. “And if he had lived, maybe he would have implemented them. But look how long it's taken to even get Obama's healthcare program through.”
“I think the easiest thing to accuse him of is that he knew Pearl Harbor was coming. That was a thing that distressed him,” he said. “From my own resolution, he was trying to arm this country as best he could, but he felt that the Japanese would make a move. But I don't think he had any idea they would be as aggressive as attacking Pearl Harbor. That set him back on his heels.”
Taking on a one-man show was difficult at first, Asner said. Discovering that one is “all alone” on-stage hammers home the realization of just how much actors rely on other actors to help get through a scene.
“When I first started the show and I was out there for 10 or 15 minutes and I just thought, 'Good God almighty! I have another hour and a half and there's no relief in sight!' It was intimidating at first, but then I got used to it,” he said.
Surprisingly, it was his experience as a voice actor that helped him most in overcoming some of those challenges.
“I've done a lot of voiceovers, books and characters, within whatever I was doing. I learned a long time ago how to react to myself. And in some cases, when I've worked with actors, they're a pain,” he said. “So there's a certain amount of relief in knowing I'm the only one I have to depend on.”
Though he received much recognition for his work as the voice of Carl in “Up,” Asner has been steadily working in voiceovers for decades. It's perhaps an unexpected turn for an actor such as himself, but Asner said he took to it well.
“It's a job. People wanted me, I was happy to do it, you don't have to shave,” he said.
Asner will take the Cowan Center stage at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday. For additional information or to purchase tickets, call the Cowan Center box office at 903-566-7424, or visit www.cowancenter.org.
“I enjoyed 'Up,' of course. I've done so many they all blend into each other, I can't call them up to give your answer. J. Jonah Jameson was easy, because all he'd do was snap and bark,” Asner said. “When I did 'Gargoyles,' trying to make a good Scottish accent became an all-encompassing objective. 'Freakazoid' was fun, because Cosgrove was so emotionless. And Granny Goodness in 'Superman,' I loved that one. It's a great deal of fun to play that androgynous teacher.”
Asner perhaps holds the most affection for his role in 'Up,' saying it took a while for him to realize the full power and impact of what the film accomplished.
“I didn't realize the power of the movie until I saw it several times, because we work alone. Putting it all together, Pete Docter, its writer/producer, achieved a genius accomplishment. And I like to think of it as a double love story, the first love being Ellie, the wife, and the second love being Russell, the kid,” Asner said.