Ed Asner surveyed the building and grounds of what used to be the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Tuesday morning.
It’s turf the seven-time Emmy Award winner (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Lou Grant,” “Roots”) knew well as a young actor, starting out in his career in 1959 when he performed at the since-shuttered theater on the banks of the Housatonic River and Long Island Sound.
That season he had small roles (Sampson, Bardolph and Soldier) in “The Merry Wives of Windsor, “Romeo and Juliet” and “All's Well That Ends Well.” John Houseman was founding artistic director of the theater and staged “Merry Wives” and “All’s Well.”
“I think the inside of the theater looks damn good,” he says in a phone interview after the event.
There have been several attempts to revive the property since it closed in the early ‘80s. After the state spent more than a decade of finding satisfactory private-public development deals to reviove the property, the state reverted the ownership of the theater to the town of Stratford.
“I’m not a man for figures but I think this 1,500-seat theater could be opened in no time if people got behind it,” says Asner. “ But it needs a communal spirit to sweep away a lot of the naysayers. You’ve got to knock over those Pygmies.”
The visit also brought back some memories to Asner. ”I was a chunky 180-pound actor who nobody knew and who no one knew what kind of talent he had. I must have seemed un-frail so they used me like a good piece of furniture on stage. That’s how Houseman cast me, doing these small roles, and I resented it.”
He jokes that it was the first time he wore “woolen tights that clung to my body. I had a sexual experience just putting them on every night.”
The actors for Asner's season were an impressive bunch: Barbara Barrie, Morris Carnovsky, Richard Easton, Will Geer, Mariette Hartley, Hiram Sherman, Inga Swenson, Sada Thompson, and as an academy student, David Marguluies. Nancy Marchand who would later co-star with Asner in the TV series, “Lou Grant” was at the theater in 1958.
Asner, 83, came to Stratford following the close of Broadway's “Grace,” which he co-starred with Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon. He is next set to do an episode of “Law & Order: SVU.” Then he will kick off another tour of his one-man show, “FDR,” about President Franklin Roosevelt. (That show played the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook in 2010.)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun