Ed Asner, who originated the character of Lou Grant in the beloved 1970s-era newspaper drama bearing his name and before that, in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — Ed Asner, who so memorably portrayed Santa Claus in the 2003 film “Elf” and whose voice starred in the 2009 Pixar animated classic, “Up” — Ed Asner is 89 years old.
And he’s still hogging the spotlight, treading the boards, bringing down the house at times on stages large and small across the nation. Some tour stops are just grueling one- or two-night stands. Sometimes he accepts a fee that for an actor of his stature is a pittance. That’s how much he still loves his craft after doing it for more than 60 years.
“As long as I’m still intelligible and can still act the hell out of a role, why shouldn’t I?” he says over the phone, with a simulacrum of his trademark growl.
Asner comes to the Gordon Center For Performing Arts in Owings Mills Sunday for one performance of “The Soap Myth,” a play by Baltimore native Jeff Cohen. (Theater lovers might recall a 2005 staged reading at the Creative Alliance of an earlier Cohen play, “Men of Clay,” which was set in Baltimore in the 1970s.)
“The Soap Myth” previously ran off-Broadway in 2012 and has been broadcast nationally on PBS. The show tackles the much-debated topic of whether the Nazis made soap from the bodies of Jewish concentration camps victims. Asner portrays Milton Saltzman, an elderly Holocaust survivor who has embarked on a crusade to have the controversial atrocity accepted as fact and documented by Jewish museums.
The four-member cast includes the well-known actress Tovah Feldshuh (“The Walking Dead,” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) portraying two of Saltzman’s antagonists: charismatic Holocaust denier Brenda Goodsen and Jewish historian Esther Feinman.
The version on tour is being performed as a staged reading without costumes or sets. Actors sit in a row of chairs and read from the script, a concession to Asner’s ability to memorize scripts, which has diminished with age. But the actor said that theatergoers seem able to make the necessary imaginative leap.
“The show has been resonating very well with audiences,” he said, adding that reading frees him up mentally to concentrate on his performance.
Asner took the time recently to chat from his California home about “The Soap Myth,” the #MeToo movement, his activism on behalf of autism and the environment, growing old, and his old friend John Astin, the actor who originated the role of Gomez in “The Addams Family” and who teaches at the Johns Hopkins University. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
What makes you want to keep touring? In addition to “The Soap Myth” you’re also touring in a staged reading of “A Man in His Prostate” [a comedy by Ed Weinberger about a vacation to Italy that takes an unexpected turn.] Don’t all of these short runs wear you out?
Touring is tiring, but the audience seems to enjoy both shows. “The Soap Myth” is a beautiful story about one man’s triumphing over the odds. He might not beat the system, but the system is forced to acknowledge that what he said happened really did happen to a certain extent. He gets half a banana. And it’s about a topic that’s dawning in America these days — what is fact and what is myth?
In other words, fake news.
Yes, fake news.
I’m not ready to step aside. In the fall, we’re going to the British Isles to appear in “A Man and his Prostate.” We’ll see if this 90-year-old is up to the trip.
You’re an old lefty, and you regularly go after President Trump, whom you describe as “this monstrous man” on social media. What’s your take on the government shutdown?
If I had any hair left on my head, I’d be pulling it out.
Ed, you’re not only on Twitter, you seem to relish it, expressing opinions about everything from the state of the union to education to Academy Awards hosts. Even your description of your preferred cocktail — Black or White Russians — could be interpreted as a political statement. Isn’t social media supposed to be a young person’s game?
My son helps me with that. He is my master guide to social media. He posts for me, though I check them first.
You have several family members on the autism spectrum [Asner’s son, Charles, is autistic, and two grandchildren have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome]. You’re in the process of creating the Ed Asner Family Center to serve autistic people and their families. What have you learned from people with this diagnosis?
They are a select group. If their political attitudes are acceptable, these are the people that should be running the country. They don’t tolerate b— —.
Many fans are aware of your autism activism, but they’re less familiar with your conservation work on behalf of the Humane Society and Defenders of Wildlife.
I really don't give a damn about mankind. I want to save the planet, and man is in the way. I wish him luck, but he's not the first priority for me. What is my priority is the continuation of life and of this planet’s beautiful denizens, 60 percent of which have been destroyed in recent years.
In the 1970s and 1980s when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Lou Grant” ran, Lou’s unapologetic chauvinism wasn’t perceived as a fatal character flaw. It didn’t prevent him from being lovable. I suspect the response today would be quite different. Lou wouldn’t have fared well in the #MeToo era.
We all have to be more careful now. I do think there has been unnecessary costs to the movement. I have a bone to pick with Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand for dismantling Al Franken’s career. I think maybe he was tired and gave into pressure. [Gillibrand led the charge in calling publicly for Franken’s resignation after he was accused of inappropriate touching. Franken stepped down from his Senate seat in 2017.]
But it would be wonderful if the movement frees and liberates women and allows their talents to be fully employed. Maybe we’ll get a more peaceful world out of all this. If that happens, I guess we’ll have to accept the casualties.
John Astin is an old friend. When a theater at the school was renamed in Astin’s honor in 2011, you attended the dedication ceremony.
John and I go way, way back. I’m happy that he’s enjoyed success in his career, and I’m sure he’s happy about my success. John has always had an ego, but in old age I am willing to grant him that.
Is there any upside to old age? As I’m growing older myself and am watching my parents age, I’m searching for bright spots.
[Laughs.] Actually there is. When your time left is limited, you examine every moment as thought it was a jewel. I don’t talk about this to other octogenarians, but I really should. You cherish every day as a revelation. There's a lot of depression at the loss of your physical capacities, but you move on.
“The Soap Myth” runs for one performance only at 3 p.m. Jan. 20 at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills. Tickets with fees cost $30-$40 in advance and $40-$50 at the door. Go to jcc.org/gordon-center/live or call 410-356-7469.