Monday, May 30, 2011

Theater feature: Asner as FDR: From one liberal icon to another

Ed Asner as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

By Hap Erstein

He has played a slave ship captain in Roots,‭ ‬Pope John XXIII,‭ ‬adventurer Carl Fredericksen in Pixar’s Up and,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬Lou Grant,‭ ‬the role that earned him five of his seven Emmy Awards.‭ ‬But for Ed Asner,‭ ‬81,‭ ‬the opportunity to become Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a couple of hours each night was too good to resist.

Around the Kansas City household where young Ed grew up,‭ ‬Roosevelt was thought of as‭ “‬God,‭ ‬the father,‭” ‬he says by phone,‭ ‬before flying in to South Florida for a week of performances of Dore Schary's FDR at Boca Raton’s Caldwell Theatre.

‭ ‬To Asner,‭ ‬Roosevelt was‭ “‬revered certainly.‭ ‬Never for a moment questioned his authenticity,‭ ‬his goodness.‭” ‬Elected to the presidency four times,‭ ‬FDR became an enduring liberal icon,‭ ‬a mantle that Asner has carried on in his outspoken opinions,‭ ‬his actions and the roles he has chosen to play.

As to his current performance,‭ ‬the former Screen Actors Guild president says,‭ “‬I certainly never believed that I would be mistaken for Roosevelt,‭ ‬but the more I did it,‭ ‬the more I convinced myself.‭”

Asner has been acclaimed for his impersonation of Roosevelt,‭ ‬but that was never his goal.‭ ‬He accepted the role,‭ ‬first of all,‭ ‬because‭ “‬Well,‭ ‬I had nothing to do at the time,‭” ‬and secondly to deliver the play’s liberal message.‭ “‬I go around in hopes that people will not only take heart,‭ ‬but take action,‭” ‬says Asner.‭ “‬And implement,‭ ‬supplement,‭ ‬the things that Roosevelt did.‭”

And of that message of Roosevelt’s bold,‭ ‬forceful style made its way to the White House,‭ ‬that would please Asner a great deal.‭ “‬That’s one of the reasons I wanted to keep going on the road.‭ ‬In the hopes of preaching to the choir‭ ‬--‭ ‬which I do most of the time‭ ‬--‭ ‬that the choir will somehow find a way to get the thought of the message,‭ ‬the joy of the message,‭ ‬to expedite the return of those policies.‭ ‬In preaching to the audience,‭ ‬I hope that they’re affected enough that they begin affecting the White House.‭”

Yet Asner has his doubts whether Roosevelt,‭ ‬confined to a wheelchair with polio,‭ ‬could be elected today.‭ “‬Probably not,‭ ‬the press being what it is,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬They’d call him much too crippled to handle the job.‭”

Ed Asner in a scene from FDR.

Certainly Asner feels he could have learned a few things from FDR worth applying to his work in presiding over SAG in the early‭ ‬1980s.‭ “‬I hadn’t studied him sufficiently at that time.‭ ‬I could have used it,‭’ ‬he says.‭ “‬The charm that he used.‭ ‬I never used the charm sufficiently to win over my enemies.‭ ‬And I sure had them.‭”

And no,‭ ‬Asner never seriously considered running for public office.‭ “‬Not at all.‭ ‬I always thought that,‭ ‬yeah,‭ ‬I could get out there and preach enough and maybe win the job,‭ ‬but I felt they’d get cheated,‭” ‬he explains.‭ ‬Cheated‭? “‬That I wouldn’t be thorough enough,‭ ‬that I wouldn’t‭
compromise enough,‭ ‬that no matter how much studying I might do,‭ ‬it would never be enough to satisfy me.‭”

So he insists he is content touring the country,‭ ‬influencing the electorate with his performance skills.‭ “‬And it rejuvenates me,‭” ‬Asner says.‭ ‬Besides,‭ “‬I’m not good for anything else.‭”

He gives a Lou Grant grunt at the suggestion that at his age he could be staying home and relaxing.‭ “‬Oh,‭ ‬relaxing.‭ ‬If you sleep a full eight hours when you get in bed at night,‭ ‬what do you need to relax for‭?”

Well into his sixth decade as a professional actor,‭ ‬Asner feels he is at the top of his game.‭ “‬I’m a better actor now than I’ve ever been,‭ ‬and if I chose to lie on my fat ass and do nothing,‭ ‬I would be morally wrong to deny a script the powers that I have at hand.‭”

So far,‭ ‬he had done about a hundred performances of FDR in‭ ‬50‭ ‬cities over the past year and a half.‭ ‬After Boca,‭ ‬he will continue to criss-cross the country with the one-man show,‭ ‬well into‭ ‬2012.‭ ‬But do not look for him to take the show to New York.‭ “‬I’m not eager to plunge into New York unless everything is absolutely perfect,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬Because New York has favorites and I doubt whether I’m one of them.‭”

Boca Raton,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬is probably ready for Asner and vice versa.‭ ‬As to the play,‭ ‬FDR,‭ ‬he says,‭ "they will be entertained and they will discover knowledge of the past that they either didn’t know or forgot.‭”

FDR,‭ ‬starring Ed Asner.‭ ‬Caldwell Theatre Company,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal‭ ‬Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Wednesday,‭ ‬June‭ ‬1-‭ ‬Sunday,‭ ‬June‭ ‬5.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$40-$75.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬241-7432.‭

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