“Tonight I feel like I’ve been reborn, because through the many things that you have said, the memories that you have shared tonight, I feel like I have come to know myself all over again!”- Ed Asner, addressing the audience of his 86th birthday salute at the Skylight Theatre Company in Los Angeles, CA
On Sunday, November 1st, the stars of Hollywood television and film shined brightly at The Skylight Theatre Company’s luminous salute to the legendary Ed Asner. The evening consisted of a festive feast that boasted a tasty assortment of authentic Mexican cuisine, followed by a performance by the comic troupe El Grande Circus de Coca-Cola and culminating in a deeply moving, often hilarious, star-studded salute to Asner.
The evening’s roster of star speakers, hosted by a jovial Jason Alexander, boasted many last-minute surprises. Among those surprises was Jay Sandrich, Bob Newhart and Joe Mantegna. Perhaps even more surprising was the last minute attendance by iconic comedian Buck Henry and a “secret” appearance by Valerie Harper. Harper made a stealth appearance at the event; just long enough to wish Ed a happy 86th birthday. Devoid of makeup, all her hair tucked under an old baseball cap, wearing decidedly non-party attire, she quietly came through the tight maze of cameramen and fellow celebrities, altogether missing everyone’s notice except for Asner and the LA Beat. She bent down to greet Asner, who sat in a comfy office chair near the front gates, gave him a kiss on the cheek, a quick “Happy Birthday, Ed!” then she was gone as quickly as she had arrived!
Just as the last of the Mexican cuisine was being laid out on the tables, it was time for a raucous, often risque, highly athletic performance by El Grande Circus de Coca-Cola. A truly eclectic, bizarrely funny send up of everything from Mexican soap operas, classic films, Hispanic mythical creatures to Coca-Cola commercials, it was like nothing I have ever seen before. The troupe, lead by “Senior Pepe” (who arrived fashionably late) performed some truly breath-taking leaps and falls, all the time directly engaging the audience. The pretty female performers spent a considerable amount of time flirting with the male members of the audience; especially Asner and Alexander. Sitting on Alexander’s lap, blond “Consuelo” ( Lila Dupree) asked him “Do you like to play games? I know a good game that we could play together at your house!” to which Alexander quickly responded (his wife sitting beside him) “Only if my wife lets me!” Later, sitting on Asner’s lap, she repeated her offer, to which Asner eagerly replied “Okay! Let’s go!” at which point, Alexander pleaded “Ed, can I come to your house?” With a huge grin, Asner informed Alexander that if he came to Ed’s house then Alexander would have to sleep in the garage, lol!
After a thirty minute break to sign autographs and speak with any members of the press who had been previously missed, the adjacent theatre hall opened its doors to welcome the VIP audience, who sat down to a delicious meal that was quickly followed by the highlight of the evening: the celebrity salute to Ed Asner. Yours truly savored every last moment leading up to the celebrity salute, as I perused the tables-each sporting a cute little piñata-where sat a virtual who’s who of television and film favorites. Each table was adorned with a placard that announced its theme: from the “MTM Table” at which sat various alumni from that classic, seventies television institution, to the table that simply said “Up” at which sat that Oscar-nominated film’s director and his entourage. Recognizing Ed. Weinberger at the “MTM” table, I had to stop and say hello. “Ed., is that you?” I asked, to which he replied (in his signature deadpan delivery) “Is it? I dunno! Yeah, I guess it’s me!” Adding to the dinner’s pleasure was the fascinating slideshow: a collection of images of Ed Asner taken from his extensive work in stage, television and cinema. The slideshow ran continuously throughout the dinner, to everyone’s delight.
Last to be seated was “the man of the hour”: the one and only Ed Asner. He was carefully walked to his seat ( he walks gingerly with the aid of a cane these days) where-for the next two hours-he was awash in the pure love and genuine admiration of his peers and other admirers. Jason Alexander: “Ed, you have always been my inspiration and it’s a real honor to be here!” Joe Mantegna: “Ed, if you were an actor in any country other than the USA then you would have long ago been declared a ‘National Treasure’ and probably been knighted! Instead, this country relegates iconic actors such as yourself to guest appearances on silly American programs like The Love Boat!” Mike Farrell: “Ed, throughout your entire career you have never hesitated to speak out on important issues.”
However, the celebrity testimonials also had their lighter moments, too. From the stage, Jason Alexander kidded with actors Gregory Harrison and Steven Weber as to which was the most handsome. Actress Frances Fisher chuckled as she recalled a naughty night she spent with Asner, early in her film career. Another actress, introducing Asner to the stage after sharing her recollections of working with Asner early in her film career, kissed Asner onstage then announced “Oh! I got some tongue with that kiss!” to which the audience howled with laughter.
When it came time for the birthday boy himself to give his speech, Asner proved that even at 86 his mind (and wit) is still razor sharp. “As I was sitting on the toilet this morning, pondering and wondering…well, mostly wondering…” he began his speech, sending Jason Alexander into a fit of laughter. Asner went on to describe his life and career, which indeed gave this writer a sense of wonder for this truly remarkable man. After sharing many a humorous recollection, Asner finished his speech on this touching note: “Tonight I feel like I’ve been reborn, because through the many things that you have said, the memories that you have shared tonight, I feel like I have come to know myself all over again!” There wasn’t a dry eye in the whole place as the enormous birthday cake was wheeled out and Ed blew out his candles.
Prior to the celebrity salute, Ed warmly greeted me and we sat down for a quick chat for the LA Beat:
Hi Ed, it’s great to see you again! Happy Birthday from the Los Angeles Beat (handing him a bag of wrapped presents)!
Hi Sweetheart! It’s great to see you too! Just hand that to my daughter (his daughter takes the bag of presents)! Did you have to travel far to get here today?
Yes, about three hundred miles! I told you that nothing was gonna stop me from being here, so here I am!
Yes you are (we kiss)!
This is the second interview now that you’ve granted to the LA Beat, and we’re so pleased to talk to you again!
Well, the pleasure’s all mine, Darling!
Well, we’re gonna jump right in! You hold a rather unique position among America’s older generation of actors, in that your career has stayed both active and ever-evolving. Yet you’ve retained the role of a character actor. Why do you think that America has produced so few actors such as yourself?
I guess that a lot of them get tired and take a corporate job when they can. They get steady toast in the morning. Some of them get phased out; don’t get the calls to keep them going. Believe me, I don’t get calls as frequently as I’d like, by any means. They’re not burning my phone off the hook.
That surprises me.
Do you think it’s the “age factor”, Ed? I can remember talking to actor John Carradine, many years ago. He told me, “You know what, Shirley? No one ever calls me! Nobody ever does. I just sit in my apartment; sometimes I walk along the pier for something to do. I should be working right now, goddammit! But nobody’s calling me!”
We’re better than we’ve ever been! We can smell a rat faster than the youngest, but the range of our roles is very limited. I can’t leap tall buildings anymore.
You don’t need to.
Yeah, but the schmucks out there don’t realize that. They’re always playing to the 18-39 year old audience.
I see that in America in particular. It’s not as bad in Europe.
The first series I ever did was “Naked City.” Robert Duvall was on that show and we worked together. You see what his career turned into. I watched “The Judge” the other night, and the acting he did was probably better than anything I’ve ever seen him in.
Yes, he’s so brilliant.
He wasn’t playing the jock.
Ed, you’re known for your character “Lou Grant” who originated on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. What were the particular challenges that you experienced in bringing this character from a half hour comedy show, in which you were not the primary lead but rather part of the ensemble cast, to an hour long drama in which you were the primary lead actor?
I was the primary lead actor, but I would say the ensemble cast we had in Lou Grant was as great…if not greater…than the ensemble cast we had on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Every one of them was a “Mercedes” performer. When we started off on that show I put it in the hands of my two producers of The MTM Show. I thought that they could do no wrong. When they decided to make it a one-camera, hour long drama I said to myself, “They’re brilliant. They know what they need to do and they’ll do it.” Well, they didn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground! Nobody that was hired on the show had ever done a one hour show before. So the first year was like search and destroy. Rebecca Balding was fired and Linda Kelsey was brought in and it was a great move. She was perfect.
At a big gathering that CBS had in somebody’s backyard I came across Bud Grant, who was president (of CBS) at the time. I was bemoaning the fact that our ratings were not very high. He said, “Don’t worry! Don’t worry! If this doesn’t work then we’ll try something else.” These were the last words that I wanted to hear, because I wanted this to succeed! After all, it was bearing my character’s name. By the second year, we slowly began to get our act together and to learn how to do an hour show. By the time that we finished we were dealing with most subjects that were occupying American minds.
As a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, what did you find the most challenging for you in serving that position?
Well, I set out very naively; didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground. The attacks that I got from outsiders, Charlton Heston in particular….
What was that all about, Ed?
He (Heston) liked to think that he owned the Guild in those days. At that time, the Guild-the Board-had voted for inclusion of the extras, whose union had become defunct. The idea was to re-absorb the extras into the Screen Actors Guild. Well, that allowed the antipathy of the stunt men and the day players who thought the extras would now be taking their jobs away from them. Seizing the moment, Heston-to capture deadlines-became a “leader” for them. At the same time, I had become outspoken and identified with medical aid for El Salvador, so I was being branded a “communist” in the outside press. Heston used that whenever he could. I became accused of contributing my union’s money to that cause, and I had to scramble to say that’s a crock of shit. People were busy muddying the waters. That was my first adjustment, and it got Lou Grant cancelled.
So that’s what was behind that show’s cancellation? I wondered, because I had heard that it was doing well and of course it won numerous awards.
The show was doing alright. It was never a ratings leader. Because of the content we had you wouldn’t expect it to be. However, it pleased a lot of people because of the issues that we discussed. Bill Paley undoubtedly despised me for taking on an “outside” subject such as medical aid for El Salvador, so he came into the program room one night and he saw it (the Lou Grant show) still up on the board, so he said “Get it off there!”
The contributions you made, Ed! IMHO You took the Screen Actors Guild into modern times, made it socially aware and gave it heart. That’s something to be proud of.
How’s that old expression:keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. That’s the learning process I had to undergo at the Screen Actors Guild. Today, it’s not the power it should be. The merger has weakened the union, in my opinion. That’s why I’m running for the Board again.
Recently, you starred in a one-man play that had its premiere not far from where we are today: A Man and His Prostate at the Malibu Playhouse. That play was written by your old associate Ed. Weinberger.
You’ve talked with Ed. Weinberger already?
Yes. What was it that made you decide to work with Ed. again on that project?
Well, Ed. Weinberger is a wonderful charlatan, and whatever he touches turns to gold. It seemed like a very…well, it was built for me! That play was the male version of “The Vagina Monologues.” He had plenty of time to know how to build this role for me from his experience writing for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
His one big mistake was he had come over from The Johnny Carson Show, and in the first year of The Mary Tyler Moore Show I was asked to appear on The Johnny Carson Show. Well, with Ed. being from that show he tells me “Ed, you gotta prepare! You gotta do this, you gotta do that!” I had taken dance lessons from Peter Gennaro when I was still a budding actor, so Ed. tells me “You can teach Johnny and Ed to do some of the ballet moves that you learned.” It was one of the worst experiences of my life because I was doing everything that Ed. had told me to do, to include in my act, and most of it was cloaked in sweat! It was a horrible experience, and I don’t think that I appeared with Johnny as host ever again! It was always with Jay Leno or Suzanne Pleshette, but never Johnny. So I indite Ed. Weinberger for that terrible, terrible crapping of me, lol! You should have seen me on those ballet moves!
Ed, I’ll bet that you were hot! I’ll bet that you were far more graceful than you’d ever give yourself credit for. You make me want to go on Youtube and see if I can find that episode, lol!
Oh well, sure. Rub it in, go on! Thank god that Ed McMahon was there, because he saved people like me who were “depressed” at Johnny’s aloofness.
Your collaborations with Ed. Weinberger have been consistently successful: both commercially and critically. Why do you think that’s been the case?
Well, we’re both Jew boys looking for the exit.
Your respect-both professionally and personally-for Ed. Weinberger is well known. What particular quality about Weinberger has made it so rewarding and enjoyable for you to work with him through the years?
His adamancy! His positiveness! He can be the biggest pain in the ass, but when all is said and done it’s his belief in himself that trumps everything.
It’s wonderful and refreshing to meet and work with people that really believe in themselves.
I think he’s a man who has known loneliness for a large part of his life and certainly knows how not to sell out.
You’re among the relatively few current actors who’s been successful in the mediums of television, cinema, stage and voice-over. Do you have a favorite medium among these?
Not a one! Not a one! It all depends on the moment, the type, the place, your fellows, what you’re being produced in and around. Everything can change. The most ideal situation, the most star-studded one can still stink. One moment, one line on a voice-over can achieve such magic! One line on Mary Tyler Moore has hounded me all my life: “You’ve got spunk! I hate spunk!” I’ve always regretted that I never had a reprieve which said “I love spunk!”
In switching from television to stage work, what’s been your primary challenge and benefit?
I found that when I had substantial enough roles in television then I didn’t get burdened with upstaging actors, which when you’re starting out in life can be a pain in the ass. The director directs you, the stage manager learns what the moves are, the director leaves and the stage manager is supposed to be watching and making sure that all is in order. He’s not running the keys and the lights and the exits and the entrances and he can’t pay that much attention to the other actors and how they’re screwing you around. With film, you don’t have that. The shot is lined up, the upstage actors are either within earshot or up stage and stay there where can’t deflect or reflect from your presence on-camera. It’s the actor who’s in charge. I know that sounds like a very paranoid actor talking, but when you’re young and actors are doing that with you it’s amazing that there aren’t more fist fights going on through one actor challenging another on the stage. Naturally, if you’re a star you turn around and say “Don’t do that!”
I was accused of such behavior when I was upcoming. I did My Three Angels (later known as We’re No Angels when it was adapted for cinema) at The Drury Lane Theatre with Pat O’Brien. Any other actor doesn’t know in the sense of the upstaging actor that he probably doesn’t know that he’s doing business that he shouldn’t be doing. Dress rehearsal night, when we shifted from the Drury Lane Theatre to the Circle stage of Penthouse, it was after the first act that Pat O’Brien says “Eddie! Vernon! What are you guys doing?!” We’re looking at him in amazement as he tells us “NO! You’re doing this and blah, blah, blah!” I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about! His “elder” paranoia was taking over and Vernon was only acting out his part. Vernon was a very, very dedicated actor that would never cheat. You might find me cheating once in awhile, but never Vernon.
What was Vernon’s last name?
He ended up teaching at the Goodman Theatre. He was a beautiful actor who moved like a snake. I learned by watching him. That’s what really came as a shock to me as an up and coming actor. Both of us were prepping ourselves for New York or Los Angeles. Along the way, either in the Penthouse Theatre or in theatre in Chicago, we came across actors who weren’t driven to go to New York or Los Angeles. They ended up doing community theatre within Dallas (Texas), the Washington arena, Cleveland (Ohio) and such. I thought “That’s nice. They just want to act, marry, have a family and spend their life doing that. So they spend twenty years doing that. So we were prepping a future Broadway show and we were going to open it at the Cleveland Playhouse. They had just replaced their director of many years; brought in a gal to direct us on “Born Yesterday.” She was busy hiring and firing actors that had been there for years. Then I thought “Well, that theory got blown to hell!” It didn’t pay to forsake LA or New York! All this, then after twenty years and you’re raising a family, they shitcan you!
So, an actor might as well go for Los Angeles or New York?
Absolutely! After awhile, it gets hard to trust. It’s hard to invest in only trust.
The author wishes to thank the following:
The wonderful staff of the Skylight Theatre Company, whose gracious generosity made it possible for The Los Angeles Beat to participate in this memorable event.
Photographer Paul Zollo, who generously shared his wonderful, candid photos of this event with The Los Angeles Beat. All photos, except where indicated, courtesy of Paul Zollo Photography Studios. All rights reserved. THANKS PAUL!!!
Videographer Gary Strobl, who kindly connected the author with photographer Paul Zollo, as well as videotaping the entire night’s events for the archive of The Skylight Theatre Company. YOU ROCK, GARY!!!