Actor’s evolution: Kansas native Ed Asner returns home for unique, polarizing play

Ed Asner performs the role of anti-evolution statesman William Jennings Bryan in The

Ed Asner, seated in front, portrays William Jennings Bryan in the L.A. Theatre Works presentation of “The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial.”

At 79, Ed Asner is having no trouble finding work.

The seven-time Emmy winner is still best known for his portrayal of Lou Grant, both on TV’s “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its equally revered spinoff “Lou Grant.” But lately he seems to be turning up most everywhere a wise and/or gruff role is to be had.

On the heels of “WALL-E,” Asner takes the lead in the next Pixar animated feature, “Up,” as an old man who transforms his house into an airship. His iconic voice is a mainstay in cartoons and video games involving pop culture juggernauts such as Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men and Star Wars. He also frequently joins Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” in a recurring segment called “Does This Impress Ed Asner?”

Now the Kansas City, Kan., native is returning to his home state for an unusual piece of live theater. Asner takes the role of anti-evolution statesman William Jennings Bryan in the L.A. Theatre Works’ presentation of “The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial.” Flanked by a notable cast that includes John Heard, Carolyn Seymour and Arye Gross, Asner’s production dramatizes the 1925 Tennessee v. John Scopes “Monkey Trial,” which challenged the Butler Act ban on teaching evolution in public schools.

The former Screen Actors Guild president and noted political activist recently spoke with the Journal-World about his career.

Q: How often do you get back to Kansas?

A: Not often. I don’t like to travel anywhere anymore. This road trip is primarily dictated by the fact I love this role and the show so much. And it’s to get me out of town, where I’d be going nuts with (Hollywood) labor problems.

Q: “Monkey Trial” is set over 80 years ago. What issues does it explore that are still relevant today?

A: Nothing has changed. The attack mode has become much more subtle, but the enemy is very tight and secure. They surface like moles at night and perform their tunneling.

Q: How do you feel about performing the play just a few miles down the road from Topeka, which has been known for having a school board that doesn’t favor teaching evolution?

A: I’m proud to be from Kansas, and I’m proud of many of the things that Kansas has stood for. But I’m just appalled in this day and age that fundamentalism can have that much sway in the state.

Q: I’m assuming much of William Jennings Bryan’s dialogue you deliver in the play is counter to what you believe personally. Is it ever difficult to say certain lines with conviction?

A: No, because I know it came from his heart. The man intensely believed in the Bible. He wasn’t capable of withstanding expert questioning on it — as we find in the play. His having to answer questions and follow-up questions thereby proves his inadequacy of being a true carrier of the belief. He accepts the belief totally, but he can not support it totally. I’ve whittled down this controversy to being a battle between the mind and the heart.

Q: Was there a turning point in your life where you decided to become more politically active?

A: I was always roiling inside internally. I can’t really point to what made me a liberal: the family I came from, the times I grew up in, being a Jew in Kansas. But it was not until 1982 when I came out and showed my strong support for El Salvador and its people and needs that I became branded as a communist and (“Lou Grant”) got canceled. I guess I became an activist from that point on.

Q: Prior to that had you kept your viewpoints under wraps?

A: Yes. The memory of the blacklist was still around. It dictated our every move. I would constantly check myself. “Should I say something? No, I haven’t advanced enough yet. I’m not safe enough yet.” I certainly wasn’t taking a bold move in my mind. I was doing what I considered a humanistic effort. When I found that it was not regarded as humanism but communism, I found I was in for a pounding instead of a penny.

Q: From which of your roles do you continue to receive the most feedback?

A: “Rich Man, Poor Man” certainly gets me a lot of memories. “Lou Grant” in toto is a massive iceberg that can’t be ignored. (Playing Santa Claus in) “Elf” certainly got me a lot of attention. I’ll be coming out May 29 with the new Pixar picture, “Up.” That’s quite an honor.

Q: How did you get so involved in voice work?

A: Looking for work. My first activity was in radio in high school. I’ve always loved doing voice work. … It’s an easy couch to fall back on. And you don’t have to shave.

Q: The performance of “Monkey Trial” is in many ways a staging of a radio play. Do you differentiate between how you approach that and a typical play?

A: Not really. We’re not totally off lines. We take a peek here and there to the script. But it creates its own essence. It lives by that. It intrigues the audience as much, if not more, than if they were seeing an appropriately staged play.

Q: What’s the best advice you’ve received about acting?

A: Make it simple. An actor is always being told by the director “faster, faster.” The actor always resists that. And not until I directed scenes did I finally realize what they were talking about. The actor falls in love with what he’s doing, to such an extent that the audience is not necessarily always carried along with him in that love.

Q: Do you think your skills improve with each project?

A: I’m a better actor now than I’ve ever been. My mind is better. I’ve got the field of experience. I can spot when I’m being phony before other people can.

Q: What question do people ask you the most?

A: People on the street were always asking me stupid questions, and I wanted to bop them. Stuff like, “Why are you so mean to Mary?”