Archive for Friday, January 30, 2009

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 Great Tennessee Monkey Trial."

Ed Asner performs the role of anti-evolution statesman William Jennings Bryan in "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial."

January 30, 2009


Past Event
"The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial"

starring Ed Asner

  • When: Wednesday, February 4, 2009, 7:30 p.m.
  • Where: Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive, KU campus, Lawrence
  • Cost: $13 - $35
  • More on this event....
Ed Asner, seated in front, portrays William Jennings Bryan in the L.A. Theatre Works presentation of “The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial.”

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?”


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 10 months ago

Where is this play being staged (more specifically than in Kansas?)

beawolf 8 years, 10 months ago

A few miles down the road from Topeka.

trombeck 8 years, 10 months ago

Oops...we didn't get the breakout online yet. The performance is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lied Center at KU. We'll get more info. online.Terry RombeckFeatures/special sections editor

jonas_opines 8 years, 10 months ago

This thread contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin and development of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Left_handed 8 years, 10 months ago

Another bloviating liberal actor who should stick to his art and keep his trap shut otherwise.The expression is "preaching to the choir". Try to get it right.

cthulhu_4_president 8 years, 10 months ago

jonas: It has been and %99.75 of scientists agree. About the same amount that agree with the "theory" of gravity. If a better theory comes along with better evidence, it will self-correct. That's the wonderful thing about objective science. The "critical, open mindedness" that pushers of intelligent design speak of could be seen as a precedent to argue that alchemy should be taught alongside physics (pesky 'theory" of relativity. It's only a theory, so why shouldn't we also learn about the theory of turning lead into gold?), magic instead of math (pythegorean "theorem" anyone?), and astrology alongside astronomy.The problem with everything being credible is that nothing is credible. Hence the need for objective science, based on evaluable evidence at hand, which is the foundation of civilized life as we know it.

cthulhu_4_president 8 years, 10 months ago

To specify: "foundation of civilized life" is not to be interpreted as "origin of life", but rather the source of all utility, products, and technology that the inhabitant of an industrialized society is likely to encounter.Just to clarify....

cthulhu_4_president 8 years, 10 months ago

75x55, perhaps I should have said "newer, objective" evidence rather than "better", as just because something is new doesn't make it true or better (see windows vista lol).

cthulhu_4_president 8 years, 10 months ago

75x55 as an aside, could it not be argued that the process of objective reasoning is an ancestor of the modern scientific method?

BigPrune 8 years, 10 months ago

I'm glad they ran this "where are they now?" article. I always wondered what happened to Lou Grunt.

cthulhu_4_president 8 years, 10 months ago

75x55: good points. Among most published scientific works, the process of peer review keeps the objectivity in check, although it is an imperfect process (like any process), but it is improving. I admit, I was a little confused when I first read your first sentance, as it seemed to say "Objective is a subjective term", but I believe I know what you mean.-----------------------Certainly that could be argued - it seems, however, that 'scientific method' and it's inherent bias to naturalism has become the pinnacle of discovery of knowledge and truth - instead of a limited branch of that process.--------------------------Not sure about the "bias" to naturalism, but again the peer review process is useful here. Again, it depends on the peers and the process is improving, but if a bias is observed, it may be because nature usually has the answer, and in absence of evidence of any other phenomena, nature is the best answer. However, I would argue that the scientific method is no pinnacle, but rather it is the process you speak of. This is a common misconception: that science is out to gather facts and record them for all to obey. That is not so. Rather, it is an ongoing, self-correcting process, which makes it so fascinating. Any scientist who values the truth isn't afraid to retract his statements if they are displaced by a more appropriate theory. This has been true from the early Geocentric models of the universe, to theories of atom formation and the nature of light, to the modern day.

BigPrune 8 years, 10 months ago

7th Heaven?Why does Asner claim he came out of the liberal closet in 1982? He was liberal prior to that date. Is he trying to claim his liberal activism cancelled Lou Grunt when in reality the ratings sucked? One of his sons was an ACLU attorney in the 1970's.

Lesta 8 years, 10 months ago

Don't forget that Free State's Ed Asner is an awesome beer...

alm77 8 years, 10 months ago

I got it Jonas. Even if other people didn't. ;) And to you, I say: :P pblpblpblpblpbl..... And yes, it was an awesome interview!

jonas_opines 8 years, 10 months ago

alm77: Funny thing to me was that I actually didn't read the article this morning and didn't realize the play was actually about evolution. As a result, it's not quite as clever as I had originally thought it to be. Regardless, if some out there genuinely thought my sense of humor was funny then my sense of decency (sparse as it is) would probably force me to reevaluate it.

Godot 8 years, 10 months ago

It is karma that as a person ages, his soul shines through his countenance.

Godot 8 years, 10 months ago

Clarification: As one ages, one's soul is, more and more, revealed by one's countenance.

Darrell Lea 8 years, 10 months ago

I was employed at Caper's Corner Records, 4620 Mission Rd., Kansas City, Kansas, from August of 1977 to February of 1981. I had the pleasure of meeting Ed several times during that period, and earned my wage working for his older brother Ben during that time.The water bed store was Temple Slug. 7th Heaven was/is just another sleazy place on Troost, not even in the same league as the other businesses.Say what you want about his politics and his perceptions, but Mr. Asner has worked hard all his life and earned everything he's got. He's a good man who has contributed much to the cultural landscape.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.