Ed Asner to play FDR in one-man play in Longview

Emmy-winning actor thrilled to portray one of his heroes

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter



If you go

What: Ed Asner stars in a one-man play based on Dore Schary’s “Sunrise at Campobello.” The play looks at the life of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Where: Columbia Theatre, 1231 Vandercook Way, Longview.

When: 7:30 p.m. May 18.

Cost: $25 to $60.

Information: http://columbiatheatre.com/2012/05/ed-asner-as-fdf/ or 360-575-8499.

Ed Asner remembers well what he was doing the day Franklin Delano Roosevelt died.

The 82-year-old actor was a sophomore at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City when the iconic president succumbed to a stroke on April 12, 1945, even as World War II continued to rage.

“I just remember walking home from school in a fog thinking ‘what will happen to us?’” Asner said. “He felt like God the father over the years.”

Asner will perform in a play about Roosevelt at the Columbia Theatre in Longview on May 18.

Roosevelt was president for 12 years over four terms, which was most of Asner’s 15-year-old life back in 1945. The former president was, and still is, one of Asner’s biggest heroes, the seven-time Emmy Award winner said.

“I’ve not deviated from being a Roosevelt Democrat,” Asner said proudly. “I love him. I think he perhaps could be the greatest president we ever had. Him and Lincoln.”

Gian Paul Morelli, executive director of the Columbia Theatre, said he was thrilled to book Asner for the production. FDR is also his hero, Morelli said.

“This (story of FDR’s life) is a little bit of a history lesson in what should be a rocking election year,” Morelli said. “I think Ed Asner is a perfect choice for this role. To have someone with such an affinity for the character, and at his age wanting to share this with an audience, is tremendous.”

Asner is well-known for his role as Lou Grant on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” during the 1970s and more recently for

the voice acting role of Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s “Up.” He became a professional actor in the 1950s and has been in steady demand since then.

He was also president of the Screen Actors Guild for two terms from 1981 to 1985.

“He has a cross-generational connection,” Morelli said. “My mother, who’s his age, knows all about him. I know him as Lou Grant, and kids, they know him from ‘Up.’”

It was sort of on a whim some years back -- when Asner was a participating performer on a cruise ship -- that a friend offered Asner a script based on “Sunrise at Campobello,” a play about Roosevelt’s life.

“I had nothing to do so they gave me this piece to read,” Asner said. “It came off well.”

The audience liked his reading, and the gruff-voiced actor enjoyed the play so much that he decided to take it on the road. He’s been performing it in venues around the U.S. for three years now.

“I was curious to see at this stage in life if I could do a one-man show,” Asner said.

The play investigates FDR’s fight against partial paralysis and tells a personal story of his years in the White House from the Great Depression through the war years. The original version, which included more than one actor, won a Tony Award in 1958 for best play.

Morelli, who’s never seen Asner perform on stage before, said he’s eagerly awaiting the performance.

“It is the culmination of the Columbia Theatre season,” Morelli said. “I’m like a kid in a candy store about it. It’s a big deal for us as an organization and for the community.”

Asner said he hopes he brings a good deal of what he calls “oomph” to the role.

“Oomph, that’s getting the energy into it,” he said.

Asner remembers Roosevelt as a tough and versatile man who was in the perfect place to help the country get through one of the most difficult times in its history, he said.

“His enemies made him strong,” Asner said. “When I do the performance, I know that everyone in that audience still yearns for the achievements that were derived by Roosevelt.”

He added that he hopes movements like Occupy Wall Street can provoke some Roosevelt-like changes in modern America.

“It’s people getting off their ass, saying ‘we don’t like the situation as it is,’” Asner said. “It’s great that they’ve done something. We need vast restructuring in this country, money controls too much, the unions have been whittled down to nothing, journalism has been bought and sold.”

Asner said he’s been to the Pacific Northwest several times over his career.

“I love the West Coast,” he said. “I’ve been to Astoria, Portland, Vancouver. I love it all. And when I appear, there’s no rain.”

He hopes a good crowd will turn up at the 800-seat venue to check out his performance. It’s a good time to be reminded about the importance of a president like Roosevelt, he said.

“It’s like in Camelot. I want people to realize there once was a place called America, and we were great,” Asner said. “And I don’t think America is that great right now. I would like the hopes and dreams (of the people) to be realized, and I think we can be even greater one day.”