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Television Icon Ed Asner Comes To Poway As FDR

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Aired 2/18/10

He may be best known as the crusty newsroom editor Lou Grant from the old Mary Tyler Moore show, but these days he's acting more presidential. Ed Asner is currently touring the country in a one-man show called "FDR." We talk with him about playing presidential and his voice work for the recent Pixar hit movie "Up."

Actor Ed Asner as Franklin D. Roosevelt in the one-man show "FDR."
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Above: Actor Ed Asner as Franklin D. Roosevelt in the one-man show "FDR."

Ed Asner brings his one man show FDR to the Poway Center for the Performing Arts for one night only, Saturday, Feb. 20th at 8pm.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My next guest inspired a generation of female reporters to search in vain for their own Mr. Grant. On the Mary Tyler Moore TV Show, actor Ed Asner's Lou Grant was the definitive gruff, no-nonsense newsman with a heart of gold who loved Raymond Chandler and hated women with spunk. And now, a new generation has its own iconic grumpy performance by Ed Asner, as the widower Carl Fredricksen in Pixar's Academy Award nominee for best picture, “UP.” This weekend, actor Ed Asner comes to town for a one-night, one-man show, portraying President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the play "FDR." It’s a pleasure to welcome Ed Asner to These Days. Good morning, Ed.

ED ASNER (Actor): Morning to you. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: I’m doing quite well. Thank you so much for sp…

ASNER: That was quite an introduction.

CAVANAUGH: I’m glad you liked it.

ASNER: I loved it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I – President Roosevelt, I don’t know, to me seem so much more debonair and diplomatic than the characters you usually play.

ASNER: Oh, come on.

CAVANAUGH: Isn’t he?

ASNER: Come on. I mean, I’m not as cute as he was. Well…

CAVANAUGH: Well, I wasn’t talking physically. I was just – he just seems like so much more of a warm, fuzzy kind of a guy.

ASNER: Yeah, you know, you mean I am.

CAVANAUGH: That’s right.

ASNER: Yeah, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Is this a change of pace for you, playing the president, President Roosevelt?

ASNER: Oh, yeah, you know, it – I mean, I’ve played the high board before. I’ve done Shakespeare in my youth.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ASNER: And it – No, I am not a lookalike.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ASNER: But I try to make a lookalike and I try to make a soundalike. And I succeed better at sound than I do looks.

CAVANAUGH: That is some accent to try to recapture.

ASNER: Yeah, it’s a very New York accent.

CAVANAUGH: That’s right. What memories do you have of FDR as president?

ASNER: Well, I was in high school. On my way home from high school when I heard the news. And as I tell everybody, it was like God, the Father, had died. I – The only president, excuse me, the only president I had known. I had – I didn’t know the Depression, I was too damn young. I certainly knew the war. And I knew that he had brought us out of the Depression and that he had – on the verge of bringing us out of the war, so I thought who could top that? Who could possibly replace him? And I—excuse the blower outside from the gardener.

CAVANAUGH: That’s quite all right.

ASNER: I don’t know what to say. I come from Kansas City, the Kansas side. And when Truman was first made vice president, we all guffawed because we thought he was a tool of the dinner guest machine.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ASNER: But as time developed, we saw that Truman was an effective president if you agreed with the policies that he endorsed.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, there are some, actually quite many people who think Franklin Roosevelt was one of our two or perhaps three greatest presidents. Do you agree with that?

ASNER: I totally agree with it.

CAVANAUGH: What do you admire most about his presidency?

ASNER: He was – First of all, he was a great speaker. They engineered it enough that, as a kid, I certainly didn’t think of him as a cripple.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ASNER: And they were able to control the press sufficiently so that he was always seen either sitting down at his office or standing behind a podium. Rarely did you see steps by him. The Depression was the worst this country had ever experienced. He – We had been three years into the Depression when he took over. Nothing was being done. He stepped in with his brain trust and began to institute all kinds of changes and it saved the country. The – At the same time, he was preparing us for war, and many people thought he brought us into war.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ASNER: Well, I think that if America had done nothing, allowed Britain to be eventually swallowed up, allowed Russia to be ravaged to the nth degree, and if, finally, he had made allies of the conquered people as the Romans did, he would’ve sat on that big island with his V2 Rockets or whatever, and he would’ve looked across and we would’ve either been nice, friendly neighbors or he would’ve gone into South America. He would – He had to have more. The machine needed more.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ASNER: And so Roosevelt’s preparation, even though our entry into the war was via Japan, I think he knew that Japan was going to make a move against us because of the way we were acting. But I certainly don’t think he had any idea that Pearl Harbor could be ravaged the way it was.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with actor Ed Asner who’s coming to San Diego, Poway, actually, for a one-night, one-man show, portraying Frank – Franklin D. Roosevelt in the play “FDR.” You know, to get back to the idea of President Roosevelt being the Depression president, the president who led us out of the Depression, it must be interesting to tell his story right now during this great recession that we’re in. How do you think President Roosevelt would’ve looked at this hard – the hard times we’re in now?

ASNER: I think he would’ve been much more aggressive. I think he would’ve gone to the people far more. I think he would’ve been more effective in going to the people. I think he certainly would have listened to the left more than President Obama has done. And he would’ve branded the arms-folded, sitting-on-their-asses Republicans in what they’ve done in Congress with everything that’s come down, certainly in Obama’s time.

CAVANAUGH: Now…

ASNER: (coughing) I’m sorry. I…

CAVANAUGH: That’s quite all right, sir, just – I’m wondering, though, when you say go to the people, it’s – I’m reminded of FDR’s Fireside Chats and there are, from my understanding, an awful lot of those. Did you listen to those as you prepared for this performance?

ASNER: No, I didn’t.

CAVANAUGH: Oh.

ASNER: I didn’t. I listened to a few speeches. I didn’t have the Firesides, though. I was mastering the lines.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

ASNER: And that’s what took my time. I spent two months on that.

CAVANAUGH: You know, you mentioned before the fact that FDR was rarely photographed in a wheelchair. How do you deal with his physical limitations in the play?

ASNER: Well, he speaks of the fact that the wheelchair, which is there and which is what I use to sit in at the desk, and I move about with the aid of two canes, which I was able to do—which Roosevelt was able to do—after a certain period of time to get off the crutches…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ASNER: …which really embarrassed him.

CAVANAUGH: Now that sounds physically challenging for you to have to move around the stage with those canes.

ASNER: Oh, I can use them in real life.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, so it’s not that…

ASNER: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …it’s not that bad.

ASNER: Yeah, yeah. No, they give me the support I need. I need a right hip operation anyway, so…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.

ASNER: …it’s a help.

CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us about the timeframe of this play. What does it encompass?

ASNER: You can roughly say that it begins, I would roughly say, I mean, he comes back from the dead, let’s say, but we don’t talk about that.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ASNER: He begins talking about the period in his life – he briefly mentions his paralysis and all that. And you can roughly say that it begins in 1924 with his nomination of Al Smith, goes through 1928 when he was talked by Al Smith into both nominating him again and running for governor of New York. And he won the governorship and was reelected again.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ASNER: Then it takes us through 1932 and the campaign, the ’34 elections, the ’36 elections, the controversy over the packing of the court.

CAVANAUGH: The Supreme Court, yes.

ASNER: Yeah. He – The loss of Louis Howe, which was a tremendous loss for him.

CAVANAUGH: Well, who was Louis Howe?

ASNER: He was his chief advisor.

CAVANAUGH: I see.

ASNER: His amanuensis, his idea man. In 1911, Louis Howe wrote a letter to Roosevelt addressing him as ‘future Mr. President.’

CAVANAUGH: Aha, I see. I see.

ASNER: Yeah. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Very important man in his life.

ASNER: He truly was. Harry Hopkins took over and Harry Hopkins was very, very important to Roosevelt.

CAVANAUGH: Do you touch on his relationship with Lucy Mercer?

ASNER: Yeah, we do.

CAVANAUGH: And that was – he has an affair with Lucy Mercer and, you know, of course his wife was Eleanor. So how is that dealt with in the play?

ASNER: What’s that?

CAVANAUGH: How is that affair dealt with in the play?

ASNER: In a conversation with my daughter Anna.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ASNER: And in talking to the audience, I speak of the fact that our relationship is not what it was during the early years of our marriage. I say perhaps it’s due to my illness, perhaps her many activities, but in the main, the blame – I – I take most of the blame. And then I have an argument with my daughter Anna.

CAVANAUGH: About that.

ASNER: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: So basically this encompasses the great part of FDR’s public life.

ASNER: Right.

CAVANAUGH: And coming away from this play, do you think that there’s a lack of knowledge about the tremendous force that FDR was in this nation?

ASNER: I do. The young don’t know it. Too many of the old have forgotten it, and, I think, the lessons and the combativeness. Now, one of Roosevelt’s chief statements was ‘I love my enemies.’ Now when do you think you could ever hear that from a President of the United States these days?

CAVANAUGH: It seems that that’s a dimension of politics we’ve lost.

ASNER: That’s right. That’s right. They talk about compromise, and that’s all Obama talked about. They talk about change. I haven’t seen the change. I heard your earlier discussion saying that the market was better in terms of real estate in your area…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

ASNER: …and unemployment’s picking up. That’s fine. I think that’s – that’s probably just due to – we can’t totally fail or the corporations will fail so they gotta keep the minnows feeding somehow. I think that the message is – And also, let’s face it, what’s going on in Europe certainly affects us and, God knows, from what I’ve been reading our big banks have been tooling around messing in European affairs so that I – I want to see how long this lasts. And…

CAVANAUGH: Well…

ASNER: Go ahead.

CAVANAUGH: I was just going to say, you know, you’re getting into world politics and I was just about to ask you about your Pixar movie.

ASNER: Go.

CAVANAUGH: I hope that isn’t too much of a change for you. But I did mention that you are the voice, the primary voice in “UP” of Carl Fredricksen. Your voice stars in that movie. How surprised were you that it was nominated for a Best Picture?

ASNER: Well, I knew it stood a good chance once they enlarged the category…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ASNER: …to ten pictures. My only concern is that it could disturb the vote and we could lose as Best Picture and as Best Animated. But they’ll get good publicity out of it and they even re – you know, put on up at the movie on Hollywood Boulevard…

CAVANAUGH: That’s…

ASNER: …brought it back, so…

CAVANAUGH: That’s fabulous.

ASNER: …I guess the business has been stimulated.

CAVANAUGH: Are you going to the Academy Awards?

ASNER: I’m considering it. I’m not nominated so it doesn’t matter.

CAVANAUGH: I know but it might be fun.

ASNER: Never been. Never been.

CAVANAUGH: Really?

ASNER: No. I want to see what the animals are like.

CAVANAUGH: Ed Asner, thank you so much for speaking with us, really.

ASNER: Oh, my pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Ed Asner brings his one-man show “FDR” to the Poway Center for the Performing Arts for one night only. It’s this Saturday, February 20th, at 8:00 p.m. And, as always, if you would like to comment on anything you hear on These Days, you can go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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