My chat with Ed Asner
Ed Asner stars in A Man and His Prostate, which is at the Anvil Centre Theatre for two nights only: April 27-28. (photo from ACT)
I did my homework. I had read and watched interviews. I had my questions ready. I was prepared. But Ed Asner is a force of nature – a funny, caring and curious one, but a force of nature nonetheless. And nature is more powerful than the proverbial man. I learned that in high school English class – man has a chance against another man or his own internal demons, but not so much against nature.
I was calling Asner about his upcoming performances in New Westminster at the Anvil Centre Theatre April 27-28. He stars in A Man and His Prostate, written by his longtime friend Ed Weinberger, a multiple-award-winning scribe (including a Writers Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award), who has written for countless TV series – for soooo many comedies. Both Weinberger and Asner know funny, so this show promises to be hilarious. But its purpose is also to make a point: “that point being,” Asner told me succinctly, “get examined.” Hear that, guys?
I’ve interviewed famous people before so that wasn’t the reason I got somewhat flustered in speaking with Asner. Admittedly, I loved and watched every episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff drama Lou Grant. I have enjoyed Asner in various other roles over the years, including on Murdoch Mysteries (as Santa Claus, of all things) and, of course, as the voice of Carl Fredricksen, the grumpy protagonist in Up, who made me cry. Hearing such a well-known voice respond to your questions is very cool, and a little unnerving, but there was more to it.
I called Asner at the number I was given by the publicist for the local show. The woman who answered the phone simply said he’d had to leave and that I should try his cell, so I did, thinking nothing of it. The connection wasn’t great, but I reached Asner – he was in an L.A. hospital waiting to get a CT scan. When I wished him well and said we could reschedule the interview, he said, “Let’s try to talk now. It’ll help me pass the time.”
As I started asking him questions, he stopped me: “Are you uncomfortable doing this?”
“No,” I said, “I’m happy to keep your mind off things if that’s going to help.” I got as far as finding out that Weinberger had approached Asner about a year and a half ago to take on this role, but the line really was bad and we weren’t hearing each other – he said he’d call me back. But it was Asner’s righthand man (Nick, I think) who phoned, telling me that Asner had gone in for his CT, and they would call again once it was complete.
Next call: “Are you OK?” I asked.
“I’m fine. Well, maybe a little dizzy,” said Asner. Or, at least that’s what I think he said. After a spike of feedback came through the phone, I admitted, “I can barely hear you.”
In a louder voice, enunciating carefully and speaking slowly, he responded, “I said, maybe a little bit of syphilis.”
I might have taken a beat before saying, “Oh my. Really?! Is that the headline I can put?”
While it may not be apparent on first meeting, I can be bawdy with the best of them, and I enjoy such banter when all involved are of age and it’s in good fun. And this would turn out to be one of the most fun interviews I’ve conducted.
Laughing, I said, “So it all went well, the CT scan?”
It had indeed. He’d had a fall but was OK. I thanked him for calling me back, and he let me know, “Well, I’m reversing the charges.”
“You should!” I said. “You’re paying for this now. Oh my gosh. I was hoping to get my parents to pay for it.” (I was in Ottawa, and was calling him from my parents’ house.)
“Ah, no, no, no,” he assured me. “Anyway, you’ve got a lovely voice.”
“As do you, of course. But a little more famous than mine.”
“Well, I’ve been working at it longer.”
We eventually returned to where we had left off. “Were you involved in any of the writing process, or is there improv involved?” I asked about the show.
“Not on this,” said Asner. “I worked with him [Weinberger] on our book together, called The Grouchy Historian, which came out in October. We worked together on that, but he wrote A Man and His Prostate all by himself.”
“And you obviously liked what he wrote.”
“I love it.”
Asner said his first performance of A Man and His Prostate was in the fall of 2016, but then he stopped the interview again, leaving the phone with Nick – the two were still at the hospital, about to grab a very late lunch. Getting into a rhythm for this interview was proving impossible. Case in point, when Asner returned to the line, he started interviewing me. Why was I calling from Ottawa? I explained I was at home for Passover and asked if he had attended a seder. “No, we were on the road,” he said, going on to ask me about the weather in Ottawa, how many were in my family, whether I had grown up in Vancouver. When I let him know that I had grown up in Winnipeg, he said, “Oh, God.” And, while I fumbled to regain my role as interviewer, he continued his train of thought, “Froze your ass off didn’t you?”
“I did,” I admitted. “And that’s why I live in Vancouver now.”
After some PG-rated politically incorrect exchanges, I managed to get back to my questions.
The first shows of A Man and His Prostate were in California, he said, then they did a few in New York.
“Do you do what the show preaches? Do you get regular prostate exams?” I asked.
“Well, I’m due for one, I must tell you,” he said.
Asner called A Man and His Prostate “wonderfully funny,” and said “it stresses a very important point – that point being, get examined.”
He said the show is “very rewarding to do because the laughter is prevalent.”
At 88, he has no plans to retire. As for his beginnings in the profession, he said his desire to be an actor “didn’t achieve consciousness until I did the lead in the play at university.” He said, “I had done radio in high school, and loved it, but full-fledged stage-acting, I hadn’t thought of that.”
That doesn’t mean he didn’t like the spotlight as a kid. “I loved to get up and sing Adon Olam louder than anyone else,” he said, adding, “My bar mitzvah was a failure.”
He explained, “I spoke too fast, and angered my father. I put my hands behind my back, hovering over my ass, that angered him, as well. I was a prize student … but that bar mitzvah was not of prime quality.”
Asner grew up in an Orthodox home and, he said, “I’d say I pursued acting, probably, as part of my atonement” for his bar mitzvah. He said acting was at least a partial atonement in that it involved “pleasing the crowd, reciting or reading the script correctly and empathetically … all kinds of things.”
While no longer religious, Asner attributed his activism to “the intensity of my raising, the love of my parents, the constant identification as a Jew, [being] born in the time of Hitler.”
The actor has seven grandchildren. When I asked about whether he actively tries to engage them in the world around them, he joked, “Nope. I don’t like ’em.”
“You only hang out with them when you have to?” I asked.
“Uh huh. They don’t like me. It’s a perfect fit.”
I told him how much I enjoyed the Funny or Die video Old People Don’t Care About Climate Change, in which he took part. I mentioned it because one of his lines in it is, “My grandkids are spoiled anyway. They could use a little hardship.” The video’s message, of course, is that younger people must take action to protect the environment.
“I worship the earth,” Asner told me. “I don’t necessarily worship any god.”
Returning to the reason for the interview, I asked him whether he had anything else to say about A Man and His Prostate. “You’ll be there, and you’ll see how right I was to urge you to come,” he said.
The show is about Weinberger’s “journey to discover his inner self both literally and figuratively,” reads the press material. “This near tragedy is masterfully transformed into a poignant monologue perfectly portrayed by Asner as he visits the hospital in preparation for a surgery he needs but doesn’t want.”
“There’s mostly jokes all the way, or building up to a joke,” Asner said. “But then we get to that little section where I talk about the celebrities who have died – it’s a long list of celebrities – and I make the serious point that, every 16 minutes, a man dies of prostate cancer in the United States.”
As we wound up, he said, “You’re a wonderful interviewer, I don’t care what they say about you.”
“You should only believe half the rumours,” I returned.
A charmer to the end, he said, “I can’t wait to meet you.”
After I told him I didn’t think that was an option for me, he asked, “Why not?”
“Because you’re you!”
He told me to tell the publicist, “Well, say that I asked for you.”
“OK,” I said. “And I’ve now got it on tape, so I can actually prove that I’m not just making that up.”
“That’s right,” he agreed. “That’s absolutely right.”
He said, I “could even bring Momma” – my mother had answered the phone when he called back.
“Momma might even fly to Vancouver for that,” I responded before handing the phone over to my mom so she could say goodbye.
For tickets ($75) to A Man and His Prostate at the Anvil Centre Theatre April 27-28, 7:30 p.m., visit ticketsnw.ca or call 604-521-5050.