No ordinary time
Ed Asner’s portrayal of FDR resonates for a new age
By Jenny Lower 03/07/2013
Ed Asner was a sophomore in high school when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. The four-term president had held the post of commander in chief for most of Asner’s life. When he finally succumbed to a stroke in April 1945 — often considered to have been brought on by stress from leading the allied effort in World War II, — less than a month before VE Day. “It was like God the Father had been taken away.”
The former television star, who won seven Emmys for his portrayal of a gruff newsman on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff drama Lou Grant, portrays the 32nd president in a special performance at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on March 10. Asner recently had minor surgery for a clogged artery and, at 83, is two decades older than FDR was at the time of his death.
The one-man show is based on Sunrise at Campobello, a 1958 Tony-winning Broadway play penned by Dore Schary, the Hollywood producer. This version focuses on the Depression and the events leading up to World War II, FDR’s affair with his mistress Lucy Mercer, and controversies over his efforts to stack the Supreme Court to protect his progressive agenda.
Despite spending much of his adult life in a wheelchair, the charismatic 32nd president was “an Adonis” — a quality Asner shares in spades, the actor jokes — Roosevelt the light-hearted prankster nevertheless “liked to keep his counsel until the very end. So he took [advice] from everybody, and rolled it around in his mind, then waited to see what he came up with.”
With FDR’s upper-crust New York accent imprinted on his memory from years of radio and news reels, Asner aimed to replicate the president’s distinctive cadence onstage. “I certainly don’t look like him, and I’m not a speech expert,” says Asner. “I concentrated on delivering his ideas and his Rooseveltian manner. I begin with a voiceover, and I’m always amazed that it’s me sounding like Roosevelt.”
A former Screen Actors Guild president, Asner has become an outspoken political advocate. He opposes fracking, torture, the erosion of personal liberties, and has expressed concern for the impact the sequester crisis will have on poor families. He regards 9/11 as a conspiracy. In December, he angered conservatives by narrating an animated video for the California Federation of Teachers that criticized the wealthy for paying less than their fair share of taxes.
Asner sees several parallels between the New Deal era and our own. When the show originated three years ago, Obama was struggling through his first term. “I was hoping to perhaps ignite him to emulate Roosevelt more than he was,” says Asner. In both cases, he explains, a Democratic president was dealing with a financial crisis precipitated by a Republican predecessor. But of the two men, “Obama has been less the statesman. He’s a constitutional scholar, and he seems to have left that at home.”
The current president would do well to take a few lessons from his predecessor, says Asner. “He needs to demonstrate more liberalism, and more obstinancy. Roosevelt would not have allowed the poor to be punished as Obama seems to be.” FDR’s great strengths, Asner says, lay in “his courage, his ability to look at the whole picture and make his move cautiously — but always make a move. He may have lost votes in Congress and the Supreme Court. But the vast majority of people came to approve and applaud his attempts.
“Roosevelt put out his desires to the people. He knew what the people needed and wanted, and he fought for it.”
Ed Asner as FDR, March 10, 7:30 p.m. at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. 449-2700 or www.civicartsplaza.com.