Final Bow

Final Bow: Television Great and Grace Star Ed Asner Shines a Light on Pukers, Punch Lines, and Paul Rudd

The legendary actor offers profound commentary on his latest role.

Every show ends sometime (unless you’re Phantom), so before the cast takes their final bow, there are a few things we want to know.

Next in our series is Grace star Ed Asner, the seven-time Emmy Award winner (and 20 time nominee), whose massive television and film resume includes classics like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant, Elf, and Up. Grace marks Asner’s return to Broadway for the first time in over two decades — and over fifty years after he made his Broadway debut in The Threepenny Opera. We chatted with the lovably cantankerous, and incredibly profound, Asner about disruptive pukers, working with Paul Rudd, and how presenting a play with gun violence is difficult in these perilous times.

Ed Asner in <i>Grace</i>, and with his brand new Sardi's caricature
Ed Asner in Grace, and with his brand new Sardi’s caricature
(© Joan Marcus, David Gordon)

Name: Ed Asner
Role/Show: Karl/Grace

1. What is your favorite line that you delivered?
I have so many. I always count on, ‘I don’t know who made the Earth. I woke up alive one morning and it’s here.’ A friend and his wife were here the other night and he said his favorite line was ‘There is something.’ His wife said, “No, the important line is ‘I understand.'” That one is a pretty good line to make a sucker of you.

2. Everyone loves inside jokes. So tell us…
a. What’s the best one from your show?
b. Since there probably is one, what’s the punch line of your cast’s most unprintable inside joke?

We don’t have any. Every time I try a joke within the play itself, our stage manager jumps on me and says “Don’t, don’t, don’t.” I don’t get in Michael Shannon’s way, because he is so concentrated on his character and I don’t want him to resent me as an outside influence. Paul Rudd is the same way, but he adapts easier than Michael does. When I’m working with Kate Arrington on stage, I always find ways to nuzzle and assault her, and for the most part she bears up against it all. But there is no actual joke I can think of. I’ve been in too many productions where the joke is carried too far, and a joke carried too far can become corrosive.

3. Every show experiences technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty experienced during your show and how was it handled?
I was not on stage when we had the phenomenal circumstance of a puker. That was very disruptive to Paul and Michael, but I was blithely unconcerned. I don’t think they realized what was causing it, so they became resentful of the disturbance and began talking louder and louder because of the noise. They finished the scene, to their unhappiness, came backstage, and found out what the cause was.

4. What was the most “interesting” present someone gave you at the stage door?
Ours are a stingy bunch of fans. They never took me out to dinner or got me laid. But the enthusiasm for which they greet us, and the joy they express at having seen the show, is well worth it. Our show started off with a bang, and then to have Hurricane Sandy, the Nor’Easter, the Election, and the Connecticut slaughter come upon a show in which gunshots take place, the audiences we’ve had recently were somewhat depressed. So it’s been an uphill battle on this show to get its quality out there under level playing field conditions.

5. Who is the coolest person that came to see your show? (You can’t say your family!)

I’ve been delighted by visits from Ellen Burstyn, Dan Lauria, Oliver Platt, Mike Nichols (an old acquaintance), Tyne Daly, and Sharon Gless, among others.

6. What was it about Grace that brought you back to Broadway after all these years?
It’s a short role, but a good role. A hopeful role. One that you can pin something on. And, it’s a fascinating play. I realized it poses the question, goes back and forth like ping pong, and doesn’t really answer the question. So many people have testified to me that it gives them something to think about. And they enjoy the challenge of thinking.

7. If you could trade roles with Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, or Kate Arrington, who would it be and why?

Only that I think it’s a superhuman task that he has undertaken and executed beautifully, I would want to test Paul’s character just to see if I could even approach the variety and substance he gives it.

8. What do you do with your time off stage?

I read and make phone calls.

9. How is Broadway different now than it was in the 1950s, when you made your debut in The Threepenny Opera?

I find that there are a lot of leaks in the dike now. Cheap is the answer and it’s not just here, it’s the same wherever you are in showbiz, film or stage. Cheap is the executive word. Frailty is what exists everywhere. Keep the juggernaut going no matter what, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. And I suppose behind that is the idea of fear. There is a lot more fear now in the business. Years ago, I said ‘Who gives a f**k? I’ll stay in my bailiwick and I’ll cut my piece of cheese.’ There seems to be a lot more fear now about even getting your piece of cheese. Also, when I started out, you had to apologize for being an actor. Now, with the conditions of society, the field is so filled with actors and wannabes that it must be one of the leading occupations.

10. You’ve returned to Broadway in a play. In a fantasy world, what musical would you like to take on?

Man of La Mancha. I can’t sing like Richard Kiely, but his performance is so beautiful. It’s a gorgeous tale, and features one of the greatest songs ever written [“The Impossible Dream”]. I think people who see that show and hear its music have the same feeling as they do at Grace. People who see Grace are thankful for the time out we’ve given them, and that same feeling must be incurred by Man of La Mancha.

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Closed: January 6, 2013