For the first time in 23 years, beloved TV curmudgeon Ed Asner is back on Broadway in Grace, a dark comedy about the search for faith. Asner made his Broadway debut in Face of a Hero in 1960, but he’s best known for his Emmy-winning turn as news producer Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its subsequent spinoff, Lou Grant. On TV’s Roots, Asner earned an additional Emmy for his chilling portrayal of a conflicted slave captor. Last seen on Broadway opposite Madeline Kahn in the 1989 revival of Born Yesterday, the 82-year-old actor has shown no signs of slowing down. Asner voiced lead character Carl in the Pixar megahit Up, took on the role of Santa Claus in Elf and reunited with Mary Tyler Moore pal Betty White in TV’s Hot in Cleveland. Now, at the Cort Theatre, Asner plays a cantankerous exterminator who is struggling with regret alongside Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon and Kate Arrington in Craig Wright’s Grace. Broadway.com chatted with the always quotable Asner about his greatest memories of Mary Tyler Moore, working at his father’s scrap metal business and making his first Broadway appearance in more than two decades.
When you first read Grace, what did you think?
In the play, Sam [played by Michael Shannon] and I are the two big proponents of Non-God, but as the play goes on, we’re both made to believe in what we refer to as a “something.” Naturally, I was disappointed because I wasn’t on stage more. But then I felt the beauty of the role and it didn’t matter.
What is it like tapping into your sensitive side?
I’m basically a very sappy person internally—I’m a mass of Jell-O. So it’s not hard at all to tap into this sappy part of me.
This cast has an undeniable chemistry—what’s it been like hanging out with these guys?
We’ve had some difficulties during the rehearsal process, but our interrelationships are magnificent. It’s a mutual admiration society. Before the show, I had never seen either Paul or Mike in anything. Since then, I’ve seen Mike in Boardwalk Empire and in Premium Rush. I thought he was beautiful. Well, “beautiful” is not a word you use for Michael Shannon.
Maybe “intense”! Do you watch any other TV shows regularly?
No, I don’t watch anymore. I had a sit-down strike against the government when they forced us to buy additives [DTV converter boxes] so we could watch public TV. Eventually I realized that I was cutting my nose off to spite my face, that I was missing specials like HBO or Showtime, and I could not get up-to-date news reports about the latest earthquake. So I finally subscribed to a cable service. But I left [Los Angeles] to do Grace, so I haven’t been able to enjoy it.
Do your beliefs about TV affect which roles you accept?
No, I have to make a living. I go where the work is and where the money is.
What are your memories of Mary Tyler Moore? Looking back, what are the things that stick out to you?
[Laughs.] Wow, I asked for that one, didn’t I?
It was seven years of bliss. Seven years of the yellow brick road. It was dying and going to heaven.
The seven years were poetic—I just remember how lush it all was. We never got up a sweat rehearsing—banker’s hours rehearsals. Friday night, you assembled in front of a crowd of 300 adoring people. Life was very sweet. We took five days to prepare the show. Nowadays, you’d be lucky if you got two-and-a-half, even for a hit show.
What do you think that does to the quality of shows these days?
There was no jittery tension watching Mary Tyler Moore. It was relaxed and funny. Whatever you see today will be hurried and certainly not thought out and probably not as intelligent as it could be if they had the time to develop it.
What was your favorite Lou Grant line on Mary?
Mary challenges me about having to accept responsibility for something that she wasn’t responsible for, I had a line, and I can’t remember it exactly, but: “I’ve done a lot of years in this business, Mary. And one thing it’s taught me is how to evade responsibility.”
Your grandkids are probably too young for Lou Grant, but what did they think when when you started doing animation voiceovers, like Up?
We never really talk about Up, except through their parents. I was led to believe that they certainly applauded the movie. If I went around as SpongeBob, maybe they’d follow me more often.
You were last on Broadway in 1989. Why is Grace the play that has brought you back?
It’s the first time I was asked. I never got another offer for a Broadway appearance after Born Yesterday with Madeline Kahn. I got offers to tour, but that was limited, as well. When Grace came up, I was intimidated to pick up roots and leave for such a long time. And then my first week here, one of my cats got killed.
Oh no! I’m sorry, that’s terrible.
It’s the nature of the beast when you have cats. I also have another cat—he plans all my parties and serves as the decorator of the house.
What do you remember about making your Broadway debut?
It was Face of a Hero with Jack Lemmon. It was lovely being with him. The play got panned and didn’t last long. But it had a stellar cast: Albert Dekker, James Donald, Betsy Blair, Sandy Dennis’ debut… It was such a delight to be around Jack, who was a wonderful man. He was always jaunty and cheerful. Something I could never be.
You’ve played a butcher in Working Class, and in Grace, you’re an exterminator—if you weren’t an actor, what trade would you have gone into?
If I hadn’t gone into acting, and I didn’t pursue a career in either archaeology or political science, I would’ve gone into my daddy’s business, which was the scrap iron metal business. I worked down there all the time, growing up. Swung a lot of sledgehammers in my day!
After all these years, you’ve never stopped working, and you seem so energetic and sharp. What’s your secret?
Well, I found out a long time ago that I was only good for acting. So if I can’t act, I may as well be lowered in a box. It’s my way of resisting death. I love the whole milieu. In his autobiography Child of the Century, Ben Hecht was asked, “What do you think of actors?” And he said that if he went to heaven to find it was populated by actors, he wouldn’t be unhappy. And I certainly feel the same way...as long as I was God!
See Ed Asner in Grace at the Cort Theatre.