An Accounting of the Soul?

A Conversation with Ed Asner
August 31, 2021Rose Eichenbaum

Ed Asner, z’l, died on August 29 at the age of 91. He became a television icon in the 1970s as the cranky but lovable Lou Grant in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and then in the spin-off, Lou Grant, in which he played a newspaper editor. His performances as Axel Jordache in Rich Man, Poor Man and as Captain Davies in Roots, two of television’s preeminent mini-series, brought him acclaim as a serious character actor. During what he called his “hot years,” Asner collected seven Emmy Awards -- more than any other male actor to date. When I arrived at his Studio City home, he led me to his study, where we sat at a large desk covered with stacks of mail, books and career mementos. Leaning back in his chair, Asner spoke candidly of his passion and love for acting.  

What initially drew you to acting?

Acting allowed me to become multiple personalities. One can pretend all sorts of things—swordplay, knifings, strangulations, and no one gets hurt.  Something drove me to want to be these other characters, and once I began acting, I found it a delicious escape.   

Escape from what?

I wanted to free myself from the confining community of Kansas City, Kansas, where I grew up, and from the Orthodox Judaism into which I was raised. I saw acting as my way out.  I was introduced to acting for the first time in high school. I took a class in radio broadcasting. We performed fifteen-minute programs on a local station.  We wrote them, adapted them, acted in them, and produced them.  I loved the fantasy of radio. As handsome as I think I am, I felt sure that others thought of me as ugly and unattractive. But on radio I could create this gorgeous sexy voice and be any kind of character I wanted. I thought I could hide with the voice. But at the time, I didn’t plan to be a radio actor—a Jewish junkman’s son from Kansas City doesn’t think like that.

Ultimately, I think I became an actor because I wasn’t good at anything else. I never believed in my effectiveness. I played football in high school and in my senior year a couple of local newspapers named me “All City Tackle.” I never thought that I was qualified for that, but I took the honor and ran. I enjoyed playing football because it made me one of the guys. 

In my senior year, the big game fell on Yom Kippur—the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. My brothers worked on Pop, tried to get him to understand how important it was for me to play and not let the team down. I even asked my high school principal to phone my rabbi and use his influence. My rabbi told him, “I can’t tell Eddie what to do. It’s up to his conscience.” Meanwhile, my brothers continued to work on Pop, but he was adamant. “I don’t want you to play on Yom Kippur,” he said. He might have even said, “Eddie, I’m begging you, don’t do it.” 

With the exception of my father, the whole family was in league to have me play. When I arrived at the locker room, the coach gave the guys a speech. “Don’t win this game for the school, or even for the team. Let’s all go out there and win it for Eddie.” We won. We destroyed the other team. And I knew they could have easily done it without me.

I came home after the game to a house full of relatives. My brother came up to me and said, “Eddie, we worked everything out, it’s okay, just go to shul (synagogue) early tomorrow morning.” Worn out from the game, I slept in, and we arrived at shul late. We sat down next to my father, who was in the front pew. Without saying a word to us, he picked up his prayer book and moved to the back of the synagogue.  Not until sundown, the end of the holiday, did he return to the front pew.

My brother embraced him and then me. I never loved my father as much as I did at that moment -- and never had I loathed myself more. The best thing I could have done was not play, shown my Christian friends that my religion was just as important as theirs.  I didn’t. The desire to get away from that weak character and my feelings of guilt drove me from Kansas City.  Acting was my way out.

I’m still wondering why you chose to play on Yom Kipppur?

To answer that question, we have to go back to the time of my bar mitzvah. I was the rabbi’s prized pupil, but he took his vacation at the time that I was prepping for my big day -- and that made me feel inordinately insecure. During the service, a couple of things happened that mortified and embarrassed me. I pitched my voice too high and read the prayers very fast. My dad and uncle circled me and whispered in Yiddish Tzoo shnel—too fast. Their comment threw me. At another point, my hands were clasped behind my back while praying, and my dad came behind me and lightly slapped my hands away from my butt, saying to me quietly, “Kiktnisht git”—doesn’t look good.  This mortified me further. All my friends from high school were there.

Afterwards, we went down to the social hall for the food, drink, and the collection of gifts. As I was loading my gifts into a huge cardboard box, I turned to my dad and said, “Dad, look at all the gifts I got.” He responded, “Goddam you, you son of a bitch” or words to that effect. I realized that he despised the fact that I was gloating over my gifts after such a shoddy performance. I was wounded, wounded. wounded. I guess that started my departure from Jewish observance. Not until my dad was begging me not to play football four years later, did I realize I was harboring resentments towards him and Judaism. My guilt rose to great heights at my rejection of my father, who had never begged me for anything.  Maybe I went into acting to make up for that abysmal bar mitzvah performance.”

Have you talked to people about these experiences?

I’m not sure that I’ve ever broached these truths. 

This article is adapted from The Actor Within (Wesleyan University Press).

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