By Ed Rampell
God Help Us! deals largely with news personalities and comes at a time when reportage is under attack. It also stars the actor who portrayed one of television’s most famous male journalistic characters. Ed Asner’s Lou Grant, of course, was Mary Tyler Moore’s sitcom news director at Minneapolis’ WJM-TV and then city editor of the fictional L.A. Tribune newspaper in a spin-off TV series of the same name. In the two shows Asner portrayed the newsman for 12 award-winning years.
The winner of more Primetime Emmy Awards than any other male actor for sitcoms such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and mini-series like Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots, plus the co-star of movies such as Oliver Stone’s 1991 JFK, 2003’s Elf and 2009’s Oscar-winning Up, Asner is best known for acting on the big and small screens. But did you know that this five-time Golden Globe recipient, who has 389 credits on IMDB.com stretching back to 1957’s Studio One anthology TV series, is also a veteran of the Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional legit stage, who appeared in plays such as the 1955 version of the Brecht-Weill classic The Threepenny Opera co-starring Lotte Lenya and Bea Arthur at Greenwich Village? And that the legendary thespian, who turns 90 this year, is currently touring from Montana to Nova Scotia to Britain and beyond in three different plays?
God Help Us! is returning for a “second helping” at a SoCal theater for benefit performances on February 22 and 23 (I saw it last August at Antaeus Theatre Company in Glendale). The Kansas City-born Asner plays the title character, investing the deity with Lou Grant’s gruff, grouchy, wisecracking persona. As God, Asner must use his divine judgment as a sort of immortal moderator presiding over a heated exchange of ideas between Randi (Pamela Guest, an Actors Studio alum who debuted onscreen opposite Robert De Niro in Elia Kazan’s 1976 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon) and Larry (Stewart J. Zully, who acted in Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X and HBO’s The Sopranos, as well as in plays from Off-Broadway to “way, way off Broadway” at North Hollywood and Sherman Oaks).
The witty dramedy, co-written by Samuel Warren Joseph and Phil Proctor (who shared three Grammy nominations with the renowned Firesign Theatre) and directed by Mitch Levine, has a red state versus blue state vibe. Both Randi and Larry are cable news/radio talk show type pundits in Help, but Randi is as right as Larry is left-leaning. To further complicate matters, the lefty and conservative commentators are ex-lovers, whose politics drove them apart. Enter Asner as our not-so-sweet-Lord, who must summon his Solomonic wisdom in overseeing the former partners’ debate in this politicized romcom, as the eternal battle of the sexes (and exes) meets CNN’s Crossfire or PBS’ Firing Line. Let the games – and fireworks – begin!
Ed Asner – who previously provided God’s voice in 2005’s Off-Broadway show Orgasms and is a former Screen Actors Guild president – was interviewed in L.A. by phone.
@THIS STAGE: You’re mainly known for your screen acting. Tell us about your live theatre work?
ASNER: Well, I toured for about four years with FDR [a one-man show about President Roosevelt]. Prior to that, I was on Broadway three times.
@THIS STAGE: What were those Broadway plays?
ASNER: 1960’s Face of a Hero, co-starring Jack Lemmon, James Donald, Betsy Blair [Gene Kelly’s blacklisted ex-wife] and Sandy Dennis. That was followed by 1989’s Born Yesterday with Madeline Kahn [as Billie Dawn, the role Judy Holliday scored a Best Actress Oscar for in the 1950 movie of the same name; on Broadway Asner played Harry Brock, Broderick Crawford’s part in the George Cukor classic]. I performed in a limited engagement in Grace with Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon [in 2012].
@THIS STAGE: What plays are you currently a part of?
ASNER: A Man and His Prostate is a one-man show I’m doing now. …I also do a staged reading with four actors, called The Soap Myth.
@ THIS STAGE: What’s that about?
ASNER: An elderly Jew attempting to gain the respect and attention of various Jewish agencies and get them to once again state that the Nazis used Jewish bodies to create soap [at concentration camps during the Holocaust] …This drama gets down to the nitty-gritty of human beings being turned into fertilizer…
@THIS STAGE: Who do you play in the current production of God Help Us!?
ASNER: I play God – what else?
@THIS STAGE: How did you prepare for that role, Ed?
ASNER: Well, I looked in the mirror.
@THIS STAGE: [Laughter.] But seriously Ed, how does one prepare to play our Lord, our God, king of the universe?
ASNER: I looked in the mirror and said to myself, “What man that you can see would do everything he can to make the world livable?” I looked in the mirror and I saw the answer.
@THIS STAGE: Tell us about God Help Us!
ASNER: God decides to create a compromise between the combative sides. He finds a couple who were lovers, and then their innate social, political discrepancies took over and they had to split up. They argue constantly throughout the piece and God is the circumlocutor who keeps bringing them back to center. Finally, out of frustration at his failure to get them to compromise with each other he decides to have them switch roles…
@THIS STAGE: The human characters in God Help Us! are media pundits. What does this play say about today’s news media?
ASNER: I think we like to argue more than anything. We like to think we’re opposed to the other side. We sometimes have to make up the other side to know who we’re fighting against.
@THIS STAGE: What do you think of this stuff coming out of the White House, that the media is “fake news” and “the enemy of the people”?
ASNER: I don’t know about “the enemy of the people.” I think it’s always been fake news to sell papers, to sell news. So Donald Trump, as big a putz as he is, is correct in saying that the news in many ways has been manufactured in the past and will continue to be. But, there’s always a core to attach to, a truth core, and I think he’s wrong there. Bottom line is there is a bottom line to the truth. I think only research and endeavor on our part will make that truth surface.
@THIS STAGE: What does God Help Us! say about religion?
ASNER: I have no idea what it tells us about religion other than if you believe it, then it’s true.
@THIS STAGE: What are your religious beliefs, if any?
ASNER: I was raised religiously, as a Midwestern orthodox Jew. But I’d say my belief in the 10 Commandments has been severely daunted in recent years. I find myself to be of a withering faith.
@THIS STAGE: What does God Help Us! tell us about romance, love, and sex?
ASNER: God should have nothing to do with it. God gave us the initial spurt – we should leave it at that.
@THIS STAGE: I saw you do your solo show FDR at the Lewis Family Playhousein Rancho Cucamonga. Like God Help Us! it had no intermission. What is the secret of your longevity? How are you able to perform all the way through a live play without an intermission?
ASNER: I believe in my faith. The faith of the theatre, of the writer… and I have the minimal faith to project it. There are cardinal truths, no matter what faith you believe in. Once you’re smart and adult enough to figure out what they are, you’re home free.
…My problem is I can remember my lines – but I can’t remember names.
@THIS STAGE: God Help Us! dramatizes contemporary America’s partisan divide. How can Americans come together to overcome this divisiveness?
ASNER: Well, God’s offer of a compromise [in the play] is certainly helpful. If Americans are willing to compromise with one another they’d eventually find there is no barrier to reach peace on Earth. It’s always the 1 percenters who create the agitation, the angst, to go to war. If not on the battlefield, then certainly in the press.
@THIS STAGE: Do you feel Donald Trump personifies the 1 percenters?
ASNER: Oh God. He’s a shit stirrer, no matter what faith you have. His strength lies in his ability to stir shit.
@THIS STAGE: What is the name of your foundation and its purpose?
ASNER: The Ed Asner Family Center is creating a space in the [San Fernando] Valley and spreading throughout the country, if possible, for people with autism to find treatment for the child and the rest of the family. To bring them aboard, to bring them all along together – not just the one who is noticeably sick. [See: https://edasnerfamilycenter.org/.]
@THIS STAGE: In between appearing in your three live stage shows are you also still acting for the screen?
ASNER: I did a guest spot in about six episodes for Dead to Me. Christina Applegate, Linda Cardellini, and James Marsden are in the [Netflix] series [executive co-produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell].
@THIS STAGE: Is there anything you want to add?
ASNER: I’m delighted God Help Us! is found to be as humorous and practical as it is. Audiences seem to love it and I to keep on doing the work we’re doing by presenting this show with ideas… We always have such great luck. We’re even touring A Man and His Prostate in England and Ireland this year.
…Also, I noticed Broadway is going to profit share with actors. I think it’s gorgeous. Certainly unexpected for me [as former S.A.G. president].
God Help Us! is being presented Friday, February 22 at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday, February 23 at 2:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m. at Newport Harbor High School’s Robert S. Wentz Theater, 600 Irvine Ave, Newport Beach, CA 92663. For tickets: www.NHHSDrama.com or SeatYourself.com. For more info and future shows see: http://godhelpus.net/.