Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served as the 32nd president of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945, is one of the titans in American politics. Roosevelt, the blueblood, Democratic governor of New York, defeated Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover in 1932, as the nation struggled to survive in the Great Depression.
Roosevelt, who famously said that he made decisions when he was “51 percent certain,” overhauled America’s economy with his New Deal policies and WPA (Works Project Administration) agency. The WPA employed millions of out-of-work people on massive infrastructure construction projects, as well as programs for the arts and social sciences. He orchestrated America’s entrance into World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and was the only president to serve more than two elected terms.
With a daunting list of achievements, it seemingly would take an actor with his own formidable resume to portray Roosevelt in a one-man play. Such an actor is Ed Asner, a Kansas City, Mo., native who is the only male actor to win Emmy Awards for the same Mary Tyler Moore character (Lou Grant) in a comedy and drama TV series.
Asner, who at age 84 is an indefatigable performer, has won seven Emmy Awards, more than any other male actor. He’s bringing his one-man show, FDR, to St. Louis for a benefit performance for the New Jewish Theatre on Sunday, April 27, at Washington University’s Edison Theatre. For tickets, call 442-3283.
Recently, Ladue News had the opportunity to interview Asner, a lifelong Democrat and progressive who served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1981 to 1985.
You’ve been doing FDR since 2010. How often do you take it on tour?
Every spring. (As a one-man show) it’s much more difficult to do, but then you have no one else to blame!
Where did the idea for the show originate?
With Philip Langner, who was head of Theatre at Sea for the Theatre Guild. (Note: The Theatre Guild was founded in New York City in 1918. The Guild produced a total of 228 plays on Broadway through 1996, including Dore Schary’s Sunrise at Campobello, about Franklin Roosevelt, in 1958. An offshoot of the Theatre Guild called Theatre at Sea began in 1975.)
Are your politics similar to FDR’s?
Yes. I worship FDR and (was delighted when) Philip Langner approached me (to portray him). Since 2010, I’ve done somewhere between 300 and 400 performances as FDR (including one at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre in 2011).
Your home state of Missouri also is the birthplace of another American president, Harry S. Truman, who himself has been the subject of a one-man show. Do you see similarities in the personalities and politics of Roosevelt and Truman?
Very much so. Their backgrounds, though, are markedly different.
You have an extremely impressive list of accomplishments, but perhaps most impressive of all is ‘working actor.’ Do you have two or three personal favorites of all the roles you’ve played through the years?
Lou Grant, naturally, as well as Rich Man, Poor Man (the ground-breaking ABC-TV miniseries), Family Man, Elf (as Santa Claus) and Up! (an animated film that was nominated for Best Picture in 2009).
Tell us about your experiences doing the voice work for Up!
Other than tripping and laying my head open for six staples, I had a marvelous time!
There was a terrible tragedy recently in your native Kansas City (a white supremacist gunman killed three people outside two Jewish facilities), an apparent hate crime. Why is such disturbing behavior so difficult to eradicate even in the 21st century?
It is a sick-making world, and we can’t come up to the level of treatment necessary.
You’ve been very active throughout your life with progressive causes. Do you think that America has changed significantly in your lifetime, or has progress been tortuously slow?
Progress seems to take one step forward and two steps back.
What do you enjoy most about portraying FDR?
His problem-solving, his ability to see the future and his impact—which could be the greatest of any president!