“The fact that I succeeded at all has been amazing to me,” marveled Ed Asner recently by phone in Los Angeles.
Reflecting on his long career, spanning the stage, the screen — big and small — and the page with his many books, Asner is grateful for his “beautiful life as an actor.”
Whether you know him from his time as newspaper editor Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show — and later his own show — as the voice of the curmudgeonly Carl Fredricksen in Up or anything in between in his illustrious career, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the 88-year-old actor has become a household name.
And on Jan. 31, the seven-time Emmy Award winner and former president of the Screen Actors Guild will be at Congregation Rodeph Shalom for a reading of The Soap Myth by Jeff Cohen. He stars alongside Tony Award nominee Johanna Day.
The actors started a tour of the play reading in a tribute to International Holocaust Remembrance Day across several states, kicking off in Florida Jan. 22.
“Congregation Rodeph Shalom is committed to engaging the community in support of Jewish arts and culture as an expression of our values and tradition,” said Catherine Fischer, director of congregational advancement, “and we look forward to presenting this moving play in our sanctuary, whose grandeur magnifies the power of the drama.”
The play takes place more than a half century after the end of World War II when a young journalist sets out to write an article about a Holocaust survivor and his crusade regarding the Nazi atrocity of soap.
A description of the play states that it “explores how a survivor survives surviving and questions who has the right to write history: Those who have lived it and remember, those who study and protect it, or those who would seek to distort and desecrate its very existence.”
“It’s a beautiful play,” said Asner, who plays Milton Saltzman. “It’s the triumph of good over evil.”
Spoiler alert: The good guy wins, he said. But the deeper message of the play for Asner is that it explores the power of the individual in pursuit of truth and justice.
“The individual, if he believes in the rightness of a subject, can only hope that that individual will pursue its acceptance and acknowledgement by the rest of the world, no matter what the odds,” he said.
His character escaped death in a concentration camp, but became aware of the practice of soapmaking performed by Nazis — a subject of much scrutiny as to whether it did or didn’t happen — and takes it upon himself to do the job of trying to convince the world that the soap myth is not a myth.
Johanna Day plays both Esther Feinman and Brenda Goodsen, the latter of whom is a Holocaust denier.
The story rings especially true in an era of alternative facts and fake news, as Asner’s character is dedicated to championing the truth.
He’s seen that push in his own industry as well, citing the success of The Post, which he has not seen yet but it seems to be “refreshing people’s minds.”
As a Jewish actor, being a part of this play in particular is meaningful to him.
“It’s my spinach,” he said of Judaism and his upbringing. “It gives me passion, it gives me strength, it gives me energy. I had a beautiful family that I came from that endowed me with certain principles and values. … I certainly was given a clear definition of right from wrong by the milieu I grew up in.”
Those values he learned have influenced him throughout his long career — including being outspoken about issues like immigration, a topic many Jews have been outspoken about as it relates to the ideal of “welcome the stranger.”
Asner has not shied away from speaking out about political and social issues throughout his life. Today, he said, “we are steeped in a slump of controversial subjects.”
In his latest book, The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs, Asner discusses — well, one can guess from the title.
He is particularly passionate about the early January announcement from the Trump administration that some “200,000 Salvadoran immigrants allowed to live and work in the United States since 2001 will lose their right to remain in the country in 2019” in an effort to tighten immigration enforcement, as reported by Reuters.
“This is not the way the Statue of Liberty would receive them,” Asner said.
In between speaking out about issues, he’s continuing to perform.
He recently wrapped up a run of one-man play A Man and his Prostate, written by Ed Weinberger — with whom Asner wrote The Grouchy Historian — based on his own experiences.
If you asked him about The Soap Myth, Asner would tell you he’s not “excited” to be performing it, but he is hoping to give the audiences something worthwhile.
“It’s a beautiful play, and I’m honored to be doing one of the leads in it,” he said. “I just want for us to do a good job and have people say it was tremendously worthwhile to hear it.”
For tickets or more information, visit rodephshalom.org/soapmyth or call 215-627-6747.
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