Exterminator of assorted religious illusions

Asner gives ‘Grace’ its spine

BY JERRY TALLMER  |  Don’t look now, but crusty, lovable Lou Grant has returned amongst us as a certain Karl, last name unknown — a bitterly caustic exterminator of ants, termites and assorted religious illusions.

Oh heck, you can look, especially if you have always loved Ed Asner as gruff news boss Lou Grant, on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — always respectfully addressed as “Mr. Grant” by producer Mary Richards — and everything else this all-purpose invaluable actor has in all the media done for us from the mid-1950s to now.

Ed Asner is back, live, on Broadway, after a quarter century absence, as this German-born atheist exterminator fellow, Karl, in a new play. It’s what they call a supporting role, but “Grace” would be lacking a spine without it. Or him.

The three other figures in Craig Wright’s “Grace” are born again Christians Steve (Paul Rudd) and Sara (Kate Harringon) — a Midwestern married couple come down to Florida, where Steve is awaiting the arrival from some millionaire in Switzerland of a $90,000 check with which to launch the first of a string of faith-healing hotels. Completing a triangle is their reclusive neighbor, Sam (Michael Shannon), whose wife was killed in an automobile accident that left him, Sam, badly burnt and scarred. But not too scarred to attract the interest, not to say the affection, of lonely Sara.

The play begins and ends with a contradictory stroke of theater, while Karl the exterminator — a non-Jewish survivor of Nazi brutality capped by the July 1943 British and U.S. fire-storm aerial bombings (“Operation Gomorrah”) that destroyed Hamburg, Germany, and 45,000 of its people, among them young Karl’s entire family — barges in and out of the scene, supplying a sort of Goya-esque atheistic chorus.

By the way, is Edward Asner, born in Kansas City, Kansas, raised in Kansas City, Missouri, the lifelong committed radical son of Orthodox Jewish Russian-American parents — is Asner himself an atheist?

“Well,” he says as he nurses an early coffee, “to save conversation and speculation, and in line with the World War II slogan that there are no atheists in foxholes, let’s just say I call myself an agnostic until proved otherwise.” Pause. Then, dryly: “If there was a God, He wouldn’t have invented man.”

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran from 1970 into 1977, followed, for Asner, by five years of “Lou Grant” (terminated in 1982 by CBS, without explanation, when its ratings were still high). To this day, much of America is still in love with the whole “Mary Tyler Moore” team at WJM-TV in Minneapolis: Gavin Macleod as newswriter Murray Slaughter, Ted Knight as bumbling, egotistical anchorman Ted Baxter, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Valerie Harper, Georgia Engel and of course Ed Asner and wonderful Mary Tyler Moore herself.

The script was written and the weekly story put together in Los Angeles. “I did a lot of touring in that area,” says Asner, “visiting news rooms, and they were always eager to show us their Ted Baxter.” Pause. “Ted Knight’s the only one who’s gone.”

Was it fun, Mr. Asner?

“Marvelous fun. Seven years of Yellow Brick Road.”

Was everything scripted? Could the actors make changes?

“We were all seasoned performers. But we didn’t change a comma without consulting the scriptwriter.”

Asner was last on a New York City stage as blustering Harry Brock — a much less likable guy than Lou Grant — opposite Madeline Kahn as “Drop dead!” showgirl Billie Dawn, in a 1989 Broadway revival of “Born Yesterday.” Between then and now, and before then and now, he’s done a ton of movie work, television work, voice work, won a batch of Emmy Awards and other honors, served a couple of stormy terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild and been politically and socially active in various causes on a score of fronts.

His parents — “who spoke fractured English” — were Morris Asner, originally of Lithuania, “who came to the United States in 1899 or 1900, and I think actually sailed for America from Hamburg,” and Lizzie Seligson Asner, who came to the United States from the Ukraine in 1913.

“My father was a junk dealer” — more elegantly, the proprietor of a second-hand store in Kansas City.

“I did radio in high school, but did not think of acting as a career.” It was at the University of Chicago, after a hitch in the Signal Corps, “where I fallaciously waved my signals” — that Asner had a roommate who was in a Paul Sills theater group doing T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral.” When the roommate had to drop out, Asner took over as Thomas (Archbishop) Becket. But when Paul Sills “wanted to go into improvisational theater” — the Compass, which became The Second City — “I wanted to stay legit, and came to New York.”

And what did you do here?

“Pounded the pavement. Looked for an agent. And in February or March of 1956, got into [Off-Broadway’s record-setting] Brecht-Weill ‘Threepenny Opera’ as J.J. [Jonathan Jeremiah] Peachum, corrupt father of Polly Peachum, Did that for two and a half years, became a good friend of the show’s Jerry Orbach and his wife Marta Curro, and then did a Papp” — as the Duke of Exeter in Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival 1960 production of “Henry V.”

“James Earl Jones was in it, Tom Aldredge was in it, and” — searches memory — “Jimmy…Jimmy” — the late James Ray as the king.

What now lured you back to Broadway?

“The two producers, Paula Wagner and Debbie Bisno, who sent me a script and asked if I’d be interested in playing Karl. I thought it a very interesting role, a challenge, this exterminator and atheist who’s confronting that born again couple.”

How’s your Germanic English?

“Vot you vont to know?” said Asner. Followed, straight-faced, by: “They couldn’t get Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Had Asner known playwright Craig Wright?

“I do now. And I loved ‘Six Feet Under,’ ” a television series written by Wright.

Do we see any symbolism in Karl the atheist as an exterminator?

“I think it’s a wry twist.”

So’s the title, wouldn’t you say?

“Well, everyone in the play is seeking a state of grace. Have you noticed the graphics for the show, the posters out there? The ‘A’ in “Grace” is tipped and falling, upside down. Karl seeks his own grace for what he had to do as a teenager during the war” — betray to the rapacious Storm Troopers — and worse — his teenage hidden Jewish girlfriend.

Asner has actually been, more recently, on the living stage, solo — though not in New York — as his hero (and mine), Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Been doing it for three years, and will do it again after this show” has run its course.

“No speaker that we’ve got now can approximate FDR. Obama? A cold fish. But I don’t want to cost him votes.” Measured pause. “Besides, he might send a drone after me.”

Oh yes, Asner will vote for Obama — again — but with something less than wild enthusiasm.

“Where is FDR today? He’s up in the mountains, on a horse, isn’t he? He’s gonna come down, one of these days….”

Twice married, one and a half times divorced, seven times a grandfather, Asner is the father of three middle-aged offspring: Michael, director of a California autism clinic; Kate, “who is working toward her internship in psychiatry, and who could still be an actress” and Liza, “my assistant.”

Do you have a lady now?

“I have some.” Pause. “I see my ex-es” — Nancy Sykes and Cindy Gilmore — “quite a lot.”

Thank you, Mr. Grant. Thank you, Mary Tyler Moore. Thank you, Karl. Let’s all say grace.

Written by Craig Wright
Directed by Dexter Bullard
Through Jan. 6
At the Cort Theatre
138 W. 48th St. (btw. 6th & 7th Aves.)
Tue.-Thu. at 7pm; Fri.-Sat. at 8pm; Wed., Sat. at 2pm; Sun. at 3pm
Tickets: $32-$132
To order, visit telecharge.org or call 212-239-6200
Also visit graceonbroadway.com

More from around NYC