Tuesday, September 11, 2012

An Interview with Ed Asner

Kliph Nesteroff: You're in the John Wayne film El Dorado. You're known as one of Hollywood's most outspoken liberals and John Wayne was perhaps its most outspoken reactionary. What was the dynamic like between you and John Wayne?

Ed Asner: I was leery of him. For our first scene Howard Hawks went over the lines with the Duke and me. The scene has him returning money I have given him to kill Robert Mitchum. He comes up to the ranch house on his horse and he throws the money back at me. That was our first scene. I suggested a couple word changes to Hawks, which he liked.

Wayne didn't say anything. Hawks says, "It'll take a long time to set up the shot. You can go back to your trailer or whatever you want to do." So I was walking around, too goddamn nervous to go sit in my trailer. I look over and there's an army of grips and crew moving mumbo jumbo fast. So instead of taking a long walk I changed direction and walked toward the ranch house.

There at the ranch house is John Wayne cavorting on his appaloosa. He's practically looking right at me and he says, "Where's that New York actor? Where's that New York actor?" Well, I had been on the West Coast for several years by that point and did not consider myself a New York actor. But I took that to be an anti-Semitic comment. I walked toward him and said, "You mean me?"

He mumbled something incoherent. I never discussed politics with him. One time I was with Jimmy Caan sitting around and he started asking John Wayne all kinds of political questions. Wayne gets so roused with questions about Patton, questions about McCarthy, he starts whipping his hat against his thigh to burn off some of his anger. I was sitting there skulking, thinking, "Jesus Christ, Jimmy, you sure provoke." They weren't even liberal questions, just points of information. Wayne gave it to him in spades.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Robert Mitchum...

Ed Asner: He was very friendly towards me. At the same time I could see he had a lot of demons. I knew he was capable of violence, although I never felt threatened by him. I wondered what haunted him. Howard Hawks made a good picture, but he was corny. He had a helluva history. My wife and twins would come visit me during the filming and I needed a suite. The only suite available was the one directly between Hawks' suite and John Wayne's.

When they weren't there the guys would drop in and we'd drink, be rowdy and loud. This one night Mitchum and the extras and other actors were milling around, drinking, shouting, talking. Finally we hear banging on the wall that meant we were making too much noise for Mr. Hawks. It got to the point we received complaints. 

I didn't have to wake up early to go to set. The next morning there was a banging on my door. I got up in my shorts and there's Hawks. He says, "Ed! I just want you to know I've made a rule that everyone, whether they're working or not, has to go out to Old Tuscon every night. I've told it to everyone. Anyone who doesn't like it can go back to L.A. and I'm telling that to you." I said, "Uh, fine, Mr. Hawks. I will oblige."

So I started going out to Old Tuscon every night even when I wasn't working - but I knew I was in the shit house. I didn't know what to do. John Wayne's make-up man, Larry Butterworth, said, "I always find that if you write somebody a letter - it tends to be effective. It's better than making your apology in person." So I started writing a letter. This letter of craven apology. I went to the desk of the hotel and said, "Will you put this in Mr. Hawks' box?"

Well, there was no change in attitude from the old man. I came to set and I was still in the shit house. I kept going by the desk and noticed the letter was still in the slot. After two or three days I asked the desk, "Does he ever get his mail? Will you please see that he gets it!" Finally he got it. I see Hawks from a distance. He starts walking toward me. I thought, "Oh, God." He comes to me and says, "Ed. I got your letter. Thank you very much." I practically fell to my knees. "Thank you very much." So, that was my experience with Howard Hawks.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did an episode of the Alcoa Premiere and Fred Astaire was in it. Do you remember anything of that?

Ed Asner: The time I remember being with Fred Astaire... Gene Kelly was there too. It was a variety show as I recall. He was very sweet and outgoing too, but Kelly acted as his security guard. If Fred was failing in any way, Kelly would help him get to the spots he needed to be. He shepherded him.

Kliph Nesteroff: I watched Fred Astaire on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show and he seemed so incredibly uncomfortable. He seemed out of his element when not in motion pictures...

Ed Asner: Yes. You got the feeling that he only lived through dance - but he was very sweet and nice.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked with Barbara Stanwyck on The Untouchables...

Ed Asner: Yes, I did five episodes. She was the ultimate professional. She never made any problems for me.  I was doing an Eleventh Hour with Wendell Corey before I did The Untouchables. He said he used to piss her off all the time because she is so meticulous. If her call was for ten, she would show up at nine-thirty. So he knew how bugged she got with him because he was always late. Even if he was there on time, he'd hover outside the stage door until it was one or two minutes past and then come onto the stage - just to get her goat!

Kliph Nesteroff: It must have helped your stock as an actor to get so many roles on such a popular show.

Ed Asner: The Untouchables? Yeah, but they were always... I did about three where the character was there but not there, you know? They weren't star mobsters running loose and attracting attention.

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw you do a fairly high-profile role in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in which you played a chain smoking prison warden.

Ed Asner: Yes, I did two of them. A half hour and a full hour. I don't remember who directed those, whether it was Norman Lloyd or who. Don't remember the prison warden. I do remember the other one with Bradford Dillman, Diana Hyland and Robert Redford. I played the parent of a young monster who was terrorizing Hyland and Dillman. The kid almost burns the house down. It was a male type version of The Bad Seed.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did an episode of The Virginian with Lee J. Cobb.

Ed Asner: I didn't actually work with him. I don't know where the hell he was. Mark Rydell directed that one. I almost got killed. They switched horses on me. They didn't mean to fuck me up, but... my character is eavesdropping in this scene. My suspect rides off and I sneak out to my horse to run after the suspect. I got up on the horse and before I could get my right leg over and into the stirrup, that sucker took off like a polo pony.

I kept trying to get my foot into the stirrup and without my paying attention the horse galloped under some low-lying branches and knocked me right off. I felt like a schmuck and was very embarrassed. I got up, dusted myself off and got back up on the horse. Mark Rydell yelled, "Don't be ashamed, Ed! Lotta people wouldn't get back on that horse!" I did the scene with scrapes on my face.

Later on there was another scene where I have to drive a carriage, a one-man carriage, down a hill to the ranch house. I did it once, twice, three times, four times. Each time I did it, the horse trap went faster and faster. They finally had enough [footage]. I went to sit under a tree where I had a couple buddies like Jim Drury's stand-in, who was a stuntman. He said, "My God, Ed. My heart went into my mouth every time I saw you go down that hill!" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, you gotta pull back on the reigns like you're pumping the breaks." That's what you're supposed to do with the reigns.

I was pulling back and the horse was practically running down the hill on its back legs. I didn't know it, but I was lucky to get through that one alive. I did a lot of westerns and I took lessons [on how to ride and handle a horse] when I came out here. But the lessons were boring. So I never actually learned that much. I didn't pay attention.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did the western series Stony Burke with Warren Oates.

Ed Asner: Yeah!

Kliph Nesteroff: Warren Oates was the coolest actor of all time. Do you remember anything about him?

Ed Asner: Of course I do. Naturally, I had admired him enormously. I had watched the show and had a great deal of glee watching it because on one show Jack Lord got hurt...

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ed Asner: Why are you laughing?

Kliph Nesteroff: You sound so pleased that Jack Lord got hurt!

Ed Asner: (laughs) No, I didn't take pleasure that he got hurt. It was in the episode of the show that [his character] got hurt. They cut to the doctor's office and you see this guy being taped up with his back to the camera. You see it and go, "Jesus Christ, that's not Jack Lord! That's supposed to be Jack Lord?" This was a V shaped figure if you ever saw one. I just had to get on that show and find out the truth! Eventually I got cast on the show and it was an alright part. It wasn't a breath stopper. As soon as I got on the show I set out looking for Warren Oates.

We greeted each other and I said, "You have got to tell me. You have got to tell me. That episode where Lord gets hurt and he's being bandaged up in the doctor's office. That wasn't him, was it?" Warren almost peed his pants. He says, "No! That wasn't him!" They had a casting call for that episode and Jack was auditioning people for the guy who would play his back! Warren said, "When it came down time to shoot that scene... Jack personally oiled that back!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) You did an episode of the Chrysler Theater with legendary Warner Brothers contract player Pat O'Brien.

Ed Asner: I don't remember that at all, but I was in a production of My Three Angels in Chicago with Pat O'Brien. He was paranoid. He thought I and the other angels were upstaging him. We weren't doing any such thing. He got very uptight and blew his cool. He acted friendly in spite of it, but I never trusted him after that. He told the young ingenue in the show how sad it was that he had become friends with everyone else - but I wouldn't give him the time of day. I thought he was a good actor, but he unjustly accused me.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a series, forgotten today, called Slattery's People.

Ed Asner: Yes, I was the signed co-star.

Kliph Nesteroff: I was looking at an episode that also had James Whitmore. You two are kind of kindred spirits in a way...

Ed Asner: We were shooting that episode in Sacramento the day Kennedy got shot. James Whitmore was a big progressive, of course. He was livid. Livid, livid, livid and he came to me and said, "I hope they find out it was the most fascistic son of a bitch you ever saw!" We were all very disappointed to find out that it was Lee Harvey Oswald. But the truth on that will never be known. I certainly looked up to James Whitmore - although we had little to do with each other.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did an episode of The Defenders - by far that era's most progressive drama.

Ed Asner: That show was a disappointment for me. They hired me and I flew to New York on the red eye. Flying to New York on the red eye has never been good luck for me. I opened the show. The teaser on the show was my character having just killed his girlfriend. I'm crazy, throwing up and doing this long speech. I get ahold of my brother, an attorney, and he's played by William Shatner. I'm seeking his aid to cover it up for me. He's resistant at first and then he finally gives in. The rest of the show was uncovering his covering and I had less and less to do as the show progresses. I hadn't had sleep the night before the reading.

Elliot Silverstein was directing. I sat at the reading with E.G. Marshall, Robert Reed and Shatner. I read like I want people to hear me. But Reed and Shatner read like they're talking into their shirt cuff. You couldn't hear them and the idea of the reading was a total waste of time. I was filled with resentment. "Why are they doing this to me?" Red eye and all that shit. So I go in for the opening day of filming and I'm weak on the lines because I couldn't find time that night to get them under my belt.

I got through the scene, but Elliot wasn't an emotional embracer and didn't make me feel at ease. I had heard E.G. say film wasn't important to him. The stage was the place to live et cetera."The play is the thing." But he eventually ended up using cue cards in The Defenders! That kind of disqualified his theories. He couldn't handle it I guess. Maybe he would have had more respect for television if he could handle it.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had a choice role in the film The Satan Bug with Richard Basehart and Dana Andrews.

Ed Asner: Yes and Frank Sutton. I was co-killer with George Maharis. I had great respect for John Sturges at the time. I was very eager to work for him - but I became very disappointed. There's the scene where they break out of the station wagon. From outside the station wagon they filmed this scene where George Maharis gives me a chop in the throat.

I maybe had a couple of lines before that, but from that point on I was speaking with a gravely voice because I was playing it as if he had crushed my voice box. So I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for Sturges to come in and shoot the close-up on this. He never does. I was pissed off at him. Here I was creating an effect and he doesn't cover it. I also knew he wasn't happy doing the film. John Gay, the writer on The Hallelujah Trail, would always show up around lunch. Sturges would go walking off with him. He would come back laughing and having had a great time with John Gay. He didn't give two shits about being back directing us. But I liked Dana Andrews a lot. He was a supporter during my presidency [of the Screen Actors Guild].

Kliph Nesteroff: You were in The Doomsday Flight, a film written by Rod Serling.

Ed Asner: That was a very revealing, disappointing experience. I thought Edmund O'Brien was brilliant. But all of my scenes seemed to be in the office with Jack Lord, who played the FBI guy. Every time I did a scene with him I thought, "Ah man, I am really cookin! I'm really snappin' away and I am real good! Ain't this beautiful! I'm so fuckin' good! This is good!" Then I saw the picture and I realized, "You schmuck. You dumb schmuck." I was doing every scene like the previous one. I had no variation whatsoever.

I later learned... it was a lesson. It was the lesson Leo Penn tried to teach me when he directed Slattery's People. I had two drunk scenes. I did the one drunk and when I did the other he said, "No, no. We did that before. Let's create a different approach this time." And I did and it looked good and he was right. I will always be in Leo Penn's debt, but I seem to have forgotten that lesson on Doomsday Flight.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have heard that Johnny Carson had you blacklisted from The Tonight Show.

Ed Asner: Well, I did one with him. My first one. I was very nervous about it. Ed Weinberger was one of our producers on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and he had been a writer for Carson. Rather than go on and just fall on my face he said, "You've got to be prepared. You have to do this. You have do that." I had taken ballet lessons back in New York so Ed said, "You're going to have to teach Johnny and Ed [McMahon] ballet steps." This and that. So I was intensely nervous.

When I did the show I had flop sweat. It was written all over me. I was very saddened every time there was a commercial break because Johnny would be sitting there next to me turning his pencil over and over and not communicating. I thought I was dead meat. I came back and did The Tonight Show, but it would be with [guest hosts] Jay Leno or Suzanne Pleshette. Never again with Johnny.

Kliph Nesteroff: You also did an episode of Celebrity Bowling.

Ed Asner: (laughs) Ah, that's funny. Yes. I did an episode with the actress Gale Storm. She was kind of a vegetable by that time. According to Joe Siegman, the producer, it was the only episode of Celebrity Bowling they never broadcast. Every time she rolled a ball it immediately went in the gutter and, well, she was kinda non compos mentis when we did it.


Kevin K. said...

Asner must have gotten a kick from talking about anything but Mary Tyler Moore for a change.

Michael Powers said...

Fantastic interview! Extremely interesting questions with intriguing answers.

mackdaddyg said...

Was not expecting to see Ed Asner interviewed here. Very interesting read. Thanks for posting.

Bob Lindstrom said...

Likely that Gale Storm was intoxicated on the Celebrity Bowling show. The '70s were apparently her low-water mark for alcohol abuse.

Lance said...

Another spectacular interview Kliph!



Doug Brunell said...

That is a great piece! Thank you.

Mike said...

I love the entire site. Everything on here is fantastic. As a matter of fact I just bought two books by Alan Young because of your interview with him.

In the Ed Asner interview, which is very good, as far as I know the straps on a horse to guide or stop is spelled "rein." There's no "g" in there.

Keep up the great work.


Anonymous said...

Nice interview, but this is the second time I've read Asner make the "anti-semitic" crack about Wayne. Is it possible that "New York actor" was simply shorthand for "New York stage actor who's slumming out here in Hollywood and wants to show us all how they do it back in the big city"? Unkind perhaps, but hardly anti-semitic. But that wouldn't jibe with Asner's view of Wayne as some reactionary neanderthal, now would it?

cbikle said...

Great interview - was hoping he'd talk more about the other episodes of Celebrity Bowling that he did (seemed to really dislike "comedian" , Sammy Shore (Pauly's dad)

Anonymous said...

Ed Asner is a much nicer guy than I thought he was.

Unknown said...

This leaves Betty White as the only surviving member of the MTM Show

Rotarian said...

And Lisa Gerritson who played Cloris Leachman's daughter.

Rotarian said...

And Lisa Gerritson, who played Cloris Leachman's daughter.