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Ed Asner talks acting at 89, pursuing the truth and bringing 'The Soap Myth' to Tampa

Ed Asner at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards in 2009 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Published Apr. 12

Ed Asner works harder than your grandfather. Matter of fact, he probably works harder than you.

In the last decade alone — basically, since he starred in 2009's Oscar-winning Pixar classic Up — he's played God, Kris Kringle and FDR, appeared in Cobra Kai and Hawaii Five-0 and The Boondocks. He's a vocal and tireless advocate for causes like autism, climate change and gun violence. And he still tours the world with plays like The Soap Myth, a reading of which he'll participate in Monday in Tampa.

Oh, and he turns 90 in November.

"I'm doing it to stay alive," he said recently from his home in Palm Springs, Calif. "The creative aspect keeps me younger. And to leave a legacy of some modest proportion to my kids."

With seven Emmys, five Golden Globes and a Hall of Fame film and TV resume — from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant to Elf and JFK to the forthcoming Netflix series Dead to Me — that wouldn't seem to be an issue. But Asner is still searching for new ways to connect with audiences.

This year alone, he's touring with at least three theatrical presentations. There's God Help Us, a political comedy in which Asner portrays the Almighty. There's A Man and His Prostate, a "public service" comedy that's about exactly what it sounds like.

And then there's the weightier The Soap Myth. Asner plays a Holocaust survivor who's spent his life describing Nazis rendering the bodies of Jewish prisoners into soap — an atrocity some historians have treated with skepticism — and a journalist who confronts him about it. He'll be joined on stage by theater veterans Tovah Feldshuh (The Walking Dead), Ned Eisenberg and Liba Vaynberg.

Asner talked about The Soap Myth's resonance and his own pursuit of the truth. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Do you feel like a different actor than you were even in your 70s?

I'm more careful. I don't leap worlds at the whim of a director.

What appealed to you about going on the road with this project?

Well, it's a beautiful story. It deals with an old man's dedication to the truth and fighting for it, and we could use a lot more of that in this country.

Do you feel like you're performing a public service? It's a pretty powerful concept that seems to have some parallels in modern society.

I think so. I think that if the truth of The Soap Myth holds up, we would be getting the public (closer) to not setting aside what was once considered truth and letting it molder. It awakens the public to checking your facts.

Obviously, you're not Lou Grant. But as we've experienced the erosion of truth and fact as a cornerstone of society, how have you witnessed that?

We witness it every day with the administration we have. A little thing like global warming is minimized and the world should be alerted. The gentleman in Soap Myth is fighting a pyrrhic battle to reestablish a truth that was once widely accepted, and I think that's a good cause. If we live a lie, then we're perpetuating it. Fight for the truth, no matter where you are, and what you're doing.

You have a Netflix series coming up, Dead to Me. Does working on a streaming show like that or Cobra Kai feel significantly different from when network TV in the '70s?

Yeah. You weren't that concerned with how truthful you're being then. I was. But nobody paid that much attention. What I do now is certainly subject to scrutiny and to challenge, and it's withstood those challenges each time.

These roles you're doing lately — Soap Myth, A Man and His Prostate — do you view them as conduits for the audience to receive some kind of truth about the world? Or do you yourself get some form of truth out of performing them?

I think so. God Help Us presents more of a problem for me, with having to accept certain challenges that I think are full of crap. But I think what it does engender in us is patience with our neighbors. Go slowly. Take it easy. Don't be shooting from the hip so severely that you can't hear what the other side is saying.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the cast that will be appearing in Tampa. The article has been fixed to reflect the correct cast.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

If you go

The Soap Myth

$25 and up. 7 p.m. Monday. Bryan Glazer Family JCC, 522 N Howard Ave., Tampa. (813) 572-5900. bryanglazerfamilyjcc.com.

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