Lovable curmudgeon: Ed Asner appears Sunday night at the Road Theatre. (Photo courtesy Quince Productions)

Lovable curmudgeon: Ed Asner appears Sunday night at the Road Theatre. (Photo courtesy Quince Productions)

Approximately 10 years ago, I received a surprise phone call from Ed Asner. Why was this legendary actor, a seven-time Emmy and five-time Golden Globe winner, calling me? Ed had just read my screenplay, “The Amazing Mr. Z,” and wanted to option it. Trust me, I didn’t take much convincing.

In the screenplay, Polish immigrant Irving Zupperman is 87, cigar-smoking and sarcastic as he’s stuck in a county nursing home in Miami Beach. “The Amazing Mr. Z,” was his stage name as the teenage strong man in the 1939 Warsaw Circus.

While completely coherent, Mr. Z was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s because he wears a long sleeve T-shirt with a Z on his chest and a cape, and insists that he’s a superhero. (The long sleeves hide the numbers tattooed on his forearm.)

The only one who believes in Mr. Z is Jordy, 7, the diminutive son of parents consumed with getting ahead. When Mr. Z tells him “superheroes come in all sizes,” Jordy stops at nothing, both comedic and tragic, to prove him right.

Ed said wistfully, “Mr. Z will be my last hurrah.” A bit overwhelmed, I countered, “Gee Ed, I don’t think I’ve had a first hurrah.” (Actually, Ed keeps having last hurrahs, including starring in the animated movie “Up,” which grossed a mere $727 million.)

Ed wound up reading two more of my screenplays and, given his occasional gruff exterior, shocked me with his praise, “You’re so talented, Jack, it’s an honor to know you.” I almost dropped the phone.

Naturally, I repeated Ed’s line to any relative, friend and total stranger who’d listen. But my euphoria ended one night while watching “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

Dressed in a tuxedo, Ed came out to a standing ovation. He then sat in a tall director’s chair and, with Jay by his side, judged painfully poor amateur acts in a bit known as “Can You Impress Ed Asner?”

The contestant in question was in his 30s and overweight. His “talent” was that he could remove his baggy boxer shorts without removing his walking shorts. I don’t know how he did it, nor do I want to know. It was Ed’s remark that made me gulp.

To my horror Ed told him, “You’re so talented it’s an honor to know you.” But wait, that’s what he told me!

The next morning I nervously dialed Ed’s office. Sensing my troubled tone, his assistant immediately put me on the speaker. I timidly asked Ed how he could have given me and Mr. Baggy Boxers the same compliment. There was an awkward pause until Ed confessed, “I felt sorry for the chubby guy, and I didn’t for you.”

That was then and this is now: With a $15 million “going away present,” Jay Leno leaves the “Tonight Show” in February. Among other projects, Ed has toured the country with his hit one-man show of FDR. And the “Baggy Boxers” guy went on to become president of Fox News. (I kid, Roger Ailes.)

And speaking of now, this Sunday at the Road Theatre (10747 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood) Ed stars in a reading of a play I co-wrote, “The Last Dance.” For fans of reunions, it’s directed by Jack Bannon, who played the city assistant editor on “Lou Grant.”

With a hurricane fast approaching, the play is set in a hotel bar in a fishing village in Mexico. It features Jake, 77, (Ed) an ex-Marine sniper, and the youngest Medal of Honor recipient. He’s been on the run for decades for his alleged part in the “crime of the century.”

The play was inspired in part by Frank Smith, my eccentric former boss in the Forest Service, also decades ago. Much to my surprise, I discovered online that Frank had retired to Mexico and is leading the fight against the poaching of endangered marine turtles by drug cartels. (Leave it to Frank to adopt such a dangerous cause.)

I also wrote “Last Dance” because this Nov. 22 marks the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.

In Act I, just before the storm hits, a busload of American environmentalists arrives to protest the horrific turtle poaching. Among them is Ryan, who claims to be a reporter from Rolling Stone, but in fact he might be there to “close the books” on Jake.

The reading of “The Last Dance,” will be videoed by filmmaker Pegarty Long so a few scenes might wind up on YouTube. In the meantime, after 10 years, and with all due respect to Mr. Baggy Boxers, I’m just hoping my play can impress Ed.

 

With limited seating, reservations for Ed Asner’s performance Sunday, Oct. 6, are recommended. Phone (818) 761-8838 or visit www.roadtheatre.org, scroll down and click on “The Last Dance.” To learn about the fight against turtle poaching, go to www.project-tortuga.org. Jack can be reached at jnsmdp@aol.com.

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