Famed and beloved actor, activist and humanitarian, Ed Asner, will officially become a nonagenarian on November 15. However, he’s celebrating his birthday this Sunday evening, November 3, with a star-studded celebrity roast and fund raiser at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. All proceeds will go to Ed’s charity The Ed Asner Family Center whose mission is: “To promote self-confidence in differently abled individuals and bring balance and wellness to those individuals and their families.” But first, let me explain how I crossed paths with Ed over 15 years ago.
It came about because I had written a screenplay, “The Amazing Mr. Z” about 80-something Polish immigrant, Irving Zupperman. Irv lived in Miami in a welfare Alzheimer’s facility but had been misdiagnosed as he was perfectly sane, except for one tiny detail…he insisted he was a super hero.
Oddly enough, Irv seemingly could do “super hero” feats like bending steel in his bare hands and seeing through walls. But they were written off as “tricks” he learned from his teenage days as the strongman in the Warsaw Circus billed as “The Amazing Mr. Z.”
No one believed in Irv, except Joey, the 8-year-old son of Michael, a reporter driven to become famous. Over a corned beef sandwich and pickles, Irv and Joey bonded and, over time, Michael learned valuable life lessons from Mr. Z.
So it was that one day I was somewhat startled to get a phone call from Ed whom I’d never met. In his rather gruff, Lou Grant voice, he got right to the point, “I read your script and I want to play “Super-Jew.” He had received “Mr. Z” from my neighbor, actress Susan Anspach. Seeking an option from me, he said enthusiastically, “Your script will be my last hurrah.” I responded, “That would be great Ed, because I don’t think I’ve had a first hurrah.”
And Ed would have been a great Irving Zupperman. But, even though the dynamic in “The Amazing Mr. Z” of a cantankerous old man and a young boy who believes in him was very similar to the characters in the animated movie “Up,” which grossed ¾ of a billion dollars, apparently Mr. Z wasn’t meant to be.
However, I saved in my heart a remark about my writing from Ed who’s not given to false praise.“Jack, you’re so talented, it’s an honor to know you.” I told everybody I knew, and many I didn’t, what Ed had said.
In the meantime, during the option year, Ed’s assistant, Patty, would keep me informed when Ed was going to be on TV. For example, Ed was on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show in a reoccurring guest appearance entitled, “Can you impress Ed Asner?”
Looking very dignified in his tuxedo, Ed would come out on stage and sit in a tall director’s chair. Much like the Gong Show, three contestants would come out one after another and do their “act” as Ed would seemingly be nauseous at the parade of ineptness. (Trust me, the bit was funnier than I’m describing it.)
The last contestant that night was an obese 30-something rather disheveled man whose “talent” was that he could remove his boxer shorts from underneath his baggy walking shorts without taking the walking shorts off. (To this day, I don’t know how he did it, and don’t really want to know as you’ll soon see why.)
One other thing, when the man held up his boxer shorts to the audience’s applause, the shorts were all stretched out. The whole thing was a combination of funny and gross. But, when Jay asked Ed his opinion of the man’s act, Asner shrugged and shook the contestant’s hand, “What can I say, you’re so talented it’s an honor to know you.” I was floored! That’s what Ed said to me!
Surely Ed had been sarcastic or just trying to be nice to the man. And yet, embarrassing as it is to admit all these years later, it haunted me. Finally I went to bed but slept fitfully, dreaming about the schlemiel with the shorts.
Against my better judgment, in he morning I called Ed’s office. Patty put Ed on the speaker. “Jack,” he said reassuringly, “I felt sorry for the tubby guy. You, I meant it. Besides, you’re not tubby.” As I laughed, I felt much better. (And yet, I’m writing about it two decades later.)
As Ed’s momentous birthday approaches I note he’s won 7 Emmys (the most performance Emmys than anyone in Emmy history) 5 Golden Globes, a Lifetime Achievement Award and numerous Humanitarian Awards. But, as I wrote in a column about him, “Walking the Walk,” other than his family, Ed’s greatest achievements are fighting for the causes he believes in, no matter the personal cost. The truth is, it’s been an honor to know him.