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Reporting on movies, film festivals, film production, premieres, movie events, industry trends and plays from around the world

The Global Film Village: A “Once In A Lifetime” Backstage interview with Ed Asner of Pixar’s “UP”

by Marla Lewin


Ed Asner was born the same year as the Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman play, Once In A Lifetime, was written 1929. Ed has been a regular performer for the LA Theatre Works readings of great plays since its inception in 1985. The first live reading of this play back then had guests Steven Spielberg and Barry Diller in the audience. The producer explained that their technique and equipment for that performance had not been as good as they would have liked so they had always wanted to do it again. Now they tape 5 shows and create the final broadcast from the best of the recordings.


We got to meet him backstage after the show at the Skirball Cultural Center and I asked him if he saw value in having audiences listening to great theatre plays on PBS radio. His famous eye brows went up.  He said these recordings allow today’s audience to hear plays that they might never get to experience except in the print media. Because of the high cost of mounting shows so many just never got done. He added that he really enjoyed doing them too. When he recorded Up! he was alone in a studio but here he got to work with other actors and interact with them.


Ed may be best known for playing journalist Lou Grant on television both as the station manager on the Mary Tyler Moore show and later as a Los Angeles newspaper editor on his own Lou Grant show. We discussed his feelings about the changes in the news business, with all of the  consolidation of organizations around the world, and many journalists having lost their jobs and lives.  Ed thought it was a shame and that we were loosing something very precious.


Ed smiled brightly when the movie “UP” was mentioned, and proud that the film premiered on opening night at the Cannes FIlm Festival this year. We laughed about how his cartoon character had replaced Stallone, Van Damme and Schwarzenegger as the action star on the famous Cannes billboards this year. Ed told us that John Lassiter had used the voice of singer Charles Aznavour to replace his in France.  He talked about the wonderful underlying love story in UP! and how the first 20 minutes of the film tells this touching and beautiful story. Then Jonathan Silverman appeared with his wife backstage.  He told Ed he had been married for two and a half years, and he wanted her to meet him.  Ed joked that two and half years is a long time for Hollywood marriages. I asked Jonathan what it was like working on Hart’s play, after starring in Neil Simons’ Brighton Beach Memoirs on both broadway and in that film.  He said “it is like reading Shakespeare.  It was an honor to be a part of classic theatrical history”.



It was a treat to sit with Ed, and meet other members of the cast and crew. The stage manager said Ed was almost off book after only two days on stage. Ed is so busy working that he squeezed these performances in while doing his own new one man show FDR which is on a national tour. He is on stage in that play for almost a full 90 minutes and is loving it. He told us how FDR was hilarious. He said they had to cut so many of the great lines which were actual quotes from President Roosevelt to keep the running time manageable. “Many of them were not only meaningful but often extremely humorous” Ed confided.


Then Christopher Hart, the director of the show, and son of playwright Moss Hart came back stage.  We again spoke of the timeless quality of his fathers’ work, and its’ humor. Chris said we should all read his father’s book, Act One, which is all about the early history of theatre.  Chris would like to revive the play for Broadway.  He cut down the 41 characters into 12,. Cut it to Two acts instead of three, and made the play into a radio show. He said evan so nothing really changes that much in the play or in Hollywood.


I mentioned the play, I’d Rather Be Right, which his father also wrote with George S. Kaufman.  It is a tender story about president Roosevelt, and his promise to balance the budget to a young man, contemplating marriage.  That show also included the music of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. He said that he hadn’t attended the production that was put on in Washington D.C. in 1994.


The play, Once In A Lifetime, is about a three actors from vaudeville trying to cash in as the movies adjust to being  “talkies.”  Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer had revolutionized the business. When sound was added to silent films many established stars couldn’t make the adjustment.   Some actors had heavy foreign accents or just terrible sounding voices.  Our heroes come up with the idea of starting a school to train actors how to speak for the new medium and become the first voice coaches. Ed Asner’s character is a studio mogul who did not buy the Vidaphone, and he is now afraid not to buy the latest technology. Little has changed in the backstage workings at the studios since the play was written.


It was a delightful night of theatre, and we highly recommend supporting LA Theatre Works fine productions.


Look for Once In A Lifetime on your local PBS radio station next spring. Also be sure to watch for FDR at a playhouse near you.



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About MarlaLewinGFV

Lewin Marla
(Global Film Village)

Marla is a producer, playwright, screenwriter, publicist and now a journalist. She attends 12 to 20 film festivals per year. She has spoken on filmmaking at many festivals including Cannes and SXSW.


Los Angeles

United States

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