with Ed Asner

I once had the privilege of working on stage with Ed Asner, who passed away yesterday. It was a brief experience and limited, but as an actor I learned something very important that weekend which I’ve never forgotten, and which is worth sharing.

Mr. Asner was touring a courtroom drama called “A Nation Divided” which was performing for one weekend in Los Angeles. It was a production developed in New Mexico (Tone Forrest, Director) and needed a local actor to play the Bailiff and as luck would have it, I ended up getting the part. There would be a full rehearsal, then three performances over the weekend. Of course, the Bailiff had few lines and very predictable ones, mostly consisting of the words “All rise,” so it made sense for the tour to use a local actor who could basically speak upon entering and just before exiting, and otherwise remain silent and professionally present for the duration of the play. The only other characters were the Judge, three high-power defense attorneys, and a Nameless Man (Shh: his name was “Ed Asner”) who was prosecuting his own case. The attorneys each represented then-President George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, and the Nameless Man was charging them with invading Iraq under false pretenses, knowing in advance that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction there.

For the purposes of this writing, I will not debate the merits of the play or of the United States invasion of Iraq, but to anyone familiar with Ed Asner, it should be obvious why he was passionate about this production and touring it around the country. He was a true artist, the kind that uses his position and creativity to produce meaningful messages, and his opinions on just about anything were never cloaked.

When I was introduced to Mr. Asner on the day of rehearsal, he greeted me warmly and shook my hand and took an actual moment to be real and get acquainted. I entered rehearsal knowing I was playing a very minor role, but I was inspired by this great actor to bend every lesson I’d ever taken toward making this character real.

In rehearsal, I quickly realized that it could potentially be a long day. Any actor’s hope while working with an industry giant like Mr. Asner is to contribute to the production in an appreciable way. Inhabiting a mechanical role such as a Bailiff can make one feel disconnected and uninvolved from the core of the play; after all, the Bailiff would no doubt be serving in the same court tomorrow, perhaps even with a different judge. So, what is the difference between a character and set dressing? For me, the day passed much like a tech rehearsal, so it was a question I had time to explore.

The play consisted of back-and-forths between the Nameless Man and the three government attorneys, with the Judge occasionally asking a question, and various witnesses taking the stage long enough to testify before exiting again. The basic goal of just about every character was to sway the judge, who would ultimately render a verdict. Every character had a position staked, which they brilliantly argued. The Judge was not impartial; she was obligated by law to find for the Defense if guilt could not be proven by the Nameless Man. And so, my character was the only one on stage with no argument and no stake in the verdict according to the text of the play; he basically just stood there.

I had a very busy rehearsal that day, within my own thoughts. In a role like this, the Director is very happy with an actor who can do it without falling on his face; the schedule is tight, and their focus is on the primary performances. I entered, exited, and otherwise observed our Director and Mr. Asner and the other primary actors getting everything polished, while I played the Bailiff… who stood there.

But as rehearsal progressed, I realized something about the Bailiff: he was the only character on stage who was free to make up his own mind. With the Judge obligated to presume innocence and everyone else arguing for one side or the other, only the Bailiff was truly in neutral territory. He had perfunctory lines, and any expression on his face would be professionally guarded, but he would be a person with a background and a life, and so I quietly created that life while holding my place on stage between the “All rise” and the “Court is adjourned.” Like myself, the Bailiff had multiple family members in the military and in the health care industry; he would be a person who was drawn to a career in public service, who practiced orderly routines and had a little fun on the weekends with his family. He had two kids in school, including a teenage son still years away from graduation who imagined himself someday joining the Marines.

By the end of rehearsal, I had decided that the Bailiff was the only character present whose fate hung in the balance. Other than the mysterious Nameless Man, mine was the only “little guy” in the story. The Bailiff’s life, his kids, his family, all of them would be affected by what was being decided here today. Who in the tale was more voiceless and vulnerable than the Bailiff? Not the government attorneys or the Judge, or even the witnesses in the story, who at least had something to testify about.

Even after rehearsal was over, I pondered on it, and slept on it.

I don’t remember anything about the next day other than the performance. “All rise!” I declared, and the company took the stage. In character as the trial began, I considered it unremarkable; a rather plain old man airing some grievance against the government; I was just there to get paid. But as the case progressed, it tugged at my inner life. Was this invasion staged on false premises? Did the injury which my brother suffered while in Iraq have nothing to do with protecting us from WMDs? Would we still be entrenched there when my son became a Marine, and why? My character entered the play with a complacency and a routine to him, but by the time court adjourned (for intermission) he could not dismiss the doubts he was experiencing behind his stoic professionalism. As the first act ended, the Judge announced when the trial would resume and I gave the “All rise.” The attorneys filed off into the wings as the Judge exited upstage, and as I followed her I could not help glancing back at this gruff, grizzled, Nameless Man who was here to take the most powerful men in the world to task. Was he right?

Ed’s eyes were ready for me, and he locked my gaze with an urgent expression which read to me as, “You know damn well I’m right.” It was not improvisation; he knew I wouldn’t be able to leave without looking back at him. The Bailiff then had to consciously look away again to take his exit, and the lights went down on the Nameless Man, alone in the courtroom.

The next time I interacted with Ed Asner was the following day as I arrived for our second performance. I went to shake his hand but he grinned and spread his arms open wide and bear-hugged me and clapped my shoulder. It was such a moment for me that all I recall is his effusive praise, like a proud granddad who just watched you score a goal, and a bit of joyous conversation about how there really are no small roles.

Ed Asner elevated the game of everybody he ever worked with. I will be forever grateful for that one weekend I played a Bailiff.

© Andy Wickham, August 30 2021

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