Whoops! Somehow you managed to hang up on the famously grumpy Ed Asner in mid-interview. You get him back, but only after several sweaty seconds.
“What the hell happened to you?!” Asner bellows, and for a moment there you feel like Ted Baxter after yet another incompetent newscast.
But chat with Asner for a half-hour and you get the sense he’s not really a crank. It’s just what people expect of him.
After all, we know Asner as the irascible newsman Lou Grant from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and, natch, “Lou Grant,” one role in two shows that won him five of his seven Emmys. And, more recently, as the voice of a curmudgeonly widower in the animated film “Up.”
One recurring Asner gig has him returning to his hometown this weekend: The Kansas City, Kan., native is starring as “FDR” Sunday at White Theatre in Overland Park. The show will raise money to renovate the chapel at Sheffield Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in the Northeast area of KC.
Asner’s parents are buried at Sheffield along with “much of my outer family,” he says. (Brother Labe still lives here.)
Has the 82-year-old actor given any thought to where he might one day be buried?
“Only fleetingly,” he says. His final resting place would most likely be in the Los Angeles area: “All my kids are out here.”
The four Asner offspring range in age from 25 to 48; the youngest is a college student in Connecticut. Asner says he’s legally separated from his wife.
He gets back here every couple of years — “Kansas City is our town” — and on this visit, he’s being inducted into the Kansas Hall of Fame. The ceremony was Friday in Topeka.
Asner hadn’t heard of the flap involving radio talker Rush Limbaugh and the Hall of Famous Missourians at the Capitol in Jefferson City, but he’s pretty sure no one’s making a bust of his likeness.
But “I’ll be glad to stick my face in mud for them if they need it,” he jokes.
As for his upcoming show, he has been performing as legendary U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt for the past three years. The script is based on the Dore Schary multi-character play “Sunrise at Campobello,” which ran on Broadway in the late 1950s and became a movie in 1960.
Asner’s association with “FDR” started out as a reading on a cruise ship. Then someone suggested a touring one-man show.
“It’s really electric,” Asner deadpans.
“Of course I’m being serious!” he says. “Do you think I’d make fun of my performance? I’m dynamic!”
But seriously …
“In the beginning it was very intimidating,” he says. “It’s an hour and 40 minutes. All by myself. After five or 10 minutes, I was like, ($%&*) I have another hour and a half to go and I’m out there alone the whole time! But I got used to it.”
Asner is a big fan of FDR, the country’s only four-term president. Roosevelt served as commander in chief during the tumultuous period of 1933 to 1945.
The play “shows his brilliance. It shows his tenacity. His perseverance. His humanity,” Asner says.
“It shows his prescience about World War II and Hitler. His exhaustive and exhausting efforts at getting us prepared to fight Hitler.
“You know, it’s strictly high points that the chorus will love, but which delineate his vast achievements in running this country for 12 years.”
Asner as Roosevelt enters the stage in a wheelchair, and he uses two canes “to go from place to place.”
At this point he has performed the show “well over 100” times. “It keeps my bones greased,” he says.
He’s about to elaborate but …
“Someone’s at the door,” he announces. “(@*!#)! WHO IS IT?”
After a brief interruption, Asner goes on to discuss …
• “Working Class,” a 2011 CMT sitcom he co-starred in alongside Melissa Peterman (“Reba”). The show didn’t make it to a second season.
• His upcoming second appearance on the reboot of CBS’ “Hawaii Five-O.” Asner will again reprise his role as an “amoral jewel expert,” which he first played on the original “Five-O” in 1975.
• “Grace,” a four-character play scheduled this fall for Broadway that also features another KC export, Paul Rudd. Asner plays what the Los Angeles Times calls a “cantankerous pest exterminator” living in Florida.
Is it possible, we ask Asner, that he could become the next Betty White, America’s sweetheart?
“Well, I’m gonna have the operation done next year,” he cracks.
White, he declares, is “a strumpet. They’re not gonna canonize her.” He should know — he worked with her on “Mary Tyler Moore.”
And speaking of work, Asner, like White, plans to keep at it, despite senior citizen status.
Don’t bother suggesting that he take it easy.
“No,” he says. “ ’Cause Betty White would steal the pennies off my eyes.”