Dressed in blue LA baseball cap, red Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, sneakers and leaning on a wooden cane, octogenarian and multi-award winning actor Ed Asner waddles across the stage and before even saying a word already has people standing to applaud.
Even louder, when he whispers self-deprecatingly, “I’m like a gazelle, ain’t I?”
Such is the immense respect for the cuddly, rotund Kansas City-born man who starred in such long-running TV shows as Lou Grant, Rhoda and The Mary Tyler Moore show that by the end of his 90-minute routine, the entire audience at An Grianan theater in Letterkenny stands in tribute.
Tireless and active at the tender age of 89, multiple Emmy award winner Asner is on the road – and has been for several years – entertaining audiences throughout the US, Canada, and this week at the Earagail Arts Festival, with his one-man performance of ‘A Man And His Prostate,’ penned by his friend and screenwriter Ed Weinberger.
Based on Weinberger’s own story, the show is both a theatre production, hard-hitting and comical, and a public service health declaration. In Asner’s words, it’s “a story of life, love and death.”
The overall theme relates to a part of the male anatomy which Asner poetically describes as “a precious seed-like organ the size of New Zealand kiwi,” which as Weinberger travelled through Italy enlarged so much he collapsed in front of Michelangelo’s David in Florence. Close to renal failure, he was rushed to hospital.
Asner, in his characteristic gruff and charming manner, leads us through the medical odyssey that ensued, beginning with the challenge of explaining to non-English speaking hospital staff in a mixture of ‘English, Italian and Marcel Marceau” his various symptoms.
Winner of nine Emmys and three Golden Globes and having written scripts for such comedians as diverse as Bob Hope and Richard Pryor, Weinberger is not short of a colourful quip or two that turns a story about prostate cancer into sheer farce. The combo of his words and Asner’s deadpan delivery is a winner, especially hilarious, for example, when describing bouts of wind after nurses filled his bum with water prior to an operation. “A peculiar assortment of farts, some sounding like sonic jets passing by, others as if an old Vietnamese lady was slurping on noodles.”
Use of multi-media enhances audience enjoyment with amusing photos on screen of a coy Asner being shaved in the nether regions by three lovely nurses and later wearing the most beatific of smiles after an injection of morphine. A photo of buxom actress and sex symbol, Jane Russell, also appears. Her role in the saga is best heard, not described here.
The show is not without its serious messages. That one-quarter of American men suffer from prostate cancer, a condition that kills around 35,000 people a year, says Asner. A list of celebrities who have succumbed scrolls down the screen in silent recognition, including well-known actors Laurence Olivier, Telly Savalas, Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston and Dennis Hopper, not to mention former world heavyweight boxing champion, Floyd Patterson.
There is also the severe sense of uncertainty sick people often face when disease hits, best described by Asner, when he says, “Suddenly I realised. I’m a bit player in my own production.”
The final message, however, is an upbeat one, “To live as if we never had to die.”