He may be pushing for more creationism in the classroom in his current theatrical role, but Emmy Award-winning actor Edward Asner is hardly an advocate for intelligent design.
The longtime star is now pontificating as prosecutor William Jennings Bryan in a stage production re-creating the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial, where science teacher John Thomas Scopes was prosecuted for violating a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution.
The stage version of the trial is from LA Theatre Works, and includes a rotating cast with Mike Farrell and Sharon Gless. They're touring 24 cities this year, as the real-life debate between faith and science is discussed in towns across the country.
They were performing in Lincoln, Neb., on Tuesday night as the issue was on the ballot in several areas. Asner spoke critically of Kansas, where the school board voted to adopt new public school standards casting doubt on the theory of evolution.
"I'm very disappointed in my home state but the only people who will suffer are the students in Kansas and the nation," Asner said by telephone.
They'll bring the production to another region dealing with this issue -- "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial," has been invited to perform in Dover, Pa., where Election Day brought the ousting of school board members who favor intelligent design.
Despite Asner's opinions, LA Theatre Works producing director Susan Loewenberg said she wants to present the facts and not be perceived as a "troupe of Hollywood liberals coming to tell people what to think."
"I'm asking people to really listen and learn and ask good questions … and not just react from their gut," said Loewenberg.
Evening of Theater and Jury Duty
The idea of going to watch a re-enactment of a court case, with dialogue pulled from transcripts may not initially sound like a recipe for a riveting night of drama.
"It's our job to make it not dull," said Asner. "At the same time, we're dealing with some of the greatest speakers of the period."
His character, Bryan, was a three-time presidential candidate and national orator. The defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, was among the top criminal attorneys in his day. Both realized their attempts to plead their case would bring their voices far beyond the crowded Kansas courtroom.
"It was the first trial ever broadcast on the radio, I mean, think O.J. Simpson. The entire country was glued to that radio," said Loewenberg. "So Darrow and Bryan were not just playing to the 12 people in the jury box, they were playing to the whole country."
A thousand people also crowded into the hot courtroom where religion and science clashed during tense debates. Loewenberg describes their version as a radio play, with a sound effects artist on stage to re-create the clack of the gavel and thunder rumbling outside.
Audiences are invited to join the performance in the role of the jury.
"In the transcript, you know exactly how the audience reacted," said Loewenberg. "So we say to this audience … if you hear something you don't like you can boo, or applaud and they do. The audience actually gets into it."
For Asner, who has played a range of characters from comedy to drama throughout his career, it was the human aspect of the role that brought him to the production. "One of the reasons Bryan is, to me, so appealing, is because this is a man shown under great stress and conflict to the point that he dies four or five days after the trial," said Asner.
He spoke emotionally about Bryan, who was a great supporter of peace and resigned as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson in protest over World War II but had his legacy reduced to what happened during the Scopes Monkey trial.
"I have great regrets and sorrow that his last act in life was to be considered a fool by many thinking people for the positions he took in the trial," said Asner.
Trading Politics for Laughs
Asner plans to remain with the touring group through January and is considering other roles for next year.
It may still be tough for television audiences to embrace him in a comedy beyond his classic role as Lou Grant on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," but he'll try to add to that repertoire by teaming up with another comedic star.
"I'm supposed to do a pilot with Leslie Nielsen," said Asner.
The series, "One Hundred Things To Do Before You Die," has the pair working on that list by tackling some outrageous ideas. "Leslie and I go off in an RV and we take suggestions, but we have some of our own as to what we'd like to do before we die," said Asner. "Of course, most of them are silly and cute and fun."
His wish list includes learning how to parallel park a semi-truck, while Nielsen opts for a more active adventure. "His first choice is to go bungee jumping," said Asner who is less enthusiastic about leaping from a tall height. "No, no. That's not my cup of tea, but he wants to do it."
He joked that he may be getting some solid training for the traveling series by going on the road with "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial."
Given the contentious issue at the heart of the play, Asner said the tour is succeeding "far better" than he expected, although he wonders about detractors. Several of the actors have sustained minor injuries, leaving Asner to jokingly question if sabotage is involved: "I think the fundamentalists are out to get us."