The character of Holocaust survivor Milton Saltzman in “The Soap Myth” is described as “cantankerous.” So who better to take on the role than actor Ed Asner, 89, who throughout his career has turned cantankerousness into an art?
Asner, known for playing the cantankerous Lou Grant in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and in the dramatic spinoff “Lou Grant,” and as the voice of the cantankerous Carl Fredricksen in the Pixar film “Up,” will perform in a staged reading of “The Soap Myth” in Pittsburgh on May 6 at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
The seven-time Emmy Award and five-time Golden Globe winner is fine with the typecasting.
“From time immemorial,” said Asner, speaking by phone from New York, “the naysayers and the ulcerous ones have looked like me.”
“The Soap Myth,” by Jeff Cohen, tells the story of Saltzman, who is on a mission to ensure that evidence that Nazis made soap out of Jewish corpses is included in Holocaust museums, and a young Jewish journalist, determined to discover the truth. The play examines anti-Semitism in the guise of Holocaust denial, and takes a hard look at who has the right to chronicle history.
The show, which launched a national tour on April 15, is part of the Holocaust Center’s Week of Remembrance. Other events included the Waldman Arts and Writing Award Ceremony on May 1, and a Yom HaShoah Commemoration on May 2, which focused on women and the Holocaust.
Asner was raised Orthodox in Kansas City, Missouri, where he said he was sometimes bullied because he was Jewish. It was his foundation of Jewish values, and his exposure to anti-Semitism at an early age, that led him to be an outspoken activist for several causes, including progressive political initiatives as well as The Survivor Mitzvah Project, a nonprofit that provides emergency aid to elderly and impoverished Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe.
His zeal to help the underdog, he said, can be traced to “being imbued in all the heroes of Jewish history, being a member of a tribe that gets picked upon in Kansas whenever people feel like it — being raised cautiously to be careful of what I say or do because it wouldn’t look good for the Jews. Many things contribute to speaking out, and being a Jew.”
Coming to Pittsburgh to perform a piece that confronts anti-Semitism just months after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue building is apt, Asner said.
Pittsburgh, he said, “has been ennobled by the massacre. It is reflected upon the whole nation, and it has become ennobled by its redress of the factors which led to the assassinations.
“It’s kind of old news in our country, don’t you think?” he continued, pointing to attacks on African-American churches, and the recent mosque attacks in New Zealand. “And the music goes on.”
“I think [the Soap Myth] will apply,” he said. “It fights against our own disbelievers — who want indictment in other areas for sure rather than risk minimizing the other indictments — and so they work against Milton Saltzman, our hero, by trying to deny him the audience he craves for the indictment that he seeks.”
The tour is taxing for Asner — its three-week run includes stops in Florida, Delaware, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri and Ohio — but the octogenarian took on the project “because I love the play,” he said.
“I love the message, whatever that may be. I love performing. And I think I serve the play and the message well by performing in it.”
He described the script as “aiming for the target, presenting a hero that does the same type of aiming, and it doesn’t separate the two. Now, you can say he’s a pain in the ass, him and his cause, but unfortunately, that’s all too often how things get done, by someone who won’t stop being a pain in the ass.”
“The Soap Myth” was originally produced off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theater in 2012 by the National Jewish Theater Foundation. A film of that production was broadcast nationally on PBS and is in the permanent collection of Britain’s Digital Theatre.
In light of the recent rise of anti-Semitic attacks, playwright Jeff Cohen said his show has particular significance.
“Holocaust education is more important than ever,” Cohen said in a prepared statement. “I feel a renewed urgency to fight the tide of hatred using the weapons I possess — words and ideas.”
Audiences have been receptive to the show’s message, according to Asner.
“You’d have to be a real shmendrick not to be moved by this play,” he said. “The audiences have always been enormously appreciative no matter how big or small. The play carries its effect wherever it goes.”
The legendary actor has no plans to retire, or to even slow down.
“Are you crazy? Acting is life to me,” he said. “It gives me energy.”
Asner is currently presenting two other shows. “A Man and His Prostate” is a one-man comedy that Asner describes as “a beautifully written show” by Ed Weinberger, who was a writer/producer on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
He is also playing the title role in “God Help Us,” a dramedy by Samuel Warren Joseph and Phil Proctor that deals with news personalities from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Not everyone gets to play God, Mr. Asner.
“They don’t have the qualifications I do,” he quipped.
Tickets for “The Soap Myth,” which runs 90 minutes, can be purchased at hcofpgh.org/soap-myth. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at