Ed Asner will star in “God Help Us!” in Eastport on Oct. 12 and 13. His daughter is the show’s producer. Photo by Rich Cullen

Ed Asner says traveling the backroads of America to perform live in small theaters is tedious and grueling, but in the same breath, concedes that performing for the audiences in those theaters “is what I live for.”

In mid-October, he’ll be heading about as far east as one can go in this country – to Eastport – to play the world’s creator in a political comedy called “God Help Us!” He said he and his daughter, the show’s producer, picked the Washington County location mostly because the Eastport Arts Center agreed to have them. And because he wanted to go “somewhere where they don’t know all the scandalous stories about me.” Asner said he doesn’t have any specific connection to the state, though that might change.

“I don’t have any friends there. Not yet anyway,” said Asner, 89, speaking from Long Island, New York, one of the stops on his current tour with the play. “I hope to make some friends. Or I could make some enemies, but that would be terrible.”

The Emmy Award-winning actor said another reason he’s coming to Eastport to perform is “to make a little spending money.” But not too much. While most traveling acts that play the 106-seat theater ask for a guaranteed fee, Asner’s production company only asked for a percentage of the ticket sales, said Chris Grannis, director of the Eastport Arts Center. There’ll be two performances of the play there, Oct. 12 and 13.

The play centers on a mock political debate between a man and a woman who were once in love but were torn apart by their political disagreements, with God (Asner) as moderator. God is not too happy with the current divisive and polarizing state of politics, declaring that “the elephants and the donkeys are flinging crap all over my creation.” So he brings the two former lovers and political opponents together to hash out their differences and to “walk in each other’s shoes.” He doesn’t just encourage them to see the other side, he threatens them. “I gave you free will to go forth and get it together. If you don’t, it’s the end,” Asner says in a video promo for the play.

In Eastport, the couple will be portrayed by local actors Jenie Smith and Peter Frewen, who are married in a real life and have been in several plays at Eastport Arts Center over the past few years. They also own Dastardly Dick’s Wicked Good Coffee in Eastport.

The opportunity to share the stage with Asner is both exciting and terrifying, they said.

“I immediately wanted to be considered for the part and simultaneously felt sheer terror, thinking I’d be sharing the same air with him,” Smith said. Frewen’s main worry was “looking like a fool” next to an actor with 60 years in show business. The play will give two other local actors, Brian Giles and Ann Cornelison, the chance to play silent angels on stage with Asner.

Asner played mostly supporting roles in film and TV until 1970, when he landed the role of Lou Grant, the gruff TV news boss on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” In 1977, he got his own highly-rated show, “Lou Grant,” a drama that featured the day-to-day struggles of an idealistic newspaper staff. For the two shows, he won a total of five Emmys. Since the 1980s, he’s done a lot of voice acting work for many animated films and TV shows. He was the voice of the grumpy old man in Pixar’s 2009 animated film “Up,” which won the Academy Award for best animated feature.

Ed Asner says he decided to go to Eastport for a production of “God Help Us!” because he wanted to go “somewhere where they don’t know all the scandalous stories about me.” Photo by Rich Cullen

“God Help Us!” was written by Samuel Warren Joseph, who has written for animated TV series including “Duck Tales” and “Batman,” and Phil Proctor, a voice actor whose credits include “Rugrats.” The play is produced Asner’s daughter, Liza Asner, who worked in the Portland, Oregon, area for more than 20 years in TV news and sales, before starting to work with her father on theater productions a few years ago.

She also worked with her father on a one-man show called “A Man and His Prostate,” which played at Husson University in Bangor in 2018. That show was written by Ed Weinberger, a writer and producer on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” about his own experience with prostate cancer.

The current tour of “God Help Us!” is taking Asner to small towns and out-of-the-way places all over North America. Before coming to Maine, he’s scheduled to play Billings, Montana, this weekend and Lebanon, New Hampshire, on Oct. 10. After Eastport, he’ll perform in Mabou, Nova Scotia, on Oct. 18. Earlier this year, the show played in Franklin, Tennessee; Gloucester, Massachusetts; Newport, Oregon; Sellersville, Pennsylvania; and Paradise, California.

Though decidedly liberal himself, Asner said he hopes the play reaches people of all political persuasions. He has publicly endorsed Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama in 2008, and did a TV commercial advocating single-payer health care in California, where he lives.

Asner said he thinks the play resonates with audiences because as a society we’re all “aghast” at what’s happening politically these days. The script changes from time to time, based on the daily news, including the current impeachment inquiry of President Trump.

In a video trailer for the play, Asner as God decides at one point that getting people to act civilly to each other is a hopeless cause. He talks about giving up and starting his creation all over again.

“The force is not with you,” he tells the bickering couple. “I think I may have to reboot.”

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