How Faith Helped Ed Asner Conquer Fear
By John Tuttle, Contributing Writer
Note: This story is part of our Faith in Hollywood series. For similar stories, click here.
Renowned actor and philanthropist Ed Asner made a name for himself with numerous roles in TV and Movies throughout his decades-long career.
From TV’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show to cinematic cult classics like ELF (2003), Asner has displayed a fantastic range in the types of characters he has played, including devious villains and benevolent heroes alike.
Before his professional career took off, he was involved with student plays at the University of Chicago. One production that particularly stirred him was a rendering of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, in which the principal character was Thomas Becket.
Asner landed the lead role. The longer he dwelled on the historical Becket, the closer he felt to Becket’s God. The experience prompted Asner to prayer, admiration, and a deepening of his faith.
Asner first had to get inside Becket’s head, a man who had lived and died in the Middle Ages.
Formerly a chancellor of England, Thomas Becket was given the highly honorable position of Archbishop of Canterbury under the rule of King Henry II. Known for previously neglecting his duties as an archdeacon, Becket turned over a new leaf when elected to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
He took his newfound responsibilities to heart and adopted a more disciplined lifestyle than what he had previously held. It marked a change in character for the better. Hostility arose, instigated by the king, which led to Henry’s disobedience to papal authority. Becket subsequently excommunicated the king and a host of associates.
Enraged, Henry continued to speak out against Becket, and, in 1170, a handful of knights rushed upon the archbishop. He met his death by the sword. Amid this brutal murder, his final words were to the effect of: “For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I embrace death.” Today, the Catholic Church recognizes him as a saint and martyr.
This archbishop’s life story does not easily inspire boredom in those who hear it. Not 15 years after Asner’s collegiate presentation of Murder in the Cathedral, the major motion picture BECKET (1964) made its way to the silver screen. The movie even featured such A-list actors as Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.
Becket’s story touched an untold number of individuals who read about him or saw the sixties movie drama. Becket’s character had a profound personal and spiritual impact on Asner.
For the actor, this wasn’t something that came naturally. It was, in fact, quite difficult. Years later, in 1979, he related that right from the get-go, he had felt a bit uneasy about playing Becket. His nerves were all on edge, not just on opening night but throughout all the rehearsals too.
“There was a part of his character—the essence of the man—that I couldn’t grasp,” Asner writes. “His relationship with God seemed so intense, so personal. I couldn’t understand it.”
He goes on:
Hey, I told myself again. Take it easy. But I couldn’t stop worrying. Amid the confusion of backstage activity, I mentally reviewed the script, considering the events leading to the big final scene—Becket’s martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral.
Under my breath, I murmured his final words of faith, hoping that this time I might somehow experience first-hand what Becket felt. It was my last chance.
“For my Lord”—I paused dramatically, waiting for inspiration—”I am now ready to die.”
Asner wanted to put himself into the same mentality and emotional state that Thomas Becket himself was in at the moment of his death. But the recitation of the powerful words left him feeling empty. The actor’s discomfort persisted.
As he sat alone with himself, Asner began to mull over how – realistically – he could put himself in the same mental space as Becket. Nearly eight centuries divided the societies in which they lived; one had been a Christian archbishop and martyr, the other a Jewish actor.
Asner began to reminisce about growing up with his family in Kansas City as one of fewer “than 100 Orthodox Jewish families in a city of 120,000.” Although Asner was different from the other kids and often felt lonely, he remembered the comfort he found in Judaism and the warmth of his family:
Still, I had to face the fact that when I was away from home, I was lonely. Sometimes a deep fear gripped me—a cold, hopeless feeling that I would never have friends, never be accepted, never be “normal.”
At moments like this, my best friend was my imagination. While waiting for the bus to Hebrew school, I entertained myself by lapsing into fantasy about my favorite Biblical characters.
Like a mighty army of superheroes on parade, they thundered past the reviewing stand of my mind. First came Abraham, wise and faithful patriarch. Then came his son, Isaac, with grandson, Jacob—who later became known as Israel—and great-grandson, Joseph.
While Asner sat backstage, he began to notice a running theme among the figures of the Old Testament; a continuing (albeit imperfect) line of fidelity. These men had served God until the end, as had Becket in the 12th century.
It was almost time for the actor to go on stage and become the dying Archbishop of Canterbury. His anxieties rushed upon him once again. But, inexplicably, Asner felt compelled to offer a quick prayer.
“Suddenly—and quite unexpectedly—I heard myself saying, ‘Lord, help me do a good job. Take away my fear. Let me live this role; let me be this man, Becket, who died so bravely so long ago. Don’t…’ I hesitated. ‘Don’t let our differences stand in the way,” Asner said.
“God must have heard me, because suddenly I understood that the God Becket prayed to and died for was none other than the same God of my childhood—the same God Who spoke to Abraham, the same God Moses saw face-to-face,” he added.
Through this experience, Asner realized that the God of Becket was indeed the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” as Exodus 3:6 tells us.
“The differences between Christianity and Judaism were great, certainly. Yet there was this tremendous heritage that we shared; faith in one Father, Creator of us all. Where once it seemed that Becket and I were strangers, now I knew what we had in common,” Asner explained.
Today, Ed Asner devotes much of his time, attention, and monetary means to charity. The Ed Asner Family Center, founded by his son Matt Asner and Matt’s wife Navah, strives to offer special needs individuals and their families the resources needed to foster expressive arts, health, and self-confidence.