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Veteran Actor and Audiobook Narrator Edward Herrmann

by Rochelle O'Gorman

He has been a film and television actor since the early 1970s and has appeared in everything from "The Paper Chase" to "Reds" to "Portrait of a Stripper." A working actor with a patrician voice and towering presence, Edward Herrmann was in Simon & Schuster's Manhattan studio in late winter to record Stanley Weintraub's history, "MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero." It was released onto audio just last month. The actor won his first Emmy for last year's guest performance on "The Practice," though he was nominated in 1976 for his portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the made-for-TV mini-series, "Eleanor and Franklin." His voice is easily recognizable and has been heard in commercials for batteries and cars. An audiobook veteran, Herrmann has narrated dozens of titles in many categories, from thrillers to history to poetry.

Recently Edward Herrmann spoke with Rochelle O'Gorman

Rochelle O'Gorman: You have recorded numerous biographies and hosted programs for the History Channel. Do you have an affinity for the subject?

Edward Herrmann: I like history. I was a history major for a while in school, before I changed to English. History is as romantic as fiction, and more so. And sometimes the consequences are dire.

O'Gorman: Do you seek out the historical characters you play, or do they just come your way?

Herrmann: It kind of came my way after I did the Roosevelt piece for ABC years ago.

O'Gorman: Is there something else you'd rather be doing?

Herrmann: No, I like the history; I like straight narrative. I would like to read more classics, but they're not popular. Most of the time they're recorded in England, which is a shame. It's good for them, but there are a lot of good readers in this country.

O'Gorman: Is there a genre you don't want to do?

Herrmann: Well, there's some awfully tasteless stuff out there that they don't really need my voice for. I think that there's an awful lot of good fiction out there, and good narrative historical work, so there's no lack of things for me to read.

O'Gorman: If you could pick the one book that you really would like to read but no one has yet offered, what would that be?

Herrmann: "Kim." I think it's already been recorded.

O'Gorman: You're talking about Rudyard Kipling's book?

Herrmann: I love the book; I love what it says. I love the wisdom in it, I love the part of the world that he's talking about, I love Indian culture. I love this examination of a Western consciousness in an Eastern context and being able to understand both and move between both. Indian scholars have said that it is the best book ever written about India by an outsider.

O'Gorman: How extensively do you prepare for a studio session like today's?

Herrmann: Well, I knew something about this war. One of my better friends is a marine pilot. What you have to do is get a handle on his (Weintraub's) construction, because he's not writing to be read, he's writing to put it down as history. And as so many writers do now, it's just one-sentence paragraphs. They just hang one dependent clause after another on the sentence and it makes it very difficult to get a line through. So, when you do get good writing, it's just miraculous. He certainly didn't write it to be spoken. Given that, it reads pretty well.

O'Gorman: Do you read a text through more than once before arriving at the studio?

Herrmann: It depends. If it's bopping along, sometimes I'll skip areas because I know how it's going to go. But there are funny little sentences and constructions that you sometimes have to go over. It's the dramatic books - the novels - the Tom Clancy books -- that are kind of fun because you have to lay out all the characters and choose different voices for them.

O'Gorman: Do you ever find that there's an accent you just can't do?

Herrmann: Argentinean was hard. There was an upper class and a lower class Argentinean in a W.E.B. Griffith book. But Hungarian and Russian are pretty easy; German's easy, French is okay.

O'Gorman: How do you approach an acting job? Today's work is mostly straight narration, but when it is does require a performance, how do you approach it differently?

Herrmann: Well, this is a performance too, because it is the performance of a narrative. You just enter into the situation and you pretend. It's what actors just do.

O'Gorman: Don't you approach everything differently? Television is not the same as film, which is not the same as theater, which is not the same as this.

Herrmann: Yes and no. A technique may vary, but acting is acting. I was asked that years and years ago, when I was a student.

O'Gorman: And what did you say?

Herrmann: I was in England and some hotsy-totsy English gal said, "How are you going to use all this English training in America?" I said, "Good acting is good acting. It's either good or bad. This will give me more arrows in my quiver as to how to approach a part. You still have to convince yourself that you are this person that you say you are and then convince them that you are who you say you are."
In the theater you use different techniques. The voice has to be bigger. The audience doesn't come to the theater not to believe you, not to enjoy you, and you use that. The same thing in a television movie or a film - you just are this person, but you have the same restrictions. You have a camera instead of an audience yawning in front of you and making noise with their gum wrappers and things not working on stage. You have a camera in front of you and you have people moving around and you have a different place to do it. But the actual stuff you do is virtually the same.

O'Gorman: And in the recording studio?

Herrmann: Same thing. You have to enter into the situation.

O'Gorman: What happens if you can't get inside a character's head, or you just don't like him?

Herrmann: Do it quickly. It's rare that there's a character that's so foreign that it's hard to get into. There are some that I'm just not good at. As a young actor you think you can play anything, and you can't.

O'Gorman: You have recorded a slew of audiobooks. Is there one that sticks in your mind?

Herrmann: One of the most difficult - I don't know whether I'm most proud of it because I don't think I did it justice - was the recording of the King James Version of the Bible we did for Dove. I did Genesis, and that was incredibly difficult. That was hard.
Some of the language just soars and leaps off of the page, but then it bogs down in the most unspeakable - literally unspeakable - language. The begattings and the nomads and the going out and smashing and crashing each other and killing one another. It doesn't sing poetically at all. But some of it is just the finest ever written.
I like the John Jakes books ("Homeland" and "American Dreams"). If he's written a third or a fourth installment, I'd like to do it. It's a family saga set in Chicago. Various elements of the family succeed and proceed and go to California and become involved in the movie business.
It's touching because a lot of it takes place around the first World War and it mirrors events in my family, the Herrmanns, who were German on my father's side. My father didn't speak English until he went to school. They were the most highly respected immigrant group in America, the Germans. They were models of immigrant application and education and hard work and honesty. They went from that to being vilified in about two years from 1914 to 1916. He was thrown off streetcars for forgetting and speaking German in public.

O'Gorman: Did you grow up speaking German?

Herrmann: No, my father stopped speaking German. They had a family conference as to whether to change the family name from two "r's" to one "r." They decided they'd stay with two "r's" and two "n's," and then father wanted to be as American as apple pie, so there was no question about us speaking German.

O'Gorman: I thought that might explain your ear for accents.

Herrmann: Oh, I don't know. I think accents are about music and rhythm.

O'Gorman: And are you musical?

Herrmann: Yeah, my whole family was musical. I don't play any more, but I do listen to an awful lot of music.

O'Gorman: What did you play?

Herrmann: Piano. My father played, my aunt taught it.

O'Gorman: Do you listen to audiobooks?

Herrmann: My wife listens a lot. I listen to music. Sometimes we get goofy and we listen to old radio shows - "The Lone Ranger," "Amos & Andy."

O'Gorman: You don't listen to other actors' performances?

Herrmann: I'm afraid I don't.

O'Gorman: You'd think you'd be listening to other performances, just out of curiosity.

Herrmann: Well, I don't go to theater a lot unless I know somebody who's in the play. And then I'll just go to see how they're doing.

O'Gorman: It sounds as if you have seen too much.

Herrmann: Yeah, you see too much. An old timer told me when I was just starting out - which sounds pretentious, but it was good advice - he said don't become too knowledgeable about dramatic literature. Don't read too many plays because it becomes an academic subject rather than a real thing. So, when you do read a play for the first time, like "The Cherry Orchard" it just excites you. If you read too many of them you know too much, and you think you know too much, and it's very hard to get a fresh attack on something. I tend to want to read things that have nothing to do with the arts. I collect lots of stuff, toy soldiers, pictures, paintings, drawings, - but I don't collect theatrical memorabilia for that reason.

O'Gorman: One more question. What do you think about the abridgements?

Herrmann: It depends on the book. I don't think you are losing an awful lot with some books, but I think you are losing a great deal in others. It depends on the quality of the writing and is it a work of art or not? But you can find an awful lot of stuff to take out in most books.

O'Gorman: You're saying that they're bloated?

Herrmann: Even Dickens is the same way. You can do a very nice adaptation of Dickens and not lose a hell of a lot. You are losing some rich and juicy stuff, but he did write them in installments. An awful lot of that stuff is undergrowth that was not necessary for the telling of the story.
I did both Ayn Rand books ("The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged") and they were virtually unabridged. I thought that there was stuff that could have been taken out.
You want to read the whole thing, than read the whole thing. I know it is one step away from colorizing films, which I don't approve of at all, but when you sit down to read your New Testament do you always read the whole thing? You dip in and find things. I don't read all of Yeats' poetry when I sit down. You read a poem at a time.

O'Gorman: Good point.

Herrmann: What is this - a third of the book ("MacArthur's War")? But what you get in this is truly the essential impact of the book. You really do get most of the information that you need out of this. The author approved the abridgement; his point is very clear and well made.

Article used by kind permission from and with much gratitude to the author.

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