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Interview by Don Shewey, 1986 ©
Photograph by Susan Shacter ©

Ed Herrmann has played a lot of starchy WASPís---as F.D.R. in the two Eleanor and Franklin TV movies and in the movie of Annie, and onstage as Kate Nelliganís toweringly repressed British ambassador husband in David Hareís Plenty. The image Herrmann projects as more intelligent and well-educated than the average guy is confirmed by his conversation, which is littered with references to Thucydides, Socrates, Emerson, Gibbon. On the other hand, he loves to drop show-biz names and dish about other actors. And the first time he appears on screen in Compromising Positions, heís sitting in a McDonaldís eating a Big Mac exclaiming, ďI would love to kill a dentist!Ē

"The attitudes people judge my work by are what they use to judge the old WASP power group---East Coast Anglo, Northern European. My family is from Indiana, German Middle America: the work ethic, picnics, hot dogs, pretzels. But itís fun to make fun of a WASP, who is necessarily stodgy. Like in England, they have jokes about the ruling class. Thereís always a group itís convenient to bounce off".

How does your size affect the roles youíre offered?

Big guys (like Johnny Lithgow) usually play parts where they arenít aggressive. Big guys donít have to be. Newman, Redford, Nicholson, those guys are small. Whereas I wear glasses, I usually speak in complete sentences--that makes people nervous. It doesnít do to be too smart. Actors who insist theyíre brilliant---that puts you out of the running for half the roles you want to play. Or you have to wrap your intelligence in a brooding, self-destructive persona.

Have you done any brooding, self-destructive characters?

Alger Hiss. But he didnít know he was self-destructive. Siegfried Sassoon in Not About Heroes, this play about World War I poets that I just did at Williamstown, was a personal favorite. The review in the Boston Globe said, ďHerrmann has made a habit of playing gifted, passionate aristocrats.Ē Thatís the journalistís trap of delineating history while youíre in the middle of it. When I was at LAMDA in1968-69, the sun rose and set on English actors. They went on and on about Olivierís career. Yeah, it was great stuff. But he made a lot of stupid mistakes, too. The business has changed so much since I started out in 1970. The way itís structured now, you could play an asshole in a John Candy film, and it would be better for your career than doing this play in the Village about the values that World War I was fought over.

Did you think Annie would be good for your career?

It was a disastrous choice, but how else would I get a chance to meet John Huston? And I met Albert Finney. But it was a horrible experience all round. Itís best not to make choices based on that mentality---that if thatís whatís selling, itís good because it gets you considered for pictures. ďOh, heís in the hitĒ.

But you see, Iím cowardly and frightened. Iím basically a nervous person, and Iím reluctant to initiate my own projects. I had been with [agent] Robbie Lantz for a long time, but I couldnít get him on the phone. When I did John Guareís play Gardenia at Manhattan Theater Club, I tested the water with Sam Cohn. The great fear for an actor is not to have access to your agent, and in Sam Cohnís office thereís a needlepoint pillow that says, ďTell him Iíll call him backĒ. I couldnít make up my mind, and a guy in L.A. who really wanted me to sign with him flew three thousand miles to meet me. But I said no, Iíll try this.

The first thing Sam advised me to do was Plenty. Of course, he handles Kate Nelligan, too. The day after I said yes to the play, I got offered this wonderful TV movie with Blythe Danner. It sounded like a good movie, and I needed the money. I really wanted to do it, and Sam said, ďTV movies are like Kleenex.Ē I said, ďI know, thatís whatís great about them.Ē He said ďPlenty will be the play of the season.Ē So I thought to myself: I knocked on this guyís door, and now Iím going to turn down his advice? So I did Plenty, and like almost everything else Sam has advised me to do, it was on the money.

And do you have access?

Heíll get back to me one out of three times---I guess Iím part of the charmed circle. Heís eager one minute and indifferent the next. Donít misunderstand---once he has you, heíll talk for an hour. No one can make things happen faster than Sam Cohn. Heís not traditional in any sense. The people he represents have reached that point ofďLetís do something we like.Ē

But his inaccessibility teaches you to do a lot for yourself. He taught me you are responsible for your work. You canít think of yourself as a victim of some Tarot-written fate. If you donít do it, who will? Sly Stallone. Warren Beatty helped me with that, too. When I did Reds, one day we were shooting down on a dock, me and Warren and Diane Keaton. It was a light day---only fifty takes on one close-up. I asked Warren how to proceed with a script. He said, ďDo it.Ē I said, ďNo, no, I mean, who do you call?Ē He said, ďJust do it.Ē

Why did you want to act in the first place?

To act out feelings too intense to articulate. To release pain or elation by acting it out. In high school, I emulated my athlete brother---I was a trainer. I stayed away from the theater crowd. Everybody thought they were pansies, and weird. Iím glad I stayed away from them---they were pansies, and weird. If you go too soon into the hothouse, you develop attitudes that make you unfit for other things. The best actors are inclusive of experience, not the ones who are overly specialized in theater.

When youíre an actor, you tend to draw parts to you that are essential to working something out in your life. Thereís something crucial in that characterís dilemma that you can apply to yourself. Itís the most creative therapy under the sun. But itís not just therapy. Iíve often found parts allowed me to experience things I didnít have to go through in life.

I did The Great Waldo Pepper with Robert Redford in which I had this relationship with this megastar where I had to put him down all the time and call him an asshole. I didnít do it very well; I was obsequious. We mythologize other actors. They donít need it. When we were doing The Betsy, Olivier found out I was from Michigan, and he came over and asked, ďHowís the accent?Ē

How do you get over being starstruck?

You donít get over it; you learn to control it. The first thing to recognize is that itís something we do---it comes from us. Stars are primarily psychological images. Actors forget that the profession depends on the tribe mythologizing us into the image they need in order to be healed. Fondaís a healer. Duke Wayne, Stewart---they express something that needs to be expressed. Right now, unfortunately, itís "Rambo". It may be horrible, but itís a fact.

But the profession doesnít recognize it. All those towers on Sixth Avenue, those solid edifices, are built on nothing. Theyíre built on what happens between one actor and another, an energy that passes through performers from a writer, a series of ideas with no substance that draws the interest and need of a community. If television executives knew how those images affect the community, theyíd become monks. Theyíre responsible for the psychic health of the world, and they turn out images of lust, cruelty, greed, violence, and meanness twenty-four hours a day. It amazes me that people still talk to one another.

The only thing to do is to do the best TV possible. If you play a wicked man, show why heís wicked. Cosbyís doing a good job, Love Boat isnít. I believe in the eighteenth-century idea of enlightenment. You canít have a society with healthy values by creating images of destruction. The way our society works now, if a man wants to have feelings and express them, youíre forced to be gay. If you want to hold to the masculine values, you have to join the NRA.

Used by permission from the Author