On the most recent documentary produced by Ken Burns, the mellifluous voice of Edward Herrmann is very much in evidence. He serves as narrator of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, a six-hour PBS special based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book. This was hardly Herrmann’s first gig for Ken Burns: he had previously voiced the words of FDR on Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Sadly, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies was Edward Herrmann’s last opportunity to speak into a microphone. He recorded his narration while suffering from brain cancer, to which he succumbed, at the age of 71, on the last day of 2014.
Edward Herrmann will always be linked to FDR in my mind. I first became aware of him back in 1976, when he starred with Jane Alexander on a much-admired TV miniseries, Eleanor and Franklin. Since that time, he’s played such historic figures as Lou Gehrig, George Bernard Shaw, Max Eastman (in Reds), Andrew Carnegie, Nelson Rockefeller (in Nixon) and William Randolph Hearst (The Cat’s Meow). There’s something about Herrmann’s patrician style that seems to link him to the history books. But he’s also appeared on TV as Herman Munster, and from 2000 to 2007 won fans as Lorelai’s amusingly pompous dad on Gilmore Girls.
Yet there was a time when Edward Herrmann, future portrayer of presidents and potentates, was a struggling actor trying to make inroads in Hollywood. While he was performing with the Dallas Theater Center, he submitted his credentials and headshot to an L.A. production company in hopes of being considered for the young male lead in an upcoming film. Its title? The Graduate. Needless to say, he didn’t get the part. Nor did Harvey Keitel, nor John Glover, nor Richard Egan, nor Frederic Forrest, all of whom were nobodies in 1967, but went on to have substantial Hollywood careers. Nor did lots of eager young amateurs who responded to newspaper items about a nationwide talent search.
A casting maven like The Graduate’s Lynn Stalmaster has one of the world’s most heartbreaking jobs. He or she must see many, many actors—all desperate for work—and choose only one. Of course, the producer and director weigh in too, and (in television) sometimes the writer as well. Richard Hatem captures the agony of the casting process from a writer’s perspective. To start with, “There is nothing—nothing—like the first day of auditions. It’s a day you will remember for the rest of your life. Real live actors, several of whom you recognize from other shows you love and hate, are walking into this small, poorly lit room. And they nervously introduce themselves to you, and they compliment you and tell you how much they love your script, and they begin speaking the lines that you wrote. It is infatuating and intoxicating. You have never felt more honored. Or important.”
Then “by the third day, the fun is over. You have heard your lines read one hundred times, and by now, they all sound terrible and dull and unfunny. . . . You thought sitting in judgment of others would finally allow you the opportunity to assess others fairly and generously, in the way you always wished others would assess you and your work. And now, you realize what a fool you were, because there is no way to judge these actors fairly. It is physically impossible for you to hear your lines with the same degree of enthusiasm and bigheartedness on day three as you did on day one.”
Somehow Edward Herrmann made it through this onerous process. May he rest in peace.