The Emmy Award-winning star of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Lou Grant" was invited back by the Stratford Center for the Arts and the Stratford Arts Commission, the coalition that has been trying to bring plays back to the beautiful site on the banks of the Housatonic River.
Asner toured the theater in a major press event and then spent a lively 90 minutes regaling a packed house at the Scottish Rite Theater with tales of his time in Stratford, and far-ranging talk about a career that has spanned more than a half-century, on stage, screen and television.
The years seemed to fall away as Asner told stories of the Shakespeare theater's heyday -- working with legends of that time, including producer-director John Houseman and young performers, such as Nancy Marchand and Sada Thompson, who along with Asner would go on to become top TV and stage performers.
"She had the best legs in Stratford," Asner joked of Marchand, with whom he would team up again 20 years later on "Lou Grant," where the actress played his boss, the patrician newspaper publisher Mrs. Pynchon.
"I think she was one of the best actresses in America," the actor added of the longtime Lordship resident's ability to play virtually any role she was given.
"When she was on `The Sopranos' I watched the first episode thinking there was no way she could be Italian, but that was one of her greatest performances," he said.
It was my pleasure to be asked to host "An Evening with Ed Asner" and one of the benefits of preparing for the session was to read Houseman's 1983 memoir "Final Dress" (Simon and Schuster) in which he covers the four seasons he ran the Shakespeare theater, from 1956 through 1959. Asner joked that Houseman was rather "pompous," but that landing a full season of work in Stratford was a great opportunity for a young New York theater actor.
In his book, Houseman describes Asner as a "sturdy young actor" and he thought enough of the performer's talent to hire him again -- after Houseman resigned from the Stratford post -- for a Los Angeles production of "The Iceman Cometh."
Asner told the Stratford crowd that Houseman had directed him to face away from the audience during what he thought was his best moment in "Iceman," but that after the show was up and running (and the director left for another job) the other actors agreed with Asner's decision to adjust the scene and to play it directly to the audience.
Still, in his book, Houseman pronounced the L.A. "Iceman" ensemble "the best ever assembled to portray the inmates of Harry Hope's bar."
Asner's energy at 83 was impressive. He came to Stratford two days after finishing a four-month run in the Broadway drama "Grace," in which he did eight shows a week with co-stars Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon. Backstage before the public interview, Asner told me that the Broadway run was a career highlight for him. "That might have been the best company of actors I ever worked with," he said of his young co-stars and Chicago actress Kate Arrington.
The last time he played Broadway, Asner and Madeline Kahn met with a hostile press -- and a curtailed run -- for the revival of "Born Yesterday" in which they co-starred. "It was wonderful to come back in `Grace,' " he said.
One delightful surprise for Asner and the audience at the Scottish Rite Theatre came when a man stood up during the question-and-answer session and simply announced, "You played my father on `The Mod Squad.' "
It turned out to be veteran actor -- and longtime Fairfield County resident -- Frank Converse who worked with Asner on an episode of the "hip" cop show just before Asner was hired to play Lou Grant on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
Asner told the crowd that he believed the Stratford Shakespeare theater could be restored to its once prominent place on the American stage scene, but that it wouldn't be easy in this era of cutbacks in public funding for the arts. "What you need to do is to find an artistic director who is as determined as you are," he said.
Mark Graham, who organized the event, told me it was just the first in a planned series of public talks and discussions with prominent "alumni" of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre.