Like so many people, I am deeply saddened by the death of Edward Herrmann. He was an incredibly kind and decent man who remained willing to help others right up until a month before his death on New Year's Eve at age 71.
I had no idea my email exchanges with him in November would be my last. As I had so often over the years, I was writing to ask for a favor. Not knowing he was battling brain cancer, I asked if he would write a letter for the Salvation Army's 67th annual gala souvenir journal, where I was working temporarily as an editor and writer. The Salvation Army was honoring The Actors Fund, and we wanted letters from actors congratulating The Actors Fund on receiving the Pinnacle of Achievement Award. On Nov. 11, I received the following:
How good to hear from you! You probably know that I was on the Board of Directors of the Actors Fund and also have been a staunch supporter of the Salvation Army for many years. I will be happy to send a letter for the event. Right now I am very busy but hope to be able to pull something together by the weekend.
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When he said he was very busy, I assumed he was working on one of his many acting projects. Instead, he was receiving cancer treatments. To make it easy for him, I had sent a sample letter that he could have OK'd, but Ed always gave his full measure, so he took the time to write a personal letter:
To the Salvation Army/Actors Fund,
Both of these organizations have been dear to me over the years. I served on the board of directors of the Actors Fund and remain a Life Member. I only left the board because I felt I couldn't give enough quality time to their wonderful work. As for the Salvation Army, my interest and admiration began with the experience of my brother in 1967. During the terrible race riots in Detroit, my brother was in the National Guard and saw the action first hand. There were a few trucks handing out coffee and doughnuts, but only for a price. The soldiers had been without food for almost twenty-four hours. These "mercy" groups were lucky to get out with their trucks intact ... the soldiers were angry.
Only the Salvation Army was there giving comfort, hot coffee and food free of charge. And they gave to all, whether they were soldiers trying to keep the peace, police, firemen or any civilians begging for help to save their homes. If people were in trouble, the Army was there for them. My brother is not a particularly religious man, but on that terrible night, he saw what real Christian goodness could accomplish. It changed him for the better. And it certainly reinforced my commitment to my fellow men and women. I feel privileged to be counted among the friends of the Salvation Army and urge others to join in their wonderful work.
Just a few weeks after writing that letter, he would be in intensive care and, now, so soon, he is gone.
I had met Ed briefly backstage at Lincoln Center in the late 1990s but was blessed to get to know him in 2002, when we sat together for an hour or so as I interviewed him for my book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors. He was quite open with me about his faith -- he was a convert to Catholicism -- and his personal life before his conversion.
"In the '60s and '70s, when sex was free and there was no disease, we thought it was great," he told me. "We could sleep with anyone, and we did. It's a lie. The fact that we did it didn't make it true. It's not enlightening and helpful. We didn't look for connections, for relationships. It was a bogus rainbow hair life."
Raised Unitarian, he found that the practice lacked regularity, dependent on inspiration and enthusiasm, which can wax and wane. So he started a spiritual quest, studying Eastern religions where he was drawn to Buddhism and followed a guru for a time. But it was the rigors of Catholicism that hooked him, with the familiarity of set prayers and the transcendence of the Mass.
He told me he created an icon-filled chapel on his property in Michigan where only he spent time, savoring the silence. He read daily from an 1880s version of The Imitation of Christ, a prayer book written by 15th-century ascetic writer Thomas à Kempis. That book even went with him on acting jobs. He saw his two worlds -- of faith and acting -- as one.
"If you're lucky enough to have the arts as your work, you become part of the spiritual life," he told me.
He combined those two by twice taking part in Broadway Blessing, the interfaith service of song, dance and story that I founded in 1997 and have been producing since. Just before he was to appear for the second time, to give the theater reflection for our 10th anniversary celebration, his wife, Star, became sick. I certainly would have understood if he canceled, but that wasn't Ed. He drove the two hours from Connecticut, apologized for not having had time to prepare original remarks, then went on to read the final act of Our Town, brilliantly taking on all the parts.
He told me often I could call on him anytime, and if he was free, he would take part. It's so hard to believe I will not be able to take him up on that offer anymore.
The last time we spoke on the phone, he told me that Emma, his youngest child, was beginning acting studies. I thought that was great. I looked forward to seeing Emma develop her career and thought how wonderful it would be for her to appear with Ed. Sadly, that will not happen now.
I hope Emma will go on to achieve success in the profession her father loved so much, evident by the thoughts he shared with me for my book:
What's the point of the arts as a discipline? It's absurd to pretend to be somebody else, a rabbit or Hamlet. It's silly, but it isn't. We don't begin with reason, we begin with feeling and insight. All of life is 99 percent nonrational. Reason is nothing compared to God's love. That's what makes us who we are. Reason is the first thing that should be dropped when you start exploring the spirit. You can bring reason to bear on what you find, but truth simply doesn't happen that way.
[Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, which features interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Casey Groves, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams and many others.]