"I was saddened to see its demise over the years," Asner told a gathering at the landmark along the Housatonic River. "It's a loss for the people of Stratford, of Connecticut, and for all Americans."
Asner noted that the AST, which could seat about 1,400 people, is the largest theater between New York and Boston.
"So we need a great institution like this," he said. "The place looks great, and I'm looking forward to its full restoration. If you folks don't find the money someplace, keep at it until you do."
Asner was in town to lead a Tuesday night fundraiser to benefit the two nonprofits that hope to get the storied stage busy again -- the Stratford Center for the Arts and the Stratford Arts Commission. Mayor John Harkins and the Town Council have also pledged to do what they can to help.
Asner was accompanied by about 20 others who, like him, are interested in seeing the stage become active again. Asner appeared there in the summer of 1959 in the small role of Bardolph in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," which starred screen siren Mariette Hartley.
The list of actors who have stepped on that stage reads like a "Who's Who of Hollywood" -- Hal Holbrook, Richard Basehart, Lillian Gish, Will Geer, Katharine Hepburn, Cyril Ritchard, James Earl Jones, Brian Bedford, Jane Alexander, the list goes on. School children from as far away as Kansas have visited Stratford to see Shakespeare performed on stage.
At the time of Asner's AST debut, his acting career had just begun, a profession that would earn him seven Emmy awards. He's appeared in nearly 300 movies and TV shows.
AST supporters say Asner, 83, is the first of what is hoped to be a long line of stars with AST on their resumes who could return to help the cause.
"It was a marvelous, marvelous summer," Asner said after being presented with a small plaque for his efforts this week. "Stratford is aptly named -- Shakespeare belongs here, theater belongs here."
The last 30 years or so haven't been kind to the American Shakespeare Theatre. Its last full season was 1982, when the curtain rose for "King Henry IV," "Twelfth Night" and "Hamlet." Anne Baxter and Christopher Walken were among the headliners that summer.
The theater crawled on its hands and knees from one year to the next after that, surviving for a time on state grants. The property was owned by the state from the early 1980s until 2005, when it was handed over to the town of Stratford.
"If you make some beautiful, positive and artistic steps, it will brighten the lives of the people around you," Asner said. "And there are a lot of unemployed actors around here, so put them to work for God's sake."
Asner said in that summer of 1959 he lived with his wife next to the dump in Bridgeport.
"We would walk along the shore and re-right horseshoe crabs," he said. "Our backyard was filled with preying mantises. Fascinating creatures."
He also said there was a seafood take-out place they would frequent nearly every day on their way to and from Stratford.
"Lobster rolls dripping with butter, this thick," he said. "I gained at least 30 pounds."
"We need something like this to educate our children," she said after Asner left the grounds. "To let something like this fade to black is terrible."
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