Yesterday & Today
A Kind and Decent Man
Whether playing Franklin D. Roosevelt or Richard Gilmore, the wealthy scion in Gilmore Girls, Edward Herrmann took on gentlemanly roles that mirrored his real-life persona. He died of brain cancer in 2014.
By Marilyn Fenichel
Edward Herrmann appears with Alexis Bledel in a scene from Gilmore Girls. | Photo © Getty Images / Patrick Ecclesine
Tall and imposing, Edward Herrmann was a versatile actor who honed his craft onstage, in films and on television. He is perhaps best known for playing Richard Gilmore, the wealthy father and grandfather
in the Gilmore Girls TV series.
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Blessed with a mellifluous voice, Herrmann also had an impressive career as a voiceover artist. He narrated more than
300 audiobooks as well as shows on the History Channel and PBS, including
lending the voice of FDR to Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. His final narration project was for the documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.
Those who knew Herrmann well remember him fondly. “Ed was a kind and decent man and never had a negative thing to say about anyone,” says Robbie Kass, the actor’s agent and manager for more than 25 years. “He gave everyone he met respect and got it back tenfold.”
Kass should know. He and Herrmann traveled the world together for openings and publicity events. “Wherever we went, he would strike up conversations with people he met,” recalls Kass. “He was oblivious to status or position and interested in talking to everyone, from bike messengers to businessmen. People opened up to him like they were old friends.”
When Herrmann returned from his travels, he liked nothing more than to settle into his Salisbury, Connecticut, home, which he shared with his wife, Star, and the family’s many pets. His grown children, son Rory, a chef in Los Angeles, and daughters Ryen, a merchandising manager with the clothing company Patagonia, and Emma, a college student, were frequent visitors. The family especially enjoyed festive Christmas celebrations together. “His kids were everything to him,” says Star. “He was a wonderful father and always made family a priority.”
But work was a passion, too. From his 1972 Broadway debut in the comedy Moonchildren to his success playing Roosevelt in Eleanor and Franklin and Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years, to parts in numerous films, including The Paper Chase, Herrmann lent his charm and talent to a wide array of roles, giving him recognition and a solid career.
On the top of the list is Gilmore Girls, the television series that ran from 2000 to 2007, featuring Herrmann as the father of Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and grandfather of Rory (Alexis Bledel).
Herrmann expected to continue acting and narrating films indefinitely, but on Dec. 6, 2013, he had a seizure while riding a train from New York City to Wassaic, New York, near his home in Salisbury. Soon after, Herrmann was diagnosed with grade IV glioblastoma, the most common and deadliest type of malignant brain tumor among adults.
College Marks a Turning Point
Edward Herrmann was born in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 1943. Soon after, his family moved to Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where his father, John Anthony Herrmann, an engineer, worked in Detroit’s booming automobile industry and for railroad companies. His mother, the former Jean O’Connor, was a homemaker.
Herrmann attended Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he developed close relationships with some of his professors who “inspired him to read and learn,” says Star.
During his college years, Herrmann fell in love with the theater. After graduating from Bucknell in 1965, he joined the Dallas Theater Center in Texas, where he spent four theater seasons between 1965 and 1970 honing his acting skills. Encouraged by his mentors, he made his way to New York City in 1970.
After his 1972 Broadway debut, Herrmann appeared in several other Broadway productions. He won a Tony Award in 1976 for his performance as Frank Gardner in George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Other Broadway shows included the 1980 revival of The Philadelphia Story, with Blythe Danner, and Plenty, in 1983, for which he received a second Tony nomination.
Among his film credits are a minor role in The Great Gatsby (1974); a part in Reds (1981) featuring Herrmann as journalist John Reed’s friend and editor, Max Eastman; and Richie Rich (1994), where he played the father of the richest kid in the world. He also portrayed the headmaster in The Emperor’s Club (2002) with Kevin Kline.
But he might have made his biggest mark on television. “The writing was better on television than in films, and the parts were juicier,” says Kass.
The many parts Herrmann played on television included a recurring role as Father Joseph McCabe on St. Elsewhere, for which he received two Emmy nominations; an Emmy-winning role on The Practice as an attorney accused of a crime and incarcerated; and the flawed but endearing Richard Gilmore, whose gruff manner belied the kindhearted man underneath. More recently, he played Lionel Deerfield on The Good Wife from 2010 to 2013.
Signs of Trouble
About a year before Herrmann’s diagnosis, Star began noticing behavior changes in her typically calm, easygoing husband. “He was moody and got upset easily,” she says. “He would get so mad at me. I couldn’t imagine what I had done.”
Herrmann had a particularly explosive outburst at the end of November 2013, right before Star and Ryen traveled to California to spend time with Rory’s baby girl. They heard from him while they were away and he seemed well.
During the long flight home a few days later, Star and Ryen turned off their cellphones. When they arrived in New York City, they both had phone and text messages from the hospital in Sharon, Connecticut.
The news wasn’t good. Herrmann had suffered a grand mal seizure—which can cause muscle contractions and a loss of consciousness. An MRI of his brain revealed a large tumor in the right frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for mood regulation, memory and reasoning.
“The tumor explained his explosive anger at me two weeks earlier,” Star recalls. “The tumor in his brain was causing so much pressure that it was like a volcano waiting to burst. With the seizure, it finally did.”