Truman comes to life on Wagon Wheel stage
Fred Grandy portrays former president for show at Wagon Wheel
“Give ’em hell, Harry!” was the rallying cry for a guy from Missouri who found himself sworn in as president of the United States, presiding over eight years of unbelievable challenges.
Vice President Harry S. Truman became the 33rd president on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, less than three months after he took office. World War II was ending, and it fell to Truman to unite the surviving Western forces to rebuild Europe, rehabilitate Japan, and establish security against the Soviet Union as the power structure of the whole world realigned. Truman served out the term and was elected to one more, holding office until 1953.
Give ’Em Hell, Harry! is the 90-minute one-man play written by Samuel Gallu which premiered in 1975, featuring Truman telling his life’s story.
Telling it in 2022 is Fred Grandy, 74, who is not only a veteran television actor but was also former Republican U.S. congressman from Iowa from 1987-95. That’s quite a unique perspective. He’ll be at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts for three shows, Sept. 23-25.
Truman’s role in current world
“The play is almost 50 years old, which is astonishing because it is even more relevant now than it was in 1975,” Grandy told Whatzup from his North Carolina home. “In one of the first lines in the show, Truman turns to one of his aides and says, ‘This damn inflation business has got to stop.’ He’s talking about 1946. Some things never change, I guess.”
Grandy can’t contain his enthusiasm for the achievements he and historians ascribe to Truman’s leadership.
“Our thought was, this is a great time to present a character from American history who is perhaps not as understood as well as he should be, but should be admired for all of the things that he did,” Grandy said. “And one of the things that Truman did better almost than any president before or since is pull people together.
“What are some of the issues facing this country right now? Clearly you’ve got a huge conflict going on in Europe with Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. And the first place that Ukraine went when it was attacked was NATO, the North American Treaty Organization. Harry Truman essentially presided over the creation of NATO and the Marshall Plan. He tried to do business with (Soviet Premier Joseph) Stalin, but unlike Roosevelt, figured out the guy was a charlatan and a liar and said, ‘OK, we’re gonna stop this guy every chance we get.’ So he created the North Atlantic Alliance that has essentially fortified Europe and protected countries like Ukraine when they separated from the Soviet Union.”
Grandy also pointed to Truman’s role in integrating the military and Federal Service in 1948, “terribly controversial,” and being the first president to officially recognize Israel, “against the advice of people that he counted on for this kind of diplomatic council, including George Marshall.”
“So this was a guy who believed that if it was right for the country, it was politically correct,” Grandy said. “And, unfortunately, we don’t get much of that anymore. And Truman did it in very simple, plain-spoken terms, and always with a story and a joke. And that’s one of the things I love about this show.”
Creating own cast
Although his fingerprints are still on the world, Give ’Em Hell, Harry! goes even deeper.
“Harry Truman is essentially, in this play, just looking back on his career” from when he was a young man in World War I through the end of his presidency.
We asked Grandy how telling this story solo compares to his work in ensembles.
“When you’re in a one-man show, you have to create that ensemble,” he said. “In this play, Truman talks to Roosevelt, he talks to Herbert Hoover, he talks to Douglas MacArthur, he talks to his wife, Bess. They’re not there, but you have to create them, and that’s one of the big challenges for me. The original director of this show, Hunter Foster, who is a very well known Broadway actor and director, said, ‘The important thing in this show is for the audience to see all of the people that you see.’ Creating all of those other characters was the biggest lift for me. And now I’ve done it enough times that I don’t feel as though I’m alone anymore.”
We have to get one thing out of the way before you go buy your tickets. If the name Fred Grandy is familiar, you’re a lover of 1970s romantic comedy TV reruns. He was Gopher on The Love Boat (1977-1986), and the director of Give ’Em Hell, Harry!, coming with him, is his lifelong friend Ted Lange, who played the bartender Isaac on The Love Boat.
They’ll be doing a talkback with the audience after each show. What kind of questions have they been getting?
“As you go through the show and replay a lot of the major historical events, people are saying, ‘Oh, I’d like to know more about that,’ ” Grandy said. “So, we answer questions about Truman, but with the two of us, you’re gonna get the inevitable Love Boat question or two. That’s fine with us. Nobody goes into this business to become anonymous, so that’s cool!”