As someone who has had a long relationship with the television show Gilmore Girls since it first came on the air in 2000, the news of Edward Herrman’s death felt like the loss of a family member. I’ve spent countless hours watching him move two steps forward, one step back as the patrician Connecticut grandfather, hurt and trying to restore his relationships with his fast-talking, coffee loving daughter and brainy granddaughter. While Gilmore Girls may have served as my introduction to the charms of Herrmann as an actor, once I was familiar with his frame and his sonorous voice, I nearly saw him everywhere, as befitting a wonderful breed of character actor that we don’t get everyday. Here are some highlights from his career.
The Cat’s Meow, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, 2001
A rare leading-man role for Herrmann as newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (the real-life inspiration for the best movie of all time, Citizen Kane) this delightful and underrated Bogdanovich flick has priceless period detail in recounting a tale of Hollywood myth and legend: the murder of Hollywood player Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) on Hearst’s yacht, a scandal that is the tragic consequence of Hearst’s complicated relationships, in this case his lover, the showgirl Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst, excellent), and her flirtation with Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard, sure). Hearst, of course, was just one of an endless series of fancy men and presidents in Herrmann’s career — he had a knack for playing F.D.R. as well, from TV movies to the 80s film of Annie.
For years, Herrmann was the voice of The History Channel, narrating the series and documentaries and taking us into history with just the contours of his sound. He was at his best when telling us about the American Revolution and its beginnings, as seen above, in part 1 of The Revolution.
Herrmann also excelled in the world of audiobooks, where he was widely regarded as one of the best narrators around, and he took on some of our best writers, from Laura Hillenbrand to David McCullough. If you’ve ever had the chance to listen to an audiobook, you’ll know that making them is a subtle art — the wrong voice and the wrong book can make even good writing sound incredibly odd (example A: the audio of Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements). Herrmann, though, hit the pocket every time. In an interview with Audiofile Magazine, Herrman described his work as “exceedingly difficult“: “The whole character and color of the emotional life of a scene must be conveyed by the voice of the actor alone.”
Herrmann read the audiobook of Roger Ebert’s autobiography Life Itself, and on its release, the late critic wrote wonderful words about Herrmann’s ability and skill:
Edward Herrmann is a pro. He positions the material in the foreground but he never tries to sell it. He brings it into existence clearly, concisely, with flawless control of timing and tone. It doesn’t sound as if he’s “reading.” It sounds like he might have had these memories — as if he’s confiding events and conversations he remembers. He’s friendly, but not like some affable uncle crowding you on the sofa. He doesn’t insist that we listen.
The Lost Boys, directed by Joel Schumacher, 1987
Is there anything better than a very good, classically trained actor putting his fangs into pulp? Herrmann made a very good villain in this silly ’80s vampire flick, and he explains the rules of vampires with class, flash, and aplomb.
Gilmore Girls, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, 2000 – 2007
To be honest, a highlight reel of Herrmann’s best moments on Gilmore Girls would be miles long. But he — along with his onscreen wife, the inimitable, forever-elegant Kelly Bishop — was the emotional crux of the show. Richard and Emily Gilmore, the well-to-do parents of Lorelai (Lauren Graham), were humiliated and hurt by their daughter’s teen pregnancy and its complicated consequences, and only now, sixteen years later, can they approach something like reconciliation. Lorelai’s relationship with her parents was the thing that elevated the show’s twee origins into something more knotty and universal, speaking to issues of great expectations and unacknowledged pain.
Herrmann and Bishop may not have had the most screen time (although they had at least a scene in all 154 episodes), but they used every minute perfectly, creating characters who were lived-in and familiar to me as my own family. The show’s best moments involved Herrmann and Bishop, who made the screwball rhythms and writing sing like the finest live theater. Richard Gilmore could make you cry or make you laugh, and as the series went on, he changed from a cardboard cut-out of an out-of-touch-WASP into a flesh-and-blood man.