Hollywood Turns From Sweet Birds of Youth to Early-Bird Specials
One of the worst jobs in Hollywood these days might be operating a retirement home.
That’s because more and more golden-aged actors are passing on shuffleboard and bridge to keep punching the clock on the small screen.
Among the busiest veterans: Derek Jacobi, 75, who received rave reviews last year for the BBC’s Last Tango in Halifax and stars with fellow 75-year-old Ian McKellen in the PBS farce Vicious, premiering Sunday.
“I think one of the reasons for the success of these shows is that the public is gagging for programs featuring people who are older,” Jacobi said. “Until now, television and film were obsessed with youth and beauty. It’s very refreshing — and certainly very good for us and our bank balances — to be in your 70s and still be asked to perform in such well-written shows.”
Christopher Plummer, 84, who won an Oscar in 2012 for Beginners and recently starred in a PBS production of his one-man show Barrymore, said it’s about time that people of a certain age are represented on television.
“I think we’ve just joined the crowd,” said Plummer, who will investigate King Lear in an upcoming episode of Shakespeare Uncovered on PBS. “It’s nice to see work is being written about older people, and America’s passion for youth is not quite as possessive and strong as it used to be. Plus, we’re all living longer than Methuselah. We’re all on drugs and everything, looking so young and vibrant.”
Not that these acclaimed actors are looking to entertain only senior citizens.
McKellen recalled a recent encounter with a New York teenager who managed to see a pirated version of the series, which aired in England last year.
“After I reprimanded him, I asked, ‘Did you enjoy it?’ He said, ‘Enjoyed it? I adored it,’” he said. “Our studio audiences also reflected a mixture of people who might be sitting at home, wanting to have a good laugh.”
The mainstream appeal of older characters was demonstrated a generation ago by Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2004), which became one of TV’s most popular sitcoms. These days it’s hard to think of a comedy without the senior set being represented. Back then, it was a novelty.
Ray Romano credits his producing partner, Phil Rosenthal, for the idea of having his character’s elderly parents live within meddling distance. He also notes that being around Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts, who played the roles, helped him develop as an actor.
“You just watched these pros and you would aspire to be like them,” Romano said. “I watch myself in those first years and some of it is hard to watch. But they took me under their wing. I got more comfortable and they helped me a lot with that.”
Roberts, who won four Emmys for her part as Marie Barone, was a particularly important role model. In the past, older actresses struggled much harder than men to find steady work.
Now such stars as Cloris Leachman (age: 88), Ellen Burstyn (82) and the indestructible Betty White (92) are as busy as they’ve ever been.
One of the most buzzed-about comedy projects is Grace and Frankie, an upcoming Netflix series that will mark the reunion of 9 to 5 stars Jane Fonda (76) and Lily Tomlin (74).
The one area where television still falls short in ethnic diversity. It’s hard to think of a senior-aged actor of color with a regular, meaty role on television.
One person champing at the bit is Leslie Uggams, who had her own variety show 45 years ago. Now the 71-year-old black actress has been relegated to guest-star spots.
“I would like to do television right now because there are more roles for women over 60,” she said. “I think I could be somebody’s sexy mother-in-law or sexy grandmother.”
Why do they still want to keep memorizing scripts, going through makeup and enduring countless rehearsals? Because it’s in their blood.
“I think it’s totally necessary never to retire,” Plummer said. “I must keep on.”
Oldies but Goodies
With Emmy nominations right around the corner, let’s hope voters respect their elders. Here are 10 TV performers, all 65 or older, who did some of the best work of their careers this past season.
Kathy Bates, 65
The role: Delphine LaLaurie in American Horror Story, a 19th-century slave killer who is cursed with eternal life and buried alive. Lots of fun at parties.
Beau Bridges, 72
The role: Barton Scully in Masters of Sex, a closeted provost who is anything but a sexual master. Bears a slight resemblance to Dad on The Millers.
Charles Dance, 67
The role: Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones, the politically savvy lord who just got the world’s worst Father’s Day gift from his son.
Danny DeVito, 69
The role: Frank Reynolds in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a schemer who always finds new ways to prove that he’s bonkers.
Jane Fonda, 76
The role: Leona Lansing in The Newsroom, a media mogul who would make an awfully nice match for Ted Turner.
Charles Grodin, 79
The role: Dr. Bigelow, the no-nonsense doctor in Louie who believes sarcasm is the best medicine.
Robert Morse, 83
The role: Bertram “Bert” Cooper in Mad Men, the senior partner at Sterling Cooper who showed us how to succeed in business without really trying.
Ed O’Neill, 68
The role: Jay Pritchett, the beleaguered patriarch of Modern Family, who still hasn’t got a handle on being married with children.
Maggie Smith, 79
The role: Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey. Also known as the Don Rickles of pre-WWII England.
Jon Voight, 75
The role: Mickey Donovan, the short-tempered father in Ray Donovan , whose 20 years in prison taught him more about revenge than rehabilitation.