by Deborah Harter Williams
Jane and Lily as seniors? Seriously funny.
The success of the Netflix show Grace and Frankie starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin might have audiences rethinking the nature of old on television. Comedy is a time-honored way to challenge assumptions and G & F take on age and same sex marriage right out of the box. Add on interracial adoption and any number of semi-sacred cows with just enough I-can’t-believe-they-said-that to remind us that we’re not watching your grandmother’s broadcast television.
I defy you to look at Jane Fonda and not say, “Damn, she looks good.” Even when she has the nerve to flap her upper arm wing at us, she is still sitting posing in a sexy animal print nightgown that would make anyone sit up and take notice. At the age of 77 she and Tomlin (75) play old, but don’t look old. As the ex-husbands, Martin Sheen (74) sports white hair, which ages him beyond his POTUS days on West Wing and Sam Waterston (also 74) continues to be craggy-faced but energetic with the same charm as his Charlie Skinner role on Newsroom but with more of a twinkle in his eye. To add to the festivities they have invited in such guest stars as Corbin Bernsen (LA Law, Psych), Craig T. Nelson (Coach, Parenthood) and Michael Gross (Family Ties) – oldies but goodies indeed.
The show hit its stride in the third episode and then got seriously good. True moments, some laugh-out-loud dialogue and characters that seemed like stereotypes came to life. It’s already been renewed for a second season. Might be something about comedy that keeps you young!
Betty White at 93 is still going strong (just finished 6 seasons of Hot in Cleveland) playing old and dotty since her Golden Girl days 30 years ago. It always amused me that Estelle Getty (62 at the time) had to wear make-up to play Sofia, mother to Bea Arthur who was a year older than she.
Abe Vigoda is 94 and was only in his 50s when he played Fish on Barney Miller. He may have been born looking old. One episode centered on a report that he was dead – a rumor that he continues to fight today. Vigoda appeared in a Super Bowl ad with Betty White in 2010 and on-stage at a Phish concert in 2013.
Bob Newhart (only 85) appeared with Betty in the last episode of Hot in Cleveland. He appears in The Librarians series as Judson, former head librarian. It has been hinted that Judson may have founded the library more than 2000 years ago. Now that’s old!
Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show) is still directing and occasionally performing at the age of 93 and Dick Van Dyke himself was recently seen dancing in a music video on Facebook at the age of 89. (In February he celebrated his 3rd wedding anniversary with his 43-year old wife Arlene.) But maybe it’s crime solving that keeps actors youthful. Dick Van Dyke spent his first old age (67–76) as a doctor/detective on Diagnosis Murder (93-2002). Currently Len Cariou (75) helps his son Tom Selleck (70) parse law-and-order on Bluebloods and Linda Hunt at 70 is ageless as Hetty on NCIS-LA.
60-somethings are well represented in law enforcement by Mark Harmon on NCIS, who has aged gracefully in place since becoming Leroy Jethro Gibbs in 2003 at the age of 51. Ralph Waite played his father until his death last year at 85. Ted Danson at 67 leads up the CSI unit and Longmire (newly moved to Netflix) makes great use of Peter Weller (67) as the former sheriff.
Bad guys age well too. Sixty-seven year old Gerald McRaney (Simon & Simon) is Walt Longmire’s nemesis Barlow Connelly and Joe Morton (also 67) is dazzlingly evil as Olivia Pope’s father on Scandal.
Of course if you are British, age hardly matters. Miss Marple was written to be in her 70s and Margaret Rutherford was likewise in her 70s when she first took on the role. Joan Hickson was as spry 78 and “Marpled” on until she was 86. Young Julia McKenzie, only 72, acted the “elderly” sleuth until just recently when the BBC ended the current franchise. Another long running British series, New Tricks, was built around the premise of a crime-solving unit manned by three “previously retired” policemen. Dennis Waterman (67) – was with the show from its 2003 inception into the 12th season this year.
Confess it, Downtown Abbey wouldn’t be half as much fun be without Maggie Smith (80) as the dowager – such a fine word implying both gravitas and power along with age! And don’t forget Shirley MacLaine (81) giving the Countess a run for her money.
Once I stepped into the Flashback machine I looked around for other older people.
Matlock and Barnaby Jones could be counted on to figure out who-dunnit despite their age. Buddy Ebsen was Barnaby for seven years until he was 72, and Andy Griffith didn’t hang up his Ben Matlock suit until he was 69. Of course there was Jessica Fletcher; today I would call her middle-aged. Angela Lansbury played the role as she matured from 59 to 71 and is now back doing theatre at the age of 90.
Jane Wyman was Angela Channing, the dominating matriarch on Falcon Crest, into her 70s and never lost her power. More recently Robert Morse (84) did eight years of Mad Men, Ed Asner (85) was on The Good Wife this season and Cicely Tyson (81) guest-starred on How to Get Away with Murder. Williams Shatner at 84 is in a category by himself, irrepressible and showing up everywhere.
Everything old is new again, courtesy of Netflix, YouTube, Hulu et al; The TV Time Travel machine is on rewind whenever you want it. I know 30-somethings who are watching Knight Rider, the A-Team, and Quantum Leap. The clothes may be a little dated but the acting isn’t. I call up movies from the 1930s as easily as those from 2010 and can binge-watch my favorite actors at will. Time is a blur enhanced by make-up and lighting.
Who is old now? A New Definition. My feeling is that if you are younger than the Rolling Stones (currently on tour) whose average age 71, then you are really only pre-old. Boomers will keep on booming. Rolling Stones will keep on rolling.
Here’s whom I’d like to see –
Harrison Ford (72) and Sean Connery (84). It’s a fine time to come out of retirement, Sean, maybe team up again with Michael Caine (so great in Interstellar and as Alfred in the Batman movies); Brenda Vaccaro (75) is now filming the movie Kubo and the Two Strings (Please give that woman a juicy TV part); and Gena Rowlands (84) who did fabulous guest shots on Monk and NCIS.
I would also watch anything with not-quite-old Candice Bergen (69). She was great playing against Hugh Laurie as Cuddy’s mom on House. Her portrayal of Shirley Schmidt on Boston Legal was killer and I still get laugh out loud at Murphy Brown, which I recently saw in on KVME (ME TV – Bishop, CA). So many amazing actors to choose from. Not old, “Classic.”
If you were made TV Czar which of your “old” favorites would you give parts to?
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