A few years ago, county music artist Toby Keith was sharing a golf cart with Clint Eastwood at Eastwood’s annual Pebble Beach, Calif., charity event. The two got to talking, and Eastwood remarked he’d be celebrating his 88th birthday in just a few days.
How would the famed actor, producer and director celebrate his big day, Keith asked. Eastwood responded he was heading back to work on his new movie, “The Mule,” in which he depicts a World War II veteran and horticulturist who becomes a courier for a Mexican drug cartel.
As Keith recounts, he couldn’t help but wonder aloud how his friend continued to have such passion and energy. Eastwood’s reply? “I don’t let the old man in.”
That statement became the titular refrain in the song Keith penned for the closing credits of the film. And while Eastwood’s implication was that he keeps himself young at heart, mind and body, there’s an irony in the lyric.
The famed actor, producer and director belongs to an elite group of older actors who are thriving in an industry that historically has kept older men and women largely out of textured on-screen roles. Not to mention the definition of “older” has always skewed younger, read post-50, in Hollywood than in most other industries.
But the entertainment industry itself is in the midst of a paradigm shift like few other times in its past—the rise of streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are bringing audiences to new outlets for content of all stripes—and that shift is bringing new opportunities on screens big and small.
Among recent headlines, Glenn Close and Michael Douglas were among the big winners at this year’s Golden Globe Awards, both for depicting deeply textured characters. “Grace and Frankie,” the Netflix comedy starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, is headed into its sixth season. Al Pacino, at 78, was just cast in his first starring role in a television series, Amazon’s Nazi hunter drama “The Hunt.” “The Cool Kids,” about a motley crew of friends living in a retirement community, is drawing strong ratings among a variety of audiences.
These examples and others point to changing times, said Dr. Scott Kaiser, a family physician and geriatrician who serves as chief innovation officer at the Motion Picture Television Fund, an organization that provides support, services and assistance to the members of the Hollywood community with limited resources and operates a 48-acre residential campus community.
“If you look at the movie ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ it’s about the aging star and how she’s no longer relevant. When Gloria Swanson played Norma Desmond, she was 50. Jennifer Lopez is [almost] 50,” Kaiser said. “She’s actually doing a movie now, called ‘Second Act.’ That, in and of itself, tells the whole story.”
Kaiser believes strongly in the concept of second, third and fourth acts, and has seen them borne out in the community he works with. On both sides of the camera and behind the scenes, “There really is no expiration date on creativity. We have people in their hundreds who are involved in incredible creative projects,” he notes.
“Whereas just a short time ago being 50 meant game over, irrelevant, now 50 is just the beginning. Either people are hitting their stride or finding their wings in second acts,” Kaiser added. “I think that’s being reflected in the industry, in the stories being told, and reflected in the opportunities available.”
Whether or not by design, he says Hollywood’s evolution reflects a staggering statistic. Around 2030, there will be more people over the age of 65 than under 18—a first in human history.
Further, he says age inclusion has been elevated in recent conversations about diversity in entertainment that also seek to eliminate bias around gender and other factors. “With all discussion of need for diversity and inclusion in the industry, it’s very nice to see generational diversity, age inclusion, also being involved in that conversation,” Kaiser pointed out.
Todd Milliner, producer, actor and co-founder with Will & Grace’s Sean Hayes of Hazy Mills Productions, concurred. He knows a few things about creating eyeball-grabbing content about aging—his studio was home to “Hot In Cleveland,” the series that ran on the TV Land network from 2010-2015 about a three 40-something friends who relocate from Los Angeles to Cleveland, where they’re still considered “hot.” The series co-starred as their feisty, widowed caretaker and landlord Elka Ostrovsky the poster child of aging actors, Betty White, who recently celebrated her 97th birthday.
“I think we are in another great upswing with age inclusion. With shows like ‘The Cool Kids’ on Fox and everyone asking for the next Golden Girls, it means that we have a yearning to watch and tell stories from all perspectives,” Milliner said. “And, every year I want to create my next ‘Hot In Cleveland’ because I just miss that show, those stories and those ladies so damn much.”
Of working with White, Milliner doesn’t hold back on superlatives. “Best experience of my life. She’s hilarious and nicer than you’d even expect her to be. She’s also a terrific actor and human being. I think the things that I loved most, and there was a lot to love, is that Betty treated everyone with kindness and humor and respect,” he says. “It didn’t matter if you were the director, a stagehand, or a co-star or even a mediocre producer like myself. Everyone that was lucky enough to have her touch their life felt, in that moment, like the most important person in the world to Betty.”
Back at the Golden Globes, it was notable that two stalwart actors in their 70s took home trophies. Even more notable was the fact that this is the first time Close, 71, has ever won a major film award in her entire 45-year career. It came for her role in feature film “The Wife,” in which she plays a woman reflecting back on the voluminous shades of compromise she’s lived as the wife of a renowned author.
Backstage after she received the award, she remarked on whether the landscape is changing in terms of good roles for women over 40. “I think it is changing. The advantage of all the places where these wonderful stories are being told now, it’s a whole different landscape and there’s so much content,” Close told Senior Living Executive. “And we’re getting to a point where women are taking control and developing production companies and nurturing stories that will give them good roles themselves and good roles for women.”
Michael Douglas, 74, was awarded for his role in “The Kominsky Method,” the Netflix series in which he portrays a formerly successful actor turned acting coach who, with his agent and best friend—portrayed by Alan Arkin—attempt to navigate their lives in an increasingly unforgiving world.
Douglas told reporters after the awards ceremony he was attracted to the project because its creator Chuck Lorre, known primarily for half-hour sitcoms, had a sense of humor about getting older, even though the portrait of aging and friendship isn’t all breezy.
“When Chuck Lorre sent me his script, I wasn’t thinking about streaming or getting involved, but it was such a good script and anybody who says ‘I find getting old funny,’ I want to drink that Kool-Aid,” Douglas said.
Patricia Arquette, also a Globes winner for her portrayal of a former prison employee inShowtime drama “Escape at Dannemora,” is on the young end of the spectrum of older actors. But even at 50, she told reporters how grateful she was the show avoided both age and gender bias.
“I felt so free. I never thought I would get a part like this at 50. Playing a woman without a typical body type in Hollywood who is unapologetically sexual,” she said. “I have friends who do not have the typical body type. One of them said, I want to thank you for this project.”
Venerable screen and stage actor Judd Hirsch, 83, echoes Close’s optimism for more authentic roles in the new age of content creation and distribution. Hirsch shared his views on roles for aging adults with Senior Living Executive.
“Film and television have always been about producers’ limited vision of what constitutes a hit or a miss; a star or lesser actor; a safe bet or a chancy choice,” he said. “But now that the doors have been flung open by cable giants and indie movies and racial inclusion and the vastly different audiences, there are, perhaps, a few more opportunities for the older actor to find something a bit less pigeon-holing… but that’s just one of my new-born hopes!”
Hirsch most recently was seen on TV’s “Superior Donuts” as donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski, who had to navigate changing times, the shop’s changing neighborhood, and changing perspectives courtesy of his new young employee, Franco Wicks, played by Jermaine Fowler.
He said he was “lured by the idea [the series] was based on a somewhat serious play by Tracey Letts and the character was one of absolute importance to the show, which I thought had great possibilities for my input and could even rise to the stature of meaningful comedy… I liked the idea that Arthur was a guy with a definite past, a struggling present and a puzzling future. There was a promise in that part.”
“It was always a tempting trap to make jokes about Arthur being super old, close to dying, falling apart—and as a staff, we needed to be stewards of this,” said Betsy Thomas, a writer/director on “Superior Donuts.” “It was never intentional ageism, but like so often happens in comedy, you fall for the joke and don’t think through what the ramifications might be.”
Thomas says writers would feel “a general uneasiness” if there were too many old or death jokes for Arthur. “The driving force for the series was that Arthur was part of an old neighborhood that was gentrifying and he was struggling with the changes—good and bad… Even though Arthur was a curmudgeon, he needed to slowly evolve because of his love for Franco. It was far more interesting to watch an old man slowly change than just stay the same. I think it also felt hopeful that Arthur was getting a second chapter to his life with the advent of this young kid in his life, and the positive outcome.”
The series provided a dose of art imitating life for its creative team. “It’s funny—that happened to me and some of the other over-50 writers,” she says. “Working with Jermaine Fowler and some of the other young writers gave us a new perspective on things, shaking up our middle-aged views.”
“Hot In Cleveland,” which ran for six seasons before moving to syndication, examined aging on multiple levels. “I think the premise—and as I age, speaks to me even more—is ‘It’s never too late for a second act.’ Who doesn’t want to have a second act with all of our friends in a city where nobody knows us! Oh, and if we can have three and four chapters like Betty has… well, that would be great too,” Milliner said.
For White’s role, “First and foremost we were trying to create a character that was interesting and fun for Betty to portray,” he added. “That, and that no matter your age, you can still have fun and create fantastic adventures for the rest of your life.”
Milliner says there was never a time when a scene in development seemed “too young” or “too old” for Elka. “Never. Age really was never an issue. And it was fun for us to put Betty in any situation. I think our biggest conversations were about who should we have as Elka’s love interest? I think my favorites were John Mahoney and Carl Reiner. What great choices.”
Hazy Mills is the home studio to series including “Grimm” and “Hollywood Game Night.” Asked whether it’s easier to bust open stereotypes on aging in comedy than in drama, Milliner responded in the affirmative.
“Probably easier in comedy because you can laugh about it. And, even if people start laughing a tad uncomfortably… at least they are laughing,” Milliner said. “We used to say at [improve comedy enterprise] The Second City that a groan is as good as a laugh. At least we are getting a reaction.”
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