Like a zillion other people, I tuned in a few weeks ago to watch the venerable Betty White host Saturday Night Live. Having grown up watching Betty, I was excited, but also a little concerned. I felt protective of her. She was, after all, eighty-eight years old and about to host a 90-minute live TV show. I just didn’t want to see her embarrass herself. Rumor had that she was only going to be in a couple of sketches and that a whole slew of female SNL alumni were being brought back to fill in the blanks. As it turned out, they could all have stayed home. Not only was Betty in every sketch, but she killed. It’s rare to see any SNL host (must less a host Betty’s age) step into so many different roles and inherently “get” the style of each sketch. It was one of the best editions of SNL I’d seen in years. It made me think about some of the other older performers I’ve worked with over the years.
Just last week, I was doing an episode of a sit com, when I noticed the name of a character actor I also remembered from my childhood on the “guest cast” list -- Jack Carter. I’d always thought he was funny, but he was no kid when I’d seen him on the Dean Martin Show many, many years ago. I was downstairs in the green room, when Jack arrived and I was instantly unnerved. He seemed extremely frail and I found myself rushing to the aid of the young P.A. whose job it was get him down the stairs and unto one of the sofas. As it is with most sit-coms, there’s a lot of sitting around, so I decided to hang out with Jack for a bit. I got him some food from the craft services table and settled into one of those uncomfortable chairs that green rooms always seem to have. Part of me was dying to ask a bunch of questions about some of the legendary performers he’d worked with, but I’ve found that not everybody likes to reminisce about times gone by. The TV in the green room was tuned into the Discovery Channel which led us to a conversation about Jack’s love of fishing. Then we got onto the subject of the French Open. An avid tennis fan, Jack confessed he had been staying up ‘til two in the morning to watch the semi-finals.
At one point, there was a lull in the conversation, and as I sat watching Alaskan fishermen hauling supernaturally huge crabs into their boat, I began to notice that Jack was mumbling a bit to himself. At first I was concerned. What he was saying didn’t seem to make much sense until I realized he was quietly running his lines for the scene he was about to rehearse. Occasionally, people involved with the show would stop by to “check in” on Jack; which he was very gracious about. “Yes, I’m still alive,” he replied pleasantly to one of the producers. Later in the day, when everyone was assembled on the sound stage for the run-through, it quickly became clear that none of us had anything to worry about. Although walking was a bit of a challenge for Jack, being funny was not. He was sharp as a tack and landed every joke like a champ. He’d even added a couple of bits and suggested a couple for the two young actors he was working with. “It’s funnier, this way. Trust me.” He was right. It was funnier.
A couple of years ago, when 80 year-old Cloris Leachman won her 12th Emmy, she was quoted as saying, “If you can keep yourself together, you can still work.” I suspect that luck also has a little to do with it. In truth, you don’t see a lot of older singers (and pretty much no older dancers) who can keep working because time is not terribly kind to the vocal chords or the knees. Acting, however, is a different beast. Acting is an art form that radiates from the imagination and the power of the imagination is an awesome thing to behold.
Many years ago, I was in a play with an older character actress named Georgia Southcotte, who took a tumble one day while en route to the theatre to do a matinee. When she arrived it was clear she’d pretty seriously injured her wrist, but she insisted on going on. An improvised sling was created and despite the fact she was clearly in a lot of pain, she was surprisingly spot-on in every scene. In fact, it was the best performance I’d seen her give in weeks. As soon as the curtain came down, she was whisked away to the emergency room where they discovered she’d broken her forearm. When I came back to the theater for the evening show, I was floored to see Georgia sitting in the green room with a cast on her arm; already in costume. Chipper as could be, she was sipping a cup of tea; ready for the evening show. When I asked her if she wouldn’t prefer to take the night off and let her understudy go on, she looked at me like I was insane. “Why on earth would I do that?” she replied with a slight hint of indignation in her voice.
As the years go by, and I slip deeper and deeper into middle age, I sometimes wonder about my future in this business. Given that the entertainment industry is ruled by the young, I know I’ll have fewer and fewer opportunities, but I remain hopeful. It’s enormously heartening to me to see older performers who can still deliver -- And deliver with a skill and precision that only time and experience could have taught them. I’ve never seen an older performer treated with anything less than enormous respect in a professional setting. I think even younger actors instinctively "get" that they are looking into the eyes of their future. Speaking for myself, as long as I can remember the lines, I’d like to keep going. Despite the fact that I tend to think of myself as being extremely young (35 at most), I’ve decided to take Cloris’ advice to heart, and do my best to “keep it together” for the long haul. I guess that means I need to quit typing now and go to the gym. Wish me luck.
Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv
Shameless self-promotion: http://www.bangstudio.com/streep-tease
Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/QuitcherBitchyn