For many of today's finest TV actors -- like Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, both 75, in the PBS farce “Vicious,” premiering Sunday -- age ain't nothing but a number.
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.”
No longer a novelty
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 is 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.”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431