Octogenarians on Broadway

It’s nice to know that retirement isn’t the only option. There is great evidence of this in the entertainment industry, with Betty White and Cloris Leachman arguably the most visible examples. At 88, White has had another spike in popularity thanks to randy appearances on various TV shows, films as well a successful campaign for her to host SNL, which earned the TV legend her umpteenth Emmy. Leachman has followed suit. When Mel Brooks work-shopped Young Frankenstein he had Leachman reprise her iconic role as Frau Blucher to hilarious effect. However, when it came time for the Broadway run, he decided to go a different route and cast the estimable – and much younger – Andrea Martin in the same role, citing that “they didn’t want to kill her.”

Leachman was apparently quite disappointed she wasn’t going to get the chance to return to Broadway, but she’s the one who had the last laugh. Within a year, Young Frankenstein was bleeding money and Leachman was the toast of TV with outrageous, fearless appearances on the uber popular Dancing with the Stars. That was around the time when Brooks approached her to take over the role she had been denied, and she graciously accepted.  However, the show announced its closing before it could come to fruition. I still would have loved seeing her play Violet Weston in August: Osage County. Though she hasn’t come back to Broadway (yet), Leachman, 84, is touring a new one-woman show and currently appearing in the new sitcom Raising Hope.

The trend has been just as visible on Broadway. There are many great actors of a certain age continuing to work while many of their peers are enjoying quiet retirement. Film and TV work is tough, but it has nothing on the rigors of the 8 performance schedule and these ladies and gentlemen continue to astonish audiences with their talent and seemingly boundless energy.

The most high profile is Angela Lansbury, who turns 85 later this month, who has headlined three Broadway productions since turning 80, winning a record-tying Tony in the process. And personally, I don’t think that will be the last of her Broadway career. Her replacement in A Little Night Music is Elaine Stritch, 85, who works tirelessly in theatre and cabaret (plus occasional appearances on 30 Rock). Rosemary Harris, 83, received a Tony nomination for her touching portrayal of Fanny Cavendish in MTC’s sublime revival of The Royal Family last season. Another nominee from last season was Barbara Cook, soon to be 83, making her first appearance in a Broadway musical in 40 years with Sondheim on Sondheim. Estelle Parsons, 82, played Violet Weston for two years on Broadway and on tour, running up and down those stairs like it was nobody’s business. Also touring is Carol Channing, 89, who has spent the last few years as a champion for arts in our public school system. Her show has played in various venues, but has yet to come to NY (I think Carol should come home for her 90th birthday this January).

Onto the men: John Cullum, 80, has just started Broadway previews as the Interlocutor in Kander & Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys. Cullum is also celebrating the 50th anniversary of his Broadway debut, in Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot (he was Sir Dinadan and Richard Burton’s understudy). Behind the scenes, composer John Kander is himself 83 and working hard on preparing Scottsboro for its opening night. Meanwhile at Lincoln Center, Broadway stalwart John McMartin (80), will be headlining A Free Man of Color at the Vivian Beaumont. Back in 2005, then 80 year old Hal Holbrook brought his iconic Mark Twain Tonight back to Broadway for a limited run. He’s still working quite hard and still making appearances around the country as Mark Twain. James Earl Jones will be turning 80 during the run of Driving Miss Daisy this season. Show biz legend and Tony nominee Mickey Rooney recently celebrated his 90th birthday at Feinstein’s, with his beloved wife. Then of course on the other side of the footlights is Arthur Laurents, 93, who has directed popular revivals of his Gypsy and West Side Story in the last three years.

It seems with all our medical advances and technology, it is likely we’ll start seeing more and more actors performing longer and longer. It’s not that far-fetched for someone to forgo retirement; it’s happened many times before – Eva Le Gallienne, Estelle Winwood and Cathleen Nesbitt (to name a few) continued performing onstage into their 80s and 90s. It just seems that it’s a trend that will continue to be on the rise, and considering the legends I have seen onstage I welcome this resurgence with open arms. Age is a number. Everything else is in the state of mind.

One thought on “Octogenarians on Broadway”

  1. Estelle Parsons is in Deathtrap in the West End right now too. There’s Frances Sternhagen too – she turned 80 in January and was on Broadway a couple of season ago and currently playing mother to Brenda Lee Johnson on The Closer. And don’t forget how busy Mr. Sondheim is – he is the king of the 80th birthday year. I’ll be seeing 80 somethings Marian Seldes and Fritz Weaver in a free Chekhov reading this Friday at lunchtime. Being 80 something is where it’s at these days.

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