used to go to five or six commercial auditions a day, five days a week," says Mitchell McGuire, 70. "Now I'm lucky if I go to two a week. And of course that has to do with my age. I certainly didn't think my age would have anything to do with my voiceover work, but that's also fallen off. I've been told by my agents to dye my hair—to do voiceover work?
"Occasionally my commercial agents send me over to audition for an on-camera commercial, playing a grandfather," continues McGuire, a regular contributor to Back Stage. "But since I haven't gained any weight—don't have that elderly, rounded look—I'm told I look too good."
Jeannine Moore has had similar audition woes. "When they think grandmother, they think white hair," she says. "I don't have white hair. Yes, I can put on a wig, and I have, but it usually looks fake, and I've been asked to remove it. Why should they hire me when they can get someone with real white hair? I often suspect I'd have more roles if I looked older."
Moore's and McGuire's experiences are not anomalous. A number of mature actors, many of whom have been in the business for 30 years, tell of mixed-bag encounters in the world of commercials. Almost all report a significant drop in the number of commercial auditions they've been sent out on over the last five to 10 years. As recently as 10 years ago, 80-year-old Marvin Chatinover had a minimum of two commercial auditions per week. Now he has one about every three weeks. Kate Weiman, 58, says, "In my 30s I would go to five commercial auditions a day. This week I went to one, last week two."
Moore notes, "When I started out in 1975, I was doing five auditions a day. Now I may do half of that." Admittedly, she goes out more than the others interviewed here, though they're all veterans with dozens of commercial credits. Still, their professional lives are changing, starting with the industry's view of who they are, which may be at odds with their self-perceptions. At what point is an actor "mature"? What qualities typify a person of a "certain age"? To get work, should senior actors be "attractive"? How does one define that in a senior citizen? How should mature actors promote and present themselves? Should their career strategies be different from those of their younger colleagues?
These are gray areas in many respects. From the youth-centered industry's point of view, "an older person can be anywhere from 60 to 85," says David Ziff, director of the on-camera commercial department at CESD Talent in Los Angeles. "We often see that age spread on breakdowns. It's a very large range, and we can't control that. And I've had actors in their late 50s object to being sent to audition for commercials where clearly the casting directors are looking for actors in their 80s."
"Sometimes these breakdowns do require a little research," notes Tracey-Lynn Goldblum, a commercial agent with Abrams Artists Agency in New York City. "If they're looking for the traditional grandmother or grandfather, it's not as easy for agents as it once was either. We're not usually able to send actors in their 50s and 60s anymore—possibly actors in their 70s, but they're also healthy and fit and looking great."
Goldblum does not believe ageism is the only culprit curtailing the number of gigs open to seniors. "Limited opportunities for older actors in commercials reflect what's happening to actors of all ages across the board," she says. "Also, there's just more competition for every role out there." Weiman agrees: "The industry has changed. When I started out, there was casting in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Now it's more global, with actors from all over the place emailing in their audition tapes."
Age is a sensitive issue. Not all of the actors Back Stage talked with wished to disclose their age. Some feel going public with it might harm their careers; others are coy. Dina Paisner, primarily known for her print work, quips, "I'm ageless." She adds seriously, "The question of age is meaningless. The issue is what age range you can play. My range is wide."
Still, there seems to be a consensus among these actors that, although they are attending fewer commercial auditions, the roles they're going out for are the most colorful of their careers, even if on occasion they are tacky.
Elaine Kussack, who has been doing commercials since 1965, says without rancor, "I usually play demented, ethnic old ladies who are either physically or mentally ill. The old are viewed as decrepit, to whom they can sell pharmaceuticals." Says Weiman, "I'm going to have to swallow the idea that I may be cast as someone who is incontinent, who has restless legs syndrome, or I may even be dying. I may need insurance or be concerned about the debt I'm leaving my loved ones. I may even be the corpse on the gurney."
In one ad, hawking an insurance company, Chatinover plays the "typical" insurance company executive—sly, sleazy, and corrupt. Clearly, the actor is enjoying every minute of it. In another ad, promoting Burger King's Whopper sandwich, he's a sugar daddy in a golf cart, accompanied by a nubile blonde. Encountering his contemporaries in another golf cart, he introduces the young thing as his "niece," with the voiceover proclaiming, "Now that's a whopper!" He manages to evoke the joy of lechery.
Moore says, "When I was a younger actor, I usually played moms with daughters on commercials. The ones I'm doing now are much more fun. I have a flair for comedy that I never had a chance to use on commercials. I do now." During the last few years, Moore has been featured on a New York Lottery spot that airs around Mother's Day. The amusing class-conscious ad features three senior ladies at a café, bragging about the fancy gifts their high-achieving sons have bought for them. One son is a doctor, another is a lawyer, the third is a stockbroker. Moore drives up in an elegant car, shouting joyously that her son Lenny, the lifeguard, got her a car with his lottery winnings. Through the luck of the draw, she trumped them all.
Moore takes her commercial acting very seriously, insisting her approach is no different from how she handles a part in a play or film. "In every case, I have to decide what my action is," she says. "Am I consoling? Am I explaining? It doesn't matter if it's three acts or 30 seconds. In a commercial it's 30 seconds. It's all condensed, and that's the challenge. I've always tried to do a good job and please the director, and I believe I've gotten better at it by learning over the years how to listen to my inner self." Craft aside, Moore is also interested in getting work; to that end she has set up a website (www.jeanninemoore.com) featuring snippets of some of her many commercials.
Paisner describes herself as a "Method model." Though she does mostly print work, "I never just pose," she says. "I find out what it is I'm supposed to be conveying—thoughtfulness, sadness, whatever—and make it real. From that my inner life flows, and the photographer never has to tell me what to do. That inner life also makes it possible for me to feel free to move. I view it as miniature acting. The key is simplicity. I believe over the years I've learned to shed the acting habits that get in the way. I've learned how to get out of my own way."
Not all senior actors are cast as "decrepit." Many now have the chance to display not only their acting talents but also their energy. "The specs have changed," Ziff says. "Grandparents are now often hip and cool. They're real. One commercial for a health-care provider cast an elderly African-American man playing basketball in yellow tennis shoes. It was a fun ad and suggests that times are changing."
Adds Goldblum, "What's new in TV commercials is that seniors are shown having lifestyle concerns, especially in ads for pharmaceuticals. They're fit, lively, and attractive, with lots of financial freedom. They're shown in an aspirational light."
Paisner notes that, at least in her experience, the industry's vision of the elderly is altogether more democratic. "There was a time when I would whip out my cameo pin and high collar if I was called in to play a grandmother," she recalls. "And, of course, I always kept my hair in a bun. Now grandmothers come in all sizes and shapes. There isn't only one image. I play upscale characters and also older women with long white hair." Paisner's waist-length hair is undoubtedly striking, and on more than one occasion she has been photographed with flowing white tresses, something that would have been unheard of in the past. "I'm free to be eccentric," she says.
At one time, her individualism cost her work. "When I was a younger woman, I was told to cut my hair and style it in a pageboy, or whatever the fashionable cut was," she says. "I refused to do it. Probably if I had, I would have had more work. And I've always refused to dye my hair. I never thought it was natural-looking."
Weiman echoes, "I will not have my lips plumped, my face lifted, or my neck lifted. I don't want to take the character out of my face. As an actor, I'm terrified of altering who I am. I want to be a mature actress who embraces my age without the risk of plastic surgery."
There are no rules about beauty, Goldblum says. "There are some very good-looking actors with gray hair who are fit and youthful," she notes. "Yet the gray hair, which makes them look older, may in fact get them more work in commercials. As for nips and tucks, when they're obvious and don't look natural, I get negative comments from casting directors. At least in New York they don't like it."
According to Ziff, L.A. casters aren't jumping up and down about it either. "You can always tell dyed hair. It just looks fake, especially on an older face," he says. "This issue comes up from time to time, but I'm a firm believer in looking who you are and playing your age."
Asked if senior actors should be promoting themselves differently from the way they once did, Ziff says it's not necessary, though some mature actors have websites. Ziff makes the point, contrary to received wisdom, that, for the most part, older actors have no more difficulty with technology than their younger counterparts—although they may not all own computers. "If actors in their 60s and 70s are still working, we may suggest they get one in order to email audition tapes," he says. "If they're in their 80s or 90s, we probably won't ask them to get a computer. We do, however, insist that everyone have a cell phone."
Some of the actors interviewed are technologically savvy; others are not. Either way, most of them are not economically dependent on landing commercials. They have other sources of income: savings, pensions, a residual or two. A number of these actors also act in films and on stage. None are sitting at the phone desperately waiting for a call from their commercial agents.
Nevertheless, according to Goldblum, senior actors are her "most responsible clients. They're always the first to stay in touch and respond to calls, whether it's on a cell phone or a landline. And they are always prepared. I love working with them." She is also optimistic about future employment for them in new media, where opportunities are opening up for everyone, seniors included.