Sunday, March 8, 2020

time (clock of the heart)

A few years back, I was watching one of my favorite movies — Marty, selected by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences as the "Best Picture" of 1955 (and the downfall of one Herb Stempel on the TV quiz show Twenty One). Early in the picture, "Marty Piletti" (as portrayed by 1955 Best Actor Ernest Borgnine) is talking to his mother. She tearfully laments to her son that she is an old woman of 50. 50! An old woman! I was floored. Immediately, I logged on to (the invaluable Internet Movie Database) and searched for the film. My research revealed that Esther Minciotti, the actress who played Ernest Borgnine's screen mother was actually 67 at the time of filming. However, I was still a bit disturbed that, in 1955, fifty years of age was considered "old." It should be noted, though that Ernest Borgnine was only 38, but looked well into his 50s. I suppose it was around this time that I became a little obsessed (just a little) with the ages of actors from the "Golden Age" of cinema as well as those on television during my formative years.

It is no secret that I watch a lot of television. I rarely watch any current programming, opting to view and review programs from my youth. I love to revisit the shows I watched as an adolescent, parked in front of our big black & white Zenith in my family's den with my mom on the sofa and my dad settled in "his" corner chair, chain-smoking Viceroys. (Unsurprisingly, one of the few "current" shows I have watched and enjoyed is Amazon's original The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, mostly because of its retro setting.  Go figure...)

If you follow my illustration blog (found elsewhere on the internet), you will find that a lot of my drawings are heavily influenced by the television shows from my youth. In 2011, I published a drawing of actor Joseph Kearns. Kearns had a long and celebrated career as a bit player in a number of radio shows before making the transition to the new medium of television. He performed and held his own alongside such entertainment giants Jack Benny, George Burns, Eve Arden and (ironically) Gale Gordon. He is best remembered as the cantankerous "Mr. Wilson" on the insufferable sitcom Dennis the Menace. The show ran for four seasons.  If you remember, Kearns sported wire-framed glasses, a crew cut and wore his pants pulled up to his armpits. He always had a scowl across his face and doddered around his house with a loose cardigan draped over his slumped shoulders. Granted, Dennis was a pain in the ass and drove Kearns's character up a wall, but he carried himself like a man of seventy. With just seven episodes left to film in Season Three, Joseph Kearns suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and unexpectedly passed away. He was 55. 55! (Gale Gordon, who replaced Kearns was just a year older.)

Recently, I was watching the zillionth rerun of The Andy Griffith Show. I love The Andy Griffith Show almost as much as my wife hates it. I love the gentle humor and the crazy characters and how Sheriff Andy tries to maintain some sense of order in the nuthouse that is Mayberry, North Carolina. I am convinced that the real reason that Andy doesn't carry a gun, is because he would have shot Deputy "Barney Fife" to death in episode four. In the show, town sheriff "Andy Taylor" (as played by Andy Griffith) lives with his son Opie (future Oscar winning director Ron Howard) and his aunt "Bee Taylor." Bee is embodied by actress Francis Bavier, who enjoyed a career playing essentially the same befuddled character in films and television going back to the early 1930s. In this particular episode of The Andy Griffith Show, there was a discussion about Aunt Bee's birthday. I was prompted to look up just how old Ms. Bavier, at the time of filming this episode. With her dark-patterned, high-necked dresses and her gray hair pulled back into that omnipresent bun, she gave the appearance of a woman in her mid to late seventies. She was 62. If you need a frame of reference.... Madonna is 62. Additional research led me to discover that Irene Ryan, feisty "Granny" on The Beverly Hillbillies, was the same age as Francis Bavier. Sure, Ms. Ryan wore a wig and glasses that she didn't really require, but I recall seeing her on Password at the height of The Beverly Hillbillies popularity. She looked a lot older than 62. Incidentally, Buddy Ebsen, the Hillbillies patriarch was 54.

Oh, there are others that fascinate me. Actor Carroll O'Connor (a favorite of my father) was just 48 years old when All in the Family premiered in 1971. Abe Vigoda, who was the brunt of many "boy, is he old" jokes for the latter part of his career, was just 54 when he played the role of "Detective Phil Fish" on Barney Miller, making the "old" jokes a bit odd. The "Sweathogs" on Welcome Back, Kotter were all in their twenties when they were playing high schoolers in 1975. (Ron Palillo, who played "Horshack" was 26.) Marcia Strassman was just two years older than the actors playing the students when she appeared as series star Gabe Kaplan's wife. Jim Backus, pompous "Mr. Howell" on Gilligan's Island, was just 52 when the show began. And Oscar-winner Shirley Jones was 34 when she was cast as the mother of five kids on The Partridge Family, just 14 years older than her real-life stepson David Cassidy.

This past week, I watched a movie called Harry and Tonto. I had seen it before, probably just after its 1974 release. The film, about an elderly man traveling across the country with his cat, starred Art Carney. Carney had diligently campaigned for the role, convincing the studio that he could pull off the role of a 72 year-old man, despite being just 56. (An age-appropriate James Cagney was the first choice for the role. He turned it down.) However, Carney wore little age-enhancing make-up, preferring instead to wear his real hearing aid and not conceal his war-injured gait. Carney won an Oscar for his performance and a "second act" in films opened up for the actor. By the way, Brad Pitt just won his first Oscar at this year's ceremony. He is 56, as well.

Of course, the most jarring age revelation (at least for me), is Judy Garland. I grew up watching the annual telecast of The Wizard of Oz, as well as Ms. Garland's other grand musicals like Meet Me in St, Louis, Easter Parade and Summer Stock. Judy's personal troubles are well known and the toll they took on her are apparent. Judy passed away in 1969 at the age of 47. On a December 1968 appearance on The Tonight Show, just six months before her death, she looked quite haggard and aged beyond her years.

Perhaps I have just become more aware of age and the ages of my contemporaries as I approach my sixtieth year on earth. I think it makes me feel younger.

I guess this is the kind of thing that old people do.

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