In the spring of 1998, as I watched the cast of "Murphy Brown" take its final curtain call — a wonderful show that I was justly proud to have been a part of — I wondered if perhaps this was the zenith of my career in television. What lay ahead for me now?
Three days later the mailman delivered my introductory copy of AARP. Uh oh. As I stared at the cover of the former Modern Maturity periodical (Serving the Needs and Interests of the 50 and Over), I felt the way Roy Scheider felt when he saw just how big and menacing that Great White Shark really was.
I quickly recycled the old people magazine (not to be confused with an old People magazine) and poured myself a stiff drink.
Why did they send this to me? I wasn’t turning 50 until … June, and that was months away. Then I wondered if television executives and studio personal paid a fee to get a list of those who were on the AARP mailing list. How else would they know who was no longer good — they certainly couldn’t discern that on their own. Uh oh.
I dismissed this paranoid scenario and waited to hear from my agent about all the offers that would surely stream my way. I was out of work for five months, but that didn’t have anything to do with me getting an old peoples’ magazine. Or did it?
I ended up taking a Consulting Producer position on a forgettable show (what was the name of that show?), and the network gratefully pulled the plug and bam, I was on another show brought in to save a troubled freshman sitcom on a lowly rated network, the skilled professional, bulging with years of experience, Miracle Man was on the job now. Four episodes later it was gone, and so was my parking spot at Warner Brothers.
Time went by and a few inquires about my availability cropped up (I was home reading my latest issue of AARP), but they never really panned out, and that is pretty much my career of late. And now, Good God, I’m way past 50. It says on my IMdb description that I was born in Hartford Connecticut in 1948. Right there on the screen, it’s right there for anyone to see. It’s like those surveillance cameras at banks, you can run, but you can’t hide from IMdb.
The question is, Why are the men and women who toiled in the sitcom mines so quickly dispensed with once they get a multitude of candles on their birthday cakes? I have a friend, also a television writer, who, at a very early age was hired on “M*A*S*H,”, undoubtedly one of the finest half hours that ever aired on television. He took that credit off his resume a few years ago because he didn’t want TV execs and studio people to think he was 100 years old.
My friend remains very funny, and I know his writing skills have not forsaken him, and yet he struggles to find employment, perhaps because IMdb ratted him out over of his association with the revered, but "ancient" show. He might as well have "Old Guy" stenciled on his forehead.
The first show I worked on in Los Angeles was for the fledgling network FOX, starring the Swiss Army Knife of actresses, Tracey Ullman. One of the executive producers was the legendary Jerry Belson. Jerry used to muse in the Writers Room about how he had watched a few off-network sitcoms and decided that once it was all over for him in prime-time, he could probably get hired on those 7 p.m. syndicated shows (where he felt they would be thrilled to have him) and that it wasn’t the worst fate a TV writer could have.
I didn’t understand what he was worried about, he was one of the most desired comedy scribes out there and there would certainly be a place for him, always. "No babe, that’s not the way it works. I’m getting up there.” That was the first time that I became aware of a television writer’s shelf life.
John Updike passed away in January, he was in his mid 70s and as recently as last year published a collection of short stories and a volume of poetry. I doubt that anyone in the publishing world over the last 20 years had written off Mr. Updike as a hack and an Old Guy.
Architect Phillip Johnson was commissioned to design a building when he was 93 … OK he was old, but he was still great. His talent didn’t flake off of him the way the skin did on his legs.
I understand that the television industry has changed a great deal since I started way ,way back in the ‘80s and that the climate is different, it’s tough to get even a fraction of the viewers they once enjoyed. But there are many men and women at home or in their backyards weeding who would be only too happy to help networks lure audiences back to their sets.
When a show is truly good, like “Mad Men” or “30 Rock,” people find their way back. Perhaps the network and the studio people should not dismiss anyone simply because they are older. We all learned how to tell a story, how to connect with an audience, as far back as the ‘70s, hell the ‘60s. As storytelling goes, little has changed.
Just read John Updike.