Hollywood's obsession with youth leaves older writers out of the picture

November 20, 1991|By Nina J. Easton | Nina J. Easton,Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD -- At lunch one day, TV writer Hindi Brooks' agent got right to the point. Before the salad even arrived, he told her she was no longer a William Morris client. "You're too old," Brooks recalled the agent saying. "I can't sell you anymore." Brooks -- who has written for such shows as "The Waltons," "Eight is Enough" and "Fame" -- was in her 40s.

Kathy McWorter's agent lied about her age when he auctioned off her feature film script for more than $1 million last year. "The more of a Wunderkind you are, the more interested they are, so we played on that" explained agent Randall Skolnik, who transformed McWorter into a 23-year-old neophyte fresh out of college. McWorter's real age was 28.

Gordon Mitchell's former agent begged him to drop such writing credits as "All in the Family" and "The Odd Couple" from his resume because network executives might consider him too old.

Jim Carlson didn't need any prodding: He'd been in enough pitch sessions to know that leaving a period piece like "Laugh In" on his credits would risk making him appear a relic from the '70s. He dropped it.

Hollywood's obsession with youth has always been the bane of aging actors. Now that shadow falls behind the camera as well, onto directors, casting directors -- and, most harshly, writers. Some of these writers still manage to eke out a decent living; others sit by their pools in the San Fernando Valley, frustrated and angry, collecting residual checks from '60s sitcoms. Either way, the impact of their struggle goes far beyond Hollywood: Many in the industry contend that the quality of TV shows and films has declined as writers have gotten younger.

"This is a generation that grew up on TV: That was its baby-sitter and teacher. This is a generation that has watched cartoons with laugh tracks," said Larry Gelbart, whose career ranges from the TV series "M*A*S*H" to the stage musical "City of Angels" and the upcoming film "Barbarians at the Gate." "By and large a lot of the writing is impoverished. The only reference [they have] is other television."

But interviews with more than 50 writers, agents, producers and executives in Hollywood revealed a general pattern of PTC discrimination against older writers, particularly in TV but also in feature films. "Two days ago a writer came to me -- someone accomplished in film and TV," said one director. "But she's in her late 50s, and I don't think we could get her approved today."

"Certainly there are individuals who have established a reputation so stellar that they are continued to be offered projects," said entertainment attorney David Colden. "But when I go public with a writer, inevitably one of the questions is how old they are. If they're less than 30, it's OK, but 30-35 is beginning to push it. We're talking extreme ageism here. If you haven't made it by 40, your career is over."

While age discrimination appears to be a widely acknowledged fact of life in the television industry, many producers and studio executives on the feature film side disagree that older writers face higher obstacles. Rather, they insist, older writers are valued. "If you're doing an epic historical movie, for example, you're not going to hire a kid," said David Hoberman, president of Disney's Touchstone Pictures. "It takes seasoning."

Certainly, feature film writers like Gelbart, William Goldman ("Misery"), Alvin Sargent ("Dominick and Eugene," the film adaptation of "Other People's Money") and Frank Pierson ("Presumed Innocent") remain much in demand. But there are many others whose careers have faded with successive birthdays. And even some older writers who seem firmly established privately express fears that a dry period would end their careers. Writers in their 40s have been known to shave a couple of years off their public age in an effort to protect their careers. Young writers dominate the spec script auction market -- where screenplays have sold for more than $1 million. And Skolnick's packaging of the 28-year-old McWorter suggests that younger writers have an edge in the competition for big money.

Next spring, the Writers Guild of America will release a report documenting the continued obstacles facing older writers. A 1989 study showed that the share of employment going to writers in their 50s and 60s declined in the mid-1980s.

The Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors -- together with the International Documentary Foundation -- recently produced a documentary on ageism in the television industry. "Power and Fear: The Hollywood Grey List" that dramatically compares the problem with the Hollywood blacklisting of communists in the 1950s. But the reasons that so many older writers face sagging careers is more complex than that analogy suggests, starting with the fact that more people are competing for fewer dollars.

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