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At Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement home, an unlikely love story blooms

Anthony "Tony" Lawrence tried online dating and met someone, but nothing sparked.

"It was one of those awkward things where, 'What do you do?' "

You walk away and try again. He went out with a neighbor, but didn't fare any better.

"Again, no chemistry," he says.

He wanted to believe that love was possible again, says Lawrence, who wrote for "Bonanza," "Ben Casey" and scads of other hit TV shows in the 1960s and '70s before retiring to the Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement campus in Woodland Hills. But as a widower in his mid-80s, he knew he was running out of time.

Lawrence made a short film about it, in fact. The retirement home took advantage of all the Hollywood talent on its campus and started Channel 22, a closed-circuit informational and entertainment station. Lawrence had just written and directed a movie about a retiree so desperate for love (played by himself) that he tried online dating (and we know where he got that idea).

Then, about a year ago, Lawrence looked out the window of his cottage and saw her. Even from a distance, she cut an attractive profile.

"I thought, 'What's this woman doing pushing a baby stroller around in a retirement community?'" Lawrence says.

He found out her name was Madeleine "Madi" Smith. The "baby" in the stroller was a three-legged Yorkie. She had rescued Dexter from the pound and treated the hobbled pup to carriage rides.

One day Lawrence was in the retirement home office and one of the employees, Amelia, had a tip for him.

"You know," she said, "you oughta get to know Madi. You'd like her."

But making connections can be as nerve-racking and complicated for seniors as for teens. Lawrence had nursed his dearly departed wife of 50 years, Nancy, through 10 withering years of Alzheimer's. A part of him wanted to remain faithful to her, but he was lonely.

Then came the day in the cafeteria, early last year.

"I'm drinking my coffee and I look over and see Madi at a different table and I thought, 'Should I do it?' I looked at her a couple of times and thought, 'She's a very attractive woman. And she's alone.'"

Lawrence heard two voices in his head. One was the voice of the shy kid he'd been, a foster child who never had a girlfriend at University High on the Westside because he feared rejection. The other voice was that of the man he'd become, a kind and curious gent with a hole in his heart and a hunger for companionship.

"I finally got up the nerve. I picked up my coffee and went over to her table," says Lawrence, who was nervous as a freshman at his first prom. "I paused for a moment and said, 'Amelia said you're a very interesting person, and I should get to know you. So here I am.'"

You'd expect a better first line from a writer, but Lawrence was operating under extreme pressure.

The svelte blonde who looked up at him, with an uneasy smile, had grown up in Burbank with her adoptive parents. Her mother had all but forced her into show business even before she attended John Burroughs High School, first as an actress and then a dancer, but it never felt right to Smith. In her late teens she switched to production and personal assistant jobs, working for Bobby Darin, the Smothers Brothers, Henry Mancini and Norman Lear.

She'd been married once, a fleeting arrangement that didn't whet her appetite for another, and at 74 she enjoyed her freedom. But this was a woman who'd rescued a crippled dog. She couldn't be rude to a nervous pensioner with his heart on his sleeve, so here's what she said:

"Would you like to sit down?"

They talked briefly, nothing too deep, but it was nice enough.

Lawrence walked away with a bounce in his step.

Smith just walked away.

"I thought he was really cute, he was a gentleman, he seemed intelligent," she says. "But I was hesitant about getting involved because I'm a loner and I like being alone."

In other words, she worked the poor guy over, leaving Lawrence to wonder if Smith feared waltzing with a man whose turns on the dance floor were numbered.

"All I remember was mixed messages," says Lawrence. "One minute she's very receptive and wants to have a relationship. The next minute she doesn't want to be bothered. I kept between depression and joy for quite a while."

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But the clouds lifted every time he saw her, and Lawrence decided it was time to make his move. He bought a nice bouquet of flowers, marched over to Madi's cottage and knocked on her door.

"It was risky and old-fashioned, but I thought, 'What the hell?'"

And?

"It got me," says Smith, who still nearly falls over at the memory.

Just one problem.

Lawrence was so thrilled about the luck of falling in love a second time, he wanted to get married.

But Smith thought, "What's the point of getting married at our age?" She would have preferred living in sin.

Or so she thought, and that's what she told her friends. But one day, she had news for them.

"I changed my mind," she told her shocked pals.

Smith puts her hands at her heart and says, "I was falling in love with him. I mean, it was really like pitter-patter. I got excited with him. I wanted to hold him and kiss him. He's a good kisser."

Lawrence got off easy on the engagement ring. He wanted to get her something special, but Smith insisted on an understated, elegant silver band she'd seen at Pet Life, where the owner is also a jeweler. The pet shop has bags of kibble that cost three times as much as the $25 ring, but that's what Smith wanted and that's what she got.

They were married in November in the Roddy McDowall garden on campus, and they are believed to be the first two residents to meet and marry in the 75-year history of the retirement home. Last week, they were settling into their new cottage as husband and wife and thinking about an upcoming honeymoon in Big Sur.

"I love her intelligence and her humanity and the way she cares for that dog," says Lawrence, 87. "I've never met anybody who has the energy and the spark of life that she has. She's a 75-year-old going on 30."

"He makes me feel safe," says Smith. "I love his honesty and his kindness. He's really kind, besides being sexy."

In this nation of aging boomers, many of them lost and alone, here's the thing, says Lawrence:

"Love is timeless and love can happen at any moment in anyone's life."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 10, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "An unlikely love story" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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