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On View : Retirement Stories

Times Staff Writer

A lot of funny people, including the comedy team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, are involved in “American Playhouse’s” “The Sunset Gang,” premiering Friday on KCET.

The three-part series, though, is no laughing matter. Adapted from the short stories by Warren Adler (“The War of the Roses”) and co-executive produced by actress Linda Lavin (“Alice”), “Sunset Gang” examines how senior citizens deal with their golden years. Set in the fictional Sunset Village retirement community in South Florida, “The Sunset Gang” was shot at an actual retirement community in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“The Sunset Gang” was a labor of love for Lavin, who has had her own production company since the late 1970s. As soon as she read Adler’s book, she submitted it to Lindsay Law, executive producer for “American Playhouse.”

Law approved it almost immediately. But the project was in development for more than five years. “It was difficult to get financing,” Lavin said. “It was a constant problem, but Lindsay was extremely positive and committed to the project. He said, ‘Let’s just do it.’ And we kept our costs down.”

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“The Sunset Gang” kicks off with “Yiddish,” a drama starring Harold Gould and Doris Roberts, about a 70-year-old married man who leaves his nagging wife after he falls in love with a married retiree at the Sunset Village Yiddish Club.

Roberts jumped at the chance to play the betrayed wife, Mimi, in “Yiddish.” “I won an Emmy for a dramatic role on ‘St. Elsewhere,”’ she said. “I have yet to be given a dramatic role (to do since) in this town. Comedy is what they put me in. I came from New York theater. I am an actress--I do everything.”

Playing Mimi was a challenge, Roberts said, because she was a one-note character. “But, she’s not an ogre or a horrible woman.”

In fact, Roberts knows a lot of Mimis. “I thought (of her) in terms of my own life and the lives of people I grew up with. Women were taught that all you were supposed to do was get married and be a good wife and a wonderful mother and that was it. A lot of these women are still out there and if they are left, they have no identity except for the reflection of themselves in their husbands’ eyes.”

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Roberts, herself a widowed grandmother, said she found it depressing filming at the retirement community. “If you are only in a group of people who are all aging ...,” she said. “You are getting closer to death all the time anyway, but when you see it around you it’s very depressing. I love all ages. I always feel that there are exciting and wonderful things going to happen.”

The actress admitted to one big fear in life. “Thank God it hasn’t happened to me. When you see two older people sitting in a restaurant and not talking to each other, that is death to me. They have nothing more to say to each other. I have seen homeless people who have nothing who have communicated better to one another. These people, who have enough money to go to a restaurant, don’t want to hear what the other person has to say.”

The married people in “The Detective,” airing April 12, have trouble communicating with each other. Stiller and Meara headline this comedy-drama about a couple who discover food is routinely disappearing from their refrigerator. The husband, who loves detective novels, becomes obsessed with solving this real-life mystery.

“The Detective” gave Stiller and Meara the opportunity to work together. They broke up their comedy act 15 years ago to pursue separate acting careers and to have a more stable life in which to raise their two children.

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“ ‘Detective’ is about the loss of intimacy,” Stiller said. “That’s the bottom line. They find (intimacy) in this little three-room condo and it’s really painful. They have never experienced it and so they have to go off into separate worlds.”

The husband’s sleuthing ultimately brings the couple together. “They become aware of the fact there is a distance,” he said.

Like Roberts, Stiller and Meara were dismayed at life at the retirement village. Although, Meara said, “The people don’t seem depressed. There is an ease, and being in a condo situation there is more safety. They have a pool of memory to dip into.”

“The people who are down in that place say, ‘We love it down here,’ ” Stiller said. “The real tragic part is that every few weeks somebody dies.”

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“We died in Cleveland,” Meara said, laughing. “But that’s another matter.”

Though Stiller loved his part in the “Detective,” it depressed him to realize he is no longer a young actor.

“There is an awareness you are now categorized as an actor who is ‘Jewish, maybe 55-70,”’ Stiller said. “And that is the way you are thought of for roles. The truth is, you started out as a kid in this business and did Shakespeare and Moliere and Clifford Odets.” “American Playhouse’s” “The Sunset Gang” airs Friday April 12 and 19 at 9:30 p.m. on KCET.


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