COVER STORY : Hey, Babes!...
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 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 “MASH” 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.”
For every talented, energetic, over-50 writer, there is probably another whose career sank because of recycled ideas, stale writing or an unwillingness to remain tapped into contemporary culture. Stories abound about the writer who--when asked for a story idea--goes to the TV Guide to look up log-lines on old “Hawaii Five-0" reruns, or pulls an old script out of the trunk. “You can always tell, " complained one agent. “The paper is yellowing and it was typed on an old Remington.”
But interviews with more than 50 writers, agents, producers and executives in Hollywood revealed a general pattern of 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 Skolnik’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 new report is expected to show that earnings peak in the 30s and 40s,” said William T. Bielby, a UC Santa Barbara professor who is writing the report with his wife, Denise D. Bielby.
The Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors--together with the International Documentary Assn.--recently produced a documentary on ageism in the television industry. “Power and Fear: The Hollywood Grey List” 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.
Since 1981, the Writers Guild membership has ballooned from about 5,000 to more than 7,000. But the demand for TV writers has dropped with the struggling networks cutting back on development money, reducing the number of new episodes and filling more air time with reruns and low-cost “reality” shows.
“I’ve gotten a tremendous number of phone calls from guys who, three to four years ago, were running their own shows,” said Allan Burns, writer-producer of such classic TV fare as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda” and “Lou Grant.” “Now they don’t have work. It’s a tough time financially. Even younger writers are having problems.”
The feature film industry fared better economically in the 1980s, though the number of moviegoers has remained flat. Now, though, even the movie studios are facing tough times, with September box-office receipts at a three-year low, according to the industry trade paper Variety. In response, studios are cutting back on development money, used to hire writers, and dropping some producer deals.
In this tighter fiscal environment, younger writers become more valuable--if they are cheaper. “These older guys begin to price themselves out of the market,” said one producer. “I can hire 10 25-year-olds for one Alvin Sargent.”
Demographics also play a role in Hollywood’s youth obsession. The studios make most of their money from repeat viewings by teen-agers, so they want stories aimed at the youth market. Often, the perception is that those stories are written better by younger writers, though many industry veterans disagree. “Good fiction writers can write anything,” said producer Richard Zanuck. “Unless the subject is so specific, age shouldn’t matter. In fact, you can get a better perspective if you come to the material with a different view.”
TV advertisers insist that the biggest consumer spenders are in the 18-34 age range, so that’s where most shows are targeted. Young network executives are hired to connect with that audience, and they hire young writers. “Once you get into the 50s, unless you’re one of the real top people, it’s harder to get work,” said Michael Weithorn, executive producer of the Fox show “True Colors.” “The bulk of the sitcom audience is younger and there’s a perception that young writers are better tuned into that sensibility. That’s just a cold, hard business fact.”
Opportunities for older TV writers have also dried up; during the 1980s television producers began assembling staffs, rather than relying on free-lancers. “Older writers are very badly hurt by that,” said Mort Thaw, chairman of the Writers Guild committee on age discrimination. Indeed, a primary TV outlet for older writers has become free-lance-written movies-of-the-week and miniseries--which have the added advantage of being aimed at older audiences.
But in episodic TV, young producers tend to staff shows with their peers--who are equally young and who work round-the-clock hours. Some older writers refuse to turn their lives over to that kind of a grind. Just as often, though, they’re not given a chance to decide whether they want to. “My partner (Robert Weiskopf) and I decided it wasn’t worth it,” said Bob Schiller, whose experience dates back to “The Lucy Show.” “But we had a choice. There are a lot of writers who can’t afford not to work.”
The grim economics aside, it’s also the youth-oriented atmosphere of Hollywood that cuts careers short. This is a town where perception, not reality, rules; where youth is an allure, promising and uncharted. “You’re in an ephemeral business that’s always trying to find something new, something sparkling,” said attorney Colden. “And new ideas mean new people.” In this environment, it’s considered safer for a studio executive to gamble on a 25-year-old fresh out of film school than a 50-year-old with a mixed track record. “If you’re 50 or 60, and you’ve had a couple of slow years, the assumption is you’ve lost it,” said TV and film director Robert Greenwald. “If you’re younger, the assumption is you’re going to get it.”
“There’s an attractiveness about the unknown,” explained producer Irwin Winkler. “Everyone wants to find the young director or writer who may be the great lightning in a bottle.” Added Touchstone’s Hoberman: “We’re always looking for young writers because we should all be looking for new talent constantly. You have to keep filling that pipeline.”
Talent agents--who serve as the all-important gatekeepers to the studios and networks--reflect that view. “Agents want people who either are stars or will be stars,” said Intertalent agent Tom Strickler.
Robert L. Stein of United Talent Agency said it makes sense for agents and executives to look for new faces. “You catch someone at the bottom of a creative cycle and get a 10-year ride, rather than going with the guy who hasn’t proven himself in 10 years.”
As a result, the town tends to cut more slack for young writers. “A William Goldman is not diminished by age,” said agent Skolnik of Preferred Artists Agency, who is himself in his late 20s. “But if someone has ups and downs in their career, it’s probably a reflection of something, like a lack of growing with the times.”
In this land of fuzzy realities, perceived benchmarks can make or break a career. Some older feature writers believe their careers were hurt because they didn’t become directors by their 40s. In TV, writers who don’t move on to producing risk gaining reputations as “hacks.” “At my age, if you don’t have your own show you’re damaged goods,” said writer Mitchell, who is in his late 50s. “But the odds of getting your own show are like winning the lottery.”
Many writers try to beat the game by looking younger--dying their hair, changing their wardrobe, even undergoing plastic surgery, according to “The Grey List” documentary. “I’ve been told I should dye my hair, but I refuse to give in to it,” said writer Brooks. (Brooks, however, did decline to give her age for this story.) Said a feature writer: “I don’t put on jackets and ties anymore. But you can’t lie. You’ve got the credits.”
Age discrimination in employment is illegal under federal law. But while WGA officials like Thaw have discussed the possibility of lawsuits, no one is pursuing that route. Part of the problem is gathering proof. “It’s like trying to grab smoke,” said Carlson, a member of the age discrimination committee. “You know it’s there. You can smell it. You can feel the heat. But it’s not in one place so you can’t get the fire extinguisher and put it out.”
Another problem is that few writers are willing to speak out publicly on the problem. Loreen Arbus, who together with Robert Guenette helped produce “The Grey List” documentary, said their biggest problem was getting victims to talk publicly about the issue. “It seems so innocuous,” she said. “I didn’t think it could possibly arouse the kind of fear it does. But no one wants to be identified with the subject.” (For this story, some writers did speak on the record, but others would not talk for attribution, saying they feared work would become even harder to find if they were branded as either old or facing waning careers.)
So the struggle remains a quiet one. Inside the offices of studios, production companies and networks, a generational war of sorts has broken out--with younger executives and writers dismissive of their more mature peers, and vice versa. “We’ve heard about all sorts of cruel comments, like, ‘We already have our one “gray” here.’ Or, ‘Boy, you can really smell the dust on that guy,’ ” said Thaw, whose WGA committee has been publicizing the problem of age discrimination.
Some of the younger producers and executives interviewed for this story complain that older writers too often try to float on the past successes. “Some writers seem to think that if they write about their experiences, that’s something everyone wants to buy,” said agent Skolnik. “But that’s not true. Times change and you have to grow with change or change grows away from you.”
Weithorn noted that not all writers have kept up with the changes in sitcom styles. “The way you choose to tell stories has changed,” he said. “The situation comedy has gotten a little more real, reflecting the humor and pathos of real life. It’s not that an older writer can’t write that, but older writers learned their trade in an era where that was not being done much.”
A similar view is apparent among power brokers on the feature film side. “There are notable exceptions, but there are also those cases where an older writer is out of touch with the youth market,” said Mike Simpson, co-chief of William Morris Agency’s motion picture department. “You also have to keep in mind the studios’ target demographics. If you look at an advertising agency, the people in the bullpen invariably are young because they’re aiming at a youth market. If we could get people like my mother to go to the movies, we would make movies that appeal to the older crowd. But unfortunately they tend to favor the cable TV and videocassette venues.”
Others in the business have less forgiving views of unemployed older writers. One producer argued that there is a “natural selection process” that goes on in this business, and that older writers who can’t get work simply have been weeded out because they lacked the talent. “Most writers only have one or two good ideas in their heads,” this producer added.
For their part, older writers say the focus on youth has led to a demise in the quality of both TV programming and motion pictures. “I worked for three or four years as a staff writer (before becoming a producer),” said Burns. “Now, if someone writes three different episodes they have to be called a producer. They’re producing before they are ready.”
“There is an unfortunate worship of youth and youth culture,” said producer-director Mark Rydell. “That’s not so much the case in Europe, where there is respect for craft and wisdom and experience.”
Older writers relish passing on sometimes apocryphal stories about the ignorance of the young executives who hold the keys to their fates. Like the one about the young gun who said, “Sid Caesar? I’m not familiar with his work. Would you send over a tape?” Or the executive who said to Busby Berkeley, “Now, what is it you do?”
“It’s my experience that the people at the lower levels of the networks--the managers of comedy and drama--have no idea because of their age who the writers over 40 and 50 are. And everyone wonders why TV is so bad,” said Lee Rich,the former Lorimar executive who brought viewers such shows as “Dallas” and “The Waltons.”
These veterans also say that many younger writers and their counterparts in the executive offices don’t have the kind of life experience it takes--marriages, kids, divorces--to write richly woven stories about the complexities of human relationships. “They’re living alone with their Porsches and their telephones,” said TV and film writer Robert Kaufman of today’s executives.
“They haven’t had the knocks of a relationship, the thing called life that goes into writing,” said Gelbart. “Maybe if you had life experience you wouldn’t be writing some silly-ass sitcom. . . . Some people are so frustrated by the mediocrity that they are looking to the theater again to gratify themselves as artists because there is no room to tackle human stories and emotions on TV, or even on screen.”
Many of the younger Hollywood power brokers guffaw at these descriptions. Some of them noted privately that during the five-month 1988 Writers Guild strike, screen and TV writers said they were going to raise the standards of Hollywood by sitting home at their typewriters and churning out (on speculation) thoughtful, intelligent scripts. Instead, they contend, when the strike ended, the studios were inundated with “Lethal Weapon"-type screenplays. “For all the talk, they all just wanted that box-office hit,” argues one executive.
It wasn’t always a state of war between the old and young. Older writers insist that when they started out, experience and age were respected. “We had older guys around to teach us,” said Kaufman. “We had respect for them. They were our heroes, not our enemies. I was head writer of ‘The Bob Newhart Show’ when I was 29, but there were guys in their 50s there to say, ‘No, no, no, this sketch has to have structure.’ There was a blend: the energy of youth and the experience of age.”
But getting the next job in Hollywood today is based on two factors: Your very recent track record, and your relationships in the business. Both make life more difficult for older writers.
For one, the older anyone gets the greater the likelihood that a career dry spell will set in--for reasons that can range from personal problems to dumb luck. (The odds of any script reaching the screen, for example, are tiny.) A dry spell can kill a career.
“Unfortunately, a studio executive too often is not going to look at a body of work, but what they’ve done in the last three or four years,” said agent Simpson.
Veteran producer Robert Radnitz finds that kind of attitude prevalent--and disturbing. “If you’re an older writer and you haven’t had a recent success, the second time around they say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s not with it anymore.’ A lot of that is due to the fact that not many people working today at studios are literate about the history of film.”
The importance of Hollywood relationships hurts older writers because the gatekeepers at the networks and the studios--those who must pass on a script first--are increasingly in their late 20s and 30s. “People in this business tend to do business with their peers, and the networks have had younger people in these jobs,” said Peter Fischer, formerly executive producer of “Murder, She Wrote.” Added TV writer Burt Prelutsky: “The people in a position to say ‘yes’ are older. But the people in a position to say ‘no’ tend to be young.”
And often they are saying “no” to older writers seeking staff jobs on TV series. “I think the young staff are intimidated” by older writers, said Brooks. “It’s like facing their parents. They don’t want to be told what to do.”
Said TV writer Mitchell: “I don’t view this as a conspiracy. People tend to hire and tend to associate with their buddies, so if (those who do the hiring) happen to be white males in their 30s, that’s who gets the jobs.”
The late Larry Forrester--who wrote the film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” as well as episodes for such TV shows as “Hart to Hart” and “Fantasy Island"--was one of the few writers willing to go public with his struggles when he wrote this in the Writers Guild journal: “I sit at my IBM six or more hours a day--writing, thinking, guessing--in a void. And I call my agent, nag him. . . . I can sense he’s too embarrassed to tell me I’m practically unsalable in today’s youth-hungry market. . . . I protected my family with life insurance--but any time now that policy will lapse. Writers aren’t paid like actors, there was always enough but never the big killing. Thank God for residuals.”
To these writers, residuals--money earned from the airing of reruns--become a lifeline as careers sag. “That’s why we cheerfully go out on the picket line whenever the producers threaten to take them away,” Mitchell said.
Many writers are turning elsewhere for creative outlets--and income. Mitchell--who has written for such shows as “Mary Tyler Moore,” “The Odd Couple,” “Get Smart” and “Mork & Mindy” --teaches at UCLA and recently got his real estate license, though showing houses is not his idea of a creative challenge.
“I would just like to be working more,” said Mitchell, who left his job as a jazz musician to come to Hollywood as a young man. “I’m not bitter, just disappointed. I’m too young to be sitting and feeding the pigeons. The irony of it is that I’m better at what I do than I was 25 years ago.”
That’s the irony for Brooks as well. “The only thing that’s changed is that I’ve gotten better. I’m harder on myself.” Now Brooks has turned her attention to the stage. “I’m unhappy I don’t have a choice,” she added. “For a long time I thought I was safe until I was 65.”
Carlson has moved into animation, which doesn’t pay as well as TV writing. He finds irony in the fact that he can get jobs writing for young children, but not young people. “I don’t agree that you lose your edge” with age, Carlson said. “That seems to be conventional wisdom. But if you think funny, you think funny. And with drama, you only get better.”
Like many writers, Prelutsky takes a philosophical view of Hollywood’s infatuation with youth. “You’ve profited because of the same set of circumstances,” he said, referring to writers who enjoyed fast money and success in their youth. “But now you no longer profit.”
No one expects the value of older writers to rise significantly in the near future. Obstacles remain, even if--in their desperation--Hollywood’s studios and networks become more daring in their efforts to find shows and movies that will connect with mass audiences. The graying of the baby boom generation has prompted the studios to turn to more mature themes. But executives also are acutely aware that, as they get older, even baby boomers go to the movies less often. So the youth audience remains uppermost in the minds of executives.
“It’s not easy for them,” Preferred Artists television agent Michele Wallerstein says of older writers. “And it probably should be (given their tenure). But it’s not an easy world, and it’s becoming harder, so they have to try harder. I’ve always found that talent wins out.”
Maybe. But in the meantime, some older writers have turned to using their creative talents in searching for work. One writer dragged along his son-in-law to a pitch session, introducing him as his “partner.” The young network executive behind the desk spent the entire meeting talking to the son-in-law, who was not even a writer.
He was a dentist.
THE FLIP SIDE OF THE GENERATION GAP
“The bulk of the sitcom audience is younger and there’s a perception that young writers are better tuned into that sensibility. That’s just a cold, hard business fact.” --A situation comedy producer
“These older guys begin to price themselves out of the market. I can hire 10 25-year-olds for one Alvin Sargent.” --A Hollywood producer
“Some (older) writers seem to think if they write about their experiences, it’s something everyone wants to buy. But times change and you have to grow with change or change grows away from you.” --A Hollywood producer
“People in this business tend to do business with their peers and the networks have had younger people in these jobs.” --A former TV series producer
“Sid Caesar? I’m not familiar with his work. Would you send over a tape?” --A young TV executive