Hollywood's 'Grays' Defy Culture Fixated on Youth

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They call themselves the "grays." And in every niche of an industry that trades on youth, they are there, surviving.

There's the oldest working grip in Hollywood, who at 77 still gets fired up about cracking open his 1,000-pound tool chest. And the 92-year-old animator pitching a story about Bitsy the elephant to a room full of suits at Walt Disney Studios. And the 78-year-old extra who lands jobs playing bag ladies, her silver hair and wrinkles key assets.

"They need my looks, honey," she bragged.

Hollywood is young and these people are old. Hollywood is hip and these people aren't.

No one knows for sure how many older people are employed in the entertainment business. But the Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan, which covers 40,000 trade workers, counts only 53 people in its ranks age 70 or older who are still working.

Talk to the grays, and you learn their secrets for survival. One trick is to lop older movie credits off a resume to conceal age.

"If they see you've worked on the original 'Planet of the Apes,' " said 64-year-old makeup man Larry Abbott, "you're history."

Another strategy is to work from home, avoiding sets dominated by young people and the unmistakable, awkward feeling of being a grandpa or a grandma at a teenage pot party, as one gray put it.

Some of the veterans have survived through sheer grit. Some have reinvented themselves. And many, having made it this far, say they'll never quit.

As Carol Mendelsohn said of her husband, a 73-year-old screenwriter who used to hang out in pizza parlors trying to pick up teenage lingo: "Jack will work until the final fade-out."

'A Distinguished Gentleman'

Larry Abbott may have the most perfectly combed crest of silver hair in Hollywood. His nails are filed into smooth half moons. His shave is close, his glasses Armani. For a recent job he showed up in a double-breasted tux.

The way Abbott sees it, one way a makeup man can instantly reassure jittery talent that they are in good hands is to embody a sense of style. A few years back, Abbott decided he needed a new one. So he said goodbye to his long wavy hair, mothballed the Hawaiian shirts and went for a look more dapper, more stately. The transformation, he explained, was his way of turning his advancing years to his advantage.

"What do you see when you look at me now?" he asked. "A distinguished gentleman."

Abbott has held some of the most famous faces in the world between his hands. Liz Taylor. Elvis. The last six presidents.

"Nixon--man, that guy was a class act," he said. "Smart, charming, engaged."

But he isn't always eager to place himself with historical figures. Sometimes, while chatting up an actor in his dressing room chair, Abbott will mention that he was in the Army, but never will he volunteer that he served in Korea, right after the war.

"Things like that date you," he said. "Look around--this is a young business."

The irony, though, is that in a talent-based craft such as makeup, age can be an advantage, whether it's recognized or not.

"I was 58 before I really knew what I was doing," he said.

A few months back, Abbott, 64, got a full dose of the young and the restless. He was head makeup man at the annual Soap Opera Digest awards banquet at the Hollywood Palladium. Many of the stars were in their teens--apple-cheeked and wide-eyed, the women clad in revealing attire. They looked like kids squeezed into freshly minted adult bodies.

Strutting backstage with a tackle box of makeup swinging from his fist, Abbott came across as a real pro. And he's paid like one, between $750 and $1,250 per day.

"How can I help you, ma'am?" he said to one woman who plopped down in his chair backstage with a blouse as wide open as the Serengeti.

"Just a touch-up," she said, and minutes later her cheeks radiated in a new shade of pink.

Next came Lynn Leahey, the editor of Soap Opera Digest, a stunning woman who needs a coat of makeup about as much as a showroom car needs a wash. She remembered Abbott from last year and the year before that.

"Make me beautiful, Larry," she said.

He started by spreading a tan cream on her neck. Then, with a hand as steady as a surgeon's, he dripped mascara on her eyelashes. His coup de grace was reaching into his chest of makeup for a tube of lipstick, which he painted on stroke by loving stroke.

"Voila," he said when he was finished.

Leahey was beaming.

"You're the best," she said and blew him a kiss.

'Wasn't I a Dish?'

Judy Woodbury could watch this tape a hundred times. She probably has.

It's a movie called "Ladies of the Chorus," a black-and-white B picture shot in 1948 when Woodbury was 26.

As she fed the tape into a VCR and hopped up on her bed, a smile sneaked across her face.

"We're the ladies of the chorus, here to sing and dance for you," she sang along as the movie opened with a chorus line shot.

"There I am! That's me! Wasn't I a dish?" Woodbury asked, pointing to a young woman with thin limbs and generously cut curves.

She poked her finger at a shapely blond performing next to her. "And watch, watch her dance," she said. "Doesn't she look awkward?"

That awkward woman was Marilyn Monroe. And while Monroe went on to land a few roles, Woodbury remained an extra, for the next 52 years and counting.

Woodbury has always preferred to nibble on the crusts of fame, she says. She was a dinner guest in "Hello Dolly," a ballroom dame in "My Fair Lady" and, more recently, an elderly passenger on the short-lived TV revival of "The Love Boat."

At 78, she still finds bag ladies and drunks to be her favorite roles.

Money keeps her going, she said. Having grown accustomed to a Hollywood Hills standard of living, she needs the bit roles for rent, jewelry and lunches at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills.

But she couldn't imagine a better way of earning it.

"I'm my own commodity," she said. "They want my type."

These days her type is a short, spunky woman who looks a good 10 years younger than her age, with snow-colored hair pulled back in a headband and eyes that twinkle behind chablis-colored glasses.

"A lot of people probably don't get me," she said. "They look at me and think I'm a dumb gray-haired broad that isn't going to remember where to go."

But her age is exactly why she gets hired, she realizes.

"I'm on the set for a reason," she said. "Directors need me. They need my looks, honey. Gray, you see, is the color of beauty."

'I'd Grip for Free'

Papa has a problem. He's addicted to gripping. Five times he has tried to retire. Five times he has come back.

"Don't read much and fishing's too slow," he said.

He feels best with a hammer swinging from his thick hands and his nostrils filled with the smell of sawdust and sweat.

"I like gripping," he said recently on the job at Warner Bros. in Burbank. "I love work." Pete ("they call me Papa") Papanickolas is the oldest working grip in Hollywood, according to the Motion Picture Grips Union. He's never been sure if he's called Papa because he looks a little like Hemingway or because his last name is a mouthful.

Born in Pittsburgh 77 years ago, Papa has had one of those lives that arcs across a good chunk of time and space. He jumped out of planes and fought Nazis in France, tried his hand as a short-order cook after the war and drove cross country as a flimflam man hustling phony watches and quick-to-tarnish rings on the side of the road. He arrived in Hollywood in 1955. His first job was digging holes at Walt Disney Studios.

Grips come in all stripes. They perform manual labor on a set, banging together walls, pushing cameras, hanging foam boards around lights. When Papa started as a lighting grip, making $2.75 an hour (he now makes $40), the rules in many areas were a lot looser.

Guys tucked flasks of Wild Turkey in their back pockets and nipped away during productions. Once, Papa saw a man tumble off a 60-foot scaffold and die on the floor.

Over the years, he has worked on hundreds of projects, including classics such as "Porgy and Bess" and "How the West Was Won." More recently, he's been doing television work.

There's really no such thing as seniority anymore at the union: The grip with the most contacts gets the most calls. As Papa began to push into middle age, his list of contacts continued to grow. He was constantly getting offers for steady work, and turning down jobs was not his nature.

"My dad, a Greek immigrant, retired at 65 and regretted it till the day he died," Papa said.

A few years back, Papa told everyone he was hanging up his hammers. Then he got a call to grip one last goofy pilot that nobody thought was going to sell. The show ended up running nine years. It was called "Seinfeld."

Papa insists he isn't star-struck, but says, "Who minds working when it's something like that?"

And because he's logged so many years, Papa is now a key grip. It's higher on the union scale of wages and typically involves more pointing than lifting--perfect for a guy whose knees and back are nearly shot.

But "sometimes a producer will ask us, 'Hey, who's that old man up on the ladder?' " said Ellis James, a solidly built member of Papa's crew.

On a recent day, someone had forgotten Papa's prized 1,000-pound tool box at Universal Studios. There was much arguing and finger jabbing before one of the other grips grunted, "Fine, Papa, fine," and strode away in pounding steps.

"Get back here by lunch!" Papa yelled to the man. "And no more sneaking onto the set of 'ER' for free burritos!"

Two hours later, a pickup squealed to a stop. Papa's eyes glowed. He and the other grips hustled over to the loading dock. The tool box had arrived.

Two grips scampered into the truck bed and braced their shoulders behind the dented chest of red metal drawers and pushed as if they were launching a bobsled.

And as he stood on the loading dock, his thick hands hanging at his sides like oven mitts, watching the enormous tool box being rolled ashore, it was clear that Papa wasn't quitting any time soon. "I'd grip for free," he said.

'Every Show Has Its Gray'

Jack Mendelsohn was in his mid-60s when he began lingering around pizza parlors. His mission: to soak up teen lingo. The reason: he had been approached to write "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," a cartoon for kids, and he had absolutely no clue how surfer dudes talked.

"There aren't many people my age who would say 'totally gnarly, dude,' " he said.

But Mendelsohn, who years ago wrote jokes for Mad magazine and the late '60s TV hit "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," has an ear for language and a mischievous glint in his eyes. He landed the "Ninja Turtles" job, even persuaded the producers to go for more comedy and less combat, and went on to write 181 half-hour episodes.

"That's a lot of pizza," said his wife, Carol.

Mendelsohn is one of the most seasoned vets of TV writing still actively working. A burly man with a jolting handshake, he's been writing for TV shows since 1964, when Joe Barbera flew him to Hollywood to develop a cartoon called "The Impossibles." His credits stretch from the Beatles movie "Yellow Submarine" through the sitcom "Three's Company" to computer-generated cartoon shows currently in production.

Hollywood is notorious for relying almost exclusively on young writers. But Mendelsohn hasn't let that discourage him.

"I have a lot of hits behind me," he said. "And producers know I'll deliver, on whatever type of show they give me, because I've done it countless times before."

Like a lot of older people still working in Hollywood, Mendelsohn has few hobbies outside his work. His job is his passion and his wife is his business partner. The two live in Palm Springs, spending their days in a comfy townhouse with orange trees out front, writing and rewriting TV scripts, mailing out "poop sheets"--background material--to other scribes and shipping finished product to the studios over the Internet.

In this arms-length business environment, Mendelsohn rarely confronts age discrimination. Some writers have reportedly sent their children to studios to pitch scripts because industry execs are thought to be age-averse. But Mendelsohn is well-enough established to work from home. A lot of people who work with him have no idea that they're teamed up with a "gray."

And that's a good thing, Mendelsohn said. A few years back, he was working as a writer/producer on the set of a pilot for the Fox Broadcasting Co. There were some references to a hippopotamus in the show, and one of the producers told Mendelsohn to slip in some more jokes about hippo bodily functions.

"It was then," Mendelsohn said with a sardonic raising of his eyebrows, "that I realized I was perceived as 'out of touch.' "

He feels that way often when he's backstage. The joking and flirting dry up right in front of him. The younger folks leave the room.

"It makes me feel like a grandpa at a pot party, because I know they don't want to be hanging out with some 73-year-old guy," he said. "The way I see it, every show has its gray. They keep us around to make themselves feel younger, even if we're not really doing anything."

'A Pretty Full Life'

Hollywood has been kind to Robert Wise. Just look around his condo.

His living room, 23 floors up in a Century City high-rise, houses an impressive art collection: huge stone pieces, mysterious modern paintings and fragile knickknacks from civilizations long gone. His study is crammed with pictures of stars, original movie posters and four Oscars. His desk drawers are stuffed with royalty check receipts that fall like junk mail on his doorstep.

Wise has directed 40 films, winning two Oscars each for "The Sound of Music" and "West Side Story." For a man who grew up the son of a meatpacker in a small Indiana town, he has achieved just about all you can in the movie business.

And at 85 he's still working. His celebrity status has not tarnished, and in Hollywood, if someone like him wants work, there's plenty of it.

"Robert Wise is a name that still carries panache, that instantly gives a film a sense of importance," said Renee Valente, executive producer of Wise's most recent project, "A Storm in Summer."

In February, Showtime aired the made-for-TV movie, which Wise shot in Vancouver, Canada. He was attracted to the project because it starred Peter Falk, "a top-notch talent," Wise said.

And though Wise was a little rusty at deploying people around a movie set--he hadn't sat in a director's chair for 10 years--his age didn't slow him down, he said.

"I may be the oldest active director," he said in a voice made quiet by age. "But directing is like riding a bicycle. You don't forget how to do it, no matter how old you are."

Yes, Valente acknowledged, she had given some thought to Wise's station in life. But the producer, who's 61 and moves in the same social circles as Wise, knew he was healthy and still completely with it.

"He did great. Everybody was so happy to be on the set with him," Valente said. "And what makes so many people assume that someone past 60 can't think anymore?"

Having spent most of his life at the glowing center of Hollywood, Wise is now not quite sure what to do.

"I'm 85 and it seems like I've had a pretty full life. But," he said, with a thin smile, "if someone sent me a script I liked, well, maybe I'd want to get involved again."

'He Who Laughs . . . Lasts'

It was the day before the big pitch and Joe Grant was taking his afternoon constitutional with longtime colleague Burny Mattinson. The two silver-heads bobbed down Mickey Mouse Lane while kids in spiked hair whizzed past on messenger bikes.

Grant, a veteran animator at Walt Disney Studios, had devoted months to Bitsy, a story about an elephant who leaves India to try to make it in Hollywood and ends up working in a used-car lot and falling in love. He and Mattinson wrote the first act in a few dozen cels on a story board. But before they could go any further, they had to win approval from studio bosses.

"You work the boards, I handle the jokes, 'kay?" Grant said to Mattinson during the walk.

At 92, Grant is one of the few official "Disney Legends" not only alive but still drawing a paycheck. His handprints are entombed in a wall-of-fame courtyard on the Disney campus, "as if I'm dead or something," he joked.

In a company that deeply values, even lionizes, its history and any connection with its founder, Grant occupies a special place.

"Joe walks around like God around here," said Roy Disney, Walt's nephew and vice chairman of Walt Disney Co. "He goes clear back to the original 'Fantasia' and 'Snow White.' [Grant drew the witch.] There's a huge respect for the people who made those films.

"The other animators are delighted just to have him in the room," Disney added. "And that's the thing about Joe: He's not just an old guy who's been around. He's still very good at what he does."

And he's busy. He drew the cricket character in "Mulan" and did work on "Fantasia 2000." But because much of his work is top secret, he's not allowed to have visitors to his office in the feature animation building. Even so, a trip to the studio attic in his Glendale home gives a peek inside his mind.

Beneath the attic's huge windows, cupboards sag with experimental dinner plates he decorated with cartoons. There are greeting cards he designed in the '50s and hand-drawn frames of "Lady and the Tramp," the Disney classic that Grant and his wife, Jenny, dreamed up in 1939. She died eight years ago.

On a tabletop sits a storyboard for Lorenzo the Magnificent, a new idea he's been developing about a cat with a wondrous tail. Little handwritten sayings are tacked on the walls: "Life without industry is guilt," "He who laughs . . . lasts."

Behind all the playfulness, though, is a vulnerable old man who aches to tell love stories. He just happens to do it with animals.

And even after years of pitching ideas and getting turned down, it's still hard for him to watch his characters die. Sometimes they wither away in the sun-flooded attic. Other times executives kill them.

Bitsy was the latest victim. On the recent pitch day, the suits sat as stone-faced as gargoyles as Grant told jokes and Mattinson worked the boards, with flourish, but with no more effect than a fishing lure that had lost its shine. At the end of the 20-minute meeting, one of the executives suggested that if Bitsy were to work at all, it would be better as a live-action movie, not an animated feature.

Grant was furious.

"Walt would have backed it immediately, no question," he vented on the phone the next day.

Frustrations like these sometimes trigger the unsettling realization that he's in the sunset of his life, that so much is behind him and only a thinning sliver lies ahead.

"Sometimes, I can hear this little voice saying there's so much more that I want to do," Grant said. "When I hear that, I have to tell myself, 'Shut up, Joe, let it go.' "

But that little voice doesn't always listen. Although he's lived a long, rich, creative life, he still wants more.

"No matter how old you get or how much you've tried to accomplish," he said, "you never stop wishing you were immortal."

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