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Getting paid to act her age: 97

Every couple of months my friend Mae Laborde checks in to let me know how her acting career is going. She’s in a tough racket, to say the least, but Mae is definitely a working actress, with a steady flow of jobs in commercials, TV shows and film. Not bad for someone who just broke into the business four years ago, at the age of 93.

“Listen to this, honey,” Mae said the other day on the phone. “I’ve just had a call to go to a studio near Hollywood. It’s for some kind of TV show, I think, and I didn’t even have to audition for this one. They just called and said I had the job. Not bad, huh?”

She’ll be A-list by the time she hits 100, I swear it.

I’d been telling Mae I wanted to see her in action, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. So I headed over to The Lot, the old Samuel Goldwyn Studio on Formosa Avenue, where “Some Like It Hot” and “West Side Story” were filmed.

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Mae, who lives in Santa Monica, was filling out her contract when I arrived at Stage 7. The job involved a promo for HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” and Mae said she wasn’t quite sure what “promo” meant.

It’s a commercial, I explained, asking if she’d ever heard of Bill Maher.

“Oh, yes,” she said, “back when he was on the regular channels.”

You mean ABC? I asked.

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Sounds right, said Mae, who was disappointed to hear the promo was for HBO.

“I don’t get cable, honey. It’s too expensive.”

Mae and I were neighbors years ago when I lived in Santa Monica. A widow, she was long retired from her jobs as a sales clerk at Henshey’s department store in Santa Monica and as a bookkeeper for “The Lawrence Welk Show.”

She used to barrel around the neighborhood in an Oldsmobile Delta 88, and at 4-foot-10, barely able to see over the dash, she looked like she was piloting a PT boat. I wrote a column four years ago about Mae’s skills behind the wheel, as well as her tea leaf parties and dancing exploits, and an agent called to sign her up.

“I have more fun representing her than any other client,” said Sherri Spillane. “If she doesn’t hear from me for a few days, she calls and says, ‘I haven’t heard from you, and I want to go out on another audition.’ ”

Alicia Alexander, the production manager on the Maher promo, was surprised to hear that Mae, now 97, only recently took up acting.

“We all just assumed she was old Hollywood,” said Alexander, who told me Mae arrived at Stage 7 and promptly announced that she doesn’t generally require much makeup and rarely needs wardrobe.

“My driver has a bag with my clothes,” Mae said, referring not to a limo driver, but to Pearl Soledad, Mae’s caretaker since she took a fall several months ago and had to give up driving.

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Alexander began sharing Mae’s story with other crew members.

“She started acting in her 90s, she’s been on ‘MADtv’ and Spike Feresten, she’s got her SAG card and her AFTRA card,” Alexander said, referring to the acting guilds. “I know people who would give their eyeteeth to get into SAG.”

Mae has taped five episodes of the Feresten show, a cable talk show that hasn’t hit the air yet. On “MADtv,” she played an elderly Vanna White. She’s also done “Blue Collar TV,” played a cheerleader on an ESPN awards show, just finished a Ben Stiller movie not yet released and made commercials for Sears, Lexus, Chase Bank and Tyco.

“When we did the Lexus commercial, someone on the set asked me what kind of transportation I used when I was young,” Mae said. “I told them my father had a horse and buggy.”

She wasn’t kidding.

“I just got another check in the mail for JP Morgan/Chase Bank,” Mae said, telling me that commercial work really helps out with the bills, because every time they run, she gets a little something in the mail.

Mae didn’t have to audition for the Bill Maher promo, because casting director Kirkland Moody, who went through dozens of photos of grandmotherly actresses, came across Mae and called off the search.

“Check out Mae!” he wrote in an e-mail to Alexander, the production manager.

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Sure enough, Mae’s head shot is a winner. She’s a central casting granny, with a smile that says she just crocheted a scarf and took some fresh Toll House cookies out of the oven.

On Stage 7, Mae watched other actors do their thing while awaiting her call. The Maher promo, scheduled to air next year, is a series of over-the-top skits on American politics and greed -- an Enron executive standing in a shower of money, an elephant wrestling a donkey, an elderly woman with no health insurance (that’s our gal Mae).

“This is more interesting than sitting at home,” Mae said as she watched the action, waiting for her moment in the lights.

Wardrobe artist Jane Mannfolk took Mae into the dressing room and returned with her in a cotton house dress and cardigan. “It’s so different when you deal with real people instead of celebrities,” Mannfolk said with a smile.

Yeah, but I noticed that Mae borrowed the arm of a crew member to help her move around the stage several times.

“Too drafty here,” she kept saying.

Can a personal trainer and private chef be far behind?

“Next up is the grim reaper and my little old lady in the wheelchair,” called a crewman.

In real life, Mae uses a cane, not a wheelchair, and she’d like to think the grim reaper won’t be visiting any time soon, but she said she’s not superstitious. She climbed into the chair and was wheeled across the stage to director Sammy Silver.

He thanked her for coming and explained that without speaking a word, she’d have to convey a range of emotions having to do with government skimping on elder care. She’d hoist a sign that said, “NO insurance!” and go from happiness and sunshine to being annoyed and disgusted.

In the next scene, Silver said, death would stalk her.

“You’re very grandmotherly, filled with contentment. And then you’ll be seeing the grim reaper putting a hand on your shoulder. I think you can have fun with it. You can play it any way you want.”

The stage was buzzing as Mae pulled off the first scene like a pro. It took several takes to get camera angles and frames just right, and during a break, Mae asked Silver why she hadn’t been asked to audition.

“We saw you and said, ‘She’s the one,’ ” Silver told Mae, who looked like she might be thinking about asking for a couple of points on the back end of the deal.

As they started up again, the grim reaper approached Mae and handed her a bouquet of flowers. She looked up and smiled as if he were a trusted friend, then grew puzzled and ultimately suspicious as he wheeled her away. Mae was so smooth, and slyly comical, she had the whole crew in stitches.

“Her timing is exquisite,” said Alexander. “It’s not like she just [mugs] the expression. She turns into it just right, so it looks real.”

After a clean final take and a “Cut” from the director, Mae interrupted the clatter of applause to ask Silver if that was OK.

“Yes,” said the director, who was beaming. “As a matter of fact, it’s really great.”

Ms. Laborde was then chauffeured home to her beach cottage, where the actress hoped to catch some beauty rest before Hollywood’s next call.

*

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at latimes.com/lopez.


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