My son wrote me an email in which he suggested I not call myself old, so I thought about some of the many men who produced significant work in my areas of interest when they were at least a decade older than me. Here are four of my favorites:
Burt always liked acting, and for a long time he did it for free. As young man he performed in local Gilbert and Sullivan shows in Pittsburgh, his hometown. He also acted a little on radio there, but for most of his adult life he sold cars. Then at the age of 67, he got his first role in a movie, a small part as an old man. Over the next 25 years Burt Mustin played hundreds of old men of every kind. He played feisty old men, feeble-minded ones, old men lost in nostalgia and old men chasing after younger women. He was the go-to guy if the description of the part in your TV show began “an old man, who…” He had parts on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Leave It to Beaver, Dragnet, The Andy Griffith Show, Petticoat Junction, My Three Sons, Bewitched, Adam-12, and All in the Family, to name a few.
Everyone in Hollywood knew his name, even if audiences didn’t, and he was well respected because he showed up prepared and made his co-workers (the stars) look good. He died of natural causes at the age of 92 soon after completing a recurring role on Phyllis, where he married “Mother Dexter”, played by Judith Lowry, an actress who specialized in playing old ladies.
Frankie’s mother was a dancer, and he danced from childhood on. He was an amazing dancer as a young man, one of the originators of an acrobatic style that came to be known as the Lindy Hop.
When he was 21, he invented an astounding over-the-back flip called an air step or “aerial”, for a dance contest at the Savoy Ballroom in 1935. He was in some movies and toured with swing dance troupes for about 20 years, but interest in the style fell out of fashion in the 1950s, so Frankie had a career with the U. S. Postal Service for the next three decades.
Long after most believed there was no general interest in swing dancing, a couple of young dancers approached Frankie and begged him to teach them the Lindy Hop. He was not easily persuaded, but at age 72 he could still do it! That’s how the revival in swing dance began, in 1986. At 75, he choreographed a Broadway show (Black and Blue) and won a Tony award. Beginning with his 80th birthday, he held annual “Frankie Fests”, where he would dance with a different woman for each year of his life.
He held workshops all over the world and taught the Lindy to thousands (including one of my teachers), who taught it to thousands more. Frankie taught and performed right up to his death at age 94.
3.) Luis Buñuel (1900-1983), Filmmaker & Critic
Don Luis had enormous impact on the history of cinema. He was a true original visionary, though his career took a long time to develop. As a young artist, he wrote film reviews and directed two influential Surrealist films, Un Chien Andalouand L’Âge d’Or, but Franco’s dictatorship in Spain was a condition he didn’t wish to live under. He spent 20 years in exile doing unimportant film-related work in Hollywood and New York. At age 50 he returned to directing in Mexico with one of the bleakest films ever made about the corrupting influence of poverty upon children, Los Olvidados (1950). Over the next 27 years, he made 26 more films of increasing power and dexterity. At age 77, he retired and wrote his autobiography.
His movies are unique, filled with ambiguities, irreverence and an uncompromising pessimism that manages to present itself with both a humorous and tragic tone, sometimes simultaneously. It’s a neat trick to be able to convey a love of humanity while still portraying it as doomed. When watching his films, I feel like I’ve awakened from a dream into a different world. They make me feel as if I am seeing the awfulness of life more honestly, which fills me with hope. This is a kind of absurd reaction I believe Don Luis would have enjoyed causing.
At first, William Robertson Davies wanted to act. He had a Bachelor’s in Literature, but he was in England performing small parts and doing bits of writing for the Old Vic, and he was in love with theater. One thing he learned was that all life is a play, with events that may unfold meaningfully over many decades. He wrote stories reflecting that truth. He got married and moved back to Canada and began writing and editing for small-town newspapers. During these jobs he began publishing plays and novels. His writing deepened and improved over time.
At the age of 47, Davies began teaching Literature at the University of Toronto. He continued writing increasingly extraordinary novels that broadened in scope and wisdom, both during his tenure as a professor and after his retirement.
“A fool-saint is somebody who seems to be full of holiness and loves everybody and does every good act he can, but because he’s a fool it all comes to nothing- to worse than nothing, because it is virtue tainted with madness, and you can’t tell where it’ll end up.”
– Fifth Business (1970)
The man simply never stopped expanding his facility as a storyteller. What was his secret? He took his own damn time doing it. In 1987, when he was 74 and still producing great work, he was asked if he couldn’t benefit by using a computer. This was his reply:
“I don’t want a word-processor. I process my own words. Helpful people assure me that a word-processor would save me a great deal of time. But I don’t want to save time. I want to write the best book I can, and I have whatever time it takes to make that attempt.”
Perhaps my son was right. Maybe my greatest contributions will still be up ahead. As they say in the tradition of Midwest Mysticism, “You never know.”