The Cruel Ageism Of COVID-19 Threatens To Temporarily Purge Older Actors From The Screen

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For years, TV networks faced criticism over their obsession with young viewers, which puts a premium on series with thirty- or forty-something leads. That obsession led to the demise of series like Harry’s Law, headlined by then-sixtysomething Kathy Bates, which was canceled by NBC despite being the network’s most watched drama series.

Gradually, with the rising importance of digital viewing where eyeballs are eyeballs, networks’ laser focus on adults 18-49 has been softening. And streaming platforms have started to specifically target older audiences with shows like Grace and Frankie.

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Now there is a new, unexpected force threatening to dramatically cut representation of people of a certain age onscreen: the coronavirus pandemic.

This week, Stockholm-based Hobby Film wrote a guide for allowing production to resume in Sweden and Denmark, the first two European counties planning to restart filming after the coronavirus-fueled shutdown.

“Anybody at increased risk of severe illness following infection (i.e., individuals belonging to a “high risk group”) should not be cast for any production until health authorities indicate risk of infection is negligible,” the guide says. “Although we do not want to discriminate on the basis of age — this will in effect mean that we cannot cast anyone above the age of 70.”

While the guidelines were issued by a private party, not a government institution, and the language is blunt, it puts a spotlight on the harsh reality currently faced by older actors and their employers.

Even with safety protocols in place, it may be impossible to make sets 100% corona-proof for people over 65, who have been hit particularly hard by the virus, until a vaccine is widely available.

While representing 16% of the U.S. population, people over 65 have accounted for a staggering 80% of the COVID-19 deaths so far, according to data by the CDC.There have been suggestions by health officials that vulnerable seniors could be asked to stay home until 2021.

One Day At a Time co-creator/executive producer Gloria Calderon Keller recently admitted that she and her team worry about having on set co-star Rita Moreno, 88, and executive producer Norman Lear, 97, “who are legends.”

Patrick Stewart, 79, is the show in Star Trek: Picard; all four main stars of Grace and Frankie, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, are in their late 70s-early 80s; Blue Bloods’ Tom Selleck, 75, is the heart of the show, and the family dinner his character hosts in each episode — impossible to pull off in the era of social distancing — is a staple on the CBS drama series. Christine Baranski, who is about to turn 68, is the leading force on The Good Fight, Mark Harmon, 68, has headlined NCIS since Day 1.

All these shows — and a slew of others — have to be rethought to protect their iconic performers who are in the high-risk category for serious COVID-19 complications. Whenever possible, storylines could be adjusted to have their characters isolated from the rest of the ensemble — reflecting real life — so they can film scenes from the safety of their homes, or their involvement could be temporarily scaled back in favor of other characters.

While special accommodations would likely be made for select few big stars of a certain age, the pandemic could cut short the careers of a slew of veteran character actors who have been steadily working in their 70s and 80s in supporting, recurring and guest-starring roles.

Liability and lack of coronavirus insurance coverage would likely force producers to refrain from casting older actors, and the performers themselves will likely be reluctant to risk their lives for a guest spot or two.

As a result, a whole generation could be virtually wiped out onscreen for the next year or two, limiting the stories about older Americans that shows can tell.

And as one David E. Kelley show, Doogie Howser, M.D. (co-created by the late Steven Bochco), about a 16-year-old medical prodigy, is making a comeback with a Disney+ reboot, we can only lament that series like Kelley’s Harry’s Law and Mr. Mercedes, built around older protagonists, would have even harder time making it to the screen in the foreseeable future.

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