"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Ageism in Hollywood? by Dennis Palumbo

Hollywood on the Couch

There's an old joke about a man working in the circus, whose job it was to follow behind the elephants, sweeping up their droppings. When asked why he doesn't find some other line of work, he replies, "What, and leave show business?"

What makes the joke funny, of course, is the truth behind it. Creative and talented people, having once tasted the nectar of Hollywood success, find it almost impossible to quit the field, even when the odds are stacked against them.

And nothing stacks the odds higher than committing the one unpardonable sin in Hollywood---getting older. As the late, great TV writer Larry Gelbart once said, "The only way to beat ageism in Hollywood is to die young."

I ought to know. I deal with issues like ageism in the entertainment industry---not to mention depression, creative "blocks," relationship crises and dozens of other concerns---every day in my therapy practice.

Who am I? I'm a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles. And though I've retired from film and TV, I still do some writing---articles, reviews, and, most recently, a new series of mystery novels.

But my full-time day job is my therapy practice. Given my background, I suppose it's no surprise that my patients are primarily writers, actors, and directors in the entertainment industry. They range from the famous and successful to the unknown and struggling. And after over 23 years of doing therapy in Hollywood, I can state one thing with complete confidence:

Doing therapy is the same everywhere. Except here, where it's different.

Which, by way of example, brings me back to ageism.

At 63, my patient Walter (not his real name, of course) has been directing episodic television for most of his adult life---except for the past five years, during which, despite Herculean efforts to get work, he's been unemployed. He also got divorced and lost his house, and had to move to a condo in Burbank.

At a recent session, Walter announced more bad news.

"My agent finally dumped me," he said quietly, without rancor.

"I'm sorry, Walter. I know you've been his client a long time."

"Twenty-one years. Lasted longer than my marriage. And the sex was better..." He managed a rueful smile. "Hey, I can't blame him. He busted his ass for me. But let's face it, nobody wants to see a gray-haired old fart like me on the set. Everybody there looks like my grandchildren."

As is often the case with patients in his situation, we talked about options. Walter agreed that he could probably teach, but that even teaching jobs were getting scarce and the money wasn't very good.

But the money wasn't really what bothered him. Right now, at 63, he felt he was a better director than at any time in his life. He knew his craft, he understood actors, he could keep his head in a crisis. But it seemed clear that nobody wanted to see a face much over 40 or 45 nowadays.

"I might as well pack it in," he said gloomily. "My life in this town is over."
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"Your life isn't over, Walter." I said. "Neither is your career. Unless you're ready for it to be over."

"What does that mean?"

"It means you don't have to let other people decide what you can do. Or how to feel about what you can do."

"Hell, don't get all therapeutic on me now."

"I'm not. I'm being pragmatic. If you want to teach, go teach. But if you still love directing, go find something to direct. A play. A short film. You say you have a few bucks. Okay, then hire someone to write something. Or rent a small theater downtown and put something up on its feet."

"Forget it. I'm used to working for studios. Networks. Guys with parking spaces on the lot, who at least have to pay me for the privilege of pissing all over my work."

"And I know how much you'll miss that. But at least you'll be directing. If that's what you still want to do."

"Hell, it's what I am."

He sat back, stroking the edge of his trim, salt-and-pepper beard. Then he laughed. "Hey," he said, "remember that joke about the guy at the circus, cleaning up after the elephants?"

"One of my favorites."

"You think I'm that guy?"
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"Walter, I think we're all that guy. These are the lives we lead, the things we do. If it's who we really are, all we can do is keep doing it. As a colleague of mine said once, about trying to achieve in any profession: Keep giving them you, until you is what they want."

He paused. "You know, Alvin Sergeant is in his 70's or 80's, and he wrote those first Spider-Man movies. Huge hits. For years, David Chase couldn't get arrested, and then he creates The Sopranos. Hell, John Huston directed his last picture in a wheelchair, sitting next to an oxygen tank."

"All true."

"I mean, maybe I'm just kiddin' myself, but..." He nodded toward the door. "There's gotta be at least one more elephant out there, right?"

I smiled. "I've never known a circus without one."

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Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter) turned licensed psychotherapist and mystery author.

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