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Hollywood's Endangered Species

For years, "Lou Grant" television star Ed Asner has worked hard to stay in the business. And it keeps getting harder.

"With my gray and balding head, I don't work so much," the 72-year-old actor said. "If I didn't fight vigorously to produce or stick my nose into areas I have never worked in before, I would probably have to go. But I ain't going."

Asner is not alone. There are thousands of seasoned actors waiting to get the call to work. But it doesn't come.

Peter Mark Richman, who was a regular on "Dynasty" in the 1980s, said he and others like him are "an endangered species."

"I have lost nothing of my talent, only gained," said the 74-year-old Richman. "But the opportunities to work have become increasingly slim."

The problem is not just the lack of roles for older actors. All too often, they say, they are typecast.

During a recent joint legislative hearing that focused largely on the entertainment industry, Asner, Richman and other prominent older actors told lawmakers that the entertainment industry plays a large role in shaping the public's opinion about senior citizens. And if viewers judge by what they see on the screen, most seniors are decrepit, senile beings who can't take care of themselves, they said.

"They portray us ... five steps from the grave," said Marvin Kaplan, 74, who played Henry on the hit TV series "Alice" for eight years in the 1970s and '80s.

"It's a vicious slander and we don't deserve it," he said.

The actors suggested one way of breaking down the negative stereotypes would be to create more roles for older actors.

While Americans 50 and older comprise 25 percent of the population, those between the ages of 25 and 45 dominate prime-time television, with 64.6 percent of the roles, according to statistics compiled by the Screen Actors Guild. Characters 60 and older make up only 5.6 percent of the TV population.

Men under the age of 40 are 1.5 times more likely to appear in TV and film than men over 40. Women under 40 are almost three times as likely to be represented than women 40 and over, the guild reported.

Ironically, according to statistics, people over 55 watch more television than other adults and they prefer programs that feature lead characters in their own age group.

Network officials from NBC, ABC and CBS did not return Associated Press phone calls for comment.

The industry not only shuns older actors, but older writers as well. Writers in their 50s and 60s continue to lose ground when compared to younger talent.

According to a survey by the Writer's Guild of America, 60 percent of all writers on all primetime episodic television shows are under 40.

"It is common knowledge that some executive producers refuse to hire writers over the age of 40, on the mistaken assumption that older writers cannot write material for" the much-targeted 18-to-49-year-old demographic group, said Irma Kalish, member of the guild's board of directors.

Asner, a multiple Emmand Golden Globe winner, said age discrimination, while not new to Hollywood, has reached a "horrendous" level.

"When they resort to preventing directors, writers, actors from working because they're too old, this becomes a repressive society," he said.

Leaving older people out of films and TV shows also contributes to the "degradation of quality drama and comedy in our country," Asner said.

It deprives younger actors of the opportunity to work with and learn from seasoned professionals, the actors said.

What they would like to see, the actors said, is a landscape populated with more of what they call multigenerational shows like "Everybody Loves Raymond," "The West Wing" and "Law & Order."

And they would also like to keep working at the craft they love.

"I've had a successful career and I refuse to let myself think that it's over," Richman said. "But the industry keeps giving me unsubtle hints that it is."

© MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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