Television's Older Actors: Still Working and at the Top of Their Game

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Gerald McRaney.

Laura Innis and James McDaniel – two younger boomers whose respective characters, Dr. Kerry Weaver from "ER" and Lt. Arthur Fancy from "NYPD Blue," became household names – are also on tap this fall. Innis appears in NBC's "The Event," premiering today; McDaniel does his turn in ABC's "Detroit 1-8-7," premiering Tuesday.

Phyllis Somerville, a veteran actor over 65 who's perhaps best known for playing the mother of a pedophile in the film "Little Children," is now appearing as a first-time series' regular in Showtime's "The Big C." As Cathy Jamison's (Laura Linney) crusty neighbor, Somerville plays the character Marlene as a perceptive but short-tempered widow and isolationist.

"I think it's terrific that older actors are not just working but getting very visible roles," said Somerville. "It's as though all of a sudden people realize there are grandmothers in the world and that maybe viewers would want to see them."

Somerville concedes it may be easier for character actresses to transition from younger to older roles than it is for ingenues. "We never were the gals who got the guys, anyway," she said. "We're here because we stayed in the business."

Phyllis Somerville.

"Actors who continue their craft while ageing provide authenticity for the viewer," said Dr. Marion Somers, a Los Angeles gerontologist and elder care expert. "Older actors who play characters of similar age can use a skill set that allows them to walk or talk the way an older person would. There's a certain audience expectation that the actors' behavior will be age-appropriate."

Perhaps the one exception to this general "age-appropriate" rule is the hyper-nimble and ultra-youthful Betty White. Approaching 90, she stars in TV Land's "Hot in Cleveland."

"Even my college students are aware of the Betty White phenomenon," said Thompson.

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