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

Video: William Shatner stars in a new sitcom.
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They're baaaack!

Despite Hollywood's general habit of putting older actors out to pasture, the new crop of fall television shows this season features some of television's biggest icons.

They read like a Who's Who of the small screen, in some cases going back decades

William Shatner, who'll be 80 next year, returns to television this Thursday in the CBS series "S#*! My Dad Says" – informally known as "Bleep My Dad Says."

The show is based on the bestselling book and Twitter feed created by Justin Halpern. Shatner plays the feisty over-the-top older guy – a much older guy – with a saber-edged tongue.

This summer, NBC's popcornbiz blog reported that Shatner was Justin Halpern's first choice to play his father, a retired doctor in his seventies. The site also noted the younger Halpern had felt Shatner "hit the role 'out of the park' during the taping of the pilot, and that Halpern senior, commenting on the pilot's filming, felt that Shatner "was way into it."

William Shatner.

Shatner's credits speak volumes. Starting in 1966, he fueled Trekkie mania when he played Captain James T. Kirk on "Star Trek," and in subsequent "Star Trek" feature films. He returned to the small screen in the title role of "T. J. Hooker" in 1982. Featured roles – and Emmys – followed with "The Practice" and "Boston Legal."

Who exactly follows the career of a soon-to-be octogenarian?

A lot of people of a certain age are avid fans. "It's about the nostalgia," said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture and television at Syracuse University.

"Although there's a certain formula to creating television programs – family shows often need an old geezer – network television realizes it has lost a lot of viewers to cable and Internet programming. Network big shots have figured out that viewers are older, certainly in their fifties. So the audience doesn't just see an older actor. What they see is William Shatner, who happens to be a senior."

Thompson also singles out Tom Selleck as a nostalgic television icon. "Face it, Selleck's now an older guy," he said.

Selleck is now one of the older guys reconnecting with his television roots.

Selleck, whose legacy goes back to the 1980s when he starred in "Magnum, P.I.," most recently starred in numerous television movies centered on the character Jesse Stone, and in the television series "Las Vegas." Now he plays Chief Frank Reagan on "Blue Bloods," a new CBS series, debuting this Friday, about a family of cops. Veteran 70-year-old actor Len Cariou – he played a Bernie Madoff-type criminal on last season's "Damages" – plays Selleck's character's father.

Plenty of other older actors are flooding the small screen this fall. Angelina Jolie's septuagenarian dad Jon Voight – best known for his movie roles ("Midnight Cowboy") but with a stint on "24" under his belt – appears on the new Fox drama "Lone Star."

Jon Voight.

Dabney Coleman – approaching 80, and with string of series like "Barnaby Jones," "Buffalo Bill," "The Guardian" and "Heartland" as credits – is one of the stars of HBO's highly anticipated prohibition-era drama "Boardwalk Empire."

Dabney Coleman.

Gerald McRaney – a young pup at 64 who's been seen most recently on "Jericho" and "Deadwood" – plays Carlton Shaw in NBC's "Undercovers," which premieres this Wednesday.

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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