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Actors who were embarrassingly too old for the role
April 28, 2018
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Every actor has their time. No matter how brightly they burned during their lifetimes, each star will one day get that awkward call when their agent says “Sorry, famous human, but you’re simply too darn old, or too darn bald (or, in the case of present-day Billy Zane, too darn old
and bald) to play a believable third grader these days.” Just ask any forgotten heartthrob of yesteryear, or any female actor who made the foolish career decision to continue aging past 35. Hollywood’s a tough, tough industry for the non-eternally-youthful and/or the follically challenged.
At least, that’s usually the case. But sometimes, an actor comes along who is so well known, so in demand, or just so in possession of a good agent, that they continue to play the young buck even when their prime is just a distant speck in the rearview mirror. While such roles are probably good for the actors’ wallets, they’re less good for audiences who don’t want to spend the entire movie cringing in embarrassment.
Steve McQueen’s 27-year-old teenager (The Blob)
1958 sci-fi horror The Blob posed an important philosophical question: What if a giant red blob invaded Earth, and the only thing that could stop it was Steve McQueen with a fire extinguisher? An innovative B-movie, The Blob stood out from the pack of other 1950s alien invader films by showing a monster that, for once, wasn’t just some hopeless extra in a hopeless rubber mask. But it wasn’t just innovative in its monster choices. Its casting was also notably offbeat. When tasked with picking the actor who would play teenager Steve Andrews, the producers plumped for 27-year-old Steve McQueen (via Den of Geek ).
At the time, Steve McQueen wasn’t yet a Hollywood legend, so you might be thinking this was a young, fresh-faced Steve McQueen who could convincingly look 18. Not so. Take a peek at The Blob’s trailer, and it’s clear you’re watching Mr. The Great Escape himself smoldering his way through a film he’s clearly too old for. Pre-fame Steve McQueen has the same intense gaze, same powerful square jaw, and same manly sex appeal as post-fame Steve McQueen, which is roughly a billion times more manly sex appeal than any actual 18-year-old living in 1950s Pittsburgh. As such, it can feel like you’re watching two movies at once. One is about a rampaging killer blob, and the other is about a fully grown man trying to sneak undetected into a local high school. Hard to say which is creepier.
Colin Farrell’s Alexander is the same age as his mother (Alexander)
Alexander the Great was just 16 when he claimed his first major military victory, and barely 20 when he took the throne and embarked on his campaigns of conquest (via History). That’s young, but probably not young enough to cast a 29-year-old actor as Alexander’s mother in the biopic of his life. Yet that’s exactly what Oliver Stone did in 2004 when he handed the role of Olympias to Angelina Jolie. This might have just about worked if he had then cast a charismatic 18-year-old as Alexander, but that’s not what he did. He cast Colin Farrell, then 28.
Yup. Alexander was played by a guy one year younger than the woman playing his mother.
As this old review attests, even back in the heady days of 2004, people thought this was some screwy casting. While Farrell was certainly young looking, he wasn’t as youthful as all that, and Jolie was hardly a shriveled old crone. (In his review, Roger Ebert complained she seemed too “young and sexy” for Olympias.) Had they been brother and sister, or even nephew and aunt, it could have worked. As son and mother, though, they were as believable as any 28-year-old man posing as a 29-year-old woman’s son can be (in other words, not at all). Luckily for Oliver Stone, his film was such a gripping masterpiece that no one questioned the casting … heh, no, it was awful.
Charles Bronson’s geriatric vigilante (Death Wish V)
Do you sometimes feel like action heroes are getting older? You’re lucky you weren’t binge-watching revenge flicks in the early 1990s. That was the era when Charles Bronson was slogging his way through the back end of the ultra-violent Death Wish catalog, still gunning down street trash and routinely seeing his loved ones murdered even as the social paranoia of the ’70s gave way to the techno-phobia of the ’90s. When the first
Death Wish hit theaters in 1974, Bronson was already past 50. By the time he filmed the ambiguously titled
Death Wish V: The Face of Death , he was a geriatric 72 years old.
Look, nobody supports ageism, but there has to be a point where you hang up your oversized gun and accept that it’s time for a younger vigilante to start doling out justice. Death Wish just about worked as the story of a liberal, pacifist architect who discovers, late in life, the simple joys of vigilante killing. The first couple sequels just about worked as shameless cash grabs. By the time
Death Wish V lurched onto screens, absolutely nothing worked at all.
AV Club’s retrospective notes that paunchy old Bronson is “scarcely credible as a remorseless angel of death.”
Variety stuck the knife in further in its original review by stating Bronson looked “mighty tired.” If Bronson read these reviews, they didn’t deter him. The veteran actor was still trying to play a badass at 77 in Family of Cops 3 .
Shirley Henderson’s 36-year-old teenager (Harry Potter)
Don’t recognize the name Shirley Henderson? You’ll still know her most famous role. In the Harry Potter series, Henderson played Moaning Myrtle, the dead Hogwarts student who haunts the girls’ toilet and occasionally helps the boy wizard in his adventures. In the books, Myrtle is supposed to be 14, but the film adaptations left her age ambiguous. That’s probably for the best. At the time Henderson was cast in 2002’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, she was 36.
Weird as this casting decision was, it’s the implications that make it truly creepy. From the moment we first meet her, Myrtle has a thing for Harry. The whole “dead girl who has been conscious for the last 60-plus years flirts with a live boy whose parents weren’t even born when she died” thing would be strange enough even if Myrtle was played by an actual 14-year-old. But when she’s played by a fully grown woman and Harry is played by a Daniel Radcliffe still waiting for puberty’s crushing wave to sweep him away, it gets more than a little icky. “More than a little” in this case means “like watching elderly James Mason creep over teenagers in
Lolita.”
Henderson has her own theory as to why she was cast. Talking to The Telegraph , she said of Myrtle, “She’s a multifaceted character; lots of mood swings and simmering emotions. Maybe that’s why they chose an adult rather than an actual 14-year-old.”
Roger Moore’s aging James Bond (A View to a Kill)
Forget Daniel Craig, Roger Moore is James Bond . The suave Englishman played 007 for an incredible seven films, beating out even original Bond Sean Connery in the longevity stakes. Unfortunately movies, especially big, wacky movies like Bond flicks, take many, many years to produce. By the time Moore picked up his license to kill for the seventh time, 12 years had elapsed since his introduction in Live and Let Die. In the interim, his Bond had morphed from “plausible older gentleman spy” to “your dad suffering a midlife crisis” (via Den of Geek).
The problem goes beyond merely seeing a Bond pushing 60 still doing stuff like dangling from a helicopter and fighting atop the Golden Gate Bridge. The James Bond formula requires its lead to be dashing and heroic, but also to flirt with and seduce impossibly nubile young women. That can be off-putting even when Bond is the same age as his co-stars. When Bond is old enough to be not just their dad, but their dad’s older brother, it veers into territory that’s somewhere between sad and creepy.
Still, to his credit, Moore apparently only took the part in
A View to a Kill to help publicize his charity work with UNICEF. That certainly makes the whole venture seem less depressing.
Alan Ruck’s 29-year-old teenager (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Movies are a weird business. In 1996, Alan Ruck was playing Stuart Bondek on Spin City , a middle-aged professional guy working in the New York mayor’s office. Just a decade earlier, in 1986, he’d been playing neurotic teenager Cameron Frye in the classic John Hughes teen flick Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Clearly there’s a bigger time difference between high school kid and middle-aged man than just 10 years, so he must’ve been miscast for one of those roles. Since you’ve read this far, you can probably guess which one it was.
As a profile in his local paper reveals, Ruck was 29 when he was cast as Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, an age which, to the average high schooler, appears so old it’s basically time to cash your pension. It could have been even worse. According to The Telegraph, John Candy, then 36, auditioned to play Cameron. If an unknown, fresh-faced Ruck was still old enough to seem miscast, image what an in-his-prime 30-something John Candy would have seemed like. For a quick comparison, the now-disgraced actor who played Principal Rooney was only four years older than Candy.
Luckily, this was one case where the movie was so good that nobody seemed to care Ruck was way older than Cameron should have been. It probably helped that Matthew Broderick, at 23, was also really too old to play Ferris.
William Shatner’s geriatric Captain Kirk (Star Trek V)
Captain Kirk has a lot in common with James Bond. They’re both daring action heroes, they both star in unending franchises, and they both always get the girl. But while James Bond handed the mantle over to another actor only a decade after his series began, Captain Kirk kept William Shatner firmly in the role until Chris Pine finally wrestled it from him in 2009. That’s a span of 43 years. By the time the original series and four films had elapsed, Kirk had gone from “young William Shatner hiding his paunch” to “old William Shatner incapable of hiding his rampaging dad-gut.” Which brings us to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. As EW’s retrospective notes, it’s basically a film about a bunch of old men trying to pretend aging doesn’t happen.
Star Trek V isn’t the last film to star Shatner as Kirk. But
Star Trek VI is a somber film about a dying empire that thematically works with an older cast, and Star Trek: Generations tackled the idea of an aging Kirk head on (before — spoiler alert! — killing him in the least satisfying manner imaginable). Star Trek V was the last film in which Shatner and the gang tried to relive the glory days of the series, complete with dramatic stunts, fistfights, and, umm, Uhura doing a comedy striptease. The results can quickly be summed up with the simple double negative: “not unembarrassing.”
Jimmy Stewart’s 47-year-old 25-year-old (The Spirit of St. Louis)
When the subject of your biopic is a Nazi-sympathizing anti-Semite , it probably helps the box office to cast a likable actor in the role. In 1956, there was no actor in the whole of America as likable as Jimmy Stewart. The movie star turned war hero was the nation’s older brother, the sort of twinkly-eyed charmer who could take a guy obsessed with racial purity (as Charles Lindbergh pretty much was) and turn him into an everyman hero. So there are plenty of good reasons why Billy Wilder might have wanted to cast Stewart in his film The Spirit of St. Louis, about Charles Lindbergh and his transatlantic flight. There’s also a very good reason why Stewart shouldn’t have taken the role, even aside from the whole Nazi-sympathizing thing. He was nearly twice as old as Lindbergh was on his historical flight.
Film blog Movie Mania Madness does a good job of summing up the weirdness of seeing a man about to enter his fifth decade playing someone barely out of college. Although Stewart always had a boyish charm that made him seem younger than his years, no amount of makeup could reverse over two decades of serious living and onscreen pouting. To be fair to Wilder, he didn’t even try. He just had his prop department stick Stewart in a ridiculous blond wig and called it quits, which may be why the age lines on Stewart’s face look like canyons in closeups.
Whoopi Goldberg’s 29-year-old teenager (The Color Purple)
Without the role of Celie in The Color Purple , we wouldn’t have Whoopi Goldberg. The part of a strong-willed, abused black woman growing up in the Deep South won Goldberg a Golden Globe, and proved that pre- Schindler’s List Steven Spielberg was capable of helming films not involving giant sharks, adorable aliens, or wisecracking archaeologists. To call The Color Purple a success would be an understatement, but there was one section where the realism Spielberg and Goldberg were striving for kinda broke down. When she filmed the early scenes featuring Celie as a 14-year-old, Goldberg was nearly 30 (via Biography ).
The Color Purple is a movie that takes place over decades and decades. While Spielberg could have cast a different actress to play young Celie, he evidently decided to keep Goldberg’s performance intact for the entire film. As a result, you have a fully grown woman trying to convince the audience that she’s barely reached puberty, a trick Goldberg pulls off better than you’re probably expecting, but also nowhere near well enough to make viewers forget the chasm of empty years stretching between actress and character.
Incidentally, this Hollywood habit of casting adults as teenagers is something that’s been bugging teen psychologists for years. Speaking to Teen Vogue, Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., said the sight of movie teens with grown-up bodies can increase insecurities in actual teenagers. Bad news for any teens into Whoopi Goldberg epics about race relations in America.
Adult Julie Harris as a 12-year-old tomboy (The Member of the Wedding)
Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding is a touching novel about a 12-year-old girl’s dreams being slowly crushed by the suffocating inanity of the adult world. Fred Zinnemann’s movie adaptation of the same name is a bizarro nightmare about an adult woman trying to pass herself off to an unobservant family as their prepubescent daughter. Played by 24-year-old Academy Award-nominated actress Julie Harris, the character Frankie Adams looks less like an actual 12-year-old and more like a woman responding to a quarter-life crisis by trying to relive her glory days as a wayward tween (via The Guardian).
Harris was offered the part due to her work in the role on Broadway, for which she’d won the kind of praise most 20-something actors would kill for. But it’s one thing for a grown woman to play a child’s role in the theater, where suspension of disbelief is part and parcel of the whole package. It’s another for her to play that same role on camera, where audiences are used to seeing children played by actual children (at least, if they’ve been watching films not featured in this article). Seeing everyone react to a grown woman with, not to put too fine a point on it, a grown woman’s body as if she’s barely out of elementary school ticks so many “creepy” boxes you could probably reboot it as a horror franchise.
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Grunge Staff
We’re all guilty of making split-second decisions that we later come to regret. When you’re in the business of show, those moments can be potentially career-ending. Scandal is nothing new in Hollywood, but if you’re an actor and your private transgressions happen to go public, you better be prepared to look for a new line of work. While some disgraced stars manage to claw their way back into the limelight from seemingly impossible positions, for most, retiring from the public eye with whatever dignity remains intact is the only optio
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