On turning 67

Burt Prelutsky
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Posted: Feb 09, 2007 7:58 AM

As some of you may be aware, I am one of the 175 or so older writers involved in a class action lawsuit that accuses the movie studios, the TV networks and a number of Hollywood talent agencies, of engaging in the unlawful practice of ageism. The suit was first filed about eight years ago. As is typical in such cases, the lawyers for the defendants try to delay the proceedings by every means possible.

It’s been a while since I and my colleagues had to respond to the interrogatories, so I may not remember the questions in detail. But as I recall, they not only wanted to know about every sale I had ever made; every editor, producer and network executive, I’d ever met; every draft of every script I had ever written; but needed to know when my parents first met, the date on which I was potty-trained, and my dog’s middle name.

Of course, considering the nature of the suit, it only makes sense that opposing counsel would do all in their power to bury us in time-consuming paperwork. They’re figuring, no doubt, that eventually we’ll all be dead before a ruling can be handed down.

Some of you may be skeptical, and justifiably so. After all, you’re thinking, why should they be prejudiced against older writers? Especially when it comes to TV, where the pay scales are more or less standardized, and older, more experienced writers can be had for about the same price as younger writers, it would seem pointless. Yes, it would, were it not for demographics. However, sponsors want a young viewing audience, which naturally means the networks want a young viewing audience. Well, being simpleminded in the extreme, the way they went about trying to reach that target demographic was to hire younger and younger executives. They in turn turned to writers with whom they felt comfortable; namely, clodhoppers their own age. Then, as night must follow day, writers over 50, then 40, and finally 30, found it increasingly more difficult to get an agent. In my own case, when I turned 50, I was advised to take my M*A*S*H episodes off my resume because they dated me!

But my biggest shock had nothing to do with TV. Back around 2000, because I’d sold an article to a magazine, I decided to try to come up with an idea for a second piece. One day, while scanning the movie ads in the newspaper, I noticed that Elmer Bernstein, who was then 80 years old, had just scored another movie. Voila!

For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Bernstein -- no relation to Leonard -- he was the film composer who’d scored over 200 productions, garnering Oscar nominations in each of six consecutive decades. He was not only brilliant at what he did, but amazingly versatile. Just consider for a moment that the same fellow provided the music for “Man With a Golden Arm,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “The Great Escape,” “Hud,” “The 10 Commandments,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Animal House,” “Ghost Busters,” “Moonraker” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

I immediately dashed off a query letter to the editor, suggesting I write a profile of Mr. Bernstein who, in spite of being an octogenarian, was still cutting it in Hollywood’s competitive jungle.

A week later, I received a postcard letting me know that they weren’t interested. The magazine, the editor informed me, was looking to appeal to a much younger demographic. He didn’t think that people in their early 50s would be interested in reading about a guy as old as their father, no matter how talented he might be.

The magazine? Modern Maturity, as it was then called, the monthly published by AARP!