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The Golden Ages of Television

How actors from our childhood provide continuity in our aging lives

As a child growing up in the 1960s, we had three network stations (if we were lucky), along with public television. And public television – before Sesame Street, before Downton Abbey – was a thin, serious man in a dark suit delivering a high school lecture at a blackboard. So we didn’t watch much public television.

But we did watch the networks: Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Dick Van Dyke Show. And later, we watched shows like M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, and The Bob Newhart Show.

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Which is one reason watching the well-written television of today can be a comforting and rewarding trip into memories of our childhood and a tribute to the resilience of actors from the 1960s and 1970s, who continue to create complex, vibrant characters.

In Getting On, HBO’s crisp, jagged satire of long-term care, we see Millie (Ann Morgan Guilbert) from the Dick Van Dyke Show fifty years later, as one of the residents in the hospital facility. Indeed, this character closes out the 2014 season, dancing ever so subtly across the hospital floor after a tryst with an old beau played by Harry Dean Stanton, as “Look on the Sunny Side of Life” sings in the foreground. The directors and the writers of this show treat all the elderly characters with respect and a sense of humor.

Earlier in that same episode, Mary Kay Place, who first appeared on All in the Family in 1973 and then starred in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in 1977, played a loved starved doctor looking for comfort in the trouble-plagued Dr. Jenna James (played by Laurie Metcalf from early 1990s Roseanne). Mary Kay Place is not yet seventy, but I anticipate her moving gracefully into the role of elderly characters for years to come.

Television shows come into our homes, and while we watch, the characters feel like personal acquaintances, with the older actors feeling like old friends. We watched these actors with our parents and siblings half a century ago. Television for the large generation of people in their sixties and early seventies has become, with many shows, an entertaining way of visiting the past. Bob Newhart shows up on CBS in The Big Bang Theory. Bruce Dern, who first came into prominence in the 1960s on shows like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, appeared as a regular character in Big Love from 2006 to 2011.

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In her eighties, Olympia Dukakis continues to appear in Sex & Violence. At 79, Dabney Coleman asserted his forceful presence in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Jerry Stiller played George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld, thirty-five years after he appeared many times with his wife Anne Meara on the old Ed Sullivan Show of the early 1960s.

The characters are compelling, and we enjoy watching them, but more importantly, the actors themselves provide continuity in our discontinuous lives, increasingly filled with transition and loss. The circumscribed but memorable experience of episodic television has been in our lives as long as we can remember our lives and continues to provide entertaining comfort. As they persevere, the actors in our generation and in the previous generation continue to inspire.