Older stars nab plum Broadway roles

Minnelli, Lansbury score Tonys

Angela Lansbury has Tony Awards older than you — and she’s just one of the performers past the age of 60 still packing houses, scoring great roles and winning awards on Broadway.

The 83-year-old actress, 69-year-old Roger Robinson and 63-year-old Liza Minnelli all nabbed Tonys this year, reinforcing one of the bragging rights of theater pros: film and television scripts don’t offer nearly the same opportunities to senior actors (even legendary ones), and when they do, they’re often less dignified (remember “Meet the Fockers?”).

This past season has been a bonanza for AARP-eligible thesps on the Rialto.

In addition to Lansbury, fellow octogenarian Estelle Parsons appeared, while Brian Dennehy, Jane Fonda and Frank Langella, all in their 70s, scored leading roles. And the list of sixtysomethings in substantial parts, including Stockard Channing, Elizabeth Ashley, Susan Sarandon, Marsha Mason, Jeremy Irons, Carole Shelley, John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest and Mercedes Ruehl, is sizable.

But while having a star with 40 or even 50 years of stage experience can be a bonus in terms of theatrical know-how and B.O., producers have to navigate tricky territory to minimize financial risks. Especially if they’re building the show around such a star.

Most producers rely on so-called “star insurance” — not to be confused with health insurance or any of the other usual benefits. If a producer is selling a show on the strength of an actor’s reputation, he’ll want to make sure he’s covered in the event his star is injured badly enough to force cancellation of the show or has to miss even a single perf (theatergoers frequently return tickets when they see that understudies for the likes of Patti LuPone are going on in their place).

Actors at the center of a star insurance (“nonappearance” or “abandonment” insurance, technically) policy have to undergo a physical; if the policy is taken out more than a few weeks from the start of production, an insurer may veto certain potentially risky activities (if someone at Lloyd’s of London finds out about Lansbury snowboarding, she’ll be in trouble).

The policies can get expensive and specific: If a thesp gets a bad case of bronchitis every year, insurers may want to exclude that particular ailment from their coverage. If an actor has a bum leg, the insurer will want to make sure he doesn’t have to climb stairs to get to his dressing room.

The need for such insurance may seem to put actors of a certain age at a disadvantage, but Peter Shoemaker, a senior VP who negotiates nonappearance and abandonment policies for Manhattan law firm DeWitt Stern, says not necessarily.

“Some of the older actors have been doing theater all their lives,” Shoemaker says. “It’s what they want to do, and they have this great ‘show must go on’ mentality.”

In fact, sometimes producers might wish they had taken out star insurance on a younger performer (few 60-plus thesps fall prey to a bad spicy tuna roll, not to put too fine a point on it).

“The young people are just as good as they ever were,” says “August: Osage County” thesp John Cullum, 79. “If you work with people my age, though, you’re talking about people who really feel terrible if they can’t go to a performance. That mentality is really part of their makeup.”

Something about “August” must attract particularly energetic actors. Following her Broadway stint, the 81-year-old Parsons is hitting the road with the first national tour of the show. And since Cullum performs in only the first scene of the Pulitzer-winning play, for a few weeks of the engagement he filled the rest of his evening with a lead role in Keen Company’s “Heroes,” an Off Broadway engagement down the street. His only regret? “I really wanted to do ‘Mourning Becomes Electra,'” he says.

In the blog she posted on her website through the 15-week Broadway run of “33 Variations,” Fonda, 71, described the pain of working with a knee problem for which she had postponed surgery. But she never missed a performance, at times making the cane she was forced to use part of her character.

There are worst-case scenarios, though, which is why insurance often is deemed necessary. The 2005 production of “On Golden Pond” was originally slated to star James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll. But Carroll hurt her back and had to drop out. (Leslie Uggams took over). Then, after opening to reviews that unequivocally praised Jones’ perf, the actor, who was 74 at the time, came down with pneumonia and had to leave the production altogether. His exit sent grosses plummeting and caused the show’s early closure.

Older actors try to minimize risk whenever they can, both for themselves and for producers. Lansbury says she knows it takes her more time to get her lines straight now, so she works at it longer and harder.

“Memorizing very long roles is very hard,” says Lansbury, who won her latest Tony for the part of Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s farce “Blithe Spirit.” “You can’t fool around with this play. If you leave out a word — if you leave out anything — it doesn’t work as well. The actors have to snap back and forth to each other.”

None of the actors interviewed for this article say they felt their careers were over, and all of them have won Tony Awards — Lansbury says she’s still waiting for a well-written movie role to come her way. (“I don’t want to play somebody who’s dying of Alzheimer’s. Julie Christie did that well enough for everyone.”)

A veteran of August Wilson’s work who won his Tony this year for the revival of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” Robinson says he feels his range broadens as he gets older and understands people better.

He sums it up in four words: “I’ve experienced more life!”