A while ago I was talking to my friend who is also into movies and we somehow got into a thing of wondering about actors who kept acting until they were quite old, specifically into their 90’s. Then we were wondering how many actors were acting in their 90’s during the 1990’s. And that got me wondering if there are any who actually acted in their 90th film, in the 90’s, while they were in their 90’s. Could it be? I resolved to find out.
Anyway, I just did a bit of research on a handy website called www.famousbirthdays.com, as well as on IMDb, and found out about a good number of actors who were born between 1900-1909, which means they were in their 90’s during the 90’s. And of course, though most of them weren’t working in films during that period, there are a fair few who were, many of whom I had never heard of.
One was Jester Hairston (1901-2000) who played “Leroy” on the Amos & Andy radio series for 15 years, played the Butler in In the Heat of the Night (one of my favorite films) and was also a regular on the TV series Amen. He was a musician as much as an actor, and his first credited film role according to IMDb was in something called Yes Sir, Mr. Bones which was also the film debut of Scatman Crothers. In 1999, he had an uncredited role in Being John Malkovich, which means he was working in movies when he was in his 90’s. However, for the general purposes of this list, I’m only counting credited movies and TV movies (not appearances in TV miniseries, ongoing TV series, film shorts, or videos), so I don’t think he fully qualifies. His last credited film role was in 1988, which was as Pop in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Even if he we count the uncredited stuff, it doesn’t bring him anywhere near 90 films by the time he was in his 90’s. Incidentally, one of those uncredited roles was as the father of Tom Robinson in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Bob Hope (1903-2003) is also on the list, but like Jester Hairson, it’s only because he had an uncredited role in the 1994 film That Little Monster. But he came closer, since his last credited role was in 1991, in a TV movie called Bob Hope’s Cross-Country Christmas, and his IMDb page lists 59 credited film and TV movie roles. He’s of course one of the most famous comedians of all time, with his first credited film being something called The Big Broadcast of 1938 (from 1938, appropriately) but he doesn’t come close to hitting his 90th credited movie during his 90’s.
As I write this and look through the various names that I noted, I see that most of them are like these examples: they are actors who were working in the 1990’s and in their 90’s, but on television series or film shorts only, and so are not what we are looking for. This includes Buddy Ebsen, Eddie Albert and John Mills.
However, there is someone named Helen Martin (1909-2000), who is an actress I’ve never heard of, is on this list because of a TV movie she appeared in called Something to Sing About that aired several months after she died at the age of 90. She made her film debut in something called The Phenix City Story in 1955, and overall appeared in about 30 movies and TV movies, including Hollywood Shuffle, Death Wish, and Beverly Hills Cop 3. So though that’s nowhere near 90 movies, she did act in a film in the 1990’s that at least aired after she turned 90.
Also, there’s a guy called Charles Lane (1905-2007) who’s got a whopping 374 credits listed on IMDb, including a short that hasn’t been finished yet! His last credited role from when he was alive is a TV movie called The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, starring Kirk Cameron and was directed by Peyton Reed (of recent Ant-Man fame). This movie aired on TV just a few short weeks after Charles Lane turned 90, which means it qualifies even though he wouldn’t have been 90 when he filmed it. A lot of his earlier roles were uncredited (or had their scenes deleted) but even just counting the credited movies and TV movies, Lane gets to 90 roles in 1964 with a Jack Lemmon film called Good Neighbor Sam! The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, the only credited movie to come out while he was in his 90’s, is actually his movie #114. So, still not the center of the target (even if the guy was in well known films like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Music Man and The Aristocats.)
So after all that, it might appear that there’s nobody who really and truly fits all our qualifications, as both Charles Lane and Helen Martin require a little bit of fudging. But, I’m happy to say, there is someone who does fit it all, without stretching it at all, and actually, he’s the first one that I came across.
It’s none other than the British acting legend Sir John Gielgud. He was born in 1904 and died in 2000, and had his first credited movie role in Who’s the Man? from 1924. After that, he racked up parts in movies and TV movies until he hit #90 in Hamlet, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, in which he’s listed as playing Priam. I’ve never seen the movie so I don’t know how that works exactly, since Priam isn’t a character in Hamlet. Rather, he’s a character from Greek myth whom Hamlet asks the First Player to recite a speech about. So maybe Gielgud played the First Player, or maybe the scenes with Priam were visualized somehow?
Anyway, that’s not important right now. What is important is that Hamlet was John Gielgud’s 90th film, and it came out in 1996, the when Gielgud was 92 years old! Gielgud went on to make only 3 other qualifying films, bringing him up to 93 all together before he died.
It’s a little awkward for me to realize that I’ve seen almost none of Sir John Gielgud’s work. I think the only films I’ve actually seen his face in are Arthur, The Elephant Man, Chariots of Fire and Murder on the Orient Express, and the only one I can really remember him from is Arthur. I actually remember him best from an audio tape I used to have of an old radio version of Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia, where he played the great detective himself in what can only be considered a dignified and distinguished performance. I’ve discovered you can listen to this and lots of other episodes here.
So, congratulations Sir John Gielgud, for this illustrious recognition: an actor, who made his 90th film in the 90’s while in his 90’s.