In 1980, a psychiatric nurse at Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital (and mother of two) divorced her husband in the midst of a particularly troubled married life and decided to pursue her lifelong dream of an acting career.
She was 40.
She had a poignant catalyst: her mother’s deathbed confession that she regretted not pursuing her own dreams. So, this woman, with no previous experience or training in acting, signed up for classes at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.
For ten years, she made a bumpy transition into acting. To support herself and her kids, she painted houses and hung wallpaper. She slowly learned the craft, winning parts in local theatre productions. And in 1990, at age 50, she was hired as a street performer at Disney World.
She built up her confidence, and after a year there, moved to L.A. to make a full-court push for her dream. Imagine the harsh critiques at this point. Friends and family looking at this incredulously. “You’re making a mistake.” “Who’s going to hire a 50 year-old woman?”
Over the next several years, she worked hard and won guest roles on a long list of notable television shows of the ’90s: E.R., Seinfeld, Frasier, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Home Improvement, etc. She just kept driving. She was making enough money doing what she loved.
And in 1999, she got her big break: 60 year-old Kathryn Joosten won the part of Dolores Landingham (Mrs. Landingham) on “The West Wing”. The character’s death was a crucial plot line in one of the finest episodes of television ever produced: 2nd season finale “Two Cathedrals”.
She would go on to have numerous guest roles in other shows — as well as a bit role in 2005’s Wedding Crashers — before being cast as Karen McCluskey in “Desperate Housewives”, for which she won two Primetime Emmy Awards.
Joosten had survived lung cancer in 2001 and 2009 and became an advocate for awareness on the disease. She died in 2012 at 72, having very much earned the right to say she had lived a full life.
I bring this up because I hate ageism. I hate the way we strip older folks of their humanity by asserting that they can’t do something not on the basis of their ability or competence but the date on their birth certificate. As though they just need to accept their lot past 50.
If someone decides in their 50s, 70s, 90s or whatever that they want to go to medical school or become an actor or open a business or run for office, who in the hell are we to say they can’t?
If you love something and you’re willing to put in the work and meet the standards of excellence in an ethical way, why should age ever matter? Telling someone they’re “too old” to do something denies their gifts to the world, and how dare any of us do that.
Vera Wang didn’t start designing clothes until she was 40. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t publish her first book until she was 65. Told as a young woman that being a doctor wasn’t “appropriate for women”, Genevie Kocourek would go on to graduate medical school at 53.
And in an era of increased and crucial political activism, when women form the bulk of organizing + campaigning, it’s simply unconscionable that any person would tell a woman in her 50s, 60s, 70s and up that she shouldn’t run for office because she’s “too old”. That’s nonsense.
We should all be so lucky to have that drive and inspiration and reject the naysayers of the world who view dreams as subject to the perceived and arbitrary nature of a number. Stop shaming folks because of age.
If they can deliver, honor that. We’re all better off.