By Deborah Wilker
When Michelle Pfeiffer returned to the screen in 2007’s Hairspray, it was her first appearance in a major film in five years. At a time when many of her Hollywood contemporaries were either winding down or scrounging for work, Pfeiffer was just getting started all over again.
Now 56 (this month), Pfeiffer has made eight more movies since, and has no plans to stop.
In abandoning a full-throttle career back when she was 43, the actress did the unthinkable for a Hollywood star. The desire to spend substantive time with her kids was just too strong to ignore.
But Pfeiffer – long regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful women – says the notion of starting over as she neared 50 was not as daunting as we might assume. In fact she found her advancing years to be freeing.
“You can begin to look great for your age,” she told Ladies Home Journal last year. “You don’t have to look young anymore. My dermatologist said to me once, ‘You know that 10x magnifying mirror that you have in the bathroom? Throw it away.’ That was the best advice anyone ever gave me.”
In a profession defined by the quick disposal of even its youngest personalities, how do some long-running superstars consistently defy the odds, decade after decade? Sure, looking good and having a little extra cash in the bank does help. But not always. Clunker movies, bad press, ageism, lean times, even physical handicaps are often insurmountable roadblocks for some performers – yet to others they’re barely a speed bump.
Can we learn anything about resilience and stick-to-it-iveness from people like Clint Eastwood, who has made some of the best films of his career while in his 70s and 80s? Or the 84-year old actress June Squibb, who after a lifetime in character parts just received a first Oscar nomination for her acclaimed work in the film Nebraska?
Or how about Ellen DeGeneres, 56 – unemployable for a time in Hollywood after coming out, but who last month hosted the most-watched Oscars telecast in 14 years.
Lifelong newsman Charlie Rose only recently broke in to the high-stakes game of morning television, two years ago when he was 70. Non-Stop star Liam Neeson weathered the sudden death of his young wife, Natasha Richardson, but at 61 isn’t just among Hollywood’s most successful actors, he’s a full-fledged action hero with six movies to come over the next 18 months.
“A lot of it depends on coping skills,” says Adriana Serrano-Santana, a licensed clinical social worker and associate director at Chrysalis Health, a group of mental health centers in South Florida. “When faced with a significant stressor, personality plays a role, as does your support system, problem-solving skills and your environment.”
For Oscar-winner Dame Judi Dench, 79, it’s been years since she’s even been able to read a movie script. The actress, who just had another terrific year with her Oscar-nominated role in Philomena, suffers from deteriorating vision due to macular degeneration and now must have friends read her scripts to her.
But ending her storied career, which has included seven Oscar nominations, one win and an awesome stint as M in the Bond movies, was never an option. When news of her struggle became known, Dench simply issued a statement and moved on.
“I do not wish for this to be overblown,” Dench said in 2012. “This condition is something I have learnt to cope with and adapt to.”
Today she and close friend Dame Maggie Smith, also 79 and a cancer survivor, remain two of the most in-demand actresses in the business. Both have enhanced their careers by taking roles not typically associated with classically trained English actresses. Smith, a two-time Oscar-winner, drew in new young fans with her co-starring role in all eight Harry Potter films beginning in 2001. She returns to television again in Downton Abbey next year. At the moment both are squeezing in the shoot for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2, along with just about anything else they want to do.
What’s interesting about many of the long-haul stars we love is that they haven’t just outlasted thousands of their peers – many are also thriving in their second and third acts in ways that they did not experience earlier on.
In confirming nine years ago that he is gay, Star Trek original George Takei, 77 (this month), never imagined he was launching himself into a new career as an activist-author, comic personality and Internet sage. He made the revelation about himself only so he could speak honestly about civil rights. He ended up with more than 6 million Facebook fans and more than a million on Twitter.
When Patrick Dempsey’s status as teen heartthrob expired at the end of the 1980s, Hollywood tried to give him the heave-ho, but he wouldn’t have it. By the time he was selected to play Dr. Derek Shepherd in 2005 on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, the actor had spent 15 years knocking on doors, rebuilding his career with any possible role, no matter how small or offbeat.
His “second act” – as the McDreamiest doctor on television and as star of the Disney blockbuster Enchanted – began in his late 30s, and is now merging with an entirely different Act III.
Dempsey, 48, had long been a fan of auto racing and got behind the wheel himself when his wife purchased a set of lessons for him. Ten years in, his Dempsey Racing team is a formidable presence at Daytona, Sebring and 24 Hours of Le Mans, where the team finished fourth last year and will race again this year. Last year he produced a riveting four-part documentary, Patrick Dempsey: Racing Le Mans, while Porsche re-signed him to a new two-year partnership deal.
Experts say that beyond the seemingly endless energy, hard work, resilience and the just-plain appeal of these people lies something a bit less quantifiable – a way of being that separates them from others who just fall off the map when the going gets tough.
“Meryl Streep, for example, uses a lot of humor all the time,” says Serrano-Santana, of the actress now 64. “She makes fun of herself. She doesn’t appear to take herself too seriously.”
Much the same can be said of the British actor Patrick Stewart, 74, who last Halloween tweeted a now-classic photo of himself in a lobster costume – in a bathtub. Just because. Samuel L. Jackson’s – let’s say “lively” – running life commentary to his 3.4 million followers was named one of the best Twitter feeds of 2013 by Time magazine.
Comic legend Betty White, 92, has been enjoying an unparalleled third act for about 10 years now, ever since Pfeiffer’s screenwriter husband David E. Kelley cast her in his TV dramedies Boston Legal and The Practice.
What people seem to like most about her is simply that she appears inexhaustible, game for anything – particularly on live television – no net required. She not only won an Emmy for her clutch hosting of Saturday Night Live in 2010 – she appeared in every single sketch that night, as well as other segments that aired online.
White is currently the star of two TV shows – Hot in Cleveland and Betty White’s Off Their Rockers; she remains a frequent visitor to Craig Ferguson’s late-night show where she agilely trades improvised riffs, and she just recently took charge of the packed Staples Center in Los Angeles, where she hosted a weekly installment of WWE Raw.
This kind of “fearlessness” is sometimes just part of a person’s DNA, but if not, “it can be learned” says Broward-based psychotherapist Elecia Lowitz. “Mindfulness” is also a key trait that many of these successful personalities share, she says. “When we focus on being present we feel much more in control. Focusing on the future is a waste. And rehashing the past – don’t stay there too long. Embrace the power of thought, rather than allowing our thoughts to drag us. Instead, we direct where our thoughts go.”
Not caring what people may think is also key, she says.
Helen Mirren proudly wears her bikini on vacation. Susan Sarandon, who at 67 continues to work at a crazy clip of at least five films per year, in addition to numerous TV roles, has a 36-year-old boyfriend with whom she runs a string of ping-pong-themed nightclubs.
In their bleakest days neither Tina Turner, 74, nor Cher, 67, ever suffered the kind of spectacular public crack-ups that fellow pop icons Whitney Houston, Britney Spears and now Justin Bieber could not escape.
Bad breaks and big odds don’t faze most long-haulers – or if they do, they don’t faze them for very long.
The world laughed when Cher announced that she wanted to become a “serious actress” after years in pop music, on TV variety shows and as a tabloid staple. She was 35 at the time, too old by Hollywood standards for another crack at movies.
While famed directors Robert Altman and Mike Nichols both took a chance on her, multiplex crowds still chuckled when Cher’s name appeared in trailers for 1983’s Silkwood. She later admitted she was crushed. Apparently she didn’t dwell too long. Just five years later she had an Oscar in her hand for Moonstruck.
Tina Turner’s downward spiral as the abused wife and protégé of husband-producer Ike Turner was so dramatic her life story became a hit film, detailing years so bleak she was reduced to cleaning houses and had only a few coins in her pocket for food.
By the early ’80s, she began an arduous climb back, starting first in clubs then graduating to opening act status for artists such as Lionel Richie. Decades later both she and Cher remain two of the concert industry’s highest grossing female artists of all time.
Feeling inspired to accomplish more now than before? Experts say you can absolutely increase your own resilience and your chances for success.
Says Serrano-Santana: “Meditate, exercise, use humor and most importantly, always walk away from drama. It’s never too late.”