Being an actress is hard enough, but being an actress over 40 is doubly so. According to Screen Actors Guild statistics, only 10% of all roles are played by women over 40, while 30% of all roles go to men over 40.
"In the past few years we have been fortunate to have shows like 'Falcon Crest,' 'Dynasty' and 'Knots Landing' that feature adult women as main characters," said actress Timothy Blake, who chairs SAG's Women's Conference Committee. "But these are just a few handfuls of jobs."
In a recent examination of episodic television between 1955 and 1985, the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington reported that "only a minority of all women shown are mature adults, compared to 70% of the men.
"That means women account for just over one out of every five mature adults (30-59), the period of life in which characters tend to be the most authoritative."
"This is a problem with society as a whole and the way women are regarded," said Joel Thurm, vice president of casting, NBC. "Women over 40 get old, while men over 40 get crazy and wonderful. So in this particular case, I think television is accurately reflecting American life."
SAG has expressed concern that many older actresses can't get an agent.
"Without representation," Blake said, "they can't get in to read for roles. The younger the woman, the more work there is. Our records show that if an agency has 50 women between 20 and 50-plus, only 8 or 10 will be older than 40. The agency will represent three or four times that many men over 40."
"Producers should tell their writers to create more roles for women over 40," said Chet Migden, executive director of the Assn. of Talent Agents. "It's not that an agent doesn't want to represent older actresses, but there is a point at which it becomes an exercise in utter futility. It's the producer, director and casting director who determine who will get jobs. If the employer doesn't want older women, he says no."
Miki Dahlgren, senior director of business affairs, Aaron Spelling Productions, agreed: "We need the written word."
Her company commissioned novelist Sara Davidson to write a six-episode series, "Private Practice," for probable airing in March on ABC. Esther Shapiro ("Dynasty") will serve as executive producer. "Of the 10 characters," Dahlgren said, "seven will be women, including several over 40."
"Being blind to age and sex can be incredibly profitable," said Peter McAlevy, vice president of feature production, Walt Disney, the company behind "Golden Girls" and the popular female buddy movie "Outrageous Fortune."
"This company is in the forefront when it comes to employing actresses," he said, citing Disney's development deals with Carol Burnett, Shelley Long, Bette Midler and Elisabeth Shue. "We take chances on women and give them powerful and good roles."
But it's not because they happen to be women, McAlevy insists. "Jeff Katzenberg and Michael Eisner are big believers in quality. But they don't believe in overpaying for talent. If they see actors that are being underutilized, they grab them. Probably a lot of those being underutilized are women."