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Acting Her Age : At 90, Irmsie Brown Has Begun Racking Up Roles in Hollywood

October 03, 1994|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — Irmsie Brown may be a neophyte actress, but she's still got a few rules about Hollywood conduct she simply refuses to break.

For one, she absolutely will not pose in the nude. She won't jump into bed with any smooth-talking Lothario on the set, no matter what size the paycheck. And as for those lingering, full-body-contact kisses?

Forget about it.

That's because the 90-year-old Van Nuys widow has this image of the silver screen back in its more-innocent infancy when she was a wide-eyed kid sitting in a darkened theater with a box of popcorn--days when such matters as sex and nudity were, well, just left to the imagination.

"Things just don't have to go that far, people dropping their clothes at the drop of a hat," she said.

"They didn't do it back then and they don't have to today. People in this town just have to learn to keep their pants on, that's what I think."

Brown knows she has a few things to learn about The Biz. And fast.

Last year, at the unheard-of age of 89, the former Wisconsin housewife and bookkeeper for her son-in-law's Toluca Lake talent agency plunged head-first into a new role that has casting directors' heads turning: She hit the big screen, becoming one of the oldest working character actresses in Hollywood.

A sprightly, gray-haired woman with slate-blue eyes and an unassuming style, Brown recently landed a bit part in "City Slickers II" with Billy Crystal, playing an elderly Central Park jogger who is nonplussed as Crystal's character takes his pet cow on its daily run.

She has portrayed an elderly party crasher--an interloper who hits the buffet table on the sly, stuffing Brie into her purse--on the CBS television series "Hearts Afire."

And she has become the resident old lady on the "Tonight Show." In one of two recent skits, Brown played a bespectacled, grandmother in a shawl who traded in her handgun for a pair of "Tonight Show" tickets. In the second, she was an elderly Woodstock veteran, an aged ex-hippie named Sunshine who, dressed in a bandanna, beads and a tie-dyed ensemble, fashioned a bong out of an old Metamucil bottle.

On the set, Brown has already developed a reputation as an able actress fit enough to repeatedly run up and down a hill in a jogging suit until the scene is right, casting directors say. And, even at age 90, she has another ability that eludes actresses half her age: She remembers her lines.

"What casting directors like about Irmsie is that she really is old--she's in the same ballpark as George Burns--so she doesn't have to act the part," said Candace Potter, an agent at the Tyler Kjar Agency, the family-run business for which Brown still keeps the books.

"And while Irmsie may be old, she's in great shape. She can still talk. She has the faculties to remember her lines. That's why the phone keeps ringing. She's caught on to all of this tricky Hollywood work rather quickly. I mean, how many people do you know who have begun new careers at age 89?"

Fran Bascom, casting director for "Hearts Afire," said Brown has a style of her own, recalling a recent shoot where she rejected a wardrobe room full of shoes, and wore her own.

"Irmsie had these orange high heels," she recalled. "Most experienced actresses would never have worn those shoes on the set, but she wanted them. At her age, you at least would have thought she would have worn flat heels."

Bascom said Brown's age is an asset--even in an industry where youth is prized. "Irmsie's secret is that she really does not look her age. She is perky and spry and could play the role of a woman much younger.

"But when the call comes for someone really, really old, she's the real thing. I wouldn't be surprised if she was the oldest working character actress in Hollywood."

Added Tori Pellegrino, production administrator for the "Tonight Show": "Irmsie may be 90, but she's still a trooper. She's fun. She's everybody's grandmother. It's amazing for me to see someone so together. And to be what she's doing at her age--even down to the point of driving a car. It's an inspiration in this town where youth is so valued. To me, it proves something: that you can do anything you want if you try."

Brown takes such compliments in stride. "At age 90, you take things one day at a time," she said. "My mind is clear. But once in awhile, you know, you forget little things."

Born in Milwaukee in 1904, Brown married Sheldon Mehlos, who preferred she become a mother and housekeeper rather than pursue a career. But Brown, who worked temporary office jobs, kept her own conservative values--especially regarding women's role in the workplace.

"If women go to work, I think they should respect their bosses," she said. "They have to remember, the workplace is not the same as leaning over the fence with all that gossip. You can't take back what you say. So it's good to watch what comes out of your mouth."

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