Part of a series that takes an analytical look at the current broadcast pilot season and some of its trends and heroes.
Maybe it’s the Tom Selleck/Kathy Bates effect, but the broadcast networks seem more open than ever to shows fronted by older leads this pilot season. Until recently, actors in their 60s and late 50s were relegated to supporting parts as parents or grandparents of TV shows’ main characters. Now they’re the main attraction. Michael Patrick King’s NBC drama pilot A Mann’s World stars 62-year-old Don Johnson. CBS’ pilot The Doctor is toplined by 61-year-old Christine Lahti. ABC has an untitled comedy pilot written for and starring 57-year-old Tim Allen. And ABC’s drama pilot Grace is headlined by 55-year-old Eric Roberts.
The trend started last year with several pilots going older with their leads than the characters had been originally written. Blue Bloods (then Reagan’s Law) whose lead was supposed to be 50-59 year-old, cast 66-year-old Tom Selleck. David E. Kelley’s Harry’s Law (then Kindreds) was written for a male lead aged 53-57. It ended up casting 62-year-old Oscar winner Kathy Bates and tweaking the character. The most dramatic “aging up” in the casting process happened on the ABC procedural Body of Proof (then Body of Evidence) whose lead Megan was conceived as 35-40 years-old. The producers met several actresses in that age range before they thought of Dana Delany (55) who was eventually cast in the role. Additionally, CBS last summer replaced departing CSI:NY star Melina Kanakaredes, 43, with 54-year-old Sela Ward.
All 5 pilots headlined by 50something or 60something stars last season, Blue Bloods, Harry’s Law, Body of Proof as well as CBS’ $#*! My Dad Says starring 69-year-old William Shatner and NBC’s Outlaw toplined by Jimmy Smits, went to series. There was trepidation. “We know it’s going to be tough sledding,” Kelley said about the prospects of Harry’s Law at TCA in January. “I mean, for one thing, we have a 60-year-old lead. Not many networks said to me, ‘Hey, give me a show with a 60-year-old lead. I have to believe that even given the 500-channel universe, there’s room in the TV landscape for one or two or three shows that can have an older lead and indulge topical content.” Both Blue Bloods and Harry’s Law have exceeded ratings expectation, drawing massive audiences and logging very respectable 18-49 numbers for their time slots/lead-ins. ($#*! had a strong start too before losing steam in the second half of the season.) Meanwhile, ABC is putting a lot of marketing muscle behind the upcoming Body of Proof, which is the network’s best and only hope for a breakout new drama series this season.
Is it a question of acting chops, charisma and star power, something some of the older actors have in spades? Or the broadcast networks are looking to relive their glory days with some of their signature stars of the past (Allen, Johnson and Lahti are all returning to the networks where they became household names with hits Home Improvement, Miami Vice and Chicago Hope, respectively.) Or the baby boomers are turning out in droves to support shows fronted by actors of their generation? Or maybe the broadcast networks are simply taking a page out of the cable playbook. HBO’s biggest new show, Boardwalk Empire, stars the 53-year-old Steve Buscemi. And the biggest comedy star on TV at the moment, broadcast or cable, is Hot in Cleveland‘s Betty White, 89.