03.16.10

80-Year-Old Rock Stars

Betty White will soon be SNL's oldest host ever. View our gallery of red-hot 80-somethings. Plus, Doree Shafrir on the octogenarian revolution and Liz Smith on never retiring.

Betty White will soon be SNL's oldest host ever. View our gallery below of red-hot 80-somethings. Doree Shafrir reports the octogenarian revolution. Plus, click here to read syndicated columnist and co-founder of Wowowow.com Liz Smith on geezer buying power.

Over a month of fans’ pleading, demanding, and Facebook campaigning has finally paid off: Betty White, the still wildly popular Golden Girls alum, will host a Mother's Day episode of Saturday Night Live on May 8, producer Lorne Michaels announced Thursday.

But no sooner were the words out of his mouth than TV Land threatened to upstage him by declaring that White had been cast to costar in its new sitcom, Hot in Cleveland. The press release billed White—now 88 years old—as “the hottest woman in town.”

Click Below to View Our Gallery of Red-Hot 80-Somethings

America officially has Betty White fever. Her late-life ascent has us almost giddy, and why shouldn’t it? She’s not doing it for the cash ( Golden Girls residuals undoubtedly have her set for life), and she doesn’t seem to be clinging to the spotlight for ego. No, White has captivated the public by representing an irresistible notion: working into your eighth decade, simply because you want to.

"I've got so much energy, it's ridiculous,” White told USA Today. “I love working. My schedule is a feverish one, and I'm used to that."

It won’t be the first time an octogenarian has hosted SNL (Ruth Gordon did it at 80 in 1977), and the way things are going, it probably won’t be the last. White is just the latest example of a celebrity working well into her eighties. From Barbara Walters and Jerry Stiller to Don Rickles and Angela Lansbury, 80 is looking more and more like the new 30.

Author Mary Higgins Clark, 82, once wrote a radio series for White—40 years ago. "Betty White is a glorious model for all of us members of the octo club,” she told The Daily Beast. “Go, girl, go!" The author of 28 suspense novels, Higgins Clark doesn’t exactly need to keep proving herself, either. And yet she’s about to publish a 29th, The Shadow of Your Smile. The book, which comes out in April, features as its protagonist an 82-year-old woman who's guarding a family secret.

The old adage "age ain't nothing but a number" holds true in Clark's case. "I feel as though the numbers got mixed up," she says. "In my mind, I'm more 28 than 82. Then of course, I look in the mirror and realize this isn't the case at all. I think the best way to stay young as we grow older is to keep busy at what we love to do, enjoy our family, stay close to our friends and, facing the inevitable, remember that the Lord loves cheerful saints."

If that’s true, he must adore Cloris Leachman, who, at 83, still marvels that at her age, “I get to dance, sing, and play piano.” She's in the upcoming movie Expecting Mary with 23-year-old High School Musical actress Olesya Rulin.

"I’m always meeting new people and working on fascinating projects, doing what I love to do, acting," said Leachman. She’s got six grandchildren and a great-grandson; her son, George Jr., is also her manager. "He takes great care of me both personally and professionally," she said.

In 2008 at age 82, Leachman was a contestant on Dancing With the Stars.

"Tennyson wrote a poem about Ulysses, the great Greek warrior. In the poem, Ulysses is in his eighties, talking to his fellow warriors, telling them there are great things still to do," she says. "'Come my friends,' he says, '‘tis not too late to seek a newer world, some work of noble note may yet be done.' I thought to myself, the guy's right. Big daddy know what he’s sayin’."

When she decided to go on the show, Leachman's partner Corky wanted a big finish on their cha-cha number that involved Leachman whirling toward him, then leaning forward while keeping her right leg straight out behind her and her right arm parallel to the floor, at which point Corky would grab her right ankle and right wrist and spin her. Leachman found the move so scary that she refused to rehearse it, and decided she'd just be ready to do it the night of the performance. But that night, she said, she "totally panicked. Instead of presenting him my right leg I slammed my left leg into his crotch, my forehead banged against his." Corky grabbed Leachman off the floor and spun her around. "It was the end of life as I’d known it," said Leachman. "The face of death beamed at me as Corky swooped me low and my teeth nearly hit the floor, then as I soared into the air, my primordial scream went unheard because of the howling audience who didn’t believe they were seeing what they were seeing."

It was an experience she'll never forget—and one that seems to represent how she feels about old age. "That’s the kind of good, clean fun that was waiting for me when I got to my eighties," she says. "There’s talk of me being shot out of a cannon in Santa Monica and landing on Catalina Island on my 90th birthday. I’ll report back on that."

Leachman's husband, producer, and director George Englund (the pair divorced in 1979, but have lived together on and off as husband and wife since then) is 83. The author of Marlon Brando: The Way It's Never Been Done Before, the story of his 40-year friendship with the actor, he also has a political thriller called Too Sacred to Touch coming out in June. And he recently became president of a London-based branding company called Moving Brands.

"Seven months ago I met Ben Wolstenholme, CEO of Moving Brands," says Englund. "I was fascinated at how the company related itself to the future, that they didn’t see themselves as just creators of icons, they were storytellers—and as technology changed the world, brands had to change with it. The mutual enthusiasm between Ben and me didn’t fade—four months later I became president. And along the way neither of us ever mentioned that he was 34 and I was 83. Both of us believed it when I said, 'I can do that.'"

It's a familiar sentiment to Hugh Hefner, a man still holding down a job most 20 year olds would kill for. Not surprisingly, Hef is also in the anti-retirement camp.

"If you enjoy your work and you retire, that's the first step toward the grave," says the chief creative officer of Playboy, the magazine he founded in 1953. "Staying active on a personal level, but also in terms of work, keeps you young." (A documentary about Hefner's life, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel, screens at the Museum of Modern Art on March 18 and 21.)

Hefner lives in Los Angeles and is in daily contact with Playboy's Chicago headquarters, as well as its New York and L.A. offices. "I have daily conversations with my art director and editor. And I still pick the covers and the centerfolds and edit the party jokes and ‘Dear Playboy,’ the letters column," he said. "And I'm personally involved on a daily basis with the creation of the dummy and the pasting of the book and picking of the art, etc. It keeps you young."

Of course, Hefner is also well-known for staying young by keeping the company of younger women. These days, his "primary romantic relationship” (his words) is with 23-year-old Crystal Harris, who was the Playmate of the Month in the December 2009 issue of Playboy. "In many ways,” says Hefner, “I feel younger than I did 20 years ago.”

Doree Shafrir has contributed to The New York Observer, The New Yorker, Slate, and The Awl, and is the co-author of Love, Mom. She is a former editor at Gawker. Her Web site is www.doreeshafrir.com.