TV's Super Sellers Prove Living Longer Is the Best Revenge

updated 02/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Their collective ages are a staggering 260 years—the baby of the group is a mere 80. Yet Merie Earle, 95, Bar-tine Zane, 85, and Theodocia Goodrich, the 80-year-old, are three of Hollywood's most sought-after commercial actresses. Their sweet faces and daredevil stunts (for their ages anyway) pop up in TV ads ranging from McDonald's to Ford Mustangs, and as their visibility has grown so have their bank balances. Minimum pay is $317 a day for a single commercial and residuals for a long-running prime-time TV ad can amount to $20,000. More than the money though, it is the challenge of their eclectic jobs that fuels their go-getting spirits. "I try my best not to be an old lady," says Zane, who was one of Buster Keaton's first leading ladies and in his 1920 silent comedy classic High Sign. "I don't talk about my pains and ailments. Work is fun. It keeps me busy." Adds Earle: "It's nice to be known for my own name and not little-old-lady this and that."

As people live longer and audiences grow older, the so-called grannies become the obvious pitchmen. "They are really an inspiration," says agent Evelyn Schultz. "Everybody hopes when they're that age, they will be able to do these things, too." Competition among granny types is fierce. "They may be kinder to each other than younger people," says agent Marcia Hurowitz. "But they're all out there trying to get the same job." Age is scarcely an obstacle to their tasks. In her first commercial Zane mastered a motorcycle for Boone's Farm wine. "I learned to rev it up and drive across the scene, but they caught me on the other side," she reports. Goodrich once donned roller skates for a Levi's ad. Well liked in the trade, "they're the ones who never complain," says Los Angeles casting director Sheila Manning. "The 40-year-olds sit around reading scripts and muttering, 'How do they expect me to read this stuff?' The older ones just read over their lines, get up and do their job." Production companies often go out of their way to accommodate the veterans. "They'll let an older person take a nap and will be more careful," says one agent. "They don't want anyone to croak on them."

Perish the thought. All three are hearty souls who began working in commercials around the age of 75. Zane, born in Shreveport, La., left the movies in the 1920s and helped her mother run a dress shop on Hollywood Boulevard. She put her acting career on hold until 1968, when a friend urged her to reenter the business. She has since appeared in commercials for, among others, M&Ms, Grandma's Cookies, AT&T (she and Merie were in the "Reach Out and Touch Someone" ads together) and on assorted TV shows.

Zane lives alone in a Burbank, Calif. apartment and concedes that the sad drawback to her long life is that "I'm all alone now." Her husband of 40 years, Ralph, died in 1968. Of losing him, she says, "I never got over it." Acting helps her stay active, but she is as picky about her parts as any leading lady. Just recently she turned down a role "as an old lady in a bar" in a TV series because "I don't care for that kind of image."

Earle, a frequent Tonight Show guest, may be the most familiar of the three. She appeared on 15 episodes of The Waltons and turned up also on programs such as the Carol Burnett Show, Bob Newhart Show and Happy Days. This season she played an ailing grandmother on the premiere of Whiz Kids, but the character met an early demise. "If they hadn't killed me off on that one, I could have gone back," she says with characteristic spunk.

Born in Morrow, Ohio, she began acting in a church production of Mrs. McThing in 1965. Almost six years ago she broke her hip after a backstage fall while appearing in the La Mirada production of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, with Shelley Winters. "I wouldn't have cared, except if I hadn't fallen, I would have been on Broadway," she laments. She walks with a cane now and has friends drive her to auditions. Even on a limited schedule she earned $21,000 last year.

Earle lives comfortably in a one-bedroom cottage in Glendale, Calif. behind (you guessed it) a white picket fence. Her husband, Laurence, died in 1954; her daugher, Betty Lou, died of an accidental Valium overdose in 1978. Happy, a 17-year-old cat, and Rosie O'Grady, a mongrel, share her home. Her show business success is her proudest achievement. "Here's this little girl who once dreamed of being an actress," she reflects. "I haven't been a star, but I've been the luckiest person in the world."

Goodrich is the only bona fide grandmother of the bunch (she has five grandchildren). Born in Oberlin, Kans., she landed her first commercial job in 1979 in a margarine ad, and has since notched 14 more, including appearances for Amtrak, Coca-Cola and McDonald's.

Goodrich, who works out daily on a stationary bike at home, has to try hard to look her age. She has a youthful voice (during a TV special Steve Allen asked her to "talk older") and, to add years to her rosy face, must "take off my granny glasses and frown." Observes Goodrich: "I'm always the sweet little old grandmother getting excited about some product, except I feel like I'm in my 20s. It's all a matter of attitude. My voice sounds young because there's so much life in it."

Divorced in 1951, she raised three children in Denver before moving to Laguna Beach in 1971 to work as a practical nurse. Looking for a more creative challenge, she paid $145 to attend a commercial TV workshop. Now she's shopping for a good acting coach. "I feel inadequate because of my lack of training." But she needn't worry; she's already getting inspired guidance. "God," she explains, "is my manager. He gets 10 percent."

Like the other "grannies," Goodrich is philosophical about being a late bloomer. "I just enjoy myself as I go along," she says. "How do I know how many tomorrows I have?"

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