How I Remade Myself Into a TV Star at 55
The fun and fear of becoming an actor in midlife
I guess I’ve always been a bit stage struck. Even though I’ve worked in the entertainment industry most of my adult life (as a former executive at Walt Disney, then in toy licensing and now as head of sales for the Incentive Plus Network for TV stations), I’ve long admired, even envied, performers.
And I wanted to become part of their world somehow. In my mid-50s, I have.
I’ve spent much of my “real” career behind the scenes, working in marketing and promotion for TV shows, helping shine the light on other peoples’ talents. That’s why, when I was 53 and a friend said, “Hey Pat, we could use a few more male actors for a comedy skit at a trade show — why don’t you do it?” my immediate thought was: “Oh no, that’s not me.”
But what ended up coming out of my mouth was: “OK, if I can help, let me know what to do.”
I was soon on the road to fulfilling a lifelong dream that I didn’t even know I had. I was going to be an actor.
When I was given my tradeshow part to play Simon Cowell in a parody of American Idol, I got into it. I tried on a phony English accent and dyed my gray hair dark black. When the day arrived for the performance, I was petrified. But as I sat on stage at a table with my fellow judges “Randy” and “Paula,” and uttered the lines in my best obnoxious judgmental English accent, the audience laughed! I was hooked.
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If I had known of the terror, rejection, ageism, exhilaration, physical torture and crazy people I had awaiting me over the next three years working as an actor in TV shows and commercials, I likely wouldn’t have proceeded down the path I took.
But I was at a point in my life where I was looking for a second act — something to fill the void I knew was coming in the next year or two when my younger daughter would head off to college (in hopes of being an actress herself).
Here’s my second-act arc, in six scenes:
Scene 1: Research
To get my acting career off the ground, I needed to learn whether there’d be a market for me. So I took acting classes with a bunch of 20-somethings and 30-somethings hoping to make it big.
One of the most interesting exercises was hearing the students explain my “type” for movies, TV shows and commercials. They thought of me as a Jimmy Stewart or Hugh Laurie (of House) type who might play a businessman, doctor, priest, kindly grandpa or active senior.
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Scene 2: The Makeover
I subsequently took an “Actors Style” class focused totally on your looks and how you present yourself. As a result, I overhauled my entire wardrobe to blues and grays that would go with my hair and eyes.
It worked. I got more compliments on my appearance than I ever got in my younger days.
Scene 3: Getting Cast
Now, how to get the parts?
In class, I was told an eventual goal would be to get a commercial agent who submits actors for roles. That takes a while, though. So in the meantime, I set up an account at LA Casting, a kind of online dating service for actors and casting directors.
When I filled in my profile, I remembered learning in class not to list anything you weren’t really good at. The last thing you want is to be hired to juggle in a commercial and then not be able to pull it off.
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So I reviewed the list of skills I could choose to click on:
Body surfing: Yes
Then I came across the golf box. Hmmmm I used to golf in high school and was OK. And I knew there were a lot of roles for retired active seniors in my age range, so what the heck? I checked Yes. It was a decision that would come to haunt me later — three times!
Scene 4: Auditioning
This was, by far, the hardest part of the whole process.
I’d get a text alert from LA Casting to show up at certain time and place, usually with one day’s notice. So off I’d go, during lunch breaks or on the weekend.
Entering a room full of actors that all look just like you is petrifying. Same age, same hair, same makeovers! Yikes! Now, it had to be about talent.
Scene 5: My First Booking
I was asked to audition for a local insurance company’s cable TV commercial and thought I did OK in the reading. Then the director asked, “Pat, you can hit a golf ball, right?” (They saw that I’d clicked the box.) So I said, “Yes, no problem.” I assumed I wouldn’t get the job, so thought little of it. Then I got booked!
“We want you as our retired golfer, Pat,” came the call from the director. “Bring a golf club.”
I didn’t have one, so I borrowed a club and golf shirt from a neighbor. A day before the shoot, I asked a buddy to take me to a driving range and remind me how to hit a ball. The next day, I hit the ball where the director wanted and finished my first commercial.
Scene 6: My Big Network (OK, Cable) TV Debut
My big break came only nine months after getting started when I was sent on an audition for a Discovery Channel show called Mystery E.R. It was one of those reenactment programs where they talk to the actual people and then have actors recreate the story.
I showed up for the audition for one role, but got a call to be booked for another one — as a doctor.
Soon, reality set in. I was going to have speaking lines on a national TV show. Not an “extra” but a “featured” actor. I was nervous.
But I showed up at a huge hospital set, checked into wardrobe and makeup and got my lab coat, stethoscope and clipboard. The one thing I’d learned was there was nothing to be gained by telling anyone: “Gee I’m new at this” or “This is my first time.” So I didn’t let on.
I had three scenes: greeting the main character who was supposedly dying of cancer and had come to my clinic; going through her chart and lab results in my office with great interest; and coming into her hospital room to tell her and her husband the results.
The actors playing the husband and wife were very nice and made me relax. After the director called “Action,” I felt like a doctor and had fun. The director seemed pleased.
All of my preparation had been worth it: the early calls, the class fees, the haughty casting directors who never called back, the headshot costs, the hours waiting in audition lobbies. I had reached my goal.
On Mystery E.R., I got to say the best lines any TV doctor could hope to say: “You’re not going to die.” Now that that my filmed image is somewhere in the endlessly-playing world of cable TV reruns, neither will I. I guess that was the whole idea.
Recently, I was also in a Toyota commercial playing a safety-challenged Grandpa and appeared as an extra in a Ron Howard film.
I now have a local cable TV show called Remade in America, too, focusing on creative career startups and reinvention; its purpose is to help people explore ways to enhance their careers. (I'm working on a book version.) You can see episodes online at Patpattison.net, where I also have a free guide: 7 Steps to Become an Actor or Model After You're 50.
My advice: If you have a second-career itch, scratch it. Doing so just might be the best present you can give yourself in midlife.
Pat Pattison is a part-time actor and TV talk show host with an extensive TV/entertainment industry marketing, licensing and promotion background. He is a founding partner of The Incentive Plus Network, an agency specializing in TV station marketing, and was an executive at Metromedia TV stations, Disney Television, Disneyland, Applause Toys and PromoToys.