For about a week earlier this year, the University Village Thousand Oaks senior living community in Thousand, Oaks, California, had a sign out front that read “Las Esperanzado.”
But the name change wasn’t the result of a hasty rebranding exercise. Instead, the continuing care retirement community (CCRC)’s new sign was a set piece for a television pilot for NBC from legendary television writer and producer Norman Lear.
The pilot, “Guess Who Died,” is set in a fictional Palm Springs retirement community and features Hector Elizondo, Holland Taylor and Christopher Lloyd. The show’s plot follows a retired music industry executive trying to stay positive in his twilight years.
“It is, in a way, a coming-of-age story,” co-executive producer Brent Miller (pictured above, to the left of Norman Lear) told Senior Housing News. “It’s people in the third act of their lives, living it out with grace. Sometimes, the kid in them is still there, especially when it comes to dating and having a good time.”
To that end, the show could help change the sometimes-negative perceptions which surround the senior living industry and the older adults who live in retirement communities. And although “Guess Who Died” ultimately didn’t get the nod from NBC, it could live on to further its age-positive message at another network or online streaming service.
More than 80 of University Village’s roughly 500 residents acted as extras in the pilot, according to Ernie Sandlin, the CCRC’s marketing director.
“The residents were absolutely tickled,” Sandlin told Senior Housing News. “Some of them, because of their background, already had their [Screen Actors Guild] cards. That was fun seeing them involved.”
Lights, camera, action
When Sandlin first received the phone call in January that a production company was interested in shooting a television pilot at University Village, he was admittedly cautious. On the other line was a location scout who said they had heard of the CCRC and wanted to learn more. The community, situated on 65 lush acres and nestled up against a distinctive ridge line, was well-suited to serve as a picturesque backdrop for the television show.
The CCRC also reminded Miller of Sun City Shadow Hills, the Del Webb community in Indio, California, where his mother lives.
“I really wanted to show that vibrant neighborhood,” Miller said. “The setting of University Village is a character in itself.”
Still, Sandlin didn’t say yes right away over concerns that a rigorous filming schedule to get in the way of the community’s day-to-day operations. But after more phone calls and a series of in-person meetings to hammer out the details—including one with Norman Lear himself—Sandlin gave the project his blessing.
“We just felt like this was going to work,” Sandlin recalled. “The whole thing sounded like a great experience for our residents.”
Filming took place between Feb. 27 and March 6, during which time the CCRC was a flurry of production crews, set pieces and trucks. Though he was briefed on the plans ahead of time, Sandlin said he was still in awe of the size and scope of the production.
“It was just hard to fathom what kind of footprint they would actually have,” he added. “There was one day where they were filming there, and lo and behold, it seemed like there were 80 to 100 people surrounding our main kiosk.”
Busy as it was, the filming process was not all that disruptive for the community or its residents in the end. The production company worked well with University Village and its neighbors, and even wrapped up filming when the community told them it was time to quit for the day.
“At any time, at any moment, we had the ability to say no,” Sandlin said. “I was actually surprised how it was more of a team effort, where they listened to us. They remapped their schedule in accordance to our concerns.”
As more baby boomers age into senior living communities, one thing is for certain: more Americans than ever in recent history will soon come face-to-face with the realities of getting old. And yet, as many producers continue to focus on the key 18-49 demographic, depictions of the senior living industry in television and film haven’t progressed apace.
Instead of rich storylines portraying the true nature of aging, too many television shows, movies and commercials settle for an easy gag or throwaway line about old people. That’s a real problem—and one that Lear himself lamented in a 2016 New York Times documentary, calling his comedy “a show about the elderly that nobody wants.”
While some shows, like Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” help break down age-related stereotypes, there’s much more work to be done, according to “Hollywood Takes: On Aging,” a California Commission on Aging initiative meant to foster more authentic representation of older adults in television and film.
Although it likely won’t bring about an overnight cultural shift, “Guess Who Died” may help give people a better idea of what getting older is all about—the good and the bad, Miller said. For example, the show’s staff worked with The Norman Lear Center, a research and public policy center based at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, to ensure they were truthfully depicting older adults and the issues they face.
“That’s always been very important to Norman, when addressing any type of issue, is making sure you’re representing it as accurately and authentically as possible,” Miller explained.
For Sandlin, it seems as though the show achieved those goals.
“I believe it’s going to shed more light on the idea that these communities are extremely vibrant,” he said. “The aging process is difficult, but I think along with that, there are many beautiful aspects to it, too. People still laugh. People still have relationships. There’s still romance in a retirement community.”
Lear recently returned to University Village to meet with residents and screen his new documentary, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.” During his meet-and-greet, many of the seniors there asked him the same question: when are you going to move in?
“He was welcomed as someone who’s part of the club,” Sandlin said. “And he seemed to soak it all up.”
Written by Tim Regan