Wednesday, 25 May 2016

That Old Guy on TV

He was there any time a TV show needed a character who was an energetic old man. In every role, he was an old man. There was never a time on television when he was young. That’s because Burt Mustin, with his bald head, long face, long nose and large ears, didn’t begin his acting career until he was a pensioner.

Better make that professional acting career. A newspaper clipping reveals Mustin “appeared in an amateur production in Pittsburgh, ‘The Lady of Luzon.’ One scene called for him to kiss seven girls, one for each day of the week.” That was in 1910. And Mustin can be found in the programme listings of KDKA in Pittsburgh, singing and chatting. That was in 1922, before the radio networks existed and about all you would hear on the air was amateurs singing and chatting.

Mustin built up a very long resume once he began appearing on films and television in the early 1950s. And a few newspaper columnists found room to tell readers about the old guy whose face they knew but name they likely didn’t.

This unbylined syndicated story is taken from the Utica Daily Observer, May 21, 1967. It explains why he was kissing girls on stage in 1910 and singing in early radio but never went into vaudeville or films, nor appeared on the big network shows of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Burt Mustin: Late Starter With A Forward Look At 83
As a rule, most active careers have ended by age 67. Not so with actor Burt Mustin, who first turned to professional acting at that age. He's been going strong ever since. He's now 83.
The tall, slim actor, who enjoys being told that he doesn't act his age, will be seen in a two-part repeat on "The Lucy Show" Mondays, May 22 and May 29 (8:30-9 p.m.) in color on Channels 5 and 10.
Although he was a late professional acting starter, he has done 258 television shows and 57 movies, and looks forward to many more — including a romantic role. "There isn't much demand for 83-year-old romantic leads, but I keep hoping," he say with a twinkle.
In his appearances on "The Lucy Show," the versatile Mustin acts, sings and dances. His career as an amateur performer demonstrated the same diversity.
"I was a child soprano at age 6," says Mustin, "but the life of a professional performer 60 years ago was a miserable one and when I got married, my wife and I agreed that I should work as a salesman and stick to amateur theatricals."
Mustin was an amateur performer in Pittsburgh for 50 years. He later moved to Phoenix where an agent saw him and persuaded director William Wyler to give him a job. He hasn't stopped working since.
In brief periods between jobs he sings in a barbershop quartet and lectures to men's groups on how to keep going after 65.
Mustin appeared semi-regularly on a few shows, but landed a co-starring role on the Emmy-winning The Funny Side in 1971. It came and went after one season on NBC. It featured a variety of couples in sketches on a different theme every week. United Press International decided to profile Mustin. This lovely little column appeared in newspapers around December 29, 1971.
Burt Mustin Plays Tube For Laughs

HOLLYWOOD (UPI) — Burt Mustin, the 87-year-old co-star of "The Funny Side," plays it for laughs on the tube and enjoys every minute of his sunset years in private life.
He was widowed in 1969 when his wife of 54 years, Robina, died, leaving Burt with a four-room cottage to care for in the San Fernando valley.
He lives alone now, fending for himself and getting around spryly.
Mustin fixes a light breakfast for himself each morning before reporting to NBC in Burbank, driving there himself. At noon he consumes a large lunch in the studio commissary or at a nearby restaurant. When he gets home in the evening the octogenarian settles for a bowl of cereal.
A cleaning woman stops by the house once a week to keep the place shipshape, but Burt is his own gardener.
"Robina had a green thumb," he says, "flowers and shrubs used to grow just right for her. It was a labor of love. With me it's just plain labor and things don't grow so well."
Mustin's home is as neat as the man himself. He never leaves the house without a jacket and necktie, explaining: "When you're old and ugly a good looking wardrobe is your best asset."
He is proud of the fact that he weighs within three pounds of his weight at age 19 when he graduated from Pennsylvania Military College back in 1903.
A salesman in Pittsburgh and later in Tucson, Ariz., Mustin came to acting late in life. But his interest in show business stems from singing. He was, and still is, an active member of a national barbership singing group.
Several evenings a week he "goes barbershopping," singing baritone with his own quartette. At other times he joins a barbershop chorus.
There are about 30 chapters of barbershop singing groups in southern California with between 1,500 and 2,000 members. Burt has been warbling close harmony for 25 years.
Mustin also is active in the Masquers Club, a group of show business men consisting largely of character actors.
On days off Burt sits around the club reading newspapers, magazines and talking show biz with the other veteran performers. It is his favorite hangout for lunch on days off.
Every Sunday morning Burt fires up his late model sedan and drives to Hollywood Presbyterian church. He never fails to attend services.
"The Lord's been good to me," he explains, "and it wouldn't be right for me not to be thankful."
Asked if he has any dates with the fairer sex, Mustin laughed.
"No," he said. "I'm afraid that romance business is all behind me. There was only one good woman in my life, and that's more than most men can say—especially at my age."
On weekends Mustin writes letters to friends in the East and makes a small dent in the fan mail that has piled up since the comedy show went on the air this fall. He also enjoys watching televised football and baseball games.
Mustin is usually in bed by 10 p.m. On barbershopping nights, however, he isn't tucked away until nearly midnight. Mustin should be a shining example for all old people. He is bright, alert and blessed with a sense of humor. He is a delightful companion to all who know him.
Mustin’s life seems like a throwback to an era goneby, of simpler times in a small town. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Mustin found a place in Mayberry on several episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. He was 93 when he died in 1977, though it seemed like he had always been 93.


  1. "Gus and the net. Gus and the net. Gus and the net..."

  2. I remember "The Funny Side" mainly because of Pat Finley as part of their ensemble; she had been on NBC a few months earlier in the UK-produced sitcom "From a Bird's Eye View."

    Mustin did make a good living playing "alte kackers" through the later part of his career. I recall his appearance on "All in the Family" as a codger Edith befriended, who put his own spins on old sayings ("One good turn...gets most of the blanket!").