10 classic TV stars who got their acting start later in life

Whether you're a dentist or a car salesman, it's never too late to get famous.

You can always start a new career. There is no such thing as over the hill. While some TV stars got their start as child actors, others fell into a Hollywood career past the age of 30 — well past the age of 30 in some cases. They had already raised families. They had worked jobs as car salesmen, real estate agents, court reporters and dentists.

Even an icon like Bob Newhart punched a clock as an advertising copywriter before landing his big break as he turned 30. Ditto for Tim Reid, Venus Flytrap of WKRP in Cincinnati, who worked for Dupont Corporation before finding his comedic calling around the same age.

Those two were spring chickens compared to most people on this list. Take a look.

1. Edgar Buchanan


First screen credit: Age 36

In 1941, Buchanan, a relative newcomer, starred alongside William Holden in the movie Texas. Just two years into his showbiz career, he played a dentist. It's hard to imagine a more qualified actor for the role. Buchanan earned his DDS degree in 1928 and practiced dentistry with his wife (whom he met in dental school) in Oregon and California. After dabbling in community theater, he handed the dental practice over to his wife and set off on an acting career. You know him best as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction.

2. Leon Askin


First screen credit: Age 43

Born in Vienna, Askin worked as an actor, primarily on the stage, in Austria before emigrating to America in 1940. He served in the Army. That background made him a perfect casting choice for Hogan's Heroes, where he played General Burkhalter. Born in 1907, Askin made his screen debut in 1950, on a television series called Lights Out.

3. Jon Lormer


First screen credit: Age 44

Playing both a medical examiner on Perry Mason and eccentric characters on Star Trek, Lormer stands out in our memory. It's hard to forget that psychedelic outfit and shag haircut from the Trek episode "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky." Born in 1906, Lormer got his start in television in 1950. After all, it was a relatively new medium of entertainment, and they needed older actors.

4. William Frawley


Hollywood career began: Age 46

Frawley was no stranger to entertainment, having worked vaudeville stages in the World War I era. He landed a small role in a silent film called Lord Loveland Discovers America in 1916, but continued to work a handful of random jobs into adulthood. He was a stenographer for a railroad company in Nebraska, a court reporter in Chicago. He later moved to St. Louis to work for another rail company. Finally, in 1933, at the age of 46, he scored a role in a comedy film called Moonlight and Pretzels, shot in New York City. The gig convinced him to pack up and move to Hollywood, where he signed a picture deal with Paramount. Of course, he would later transition to TV, playing iconic characters on both I Love Lucy and My Three Sons.

5. Hope Summers


First screen credit: Age 48

Illinois native Summers graduated from Northwestern and continued to teach speech and diction at the university. She later became the head of the speech department at Bradley University. In the 1950s, she decided to give Hollywood a shot. She popped up on several Westerns, but her big break came with The Andy Griffith Show, playing Clara Edwards, Aunt Bee's gal pal. Horror fans might remember her from Rosemary's Baby, too.

6. Al Molinaro


First screen credit: Age 50

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Molinaro was suited to playing a Milwaukee-area diner operator on Happy Days. He moved to Los Angeles as an adult, starting a collection agency before getting into the real estate game. After selling one of his properties to a shopping center development, Molinaro used the cash to fund a career in acting. In 1969, he began turning up on sitcoms like Green Acres and Get Smart.

Image: The Everett Collection

7. Hank Patterson


First screen credit: Age 51

Known as the elder stableman Hank Miller on Gunsmoke and pig parent / farmer Fred Ziffel on Green Acres, Patterson began his career as a pianist. His first screen role came in the 1939 Roy Rogers flick The Arizona Kid. Born in Alabama in 1888, he had firsthand memories of the olden days.

Image: The Everett Collection

8. Cheerio Meredith


First screen credit: Age 54

Born in the 19th century, Cheerio went from stage to screen and became a go-to actor for older characters. She is best known for her reoccurring role as Emma Brand on The Andy Griffith Show. She would have been an even bigger presence in Mayberry, perhaps, had she not unfortunately died in 1964.

9. Estelle Getty


First screen credit: Age 55

Getty was famously younger than her daughter, Bea Arthur, on The Golden Girls (Arthur was born in 1922, Getty in '23). Bea Arthur's screen career also dated further back. In fact, Getty did not make her screen debut until the 1978 high-school football film Team-Mates. To put that into perspective, James Spader also made his screen debut in that movie.

Image: The Everett Collection

10. Burt Mustin


First screen credit: Age 67

Burt Mustin will be best remembered as a resident of two idyllic TV towns — Mayfield and Mayberry. On Leave It to Beaver, he played Gus the Fireman in 14 episodes. On The Andy Griffith Show, he was Jud Fletcher. He also turned up in episodes of Wagon Train ("The Jed Whitmore Story") and Maverick ("The Day They Hanged Bret Maverick"). He was old enough to remember the Old West. Mustin was born in 1884, making him older than The Rifleman's rifle. After graduating from the Pennsylvania Military College around the turn of the century with a degree in engineering, Mustin became a car salesman. He didn't kick off his Hollywood career until he was 67. He was "discovered" after he and his wife had retired to Arizona. READ MORE

Image: The Everett Collection

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Lucyneenah19701 69 months ago
Williiam Frawley was a great character actor in "I Love Lucy"! I don't watch "My Three Sons."
But Mustin wad a great character actor in "Leave it to Beaver." He also was on an episode of "The Brady Bunch."
Burt was on a few episodes of All in the Family too
Deepizzaguy 69 months ago
That explains why in "I Love Lucy" Fred Mertz did mention serving in World War I and working in Vaudeville shows.
Greg 69 months ago
The title of the article says started acting latter in life. A lot of them were acting on stage long before they were on Tv.
Pacificsun Greg 69 months ago
Wasn't the delineation explained as in, "while some TV stars got their start as child actors, others fell into a Hollywood career past the age of 30 — well past the age of 30 in some cases" ... ?
JosephScarbrough 69 months ago
Another actor who got a late start in their career was Barney Martin, otherwise known as Morty Seinfeld on SEINFELD. From what I understand, Martin was originally a New York City police officer before he turned to acting. I remember he was on an episode of THE ODD COUPLE that spoofed 12 ANGRY MEN, with Martin being one of the jurors annoyed with Felix prolonging the deliberation process longer than it needed to be.
RedSamRackham 69 months ago
When Edgar Buchanan's acting career took off he always set up a dental office in his dressing room just in case anyone in cast or crew need emergency dental work during filming of any movie or TV show. As a real-life DDS he was perhaps the actor best qualified to ever play an MD which he was on some Rifleman episodes.
I wonder if anyone ever called Doc Holliday?
MarkSpeck RedSamRackham 54 months ago
One of Buchanan's patients and closest friends was Glenn Ford, with whom he acted in several movies. Ford cast him as his top deputy in the Western/cop show hybrid Cade's County, which aired on CBS in the '71-'72 season.
stephaniestavropoulos 69 months ago
20 or so years before he became known as "That's Uncle Joe, he's a movin' kinda slow at the Junction. Petticoat Junction. Edgar Buchanan is also known by fans of Westerns as having worked alongside William Boyd, {aka Hopalong Cassidy} as Hoppy's sidekick, Red Conners.
Love Hopalong! Been catching up on all the episodes on the Encore Westerns Channel.

In addition to graduating Edgar Buchanan to Petticoat Junction, another of Hopalong's sidekicks (Andy Clyde as California Carlson) went on to co-star on The Real McCoys as neighbor George.
So do I. Not only the tv episodes, but Hoppy's movies as well. I also like watching {what I call} "The Hour Ones." The early Westerns that were only an hour in length. I don't care who's in those. Lash LaRue, John Wayne. These were guerilla Westerns. They didn't have much money, but the end results really weren't all that bad. {Compared to some of the longer ones that had the $$ and the end results weren't all that great.} I'm not all that big on the singing cowboys, but I've sat through Roy Rogers and others I can't think of right now. I wish I was a kid then I would have been able to play with the guns Hoppy used, eat the bread he did, or use any of those cowboys toys. {But being a girl, that probably would have been frowned upon. Uless I wasn't back then!}
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