NEW YORK – Even Hollywood actors get old.
Most big-name celebrities will retire to their mansions with a houseful of hired help — but what about the lesser-known character actors and backup dancers?
The Motion Picture and Television Fund Country House in California and the Actors' Fund Homes in New Jersey are retirement communities that take care of little guys in the entertainment industry — supporting stars and extras who lived by the maxim that there are no small parts, only small actors.
"It's a matter of the industry taking care of its own," said Actors' Fund Executive Director Joseph Benincasa.
While both nonprofit homes have had their share of big-name celebrity residents — the MPTF cared for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner director Stanley Kramer and the Actors' Fund housed Joseph Sultzer and Charles Marks, the comedy team known as Smith and Dale and the inspiration behind The Sunshine Boys — the majority of residents are not as recognizable by name alone.
But their accomplishments are.
"I've had the most interesting life," said 94-year-old former vaudevillian and Actors' Fund Homes resident Blanche Collins Perry. "I played the music halls in London before World War II. I created a role in The Cradle Will Rock, which Orson Welles directed in 1937."
What was it like working with Welles?
"He was a great director — a bit of a genius — and a very strange person as we all know," she said.
Perry also met Marilyn Monroe, whom she described as "very sweet and charming," Marlene Dietrich, whom she said was "very glamorous with that husky voice," and Greta Garbo.
Founded in 1902, the Actors' Fund Homes provide assisted living and nursing care for 109 retired entertainment professionals and their families.
"We discuss theater in the dining room. We can't get up on stage so we read scripts from our wheelchairs. I know a guy who starred in Fiddler on the Roof. He said he wouldn't act anymore but I got him acting!" Perry said, laughing.
Other notable residents include Tessie Richner, who performed with the Ziegfeld Follies, and Pamela Duncan, who worked with Errol Flynn and starred in drive-in horror movies.
On the other side of the country, the West Coast's answer to the Actors' Fund Homes is the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement community.
There's no mistaking that this is a home for show biz vets. The Frances Goldwyn lodge, named for the actress/wife of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer mogul Samuel Goldwyn, houses retirees. First-run films are shown in the Louis B. Mayer theatre. Residents relax in a lounge named for Douglas Fairbanks, one of the original founders of the Fund. And the ailing receive care at the Bob Hope Health Center and George Burns Intensive Care Unit.
Resident Hal Riddle, 82, moved into the cottages in 1995 after a 50-year-long acting career. An established thespian with appearances in everything from The Fugitive to Days of Our Lives, Riddle has many memories of stars he knew "before they were famous."
Working in summer stock theater in 1946, Riddle encountered a young Jack Lemmon, who had come to New York to be an actor. He soon became roommates with The Odd Couple star.
"He was a wonderful guy. We remained friends all through the years. When he died his secretary found a note on his desk saying 'Call Hal Riddle for lunch.'"
Riddle also studied with Grace Kelly at Sanford Meisner's New York's Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre.
"When I met Grace she was 20 or 21, in the summer of 1949. A friend of mine, Playhouse actor Fred Beir, told me he was dating a beautiful girl and that I should come to a bar to meet her. Even at the bar she was wearing little white gloves."
Riddle also did three "pictures" with Elvis -- whom he remembers having Coca-Cola fights with his "Memphis mafia" -- and tested a pilot of the game show Beat the Clock with James Dean.
Today, Riddle's cottage is a popular stop for celebrity supporters such as Tom Hanks and Mike Douglas.
Actor Kevin Spacey has done more than just donate to the Fund. At a benefit in October 2000, the American Beauty star showed a series of films he made about several of the MPTF residents. Haley Joel Osment and Gregory Peck narrated the one about Riddle.
The Kentucky native couldn't have been more thrilled.
"I read a study that said most men pass away 22 months after retirement, but here we go right on being part of our industry," Riddle said. "It's wonderful. It makes us feel wanted and loved."