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The Aging Game

Filichia gets a preview of a new version of The Gin Game starring Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. logo
Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore
play The Gin Game
Got a videotape of the new TV production of D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game, starring Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, which will be broadcast on PBS on May 4. I couldn't wait to see it for I was a stalwart fan of the stars' series The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966). My parents never had to worry about my wanting to go out on at least one school night, as long as Rob and Laura Petrie were on the air. I daresay I've seen every one of the 158 episodes of the series at least five times, and at least half of them 10 to 20 times, so I was eager to see my two old heroes reunite.

You may recall that The Gin Game is the story of two golden agers living out their lives in a not-so-fancy retirement home. Weller Martin has been there for a few months, while Fonsia Dorsey has just arrived. He's been looking for someone with whom he can play gin, and though she's never played cards -- her strict father would have in no way approved -- Weller is willing to teach her. But Fonsia winds up winning an astonishing number of games, which infuriates him. I'd seen Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy perform the play in 1977 and plenty of others do it in the ensuing decades. Though I had a bittersweet reaction to the thought that Van Dyke and Moore were now old enough to play these roles, I still wanted to see what they would do with it.

But I found that my mind wandered. When Fonsia expressed a hope that the couple might dance, I recalled how many times Moore had danced dazzlingly on the old TV series, where she had more chances to display her dexterity than she did in her infamous 1966 musical Breakfast at Tiffany's. When Weller talked about being drunk, I thought of Van Dyke's own well-documented problems with alcoholism. Ditto when Fonsia mentioned her diabetes -- an all-too-potent reminder that Moore has it, too. Yet I felt more pain for the actress when she had to say that she had a son who was 45, for Moore had a son who would have been approximately that age now if he had not committed suicide in 1980.

I realized that I was carrying Van Dyke and Moore's history with me because they'd meant so much to me as performers four decades ago. Still, I was pleased to see the pair still at the top of their Game. Van Dyke turned from charmingly avuncular when he was teaching Fonsia the gin game to potently furious when she always emerged victorious. Moore tried to hide a smile as she continued winning and flashed her eyes when Weller insulted her. She had a nice way of wincing every time he swore -- which, you'll recall, is one of the play's biggest conflicts. The profanity came to a head in the play's most famous moment when he used the F-word on her and she retaliated. I smiled wanly and shook my head slowly. In the early '60s, could I have ever imagined that Rob and Laura Petrie would ever use such language -- on the "educational" channel, yet!

But there I was, channeling Rob and Laura once more. Granted, from Van Dyke's recent TV stints, I've become accustomed to his face, his white hair, and his pot belly. Nevertheless, I again found myself thinking about an episode of the old series in which he played his own great uncle in a home movie. When Rob and Laura watched the film, she observed: "Oh, Rob, he looks like you!" Now, Van Dyke looks amazingly like he did on that episode as aged by the makeup man. In a way, I felt he still wasn't that old and was just pretending.

While there are a few folds of flesh under his chin, there's precious little under Moore's. (Some have alleged that the lady has had a face-lift or two.) Moore adopted a round-shouldered stance and her hair was made that yellowish-gray that so many older people have. There's an occasional close-up of a gnarled and age-spotted hand, but Moore still seemed too young for me. Also jarring was the fact that Coburn didn't update his character's language. An old woman in 1977 would have used such expressions as "My lands!" and "As the Lord is my savior," as Fonsia does; but this new Gin Game seems to be set in the present day, and these lines don't ring true as the words of a contemporary senior citizen when Moore says them

But my biggest problem with this presentation was that both Van Dyke and Moore spoke and moved with too much energy for the 70-75 that Coburn states Weller is and the 65-70 he assigns to Fonsia. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy seemed much older to me -- but were they? I followed this Gin Game viewing with the tape that Tandy and Cronin made of the play in 1984. No question: they looked more wrinkled than Van Dyke and Moore.

I decided to check on the ages of those concerned and found that Moore was born on December 29, 1937, so she's now 65, and Van Dyke was born on December 14, 1925, which makes him 77. Given that Cronyn was born on July 18, 1911, he was actually younger than Van Dyke -- 73 -- when he taped the play. Tandy was born on June 7, 1909, so she was then 75, a decade older than Mary Tyler Moore is now. Still, Moore seemed more than 10 years younger -- not just in her face but in the way she moved. (Again, she had been a dancer and may have remained limber for that reason.)

It's often said that the average senior citizen of today looks better than the average senior citizen of yesteryear, who looked better than the average senior citizen before him. An awareness of what foods are good and bad, as well as exercise and improved living conditions, are just some of the many reasons given for this phenomenon. But I suspect that Van Dyke and Moore will always strike me as being much younger than Cronyn and Tandy because I grew up with them. Moore's roughly a decade older than I, and Van Dyke two. But when I first laid eyes on Cronyn and Tandy -- in A Delicate Balance in 1967 -- they were in their 50s and I had just entered my 20s. That extra 10 years is a much bigger age differential when you're young.

Time's a funny thing. If someone had asked me beforehand, "Who'd been working together longer when they preserved their performances of The Gin Game, Cronyn and Tandy or Van Dyke and Moore?" I would have immediately said "Cronyn and Tandy, of course." Yet while that couple first appeared together on Broadway in Hilda Crane in 1950 -- 34 years before they taped their Gin Game -- Van Dyke and Moore had first worked together 41 years before they made their 2003 film. It doesn't seem that long to me because I've paid attention to the entertainment industry for all of the time that they've been around, but Cronyn and Tandy had established careers before I came in.

There was never a time when I saw Cronyn and Tandy as youthful, and since I thought of them as old-timers when I first encountered them, I could think of them in no other context. I'll be interested to hear whether or not you think Van Dyke and Moore seemed old enough for The Gin Game when you see it next month. And I won't be surprised or offended if young viewers think they're ancient indeed.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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