Pop Culture

A new It girl: Starlet, 97, is just getting started

Hollywood’s starmakers always are on the lookout for a fresh new face, and they found one in Mae Laborde, albeit of the wrinkled variety.

Laborde, 97, is just four years into her acting career and hotter than ever. Standing 4 feet 10 inches with snow-white hair, rosy-red cheeks and a peaches-and-cream smile, she’s becoming TV’s ubiquitous grandma.

She was “Wheel of Fortune’s” Vanna White (40 years in the future) for a recent episode of “MADtv.” She was the stunned fiancée whose boyfriend finally gets around to proposing in a jewelry commercial. She faced down the Grim Reaper himself in a bit about elderly people without health insurance for “Real Time With Bill Maher.”

She’s also been a cheerleader on ESPN, appeared in a Lexus commercial, had a recurring role on Spike Feresten’s “Talkshow,” and appeared in a JP Morgan Chase Bank commercial.

“Now that one paid good!” says Laborde, eyes twinkling under knitted brows and behind rhinestone glasses. Then, lowering her voice conspiratorially, she adds, “I mean, like a few hundred dollars.”

A star is born through newspaper storyAs she speaks, she sits perched on the living room couch of her small Southern California home, just a few blocks from the beach.

What’s the secret to her late-blooming success? She never had any training and, until four years ago, the closest she came to show business was working as a bookkeeper in the late bandleader Lawrence Welk’s office.

“I’m just a natural,” she says with a broad smile as she heads to her dining room table to sift through some of her press clippings.

It’s not unheard of for actors to work well into their 90s, of course. Think George Burns and Bob Hope or, more recently, Gloria Stuart of “Titanic” fame. But all of them started in the business young, unlike Laborde, who didn’t earn her Screen Actors Guild card until she was in her mid-90s.

Her acting career was started by a 2002 Los Angeles Times story, when columnist Steve Lopez, her former neighbor, decided to seek her out for some lighthearted driving tips.

‘She's got that cute little face, and she's very funny’In those days she was well known around Santa Monica as the little old lady who barreled up and down her neighborhood’s hilly streets and across the freeways in a gigantic 1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88. Laborde, who only stopped driving last year, was so small, and the car so big, Lopez wrote, that behind the wheel she looked like a cricket driving a tank.

His description caught the eye of Sherrie Spillane, the veteran L.A. talent agent and ex-wife of the late crime novelist Mickey Spillane. Spillane and Laborde got together for a tea-leaf reading (Laborde’s hobby), and the next thing Spillane knew she had a new client.

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“She’s got this way about her that’s so endearing that everybody falls in love with her,” Spillane says. “She’s got that cute little face, and she’s very funny.”

Laborde also has nearly a century of experience to draw on when the director yells action.

She arrived in Los Angeles from her hometown of Fresno at the height of the Great Depression, meeting her husband when he was the conductor on L.A.’s fabled old Red Car trolley line, which she used to take her home from work.

A few years later, her husband and baby daughter in tow, she moved into a tiny, straight-out-of-a-storybook house on a street so narrow that cars traveling in opposite directions can’t pass if someone has parked at the curb. Santa Monica then was a quaint town of beach cottages.

Seventy years later, many of those cottages have been razed in favor of multimillion-dollar “McMansions.” Laborde’s remains unchanged. Even the orchid-colored tile the young mother picked out for her 1930s-era bathroom remains.

Actress' secret to long life: Never retire
As the years passed, Laborde always kept working at one job or another, going on to outlive both her husband, Nicholas, and their only child, Shirley.

A Girl Scout leader for her daughter’s troop, she has kept in touch with most of her daughter’s friends. Now in their 70s, they ask for secrets to living a long life. She tells them to never retire.

When she was 89 Laborde took a police training course just for fun, and she still cooks for herself, paints and raises tomatoes in her garden that she sells to a restaurant.

But she’ll drop whatever she’s doing when there’s a call for an audition.

Recently she landed a small role in a forthcoming movie opposite Ben Stiller. She’ll be the grandmotherly lady sitting in a restaurant near Stiller and his girlfriend as they speculate what their lives will be like at that age.

“I don’t know anyone else her age that could keep up with her,” says Spillane, who has become both her agent and friend.

“But then I don’t know anyone else her age,” Spillane adds with a laugh.

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