Acting Your Age: Ernest Thompson

One of a three-piece series from stars of the entertainment industry who live in our Lakes Region and still shine brightly in their “retirement” years

Ernest Thompson on the Squam Lake dock made famous in his Oscar-winning film, “On Golden Pond.” Photo by Bruce Luetters

Creativity is incurable — and that’s a good thing

What’s the hurry, honey, anyway? is a lyric from a song I wrote titled “Harley Chick,” composed and performed by the amazing Justin Jaymes, but it’s a fair question. I get it when you’re 8 and can’t wait to be double digits, and then count the months until you’re a teenager, and then yearn to drive and then to vote and then to drink legally, but I’ve never bought into the helter-skelter too many people live their lives in, one eye on the speedometer, one on the rearview mirror, gotta go, gotta go or you’ll be late to your retirement party.

In my business you don’t get to retire; turns out there’s no cure for creativity. Which may account for the fact that I’m typically the oldest kid on the sand volleyball court — I own my own on my farm in the Lakes Region — or on the slopes, on my snowboard, no less, or still dreaming.

Yes, luck plays a part in living a good life, and genes too. Smart choices, I’d contend, also play a role. Thirty-two years of being a practicing vegan, no small challenge in our meat-and-potatoes state, is starting to seem like a pretty practical idea, 32 years of derision notwithstanding.

Here’s a lyric I like and didn’t make up: “Choose happiness.” There are ogres everywhere and trolls under every bridge you try to summon the courage to cross. We live in a world of idiots — have you noticed? — critics and naysayers, haters and hitmen eager to shoot your enthusiasm down. They can slow your forward progress, no question about it, if you choose to let them. I don’t and never have, not for long. I learned in my youth how to do the two-step sidestep if someone’s in my way. Life is too fantastic and there’s too much to accomplish to linger long on the dead-end roads to nowhere.

Ernest Thompson on Squam Lake Photo by Bruce Luetters

So what does a boy of 70 do with a credo like that? Live every day, play as often as possible. Write every day, for sure. There’s no shortage of stories to tell and, whenever I can, I tap the inexhaustible mother lode of talent New Hampshire’s rich with. I’ve shot three movies in-state and am working on two more, the long-overdue sequel to you-know-what, and “Parallel America,” my hilarious and deeply moving response to the madness our nation finds itself caught up in, a project, like most of what I do, open to anyone who wants to come be part of it.

In 2019, I directed a New York workshop of my play “Ax Of Love,” and a sold-out run of “On Golden Pond” at the Winnipesaukee Playhouse. I delivered an Amos Fortune talk in Jaffrey and filled Concord’s Red River Theatres with a screening of my film “1969.” I hosted a fundraiser concert at Pitman’s Freight Room in Laconia, and a songwriting workshop with my longtime collaborator Joe Deleault to finish a year that also included writing a new screenplay, a pilot and a passel of songs. And then had a nice nap.

I’m honored to share this space with one of my oldest (and I don’t mean merely in time served) friends, the venerable Estelle Parsons (read Estelle Parsons’ “Acting Your Age” piece). She classed up a play of mine in the early ’80s, “A Sense of Humor,” costarring with another Lake Winnipesaukee wunderkind, Jack Lemmon. As is frequently true in the entertainment labyrinth, our paths keep crossing, doing a New York reading of my play “White People Christmas” a few seasons ago and sharing a common passion — trying to draw attention to the plight of prisoners released back into the wild with limited confidence that our fear-based culture will make room for them. Estelle approaches the subject with the extraordinary play she’s developed, “Re-Entry,” and my wife Kerrin and I have initiated an in-house program called Rescind Recidivism, and produced the aforementioned fundraiser featuring 21 singers and musicians performing 30 songs I wrote with or without them. Busy, you may conclude, is a theme here and it’s something I stay; I stay busy. Every time I run into Estelle, I’m reminded what an excellent policy that is.

One of the superstars at our shindig was fellow contributor to this magazine’s choir of angels, the irrepressible force of nature John Davidson, my newest old friend (read John Davidson’s “Acting Your Age” piece). He too sang a song of mine, “Live Free Or Die.” Try to guess what it’s about. Right, what this article’s about. Live fully or don’t bother. Live your life as if it’s the only one you’re gonna get. John and Estelle and I have the unique and perhaps questionable privilege of working in a business where being young is arguably an asset but staying young is essential. Also inevitable; no one’s ever required to grow up in the Never Never Land of film and theatre.

As I consistently say at my Write On Golden Pond workshops and firmly believe, every human on earth is a storyteller, we all have something to contribute to the betterment of society, we’re all artists, in our singular ways. Visit any playground of any elementary school in the world and you’ll hear little children playing Let’s Pretend. Sometimes, sadly, that glorious lack of inhibition gets stifled but I know for a fact that it’s still in all of us. And you know it too, don’t you? I declined to have mine squashed. If yours isn’t readily available, we should talk about that.

About the author: Ernest Thompson has won an Academy Award, Golden Globe, Writers Guild Award and Broadway Drama Guild Award for best play. His work has been nominated for a Tony, an Emmy and a British Academy Award. His more than 35 plays have been seen in theaters around the world. The most enduring, “On Golden Pond,” has been translated into 30 languages, Arabic the newest, and played in more than 40 countries on six continents. When asked how long he’s lived in the state, Thompson, whose parents lived in Walpole when he was born, replied, “I’ve never missed spending at least a few days in New Hampshire every year of my life so the math is fuzzy, but 70 years maybe as a Granite Stater at heart. Or 29 as a taxpayer.” Photo by Bruce Luetters

It’s true that at an early age I got struck by a lightning bolt named Oscar, but I really think I’d still be getting up with every sunrise and writing regardless. First of all, I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t or couldn’t. But, just as crucially, it’s a pleasure, it’s an honor, it’s a riot capturing the cadences and peccadilloes of our fabulously eccentric friends and neighbors in the great state of New Hampshire.

A lot of my stories are set here and they arrive in every form imaginable, emphasis on imagine, play, movie, novel, song. See above, “Harley Chick.” Could there be a more perfect anthem for the Granite State? Yes, “Live Free Or Die,” sung by John Davidson.

You can hear them both if you come looking; not only that, you can own them too. Their message, I mean, because it’s basically the same one and a concept that seems to run through my work. Embrace the opportunity you’ve been blessed with, whether it’s on a bike or on a lake or in your heart. You never know what’s waiting for you around the corner until you get there, if you do, if you don’t get distracted by another writer’s sage advice and take some road less traveled.

That’s what keeps me going and will, I hope, until it doesn’t: the curiosity born of a life in the most beautiful place on Earth, the state I choose to continue calling home, that I celebrate and marvel at and appreciate everywhere I go. And miss something wicked when my work or my curiosity takes me elsewhere. New Hampshire is a terrific place to come home to and to live free in, fully and with purpose. That’s what I do. It keeps me young.

“Live Free Or Die” Addendum

You can’t live in New Hampshire without hearing music everywhere you go. I’ve gotten to collaborate with some of the Granite State’s greatest talents, from the sadly gone but never forgotten Mighty Sam McClain to Manchester maestro Joe Deleault, the Lakes Region’s Ray Porcell and Justin Jaymes, and another angel departed too soon, Joe Droukas, the Crunchy Western Boys and Liz Simmons, new arrival John Davidson and the ageless stalwart Art Harriman, with whom I wrote “Live Free Or Die.” Our valentine to our homeland, we call it. John’s in the process or recording it; you’ll hear it playing soon, everywhere you go.

On Songwriting

What makes a song sing

Is so hard to explain

If a lyric takes wing

In some part of your brain

That’s for sure such a pure start

And you’ve got to listen a lot

But it’s not quite sizzling hot

Until it touches your heart

That’s from this year’s song to my bride. I write one every anniversary — I highly recommend it, as it can keep a man in good standing, even if he sings like a lonely moose on a mountaintop. Anyone can rhyme, if he or she takes the time; the rewards can be concordant, incessant and sublime. You hear that? Visit my website (ernestthompson.us) and find out when our next songwriting workshop is coming up, how to enroll and how to make your own song sing. It may get you invited down from the mountain and at least into the barn. Females of the species too, natch. They’re usually way ahead of us in accessing the emotional harmony the whole world needs to dance to.

Categories: Music & Movies, People, Seniors

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