When André De Shields received his first Tony Award in 2019, the 73-year-old actor delivered what he later called “a wisdom bomb.”
His inspirational mini-lecture went viral, boosting the longtime performer’s fame well beyond the acclaim he’d received over the decades for his stage work in “Hadestown,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “The Wiz.”
Encouraging accomplished seniors to deliver more wisdom bombs is the idea behind “70 Over 70,” a podcast that debuted last week. It’s the brainchild of Max Linsky, the Brooklyn-based co-founder of the popular Longform website and podcast.
Linsky and his team have quite a lineup for the next several months. Already recorded are illuminating interviews with Dionne Warwick, Dan Rather, Alice Waters, James E. Clyburn, and Maira Kalman.
“The fact that people are willing to have these conversations with me just because there are mics involved is an incredible scam,” Linsky told me last week, just after finishing recording a session with Norman Lear, the legendary TV writer and producer of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” who will turn 99 this summer.
“I truly can’t think of a better way to spend a Tuesday afternoon than the way I just did, which was talking to Norman Lear about how he learned to stay in the moment. Absolute peak possible Tuesday afternoon for me,” Linsky said.
His conversation with Sister Helen Prejean, the 82-year-old death-penalty-fighting Roman Catholic nun — played by Susan Sarandon in the film “Dead Man Walking” — was the centerpiece of the first episode. It’s hard to imagine anyone listening to it without breaking into laughter at some moments and holding back tears at others. In her appealing New Orleans accent, Prejean gleefully describes her childhood reputation as an impetuous girl with “her feet firmly planted in midair.” And she talks movingly about the deaths of her own family members and her hopes of rejoining them in the afterlife — and, of course, about the challenges of being the spiritual adviser for people on death row.
Linsky is an engaging interviewer whose voice always seems to contain the hint of a smile. His skill is based on deep preparation, as I found out when he interviewed me for a Longform podcast in 2015 about the “agony and ecstasy,” as he put it, of being the New York Times public editor.
He also has the self-discipline to not dominate the conversation, a not-uncommon fault of podcast hosts. He is simply a lot of fun to talk to, which makes his podcasts fun to listen to.
Each episode begins with a brief cameo by someone over 70 who is not famous: a woman who took up the trapeze in old age; a man who returned to playing the church organ after a 50-year break.
The new series is something Linsky had been thinking about for years, but it came into fruition only after a searching conversation with his 80-year-old father, Marty, as he recovered from heart surgery. (Linsky’s 73-year-old mother, Lynn Staley, who had a long career as design director for the Boston Globe and Newsweek, is contributing sketches of the guests to accompany each episode.)
After his father’s recovery, Linsky, who has just turned 40, started focusing more intently on the meaningful but mysterious parts of human existence: how to make the most of whatever time we have, how to think about the arc of life and death, what has been learned that might be shared.
Although the guests are a diverse lot — from Madeleine Albright to Raffi — some common themes have emerged: Almost everyone has talked about the importance of being fully present in the moment. They’ve also expressed little fear when Linsky asked them how they felt about dying.
“Basically everyone has answered that joyously,” Linsky told me.
In our youth-worshipping society, where the media is obsessed with parsing the relative merits of Millennials versus Gen Z, older people are too often overlooked. Dismissed, even.
That’s a shame, because they may have the most to offer — if someone would only ask what they’ve learned.
“I don’t understand why more people don’t have that conversation more often, why that isn’t something that is built into our culture,” Linsky told me.
But, he figures, that’s a pretty good reason to go ahead and do it himself.
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