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Eightysomethings Ruby Dee, Holbrook reflect on Oscars

LOS ANGELES - Ruby Dee and Hal Holbrook have rarely crossed paths in their acting careers, but they have much in common.

Both were born in Cleveland a few months apart in the 1920s. Both developed an early passion for literature. Both shaped early professional lives largely on the stage, then gradually built venerable half-century careers in film and television.

Both have won Emmys, yet inclusion in the highest honors in show business, the Academy Awards, eluded them until this year, when Dee became the second-oldest actor and Holbrook the third-oldest ever nominated.

Dee is up for supporting actress as Mama Lucas, the mother of Denzel Washington's Harlem drug lord in Ridley Scott's 'American Gangster,' while Holbrook is nominated for supporting actor as Ron Franz, a lonely widower living in the desert who befriends Emile Hirsch's free-spirited wanderer in Sean Penn's 'Into the Wild.'

Longtime acquaintances, the two actors sat down together with The Associated Press at the secluded Hotel Bel Air before the American Association of Retirement Persons' Movies for Grownups Awards, where Holbrook received a lifetime-achievement honor and Dee earned the prize for best supporting actress age 50 or older.

Neither feels slighted that they never received an Oscar nomination before now. They gave up such dreams long ago, saying the roles they were able to land were not the stuff Oscars are made of; Dee because of her race, Holbrook because of his typecasting as an attorney or corporate suit.

'It was an exclusive club as far as African-Americans were concerned, and also Asians and Indians and other groups,' said Dee, 83, whose 'American Gangster' role earned her the supporting-actress trophy at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. 'I didn't have the kind of talent or personality that kept me dreaming about Hollywood. They don't hire little colored girls to do this or that. After I got that in my head, I took another direction.'

Holbrook, whose 83rd birthday falls one week before the Feb. 24 Oscars, said he'd given up on an Academy Award.

'The chances were none,' he said, 'because I was at a point in my career before Sean gave me this wonderful role where I was playing pretty predictable guys in pinstriped suits mostly, which is not natural to me, to tell you the truth. I don't know lawyers very well. I don't even want to know lawyers very well. I'm an outdoors person.'

Growing up in Harlem after her family left Cleveland for New York, Dee developed a taste for poetry and joined the American Negro Theater while studying at Hunter College. She worked extensively in theater and television and co-starred in such films as 'The Jackie Robinson Story' and 'A Raisin in the Sun.'

Dee and husband Ossie Davis, who died in 2005, worked together so often on stage, television and film that they were almost a package deal. Their credits including Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing' and 'Jungle Fever,' and the stage and film versions of Davis' play 'Purlie Victorious.'

An Emmy winner for the TV movie 'Decoration Day,' Dee did a guest spot on Burt Reynolds' 1990s TV comedy 'Evening Shade,' on which Davis and Holbrook were regulars.

After studying drama in college, Holbrook toured in theater, was a regular on the 1950s soap opera 'The Brighter Day' and debuted his best-known character in 1959 with the one-man show 'Mark Twain, Tonight.'

Holbrook has played the author in thousands of performances and did a TV version of the show in 1967. A five-time Emmy winner for such parts as the title roles in the political drama 'The Senator' and 'Sandburg's Lincoln,' Holbrook had a recurring part on the 1980s sitcom 'Designing Women,' which co-starred his wife, Dixie Carter.

Though Holbrook had a memorable role as Deep Throat in 'All the President's Men,' he rarely found big-screen parts worthy of his talents.

Despite their ages, Dee and Holbrook said the awards attention 'American Gangster' and 'Into the Wild' have gained them bring new career prospects. Dee also figures her late husband still is looking out for her.

'Suddenly, I'm doing project after project since Ossie has been gone, and I'm going, mmm hmm, there is something to this life after. He's up there picketing or pulling strings or something,' Dee said, speaking on the third anniversary of his death. 'Both of us always believed in the strange power of the eternal life. Life can't die. It's a contradiction. So he's still working up there.'

Besides acting, Dee has kept busy writing lyrics and dialogue for musicals, saying she feels confident she could have a new career as a writer.

'Yeah, I have a feeling of confidence now, too, about the career,' said Holbrook, adding that a number of potential film jobs may come his way because of 'Into the Wild.' 'The last several years, any roles I've been offered in a movie you could count on half of one hand, maybe one hand. Somebody said to me the other day, 'Hal, your career is just beginning.' Maybe it is and maybe it isn't, who knows? Maybe all this stuff will fall out.'

'You know, Hal, I think something's happening for the senior,' Dee told Holbrook. 'We're living 25 years on average longer than we used to. I think there's some use for us after a time, and I'm beginning to see that not only for myself. There's more of us living longer. Also, we buy things, so we comprise a commercial market. I think something is changing and that we have the power to help make the changes. ...

'I'm for the army of elders, you understand? I believe we've got a lot of work to do.'

Both Dee and Holbrook said they were surprised by their Oscar nominations, noting that they had relatively little screen time. Even so, one more thing the two have in common is who they're cheering for on Oscar night.

'I'm rooting for you,' Holbrook told Dee. 'I hope you're rooting for me, dear.'

Replied Dee: 'Oh, yes.'