Tony Owen was shedding his street clothes in his air-conditioned bedroom, the walls of which were decorated with glossy photos of himself posing with Frank Leahy, Randolph Scott and other pals of the dim and convivial past. Soon Owen would be driving off in his Rolls-Royce to play tennis, after which he would be returning to his 14th-floor apartment for a bite of lunch that Nino, his Panamanian houseboy, would have prepared in his absence. There are worse ways to spend a Friday in Los Angeles, but Owen was bereft. "Retirement is a bloody bore," he complained, kicking off his Guccis. "I hate it."
Owen emerged from the bedroom, a sturdy, gray-haired figure dressed now in his tennis whites. His gloom was also written in droopy eyes, yet he seemed very much a product of the California good life. As if a lot of tennis and daily workouts in his building's well-stocked gym were not activity enough for a man of 66, Owen also liked to ride his 10-speed bicycle, which he passed as he strode now onto the terrace. He sucked in the morning air. The terrace overlooked the Hillcrest Country Club, where Hollywood go-getters eat lunch and negotiate movie deals richer than the cheesecake on their dessert plates. Tony Owen used to run with the Hollywood crowd both as a producer and as the husband of actress Donna Reed. Owen had made deals, too; he had tasted Hillcrest's cheesecake.
But then, four years ago, Owen slipped into retirement, joining the ranks of the 20 million Americans whom gerontologists call, poetically, "pioneers in leisure." The phrase implies that retirement can be treacherous, but it also suggests this: that if ours is fast becoming a leisure culture—and a shorter work week, longer vacations and a $100 billion-a-year recreation boom all point in that direction—then the retired are blazing trails that the entire population, including the young, soon will be following.
One might expect to find the most successful pioneers among men like Tony Owen. Retired on comfortable incomes, they are in the unusual position of having both the time and money to do largely as they please. They are spared the economic worries that in the extreme reduce some retirees to shoplifting for food. But retirement can be an ordeal in the best of circumstances. Even in a leisure culture, work retains a hold on the generation now of retirement age. These are people marked by the Depression and schooled in the work ethic, and some of them find life without toil so unpalatable as to reverse the definition that work is what one has to do, play what one wants to. As usual, Shakespeare put it best: "If all the year were playing holidays/To sport would be as tedious as to work."
The odd thing in Tony Owen's case was that he gave few signs of having fallen so hopelessly under work's sway. He proudly referred to himself as "a vital guy," but his most creative energies often seemed directed at sneaking away to Palm Springs to hit a tennis ball or jetting off to Chicago and New Orleans to see pro football games. He turned out a succession of forgettable grade-B films like Beyond Mombasa and Duel in the Jungle and also produced his wife's long-running TV series The Donna Reed Show. The series fizzled in 1966 and the marriage, which also had a long run—26 years and four children—underwent a similar fate soon after. In 1970 Owen suffered a mild stroke, but he recovered and can joke about its momentary effects on his tennis game. "I'd swing up here," he says, wildly waving his arms, "and the ball would be down there."
But what finally brought about Owen's retirement were the changes that came over the Hollywood he knew—the Hollywood, significantly, of happy endings. It was a classic case of human obsolescence, a circumstance that Owen discussed before leaving for his tennis date.
"A good love story or Western used to be money in the bank," Owen said, settling onto a couch, "but I don't understand the movies these days. That's why I wouldn't want to risk anybody's money on them. That's why if the head of a studio said to me, 'Tony, you can do whatever you want,' I'd have to turn him down. I don't even have lunch with old associates anymore because I can't stand hearing them talk business." He paused. "Sure, I never liked the movie business that much, but you can't just spend your life going to football games or playing tennis."
Owen launched into a recital of how he was approached several years ago by an old friend, also a producer, who wanted his opinion on a couple of scripts. Each time Owen replied the same way. "What's it about?" he said. "I don't know what to make of it." One script was for the pilot of the TV series The Monkees, the other for the movie Five Easy Pieces.
"Big, big, big hits," Tony Owen moaned, remembering.
Leaving Nino alone in the apartment, Owen drove his cocoa-brown Rolls through the shady, virtually deserted streets of Beverly Hills. A few minutes later the car disappeared behind a high wall, stopping in the driveway of a large white-brick house with freshly painted brown shutters. The house had been built by film stars Constance Bennett and Gilbert Roland but belonged now to Archie Preissman, a millionaire real-estate man who, at 76, refuses to retire. Preissman plays tennis three mornings a week, inviting friends to join him on his discreetly landscaped private court.