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Lee Benson
Keith Hottinger, 79, of Salt Lake City, has appeared in more than 40 films since he started his acting career at the age of 72.

SALT LAKE CITY — Seven years ago, sometime just after his 72nd birthday, Keith Hottinger decided it was high time he sold the furniture-making business he’d owned for more than 40 years and transition into a lifestyle he’d been dreaming about all his life.

Not retirement.

Show business.

You’ve heard of child actors. Well, Keith is on the other end of that spectrum. For him, the big screen called at 72, not 7.

There are many advantages, he will be the first to tell you, to waiting until after you start drawing Social Security to become a film star. Among them:

No one can say you’re only doing it to please your stage-parent parents.

Less competition. “There aren’t many people my age who can move,” says Hottinger, who will be 80 on his next birthday.

You can drive yourself to all your auditions.

You can afford it. “I wanted to have an income before I tried it,” says Keith, who is using the money he made from selling his business to finance his foray into acting. “One of the worst things when you go for an audition is to be desperate.”

But far and away trumping all of the above is the No. 1 reason Keith decided rather late in life to become an actor: It was his first love.

“I always wanted to do it,” he says, “I finally got to the point where I said, why don’t I do what I always wanted to do?”

Actually, it wasn’t something he always wanted to do. As a kid, he didn’t think one way or the other about acting. He was raised on the south side of Salt Lake. His dad, Leo, made furniture. His mom, Rose, was an honest-to-goodness Rosie the Riveter when Keith was 7 years old and World War II broke out and she went to work making rivets at the Winchester Arms plant on 21st South.

Growing up on 400 East and Hollywood Avenue — how’s that for an omen? — Keith graduated from South High, where he ran on the track team and spent every available weekend skiing in the mountains, after which he entered the University of Utah.

That’s where the acting bug bit him.

Quite by happenstance, he became friends with a fellow undergrad named Jon Jory. Jon was from California and his father, Victor Jory, was a movie actor whose hundreds of screen credits included a memorable role in “Gone With the Wind.”

Periodically, Victor would visit his son in Salt Lake City. Some dads throw footballs to their sons. Victor Jory threw lines and scripts, inviting Keith and other friends of Jon’s along for the show.

Thus inspired, Keith got some parts in several plays at the university and a love affair was born. He considered majoring in theater — called speech at the time. But there was no money in it, so he majored in anthropology instead — only to discover there wasn’t any money in anthropology either.

Just a Spanish credit short of graduation, he bailed on school and joined his dad in the family furniture business, which he eventually took over as his own.

For more than four decades, he made custom furniture and enough money to raise his family and pay off the mortgage.

All the while dreaming not of a rocking chair but an actor’s chair.

After he sold the business in 2006, his big break came in Provo, of all places. He’d answered a casting call for extras in an Old Testament movie. When he arrived on location, he found himself in a line of 200 waiting to be inspected by the director.

“We were all lined up on the road,” remembers Keith, “The director walked down the line, got to me, and said: ‘You. Step out.’ ”

He was cast as a featured extra, which means he had no lines but would be used in close-ups.

After the filming, the director asked him who his agent was.

“Don’t have one,” said Keith.

“Get one,” said the director. “You have a really good face.”

Three agents, seven years, hundreds of auditions and roles in at least 40 movies later — plus another few dozen commercial gigs — Keith strokes the beard he’s maintained all his life and says, “It doesn’t come off.”

His biggest role to date is in an offbeat video called “Fruit Ninja” that has become a YouTube sensation, generating more than 24 million hits.

“I’ve got friends all over the world from that,” says Keith, who says he would work every day “if I could score the parts.”

“I love it,” he says. “I don’t ever want to give up on life, man, it’s too much fun.”

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Besides that, he swears he’s getting younger, not older.

“I’m not with old people. I work with young people,” he says. “They rub off on me. I pick up their sayings. The other day I saw a woman at church who looked nice and I said, ‘You look hot.’ She looked at me like I was trying to hit on her, which I was not. It’s just the way the young people talk. ‘You look good’ is the way we used to say it. I probably should have said that.”

Then again, probably not. If you’re going to be a star, better act like one.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com