Not always. Take the case of Nan Tepper, who deferred her dream for half a century but, at 77, is now winning plaudits as the iron-willed grandmother in Neil Simon's play, "Lost in Yonkers," at Theatre 40.
When Nan (then Brodie) was in grade school in Centerville, Iowa (pop. 8,500, including 12 Jewish families) she played the younger sister in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" at the local community center, and her dream of life upon the stage was born.
The dream moved a step closer to realization when the family moved to Los Angeles at the end of World War II. She was cast in plays at Los Angeles High School and later at UCLA, where she majored in theater arts.
In her college freshman year, Nan met Paul Tepper, a veteran studying under the GI Bill, and they married during the following Easter vacation.
The new Mrs. Tepper got her degree in theater arts in 1952, but like many young couples in those days, the wife went to work while the husband continued with graduate studies.
Her first job was as a script typist at CBS, although her test evaluation was "types very fast but with lots of mistakes."
"I still remember typing the scripts for 'Amos 'n' Andy,' 'My Friend Irma' and 'The Burns and Allen Show,'" Tepper said.
She started moving up the ladder after switching to the local CBS Channel 2, but for the next seven years she was busy giving birth to and raising two sons.
Meanwhile, Paul had earned his law degree and started working for the city attorney's office, while Nan went back to full-time work in 1966 as a researcher in the KNXT-TV Channel 2 news room.
"There was only one woman reporter in those days, Ruth Ashton Taylor, and no minorities," Nan recalled, but as she rose from researcher to producer, work was never dull.
"We covered the Watts Riots, civil rights struggle, busing, Vietnam and political conventions with reporters and anchors of the caliber of Bill Stout, Jerry Dunphy, Jere Witter, Maury Green, Linda Douglass and Connie Chung," she said.
By the mid-1980s, Tepper was ready for executive responsibilities and was named vice president and director of human resources for the CBS West Coast network.
She retired in 1998, for two main reasons.
"I was 68 and felt I had done it all," Tepper said.
At the same time, her husband Paul had suffered two strokes and was wheelchair bound.
Now she started to take the first tentative steps to realize her long-deferred ambitions. She took weekly acting classes, went to auditions and started getting small parts in small theaters.
Once on stage before a live audience, "I had the feeling that this was what I had always wanted to do," she said. "I had been a student, wife, mother, news executive and caregiver, but I had always promised myself that one day I would be an actor."
Paul died in 2005, and her stage work helped Nan Tepper to deal with the loss and resume her life.
Although there are not all that many roles for older women, she has been working steadily, mainly with the Theatre 40 and Theatre West companies, but also an occasional TV appearance.
One of her assets is an excellent ear for accents. In one play, she sported both an Irish brogue and a Jewish dialect, in another drama she was a Russian newcomer, and currently she is a German immigrant.
"I am having a wonderful time," Tepper said. "I have learned that if you feel you have a passion or talent, don't be afraid to take a risk. Suppose I make a fool of myself? At this point in my life, I have nothing to lose and everything to gain."
Among the major gains has been the friendship and backing of her younger colleagues and of Howard Teichman, her favorite director.
Most important is the encouragement of family and friends. "My late husband was tremendously supportive, and so are my children and their families," Tepper said. "After all, what your kids want most is for you to be happy and fulfilled."
'Yonkers' Takes up Residence in Beverly Hills
Besides its multimillion-dollar mansions, luxury stores and, recently, Iranian Jewish mayor, Beverly Hills is also home to Theatre 40, which, year in and year out, offers some of the Southland's most enjoyable stage experiences.
The professional company gets its 2008-2009 season off to an auspicious start with Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers."
While sprinkled with the prolific playwright's patented punchlines, the drama probes deeply into the pains of a three-generational Jewish family, dominated by an iron-willed matriarch.
Simon, who won his only Pulitzer Prize for "Yonkers," wrote the play in 1991, but set the action in the homefront of wartime America in 1942.
The Kurnitz family lives in a small Yonkers apartment above its candy store, owned by Grandma, an immigrant from Germany with steel gray hair and a cane, who has buried two children and has twisted the lives of the remaining four.
Living with Grandma is daughter Bella, a 35-year-old woman with a childlike mind. A second daughter, Gert, has an odd speech impediment, which is played for a lot of laughs, even in our politically correct era.
The two sons are Louie, a small-time mobster, and feckless Eddie, who borrowed money from a loan shark to succor his wife during her terminal illness.
Eddie is paying Grandma a rare visit, hoping that she will take in his two boys, Jay, 16, and Arty, 13, for a year while the father accepts a well-paying job as a traveling salesman in the South to earn enough money to pay off his debts.
The two boys' aversion to staying with the intimidating matriarch is exceeded only by Grandma's hostility to the idea, but eventually everybody settles in for months of domestic guerrilla warfare, lightened by flashes of humor.
The two main protagonists, or antagonists, are Grandma and Bella and the two have it out in a wrenching final scene. Both win in the end, with Bella finally asserting her independence and Grandma digging into her past to explain her deep bitterness.
Director Howard Teichman has drawn strong performances from a fine cast, particularly from Nan Tepper and Maria Spassoff in the key roles of Grandma and Bella. Rarely has a generational conflict been portrayed with more tension and naked acrimony.
"Lost in Yonkers," playing in repertory with David Marshall Grant's "Pen," continues through Aug. 28 at Theatre 40 on the Beverly Hills High School campus, 241 Moreno Drive. For information and reservations, call (310) 364-0535.