Sex & Death in the Afternoon: An Oral History of the American Soap Opera
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by Lisa Rosen
Come with us now, on a long and twisty journey; a search for tomorrow and a look back on the days of our lives. Romance! Love! Agony! Adultery! Angry aliens! The American soap opera has seen them all, and much more. Their history is the history of TV itself—a genre that once held the fortunes of all three major networks in its hands. At its height, 19 shows represented 20 million loyal viewers who hung on to every tortured plot point, and went along for the ride when their programs shattered taboo after taboo. Now the daytime soap is on the brink of extinction. So join us for a wild, uncensored look behind the scenes of the rise, fall, and possible resurrection of an American Institution.
Part I: The Addiction Begins (1932–1963)
They started out on radio—live, 10- to 15-minute chunks of ongoing romance, anguish, and high drama, all aimed squarely at housewives and sponsored, as their moniker suggests, by soap conglomerates such as Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive. The first of the half hour–long television soaps, As the World Turns and The Edge of Night, premiered on the same day in 1956. And there was no turning back. Soaps quickly garnered a freakishly dedicated audience that was in agony every Friday when their “stories” left them with a cliffhanger. ?
The genre’s first auteur was an eccentric writer, producer, and former actress named Irna Phillips. She invented her first daytime network radio serial in 1930 at the age of 31 and then went on to create many of the biggest titles in radio and TV. In the same years she churned out 2 million words a year. And in doing so, she single-handedly invented most of the conventions that have defined soaps for the past century.
Ken Corday, executive producer, Days of Our Lives (1985–present), and a second-generation soap man (son of Days co-creators Ted and Betty Corday): Irna Phillips was the grand pharaoh of soap operas. She really cooked up all of it. She was a brilliant woman who lived a very secluded life. She only traveled by train; she never stayed above the second floor of any hotel. All of us knew about her quirks. But her imagination was so vivid that she was able to personify so many aspects of life and get them down on the page—and then into people’s homes.
Tim Brooks, former NBC executive, TV historian: There was a lot of experimentation going on in those days; stations and networks were just getting up and running. They were all trying to figure out this new medium. Soaps were a big part of that process. What could be done with them dramatically? And how much could they make? No one knew.
Ken Corday: My earliest memory is picking out the logo for As the World Turns with my father at the Museum of Natural History—that incredibly famous film clip of the Earth turning around and around. I was about 5. The show went on the air in 1956.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, soaps were increasingly welcomed into the daily lives of American women. Fans identified so strongly with the characters that the line between reality and fantasy often blurred. No matter what your life was really like, the life of a soap character was infinitely more interesting.
Sam Ford, co-editor, The Survival of Soap Opera: I had a high school teacher who came home from school one day, and her mother was talking to her aunt on the phone, saying, “You won’t believe what happened to Joe!” She listened to the conversation, and it was getting worse and worse, and she thought, “My God, which neighbor could she be talking about?” Of course, they were discussing soaps.
Wendy Riche, executive producer, General Hospital (1992–2001), Port Charles (1997–1999): Soaps first came into my consciousness when I moved back in with my parents—pregnant and not married. My mother was watching Days of Our Lives, and she said, “Ooh, look Wendy, they’ve got a story on that’s just like you!”
William Reynolds, writer, presidential historian, The Edge of Night superfan: In 1961, on The Edge of Night, a character was killed saving her toddler from an oncoming car. The switchboards lit up so much at CBS that the actors who played the husband and wife on the show appeared as themselves at the end of an episode a few days later to explain why the character was killed. Nothing like this had happened before, or since, on a daytime or nighttime show.
Between 1951 and 1959, 35 soaps had premiered— most produced in New York City—and the need for actors was overwhelming. While the genre was often derided for offering some of the worst acting ever broadcast, most of the thespians actually came from Broadway or film. It took a special performer to memorize a 44-page script up to five days a week for 50 weeks a year.
Don Hastings, actor (Jack Lane, The Edge of Night, 1956–1960, and Dr. Bob Hughes, As the World Turns, 1960–2010): Almost all of us came out of the theater or radio. There was no such thing as a “soap actor.”
Chris Goutman, executive producer, As the World Turns (1999–2010): I’ve been with the best theater and film actors who’ve been thrown into day roles on shows and who just couldn’t hack it.
William J. Reynolds: I always remember the episode where Lobo Haines kidnapped Mike Karr (actor Forrest Compton) on The Edge of Night in 1972. Karr was taken to a warehouse, tied up, and blindfolded, and because Compton was blindfolded, he couldn’t see the teleprompter, and he skipped a whole act’s worth of dialogue. This was aired live.
Don Hastings: It was murder. There were a lot of actors who would do one show and quit.
Erika Slezak, Daytime Emmy award–winning actress (Viki Lord, One Life to Live, 1971–present): (Producer) Doris Quinlan said to me, “I’d love to have your father (Tony award–winning actor Walter Slezak) on the show, but I can’t afford him.” I said, “Well, just ask him.” He spent three days on the show. He said it was the most difficult, nerve-wracking thing he’d ever done. We rehearsed all day and then taped at 4:30 p.m. He was used to six weeks of rehearsal. I was really worried about him because he kept saying, “It’s so hard! It’s so hard!”
Chris Goutman: One actor wrote his lines on the rim of his plate during restaurant scenes. You just hoped he would spin the plate in the right direction, so he’d get his lines right.
Jacklyn Zeman, actress (Bobbie Spencer, General Hospital, 1977–present): There were no makeup changes or hair changes during a show. That’s why we’d have full makeup on when we were shown in bed. The scene before might have been in a restaurant. During the commercial break you had only two minutes to get your negligee on—that was it. People didn’t understand why we all looked so glamorous while lying in bed. It wasn’t because we were too vain to take off our makeup; it’s because we didn’t have time.
Kimberly McCullough, actress (Robin Scorpio, General Hospital, 1985–present): There was this one actress who was really mad because she was fired, so on her last line of her last scene she opened up her shirt, took her bra off, looked at the camera, and said “F--- you!” and walked off the set. Stuff like that happened all the time. I think every door in the building was broken from someone slamming it.
Ken Corday: William Bell (creator of The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful) had a great quote: “Give me a great script, two wonderful actors, and a waterfall—and who in God’s name needs the waterfall?”
Part II: Leave No Taboo Unbroken (1962–1972)
Despite highbrow disdain for soaps, the genre has constantly pushed the envelope on TV’s depiction of socially sensitive issues such as abortion, rape, drug addiction, and homosexuality. In 1962, when Agnes Nixon—Irna Phillips’ protégé and successor as the most powerful writer-producer in the business—proposed a story that dealt with cervical cancer (inspired by a friend’s death from the disease), the network and sponsor recoiled in horror. Nixon used her clout to get it made. After this, the taboos fell fast and hard, making prime time seem tame by comparison.
Kay Alden, co–head writer, The Young and the Restless (1973–2007), The Bold and the Beautiful (2007–present): Agnes (Nixon), more than any single individual, realized she could use her shows as a vehicle to get messages out about things that were important. She was largely responsible for first making women aware of the importance of getting a Pap smear. Agnes did that story, and it was huge, and it was fabulous.
Michael Fairman, soap journalist and advocate: Erica Kane had daytime TV’s first legal abortion, on All My Children (in 1973). It was like, they’re going to tell an abortion story? And use Erica Kane? It was such a big deal. But they botched it years later—the story line, not the abortion—by negating that it was an abortion. Instead, it turns out she’d had a demon-seed child.
Tina Sloan, actress (Kate Thornton Cannell, Somerset, 1974–76, and Lillian Raines, Guiding Light, 1983–2009): I had my TV abortion shortly after Erica Kane had hers. It was one of the first depicted in any way on television, on Somerset in 1974. Ted Danson, who played a scheming lawyer, went with me to get it. And then I was punished for ?it by going completely insane.
Ken Corday: It was always a battle. In 1968 we wrote a story line that had one of our characters, Tommy Horton, return from Vietnam with amnesia and post-traumatic stress disorder. War was completely raging at the time, and the network wouldn’t let us mention it in any way whatsoever. They said, “No, let’s just say that he came back from Korea.” We said, “Wait, Korea was 1950 … this is 1968!” But they insisted that we couldn’t talk about Vietnam. So he came back from Korea.
Soaps continued to fight the networks and sponsors by weaving controversial issues into their story-lines. None brought as much attention—and respect—as the honest depictions of the AIDS epidemic on One Life to Live and General Hospital.
Michael Fairman: On General Hospital, they brought in Stone (Michael Sutton) as a love interest for Robin. They had unprotected sex. He was HIV positive. She got the virus from him. So while he died, she lived.
Wendy Riche: We figured that if we did that story through the innocence of an intelligent girl, we would be able to have a big impact—it’s not just gay people or heroin addicts that get AIDS; it’s anybody.
Michael Fairman: That story broke our hearts.
Wendy Riche: We did a spin-off ABC Afterschool Special with Kimberly and Michael. It was called “Positive: A Journey into AIDS.” We took them to a real hospice, which is where we taped.
Kimberly McCullough: There was this guy there, Lewis, who I connected with right away. He was going blind, so I was reading to him. I went back for the taping and found out he had died a few days before. They hadn’t told me, because they wanted to get my reaction on camera. I was so pissed off at the producers for putting me in that position that I almost didn’t finish the special. I didn’t want to be used as an actor playing a character to represent something. It became about me at that moment.
Soaps introduced more and more gay characters into their stories, though not all were steps forward. One Life to Live featured a closeted gay district attorney who killed two people to cover his secret. On the other hand, Eden Riegel’s character on All My Children became a gay icon.
Eden Riegel, actress (Bianca Montgomery, All My Children, 2000–2010, and Heather Stevens, The Young and the Restless, 2010–present): Bianca was the first main character who was a lesbian. She was an essential character because she was Erica Kane’s daughter.
Julie Hanan Carruthers, executive producer, All My Children (2003–present): In the focus groups in cities around the country, people were like, “She’s Erica Kane’s daughter—there’s no way she’s gay! She’s just mixed up. They’re going to send her to a psychiatrist and fix her.”
Eden Riegel: Agnes was inspired by what was then going on with Cher and Chastity Bono.
Julie Hanan Carruthers: Over time, viewers got to know the characters as people and not as labels.
Eden Riegel: It didn’t seem like a big deal to me. It was only later that I realized how groundbreaking this was. Soaps are geared toward Middle America, and these people were inviting a gay person into their living rooms every day. It was powerful, and because of that particular medium, I think it changed a lot of minds.
Part III: The Go-Go Glory Years (1973–1999)
A 1976 Time cover story featured the soaps’ first supercouple, Bill and Susan Hayes, whose on-screen romance on Days of Our Lives mirrored a widely publicized off-screen affair. Daytime dramas had become a phenomenon, with 20 million viewers—and a revenue that paid for the networks’ primetime offerings. Soaps were now watched by nearly everyone, from Gerald Ford to Sammy Davis, Jr. The networks pushed the concept to primetime with Dynasty and Dallas.
Bill Hayes, actor (Doug Williams, Days of Our Lives, 1970–present): Susan and I met in 1970, doing some scenes together. Our producer, Bill Bell, saw something flashing between our eyes and said, “Whoa—I’m going with a new story.” And he started writing fabulous stuff for us.
Susan Seaforth Hayes, actress (Julie Olson Williams, Days of Our Lives, 1968–present): We had a wonderful romance on the show, which evolved into an off-screen romance. ?My mother told me, “Never fall in love with male nurses or actors.” I don’t know why she was so negative about nurses.
Bill Hayes: In 1974, Susan and I got married in my living room with 16 people. In 1976, when Doug and Julie got married, we had 16 million people.
Ken Corday: The networks tried to outdo each other. We’d spend hundreds of thousands of dollars going on location. We went to Greece, to France. And primetime started to imitate daytime. But daytime was better.
Suzanne Rogers, actress (Maggie Horton, Days of Our Lives, 1973–present): A lot of firemen came up to me and said they loved my show. I guess they don’t fight fires all the time. They’re in the firehouse; how often can they wash those hoses?
William Reynolds: In 1973, the Watergate hearings were televised. Nobody wanted to preempt soaps on all three networks at once, so they had to rotate coverage. One day CBS would air the hearings, the next day NBC, and the next ABC.
The 1980s might well be called the Luke and Laura Decade. The undisputed super heavyweight supercouple from General Hospital started their relationship with rape and ended it at the altar. General Hospital became the wild soap epicenter, mirroring the excesses of the times—on and off the set.
Kimberly McCullough: Everyone was on coke. There were a lot of affairs. There were things I wasn’t picking up on, but I was a kid. As I got older, I was like, “Oh, that’s what’s going on.”
Tristan Rogers, actor (Robert Scorpio, General Hospital, 1981–2008, and Colin Atkinson, The Young and the Restless, 2010–present): It was a crazy decade. As long as you made sense of what you were doing on camera, you could get away with anything.
Michael Fairman: The 1980s started out with [executive producer] Gloria Monty’s resuscitation of GH. The show was dying. It was her idea to bring in Tony Geary and pair him with Genie Francis. Also to break out of the four walls of the studio and start doing location shoots.
Jacklyn Zeman: All of a sudden, it was cool to be on General Hospital.
Kimberly McCullough: I remember one time Jack Wagner and [then-wife] Kristina were doing a love scene, and he didn’t want to get out of bed because he was actually naked. He took the bottle of Champagne they were supposed to be drinking, pulled it under the covers and peed in it. He did stuff like that all the time, and (Kristina) was like, “Jack, oh my God, stop it!”
Tim Brooks: You had guys on soaps who’d take their shirts off in May and wouldn’t put them back on until September.
Genie Francis, actress (Laura Spencer, General Hospital, 1977–2008, Genevieve Atkinson, The Young and the Restless, 2010–present): Gloria [Monty] really had a plan for the two of us. I think the rape was a calculated part of it. People were enraged. It was all over the news. Then they sort of switched the whole thing and called it a rape/seduction. I was supposed to be fascinated by Luke—thankfully, Tony (Geary) made that very easy. I didn’t foresee that the whole thing would become that big. At all.
Michael Fairman: The biggest moment was obviously Luke and Laura’s wedding in 1981. I was inside a Sears, and all of us were watching in the store. It was a huge crowd.
Sam Ford: The wedding episode drew more people than any single daytime episode ever—30 million viewers. That won’t be broken.
Genie Francis: I was always kind of shocked at the hordes of people who were interested in it. It’s a strange experience to think about now. It’s almost like it happened to someone else.
During the Luke and Laura era, General Hospital had celebrity groupies who vied for a cameo. Elizabeth Taylor was their biggest catch.
Tristan Rogers: When Liz came on the show, I had a one-on-one scene with her. She had all the dialogue down, a total pro. She walks on with a drink in her hand, and I’ve got my prop drink. I said, “What did they give you to drink?” She said, “Some of that stuff there.” Piled against one wall was all this pink Dom Perignon. She said, “You want a hit? Drain it!” I drained it, thanks. So we’re having our own little fun. Gloria Monty comes out onto the set. Of course she wasn’t going to chew Elizabeth out, so she said to me, “Tristan, this is a professional show, you’re wasting our time.” Liz turned to her and said, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” I had close-ups of the back of my shoes for about a month.
Chris Goutman: I think (Luke and Laura’s wedding) was when soap operas took a wrong turn. We started chasing this chimera, instead of trying to be true to our roots.
Sam Ford: Suddenly every other soap starts pushing their longtime characters far into the back burner, and they each have their super-couple. That might have been a great model to save General Hospital, but when every soap went in that direction, the whole genre changed.
The frenzied success and lavish productions of the 1980s soon gave way to a harsh reality in the 1990s. Ratings were declining, so story lines became more outlandish, involving demonic possession, bizarre murders, orangutan nurses, and talking dolls. Passions premiered in 1999. It would be the last new network daytime drama.
Ken Corday: MTV came along, and we noticed people’s attention span had gotten a bit shorter. Our head writer, James Reilly, started coming up with stories that made all of us say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” One was when Vivian buried Carly alive. Ratings went through the roof. Then Jim said, “I’m going to go one better. I’m going to have Marlena possessed by the Devil!”
Erika Slezak: I think the writers got bored, and they thought, oh Christ, what can we do now? They came up with ridiculous stories. There was one called “Eterna” where we found an underground city, and nine of us fell through a rabbit hole and spent months there. They had a story where I was hypnotized to kill my son. I went to them and said, “This is horrible.”
Part IV: Daytime Turns to Twilight (2000–present)
By the end of the 1990s a sky-is-falling paranoia gripped network execs, who saw that cable TV was forever ending their monopoly. Soaps were showing their age. And cheap reality TV was flooding the airwaves. Producers began to cut costs drastically, but it was clear that the networks had other plans for their time slots.
Julie Hanan Carruthers: The week before I was supposed to start work at General Hospital, I was glued to the set watching O.J. Simpson’s white car driving all over Southern California, thinking, I can’t believe I’m watching a car. All of a sudden people realized what cable meant: options. When you looked at numbers, you could mark it almost to the day. The drop was immediate, and it never came back.
Barbara Bloom, vice president, director, daytime, ABC (1996–2000), and senior vice president, daytime, CBS, (2003–2011): [Ratings] have gone down consistently since the 1970s. I’ve had it researched every way from the wazoo. Sometimes there’s a big, publicized story line where things pick up, but other than that, it’s been a slow, grinding, consistent loss.
Stephanie Sloane, editorial director, Soap Opera Digest and Soap Opera Weekly: You’re still looking at ratings that some shows on the CW don’t get. There’s still a passionate audience. The people who are watching remain hugely invested in these shows.
Greg Meng, co-executive producer, Days of Our Lives (1999–present): NBC came to us and said we have to cut our licensing fee in half. Well, everyone was freaking out: It can’t be done!
Ken Corday: We’ve had to reinvent the way we do the show; it’s a much tighter, leaner machine. We’re still on the air because we showed we could do the show for half the cost. Quite a bite.
Bill Hayes: When Susan and I started out in this business, we read through every episode the night before, staged it, timed it, rehearsed it, and the next morning started again. Then we rehearsed for the cameraman, had a dress rehearsal, notes, and then we did the taping.
Susan Hayes: Today, your blocking rehearsal is “Cross to his elbow, and then leave the room. Got it, thanks. Moving on.”
It became clear that the American daytime drama was doomed. The eccentric, low-rated Passions was first to fall in 2008, but then came some shockers. Irna Phillips’ venerable Guiding Light—the longest-running show in radio and TV history—was extinguished in 2009, followed by As the World Turns in 2010. Then, on April 14, 2011, to the dismay of soap fans, ABC announced the cancellation of both All My Children and One Life to Live. In 2012, only four daytime soaps will air on the three legacy networks.
Tina Sloan: We believed we could save Guiding Light. We knew that if our 72-year-old-show went, everybody would go. [CBS President and CEO] Les Moonves and I had a talk, and he said, “I gave you an extra year or two.” Then he replaced us with a game show.
Chris Goutman: We knew that when Guiding Light went off, our days [on As the World Turns] were numbered. I was bawling like a baby when they announced it.
Erika Slezak: I think that Brian Frons, the head of ABC Daytime, doesn’t believe in the genre. He never believed they could last. My biggest objection is ABC saying people don’t want entertainment anymore; they want information. That’s ridiculous. People always want entertainment.
Julie Hanan Carruthers: I’m a little shell-shocked. I feel part of the cultural fabric of what I’ve grown up with is disintegrating and changing.
Don Hastings: CBS didn’t even say goodbye to us after 50 years. There was nothing to anybody on the show who had served on it, any kind of official “Gee, we’re sorry, and good luck.” The show itself gave the cheapest party I’ve ever been to. Just a very sad end. That’s the part I don’t miss.
But all soap fans love a good resurrection story. Since 1995, shoestring-budget short-form serials for the Internet, such as Venice and Empire, have attracted loyal followers who pay annual subscriptions to watch on YouTube and other outlets. Three months after ABC cancelled All My Children and One Life to Live, it made a surprise announcement: The shows would live on, in a downscaled form, on the Web. Prospect Park, an indie production company, will begin airing new episodes online when the shows’ network TV runs ends. It’s the ultimate cliffhanger: Can a beloved American institution reboot in the 21st century?
Roger Newcomb, founder, Welovesoaps.net: We invented the term “indie soap” a few years ago. It’s how we refer to all these Web series, which are like minisoaps with continuing story arcs from week to week. That’s the future.
Frank Valentini, executive producer, One Life to Live (2003–present): Our society underestimates the attention span of people on the Internet. It’s a different platform, but it’s still entertainment. I think a longer form will work. It’s obvious where the technology is going, and people aren’t getting tired of looking at nice, large, beautiful screens.
Kay Alden: The potential exists for a return to the very origins of the soap opera format.
Roger Newcomb: In the early 1950s, there were so many articles that said soap operas were for housewives who were moving around the house and listening to radio; no way they are ever going to sit in front of a TV and watch this stuff. Now I read that people aren’t going to want to watch soaps on their computers. I think the technology is going to keep changing and make everything meld together.
Barbara Bloom: It will evolve. It’s just not going to evolve in the traditional sense. That part is over. And it’s not coming back.