Note: This article originally appeared in the May 18, 1987 issue of New York Magazine. It
is printed exactly as it appeared there. For those interested in finding the article, there are pictures of the following
OLTL stars: Anthony Call (Herb), Marcia Cross (Kate), James DePaiva (Max), Andrea Evans (Tina), Holly
Gagnier (Cassie), BarBara Luna (Maria), John Martin (Jon), Mark Philpot (Jamie), Clint Ritchie (Clint) and Robin
Behind the Soapy Scenes of One Life To Live
by Ellen Hopkins
Day one, in the mythical town of Llanview, Pennsylvania. Viki and her estranged husband Clint are having a
little chat in their library. Viki has just told Clint that she's going to New York for therapy to get her memory back.
(She developed amnesia shortly after their baby was kidnapped).
But actually Viki is going to New York to be tested for a brain tumor. Tom, the long-lost identical
twin brother of Viki's first husband, just stopped by to give Viki the word from her family doctor that the tests are
necessary. And Viki's not going to New York alone. She's going with Tom, who secretly longs to be her
Taping has just begun on the 4,775th episode of One Life To Live
"So I lied," shrugs actress Erika Slezak (Viki) after the scene is done.
"Meet my wife," says actor Clint Ritchie (Clint). "She's bonkers."
Six sets down, in the same ABC studio, the cameras focus on a penthouse apartment, where Cassie is telling
her mother, Dorian, that Diane, the sweet young thing Dorian met in prison, may not be all that she seems. (Diane
was the innocent pawn of a drug dealer. At least that's what she says. And Dorian was behind bars
because she murdered Mitch. That, however, turned out to be entirely justifiable, because Mitch was trying
to rape Cassie. But that's another story).
Actress Robin Strasser (Dorian) makes her exit, looks at a script, and sighs blissfully. "Life is cheap, death is
expensive. That's my new favorite line," she says.
The camera now shifts to the Bella Vista Ranch (the room has Moorish arches, so you know you're in
Argentina). Tina is hiding out at the ranch with Max because her husband, Cord, can't forgive her for blackmailing
his grandfather. But she's beginning to feel guilty because Max is falling in love with her. In all the excitement of
going south of the border, Tina somehow forgot to mention that she's carrying her husband's child.
"Oh no," Tina moans once Max leaves the room. "I'm going to have to tell him I'm pregnant."
The crew breaks into catcalls and cheers. Annoucements of pregnancies have that effect around
Soap opera is a business like no other. It's big business, for one thing: Daytime soaps are responsible for
about 50 percent of ABC's network profits. One Life To Live, which has been on the air for almost
nineteen years, has nearly 8 million viewers - most of them women under 50. It's one of ABC's most popular
daytime dramas, and the best-rated soap coming out of New York.
Among soap aficionados, OLTL is considered one of the more "mature" daytime dramas. This doesn't mean
lots of sex. (OLTL is fairly mild in the skin department). Not as steamy as General Hospital or as camp as
All My Children, OLTL is considered "adult" because its characters are believable - well, relatively
believable. OLTL is known for the quality of its writing, which can actually be funny, a rarity in soap.
Producer Paul Rauch, who was brought in two and a half years ago because of sluggish ratings, is the creator
of the one-hour soap [Note: it was not Paul Rauch who created OLTL, but Agnes Nixon]. During his OLTL
tenure, the show has added such modern trappings as locations shoots (most recently in Argentina) and snappy lead-
in music that sounds vaguely Miami Vice-ish - none of which ultimately disguises the fact that this is first
and foremost a soap.
In the West Side armory on West 66th Street, where the entire show is produced, actors go through
horrendous emotional ordeals - divorces, faked suicides, split personalities - all while memorizing up to 30 pages of
new dialogue per day. If the show is running short, it's not unusual for a completely new scene to be written
minutes before it's taped.
This doesn't leave much time for working out elaborate character development. When an actor announces
that he's looking for the truth in a confrontation scene, director David Pressman laughs.
"That'll take a long time," he says.
"And you're already six minutes over," says an officious production assistant, stopwatch in hand.
Time is always the critical issue. There's airtime, Llanview time, flashback time, background time, and future-
story-line time. There is not, however, all that much time for making art.
On the day Diane arranges to have a hit man murder Matron Spitz (the one woman with the clue to her past),
director Larry Auerbach decides Diane is taking too long to make up her mind.
"This girl's a killer," he says. "She doesn't need time to think." Auerbach doesn't mention that the show also
just happens to be running three minutes over."
When actress Mary Ward (Diane), a slight 28-year-old with the face of a Botticelli angel, protests that it isn't
logical for her character to to think immediately that a contract murder is the solution to all her woes,
Auerbach says briskly, "Sure it is Sweetheart, she's a very angry person."
While the average movie shoots about 3 pages of script a day, OLTL tapes about 100. A salt-mine
atmosphere is the inevitable result. Producing an hour-long show five days a week requires a 24-hour operation.
The day begins at 7am for the actors and director, and it doesn't stop until seven, eight or nine that night.
Then that day's sets are broken down (there are about 75 stored in a Queens warehouse) and the next day's brought
in. When the sets are in place, the lighting designer arrives and works with his crew for the rest of the night. As
they're leaving, the actors and director arrive to tape that day's show.
OLTL uses five permanent directors; they alternate days and are primarily technicians. There just isn't time
for them to be much of anything else. Their days are filled with blocking, setting camera angles, and making sure
the shows end up the proper length. As a result, actors get little directing assistance - often just a handful of notes
between dress rehearsals and taping. And notes for twenty people can last less than half an hour.
During today's rehearsal Paul Rauch decides that actor Lee Patterson (Tom, Viki's would-be lover) looked
like Uriah Heep when he told Viki she might have a brain tumor. Director Larry Auerbach disagrees: He thinks
Patterson looked like a lox.
In notes, Auerbach sweetens the criticism.
"You've got to be less somber, more terrified when you tell Viki the bad news," he says.
Patterson, who could easily be a Ted Baxter understudy, shakes his head and says somberly, "I don't know, I
don't know. Terror. It's just not me."
"Sure it is," Auerbach says cheerfully. "Look, she isn't dead yet - you've got a few more weeks. Don't
Erika Slezak (Viki) then asks if she can sit down in shock when she hears she may have a brain tumor.
Slezak, a fortyish patrician-looking blonde, has been with OLTL for sixteen years.
"I'd like to make more of this," she says. "After all, how often in life do you get told you have a brain
"On this show?" Auerbach asks.
Seven years ago, Viki's TV husband Joe, died of a brain tumor - the soap affliction of choice. Last August,
Joe came back - or rather, Joe's long-lost identical-twin brother, Tom, did. It's hard to imagine Lee Patterson
playing anything other than the decent, somewhat intellectual Tom. While most soap war-horses become quite
cynical about their careers, Patterson still takes his seriously.
So seriously that when he returned to OLTL after a seven-year hiatus (which he spent acting in London), he
actually worried about being accepted as Joe's long-lost brother. Patterson agonized over what the differences
between the brothers should be.
And just what is different?
"Nothing," he whispers with a conspiratorial smile. "Nothing at all."
Years of being in soaps has blurred the boundaries between acting and real life for Patterson. While this
phenomenon certainly isn't uncommon in the acting professions, it's rendered a good deal weirder when the
characters live at such a high emotional pitch.
Patterson, for example, still likes to talk about the brain tumor Joe endured seven years ago.
"Dying was an emotional experience for me," he says, and he isn't kidding. "Confronting your own demise -
it was even worse than losing my child. (Patterson's TV child was killed off on OLTL in 1975). In fact, when I got
that script, I said, `Now, wait. Maybe we better think this over. There are people out there who've
really lost babies.' But everyone said, `If you start up that road, why, there'd be nothing left on soap.' Well,
when they put it to me that way, I had to agree."
By contrast, Patterson is breathtakingly matter-of-fact when he describes why he died. And why he
returned from the dead.
Contracts, Patterson explains. It all comes down to contracts.
Soap contracts can be just as unintentionally camp as the rest of the business. Some veterans will demand that
details of character development be written into the contract before they'll negotiate. One soap actress had a
"grandmother" clause: She was afraid that if she was ever given grandchildren, she could no longer be a villain.
Most actors, however, don't have such negotiating power. An actor on As the World Turns was violently
opposed to raping his TV wife but ended up doing it anyway. He probably couldn't afford not to.
Actors tend to be compensated well for their pains: A contract player's salary can run as high as $200,000 a
year; the average is $75,000. And it's reasonably secure work. Even if a contract goes out the window (most can
be renegotiated every thirteen weeks), an actor who can be easily typecast (villains and tramps are always in
demand) can probably find a home on another soap.
Many actors on OLTL have appeared on other soaps, but ask a soap hopper about his career and odds are
you'll hear nothing of past soap lives. "I'm really more at home on Broadway," is a frequent refrain, even from those
who've done quite well in soap.
Actress Robin Strasser, an elegant 42-year old, has had starring roles on Another World and All
My Children and won an Emmy for her work on OLTL. But what she's really proudest of is her nickname with
some fans - "Shakespeare."
The reason? "They say I don't seem to know I'm on a soap."
Day two. Viki is still lying to Clint. Cassie is still telling Dorian that Diane's not all she seems. And Max has
just learned that Tina is pregnant.
After dress rehearsal, director Gary Bowen suggests to actress Andrea Evans (Tina) that she be more
conciliatory with Max once he finds out she's carrying Cord's child.
"Conciliatory?" Evans looks bewildered.
"You feel bad, sweetheart. You should be conciliatory." Bowen says, a bit impatiently.
"Oh," she says in a baby-doll voice. "I see. I just didn't know what `conciliatory' meant."
Andrea Evans is that rare soap veteran who doesn't enjoy her lot in life: She wallows in it. An unabashed sex
kitten on camera and off, she's been on the show for almost seven years (with a brief time-out at The Young and
the Restless). Her two pet bichon frises are in almost constant attendance, except during taping, when the dogs
nap in a makeup-room sink. When a visitor saw them nestled by her ample cleavage, he exclaimed, "What a pair!"
She promptly said, "Thank you."
"Andrea's very up front about her sexuality," says costume designer Lee Austin. "She'll reject clothes if
they're not trashy enough. We have to keep telling her, `No nipples.'" Apparently, Austin hasn't been entirely
successful: Among Tina's fan letters was one congratulating her on having the best nipples on daytime TV.
Soap Opera Digest recently named Tina one of the worst-dressed women in soap - an odd mark of
distinction, but one some OLTL actresses would kill for. They're also jealous of Evans because she's that eviable
creature - a villain who isn't quite so bad that she has to be killed off (unlike Diane).
Soap actors love to boast about the rotten things their characters have done - or had done to them. It's the
stuff a soap actor's resume is made of, and Evans's resume is extremely impressive. "I stole my best friend's
boyfriend. I've faked a suicide. I tried to convince my brother-in-law I was carrying his baby. I blackmailed my
husband's grandfather ...
"But this is the first time I'm really in love," she says. "Or really pregnant."
Soap pregnancies have their own mysterious biology. If there's a new way to make babies, you can be sure
soap will discover it. There's always the possibility thta the real-life actress is pregnant and the pregnancy is simply
being written in for convenience' sake.
Possibly, but not likely. When actress Erika Slezak (Viki) got pregnant seven years ago, writter Peggy
O'Shea says, "I wanted to kill her."
While O'Shea (who recently left OLTL) is guilty of other murders - "I killed Pat Ashley's son," she says with a
sneaky smile - that time around she resisted. "But the timing couldn't have been worse," O'Shea complaines. "Joe
[Viki's husband] had just died and Miss Pure Widow certainly couldn't go around and have an affair and get
knocked up. And no one would have stood for her being raped. We finally had to recast her."
Even well-timed pregnancies are far from welcome. As another writer gently explains, "We generally like
our pregnancies to last three months. Unfortuantely, actresses can't do that."
With the majority of soap pregnancies, one of several things can be assumed:
- Whoever is first declared the father isn't.
- The pregnancy is a fake (That's an old favorite of Tina's)
- The baby will be stolen. Or switched. (The first has happened to Viki - twice)
- The baby will be miscarried.
It will not, however, be aborted. While some soaps have dealt with abortion, OLTL would prefer not to.
"I'd rather burn someone at the stake than give them an abortion," says Peggy O'Shea. "It's much more civilized."
Writers say they'd rather not have right-to-life groups on their back. For similar reasons, they have recently chosen
not to deal with homosexuals, interracial relationships - blacks in general are conspicuously absent on OLTL - and a
host of other controversial subjects.
They have, however, dealt with bigamy.
"Bigamy? We didn't do bigamy," says producer Paul Rauch. When I reminded him that Asa, Cord's
grandfather, was married to two women at once last summer, Rauch waves his hand. "Okay, so he was a bigamist.
That was just once, though. I never thought much of that storyline anyway. Silly. But a lot of things I'd rather not
touch. Suicide, mental illness - they're just depressing."
And infidelity isn't?
"Adultery's wonderful," says Peggy O'Shea with an ecstatic sigh. "It's where people