Savvy soap vet Sam Behrens -- now in the third year of his third daytime stint -- reflects on his career, his castmates, and his still-burning passion for his craft. 
Brooklyn-born Sam Behrens' life as an actor began inauspiciously. He played the Page in a second grade production of Cinderella, but he's been hooked on the art form and the applause ever since. 
Behrens' talent has landed him work in several different media, from movies to musical theatre. In addition to the school play that launched his career, Behrens has appeared on stage in Hamlet, Grease, and Carousel. He was Sam Waterston's double in the Woody Allen flick Interiors and featured in the plane crash-survival saga Alive. His breakthrough daytime role came in 1983, when he was cast as Jake Meyer on General Hospital. A decade after he left GH, he received an offer he couldn't refuse: the chance to create the part of creepy-crawly Gregory Richards on the NBC sudser Sunset Beach. It's a role he relishes -- one that has given him a welcome sense of "aliveness and satisfaction." 
Recently the Los Angeles-based actor took time out of his busy schedule for an extended phone interview with New York writer Mari Lyn Henry. 
Next, Sam Behrens goes ear to ear with Mari Lyn

MARI LYN HENRY: When did your desire to become an actor begin?
SAM BEHRENS: I am sure it began way back in second grade, when I did my first play, Cinderella, and I heard that applause. 
MLH: Did you play Prince Charming?
BEHRENS: I did not get Prince Charming. Then they heard me sing in the chorus and decided to put me in somewhere, so they created a role called the Page and they gave me half the Prince's songs. 
MLH: Did you continue to act in high school?
BEHRENS: Yes, I was on stage in drama club productions. 
MLH: Where did you go to high school? Was there a specific teacher who you looked up to, who gave you encouragement to go on as an actor?
BEHRENS: I went to Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. Mr. Vide, the head of the drama department, was very supportive. 
MLH: And after high school?
BEHRENS: I worked as an apprentice at the Bucks County Playhouse (New Hope, PA), a very prestigious summer stock company, and landed my first "professional" job as Pierre in Madwoman of Chaillot. I was terrible. That period served out many lessons when I was finally willing to see them. My head was up a dark place about many things at the time, acting especially. I wanted to take the world by storm. In fact, I was afraid: afraid of auditions, afraid of interviews, afraid of life. I really didn't start dealing with that fear until about age 25, and I'm dealing with it, in one form or another, to this day. 
MLH: What happened between your summer stock debut and that decision?
BEHRENS: Dinner theatre, repertory, waiting on tables, a bunch of odd jobs. 
MLH: So you weren't from a notoriously wealthy family who could support you?
BEHRENS: No. I studied Shakespeare for about four or five years at HB Studios. I thought I should know the classics. I figured if I could do Shakespeare, I could do anything. I worked with a teacher named Aaron Frankel. He is one of the major influences in my acting life. Kenneth Branagh did Henry V in sort of an un-Shakespeare approach, which focused more on the passion of the story than the poetry of the verse. That was the way Aaron Frankel taught it. Somewhere about the time I was approaching 30, I studied with Wynn Handman. He was the most influential teacher. I started learning what acting was really about from him. He was the best around and it was very difficult to get into his classes. I camped outside his studio door until he agreed to take me. (He laughs at the memory.) There are those who think I am too aggressive. 
MLH: But you're a New Yorker. You're supposed to be.
BEHRENS: Even in New York, I was considered a little too aggressive. People in New York used to tell me I needed to chill out. 
MLH: When you were in Wynn's classes, were you employed in the theatre?
BEHRENS: Yes, I was doing a role in Grease on Broadway. I played Vince Fontaine. It started out as a summer stock production. The producers came to see that production and apparently liked me so much they put me in when their Vince Fontaine went on vacation. I ended up staying for a year. I worked with Peter Gallagher and David Paymer, (Mad About You creator) Danny Jacobson, a great cast. While I was doing that show, I got a role on Ryan's Hope. For six months I was doing both. 
MLH: How were you able to do that?
BEHRENS: I was loving it. I was up in the morning running to the soap, then class with Wynn and then to the show at night. I was having a ball. I was in heaven and I was making good money. 
MLH: Ryan's Hope was your first soap opera. How did you feel about being on a soap?
BEHRENS: Well, being on a soap was a goal of mine. In those days, I thought it would be the ultimate to be on a soap and make as much as $60,000 a year. Wow! Now it would be difficult supporting a small family on that. I don't take jobs I don't want to do, and when I decide to do something, I go in all the way or I don't go in at all. I played the role of Adam Cohen for a year with a delightful actress, Nana Visitor (Nancy Feldman; now Col. Kira Nerys on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). 
MLH: Why did you leave the show after a year?
BEHRENS: I don't recall. 
MLH: After Grease and the soap, what was next?
BEHRENS: There was a period of time when I just didn't do very much at all. I moved out of my apartment because it was too much rent. I decided to move to California. I borrowed a little money from my family. 
MLH: Did you have a lot of friends and connections when you moved out there?
BEHRENS: Not at all. I knew a lovely gal who was already out here. I knew her from New York, and ended up staying in a house with a couple of guys in the room that she stayed in. I lived there for about six months. I had an agent and I would go on auditions, which were sporadic. 
MLH: So what was your first breakthrough out there?
BEHRENS: General Hospital. It was supposed to be a five-day job. I did the five days and they signed me up for three years. 
MLH: You played the character of Jake Meyer, who was involved with an Irish girl named Rose Kelly (Loanne Bishop). Did you feel that this was a stereotypical plotline?
BEHRENS: I don't remember thinking it was especially stereotypical. Daytime tends to deal with life issues on a surface level, and it's difficult to convince folks that you can (and I think you must) bring "poetry" to the work. On that basis I may have thought it was stereotypical, but there were very few Jewish stories at the time. That it was on at all made it unique. 
MLH: What was it like working under (former executive producer) Gloria Monty?
BEHRENS: I adored working with Gloria. I never had a problem with her. I know some people did, usually men. I remember the first day on the job. Jake was introduced to get a woman out of jail. The actress and I were sitting on our set, going over lines, waiting for our scene to come up. (The scenes were taped in the order they appeared on the air.) I remember there was a scene between two actresses and I sat there thinking it was pretty good. There was a silence after the scene. Dead silence. You didn't hear anything for about 30 seconds. Then you could hear the click, click of Gloria's heels on that hard studio floor, which meant she had emerged from the booth. The first thing out of this actress's mouth was, "Oh great, the bitch is coming!" I thought it best to reserve my own judgments on that. I saw Gloria walk over to the actresses. She spoke to them for about 30 seconds. I didn't hear anything she said. She walked back to the booth. She had transformed that scene from an okay scene to a wonderful scene. So I said to myself, "You can be a bitch all you want, lady. I'll gladly work with you." 
MLH: Once you were signed to a contract, how did you feel about being a part of the General Hospital community?
BEHRENS: It was a wonderful experience. I have been pretty lucky with work situations. A great group, for the most part conscientious and talented. And as a group they were crazy, willing to do anything in front of a camera. They were willing to put it out, which, along with Gloria's guidance, is one of the reasons that show did so well. Tony Geary (Luke) is that kind of crazy even now. You can see it in his work. He's terrific! 
MLH: But look what that craziness does on camera!
BEHRENS: Absolutely. It makes for some interesting daytime drama. There are those who prefer actors be good little monkeys, who stand there and say their lines. Oh yeah, and act: act more, act quicker, act better. The people who feel this way don't get it. They don't know what talent is and don't know how to deal with it. And I'm not talking about self-indulgence. Those who don't understand the work we're called upon to do see it as self-indulgence. 
MLH: Would you define it as the "spark"?
BEHRENS: Talented people have that spark. They're not satisfied with just standing there and saying their lines. 
MLH: And that takes away a great deal of spontaneity. It takes the improvisational quality and the freshness of the moment out of the final product.
BEHRENS: Yes, indeed, but improvisation is not a good word to use. It implies a lack of discipline. Our job is to take the script, the roadmap, and bring it to life, not make it up along the way. Once the script is written, the most important thing is the telling of the story. That's what we do. We tell the story and we should be involved in telling that story in a way that captivates an audience. 
MLH: Are you still in touch with any of the GH cast members from the time you were on the show?
BEHRENS: Jackie (Zeman, Bobbie), Tony, Kin (Shriner, Scotty), Brad (Maule, Tony. I talk or get together with them every once in a while. 
MLH: When you left GH, what happened?
BEHRENS: I went right into L.A. Law for three episodes, a move I consider a mistake. 
MLH: Why do you consider it a mistake?
BEHRENS: Because I was so used to the daytime format and sensibilities. Doing a "quality" show like L.A. Law at the time required more depth of human-ness. What I really wanted to do after GH was spend six months not doing anything. I didn't do that because L.A. Law was the top show at the time and I couldn't say no to it. That was a mistake. The job I did was just barely mediocre. 
MLH: Do you have more control on a soap? Using GH as an example, did you feel good about the shows you did?
BEHRENS: Well, it is still daytime. It's like doing summer stock. You never have enough time to rehearse. You are always running around. I was frustrated at times. They locked my character into a particular hole. One of the reasons it was time to leave concerned a simple thing I wanted to do that was not out of character. But I was told Jake wouldn't do that. 
MLH: What was it you wanted to do?
BEHRENS: We were in the brownstone. Bobbie and Jake brought in this child, a very precocious child that we were going to fall in love with, take in, adopt, etc. In Jake's good nature, as a joke, when the kid outdoes him, he picks up a chair while the kid is walking out [and pretends] he is going to throw the chair and hit him with it. I was told Jake wouldn't do it. I saw that comment as an indication it was time to seek other things. 
MLH: So you are saying Jake discovered a piece of business that would show his humor, levity, interacting with the precocious kid, and developing an interesting relationship. Being told your character wouldn't do that put a cage around you.
BEHRENS: Yes. Basically. 
MLH: And what we just said earlier about creative spontaneity? Here it applies.
BEHRENS: Yes, and it was after Gloria Monty had left the show. If Gloria had seen it.... 
MLH:: She would have said, "Go for it. See where it goes."
BEHRENS: She understood that stuff. It was truly not out of character. 
MLH: Absolutely. It was playful, a sort of a tease, and showed another color.
BEHRENS: Exactly. It was not harmful nor did it suggest an ill nature. 
MLH: So this "producer rigidity" indicated to you it was time to travel on. After the L.A. Law experience, where did you go?
BEHRENS: Knots Landing. I was on for five episodes and ended up being on for three seasons. Actually the end of the first season, then a full season and the first six or seven episodes of the third season. 
 
Though Behrens doesn't view his Knots Landing character as a monster, the rest of the cul-de-sac (including Kent Masters-King's Julie) certainly did (right). 
MLH: On Knots Landing, your character was involved with Joan Van Ark (Valene Ewing). Are there any memories you would care to share?
BEHRENS: A ton of memories. Joan Van Ark was a doll. She drove some people crazy. She tended to be neurotic about her work, primarily because she was so dedicated to it. 
MLH: I think that is the major similarity between Gloria Monty and Joan: they are perfectionists.
BEHRENS: I remember one time working with Joan regarding her close-up. She was involved with the mirror and her makeup and her hair, making sure everything was right, the props were where they were supposed to be, very meticulous, fastidious. We did the scene, and then did the turnaround, my close-up. She was behind the camera, but she still did the same routine, making sure everything was there including her hair and makeup. She wasn't on camera, but she wanted all the elements to be there as if she were. These are examples of her dedication to the work. I am sure it ruffled those people who wanted to get out early. They were pretty used to her by then. It was quite a group. I loved Michele Lee (Karen MacKenzie). Still do. Bill Devane (Greg Sumner), too. An incredibly talented and knowledgeable cast. 
MLH: Did the actors have any creative input on that show?
BEHRENS: Lynn Latham (now head writer of Port Charles) and Bernie Lechowick, the writers and co-producers, say that it was a meeting with me that influenced them into changing the character into a psychopath. 
MLH: And how did you turn your nice guy into the psychotic bad guy?
BEHRENS: Well, the writers managed that quite well. They made him do horrible things. You know the monsters of the world are not, to themselves, monsters. I didn't see Danny Waleska as a monster. I saw him as a rather pathetic human being that did monstrous things in an attempt to gain happiness. 
MLH: What was the first indication that your character was not Mr. Nice Guy?
BEHRENS: That's what made it interesting: he started off as the guy you'd want your own daughter to meet. Then the other sides to him started to emerge: his anger, his violence. 
MLH: After Knots Landing, did you decide to pursue features?
BEHRENS: I did guest shots on series, a few films and I was on Homefront for six episodes. I was the love interest for Jessica Steen's character [Linda Metcalf]. I had [put] a little weight on and my hair was shorter. The writing was fabulous. Lynn and Bernie, who I knew from Knots Landing, were the producers/writers. 
MLH: Let us fast forward to Sunset Beach. How did that happen?
BEHRENS: Oh man, they brought me in kicking and screaming. I had no desire to do it. I was about ready to move back to New York. I was looking at getting back into musical theatre when I got the call from (executive producer Aaron) Spelling's office that they wanted to meet. I was at the point where I was not interested in going back into daytime. They said it was an exciting part and presented it in such a way that I agreed to a meeting. So I met with (executive producer) Gary Tomlin and I got excited. And I said, well, daytime isn't paying anything anymore, so why should I be interested? And they came up with a good deal, and so here I am. 
MLH: So you didn't have to audition. It was an offer.
BEHRENS: That is right. 
MLH: Do you remember your first day on the show?
BEHRENS: My first day was actually on location with Lesley-Anne Down (Olivia). 
MLH: Where are the locations?
BEHRENS: Seal Beach, which is right next to Sunset Beach. There is an actual Sunset Beach, but they film at Seal Beach. 
MLH: How far by car?
BEHRENS: About 45 minutes. 
MLH: What was your first scene about?
BEHRENS: The first scene took place at the inn in Sunset Beach. Gregory was on his way in to meet someone when he runs into Olivia on her way from an [adulterous] affair. Gregory knows but doesn't seem very bothered by it. Such is their relationship. I was excited reading the first script. The scene when Gregory and Olivia are introduced to the audience takes place poolside early morning. Olivia is out there in complete ennui. She's about to burn a fly with a magnifying glass, but can't; she empathizes with the fly, sees the fly symbolically as herself and spares its life. Gregory comes out to have a sip of coffee. Interested more in his Wall Street Journal than anything Olivia might have to say, he spots the fly and without a second thought swats the fly with his newspaper. That's writing. That's poetry. That one short scene tells their story. 
MLH: Had you met with the cast prior to your first day of work?
BEHRENS: Well, Lesley-Anne and I were actually some of the last contract players to come on board. The other cast members had met for some readings prior to the first day of shooting. I did know a couple of them, like Kathleen Noone (Bette; Claudia Whittaker, KL) and John Reilly (ex-Del; ex-Sean Donely, GH). A mistake, killing John off. 
MLH: Do you think [Gregory's] future storyline will reveal that he is still in love with Olivia?
BEHRENS: I don't know the answer to that, of course. But to me, it would be a loss if they gave up the dynamic that somewhere, Gregory and Olivia still love each other. Whether it means that they will get back together or not get back together, it should always be there. When it played on the air, it played successfully, and that dynamic was popular with the audience. The fans reacted to it. Whether they understood it or not, they related to it. The fans believe that down deep inside, these two really care for each other. 
MLH: Will Gregory ever ease up on Cole or will they continue to hate each other?
BEHRENS: I think they will continue to hate each other. 
MLH: Your relationship with your son Sean is distant, and you haven't had many scenes together. Would you like that relationship to deepen in the future?
BEHRENS: Yes. There is a story to be told about father and son. Parent and child -- how do they work out their differences, their gaps. Sean and Gregory had quite a volatile relationship, or it was pointing toward a volatile relationship, because Gregory didn't approve of him and Sean was trying to find his own identity. It had the potential for a rich central conflict. I remember a time when Gregory smacked Sean for something he said. If they had played it out, Sean might have eventually decked his old man. Someone once said the viewers don't watch this show for acting, they watch it for the good looks. Well, that is not so. It is just not accurate. The good shows appreciate all aspects of the telling of a story, from talented scenic designers to talented actors to talented writers. 
MLH: Well, I think when we heard Spelling was creating a daytime soap, we thought it would be Beverly Hills, 90210 at noon, with all the cleavage and washboard abs, lots of pretty, young, sensual people.
BEHRENS: It started that way and it didn't really take. That was not the complete answer. It can be part of it. 
MLH: Well, I am noticing some actors who are more mature holding their own now. 
BEHRENS: The show has some terrific people: John Martin (Hank), Carol Potter (Joan), Gordon Thomson (A.J.), Kathleen Noone -- a joy to work with. 
MLH: So much of a soap opera's success, in addition to the writing, is the casting.
BEHRENS: The audience wants to see electricity, which is possible with good actors. 
MLH: And that is what all of daytime needs to remember in order to keep viewers interested.
BEHRENS: Someone once said, and I think it is a great quote, "The impediment to success is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge." This illusion of knowledge brings the young executives to utter such things as, "They don't watch soaps for acting." [If you're] carrying that belief around as one of the key people who makes decisions...I mean, what hope is there? The audience sees it whether they are conscious of it or not. Audiences will always react to a good story well told. 
MLH: Do you get fan mail?
BEHRENS: Sure. They don't write me to tell me they don't like what I am doing. They are generally terrific letters. 
MLH: I think a lot of the approval for what you are doing as Gregory is reflected in the Soap Opera Digest award nomination as Best Villain. One of the issues of Soap Opera Digest called your character "cold as ice" and described Gregory as the "stoic type, who disdains overt displays of emotion, almost viewing them as a sign of weakness, hates being vulnerable or at least being perceived that way."
BEHRENS: Gregory needs to be in control. 
MLH: It concludes with, "until this guy learns to get in touch with his inner self, life on the homefront will always be a battlefield." Are you in agreement with that?
BEHRENS: Yes. In fact, one of the things I would love to see to bring that vulnerable side out is to pair him with a person he can really confide in -- someone he falls in love with, the person he can share his soul with. It would be a chance to get into the head of someone like Gregory. In a sense, Gregory is everyone's dysfunctional father. Everybody has issues to resolve with their dad. 
MLH: What about celebrities you have worked with throughout your career? What about when Demi Moore was on GH (as Jackie Templeton)? Did you know her at that time?
BEHRENS: I especially remember when Demi was fired off the show. She was rather upset about it. I remember sitting with her and telling her she had nothing to worry about, that she didn't belong there, this was not what she should be doing, that she belonged in films, and if the right breaks came along, she would be a star. (pause) She never called me to thank me. (He laughs.) 
MLH: Well, I am really angry with her for not thanking you. (They laugh.) 
BEHRENS: She is always really nice when I see her. She was so young and so spirited and had a very special quality about her. 
MLH: At this point in your career you seem to have achieved some satisfaction.
BEHRENS: Aliveness and satisfaction. 
MLH: What's a typical day on the show? You mentioned staggered call times.
BEHRENS: We are never sure. We are either called for 7am or 1pm. If I am doing heavily emotional scenes, I prefer doing them in the afternoon. Because I am one of the old fogies on the show, they usually give me some preference. I'm the old timer. 
MLH: Listen, old timer, what would you like to do after SB?
BEHRENS: Obviously film. God, what I wouldn't give to work with someone like Robert Duvall. He is a master, just simply a master. It would scare me to death to work with him, but I would be gladly scared to death just to work with him. 
MLH: If you had any advice to give to kids who are coming up the ladder now, or training in New York, what would it be?
BEHRENS: Acting is all mentality. Success in acting is a combination of mentality and persistence.