In Part 1 of our interview, we talk about her childhood and her career as an actress on soaps from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s.
We Love Soaps: Where did you grow up and did you want to be an actress as a child? How did you get into the business?
Louise Shaffer: I grew up in a town outside New Haven called Woodbridge. I settled on a serious career choice at the age of four. The previous year I was the only one in my nursery school class who was able to memorize the entire "Night Before Christmas". So they put me in a pink costume under a pink angel on the tree and I did the whole thing with gestures and got a lot of applause and that was just the beginning. I was like, "okay fine, this is my career."
My folks were mad theater people. In those days, shows that were coming into Broadway would usually do Boston, Philly and New Haven in some peregrination of that. We used to go to the Shubert and see everything before it came into the City. From the time I was very little, I don't know what it was that went into my parents head, but it never dawn on them not to take me. I loved it, I was just fascinated by it.
We Love Soaps: How did your parents feel about you wanting to become an actress?
Louise Shaffer: When I was 15, I did my first professional gig, and I couldn't drive at that point. My father drove me to the audition and he would go every night and watch me in my show. And that was the same year I also went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the City on the weekends. My dad, who was not a very demonstrative man, took me to the initial audition and then he died. One my last memories with him is when I got in and him just saying, "Good. You did it right." He used to give me little opening night presents.
My mother loved the theater, but as my remaining parent, she was always very scared that I never paid any attention to school. She let me do it, but it made her nervous. My father was the kind of guy who believed that if you really wanted to do something you'd do it. I was not exactly what you would call a glamorous teenager so where he got the idea that I could do this business God only knows. But they both loved it. And momma gave me full freedom to do it, but I think she would have been more comfortable if I had been willing to go to college and get a college degree, and I wasn't. She kind of bullied me into going for two years, and the day she said I could get out, I left. I really didn't want to do anything else.
I have always been driven. I'm just beginning to learn that there are other things besides career. It's taken a really long time that there are those moments that have nothing to do with the work you do, that are probably the best moments you have. It's kind of what my new book is about in a lot of ways - that balance between just being focused on your work and noticing the life around you.
We Love Soaps: We Love Soaps readers love their soap history so I would like to start by talking about your early soap roles. What do you remember about your time on SEARCH FOR TOMORROW as Emily Rogers Hunt?
Louise Shaffer: When I did SEARCH, it was 15 minutes, and you were out by one o'clock in the afternoon. If you wanted to, you could get to your matinee on Wednesday and do a theater show. There were a lot of really good actors and they gave their best, but it was truly more something you could think of a day job.
I stepped in as a recast. The girl who left was this tiny little brunette, and I used to complain for week to wardrobe that the only thing that fit me was her bathrobe. She wasn't a big established star of the show, it was really Mary's [Stuart] show.
We Love Soaps: Next you played a Martha on HIDDEN FACES next. What can you tell us about that short-lived series?
Louise Shaffer: As usual, I was playing the bitch, which is what I have always played. I don't know whether it's because my eyes are deep set or I have high cheek bones. I have the feeling maybe I come across as a little calculated. As an actor, I have an emotional content and I can turn on all that Italian in me and it kind of bubbles up, but my first way of approaching things is kind of analytically, which is not necessarily good. I think it gave me a slightly calculated thing that seemed to suggest bitches.
We Love Soaps: You were part of the original cast of WHERE THE HEART IS. You worked with a number of actors who went on to other soap role roles like James Mitchell and David Bailey. What was your experience on that show like?
Louise Shaffer: The show was shot on tape, but in those days, you didn't do a lot of retakes because you got the machine for a certain amount of time each day. If an absolute disaster happened, they'd reshoot. But if your shooting time was two o'clock in the afternoon, by 2:30 you were out of there. They shot the show straight through with the glitches with the cameras and boom shadows and all the rest of it. Larry Luckinbill was on the show as well.
We Love Soaps: Did you work with Joe Mascolo on that show? He went on to play one of the most dastardly villains in soap history, DAYS' Stefano DiMera.
Louise Shaffer: Very briefly. And he's one of the sweetest guys in the world. He took over for Chuck Cioffi who left[as Ed Lucas].
We Love Soaps: You next appeared on THE EDGE OF NIGHT as Serena Faraday. I recently watched Serena's trial on YouTube and you were incredible as Adam slowly revealed that you were really Josie and not Serena. Do you have fond memories of working on that show?
Louise Shaffer: It was fun. EDGE was the last show to be live. It was live on the air with a tape component. I was doing costume changes during commercial breaks between those two characters. In the trial, some of the location stuff was shot on the courthouse steps on tape. I was so method-y in those days and wouldn't come out of character. Why people put up with me God only knows. I did all the singing and rocking back and forth. That was all me. They were so lovely to me and let me get away with all that.
We Love Soaps: On RYAN'S HOPE you played Rae Woodard. The first several years of that show were some of the best soap opera ever written. How did the writing for RYAN'S HOPE change during your years on the show? It seems like things went downhill in the early 1980s when soaps started trying to become like GENERAL HOSPITAL.
Louise Shaffer: Everybody was so afraid of being old fashioned or dated. "Got to keep it up to the minute." I think what they all lost sight of was there's plenty of that out there. And you can do it far better with nighttime budgets and nighttime schedules when you have 7 days or 10 days to shoot a show instead of one day. We were doing five times the amount of product per week than a nighttime show. What daytime is essentially is an old fashioned medium, and I think daytime should be proud of that. It's not for everybody. It's a slower moving medium, and should be a slower moving medium. It is for people who want to take time to be with characters they've known and loved for a long time that are unfolding in front of them. It's for people who want to forget how huge this world his, and the global economy, and people who want to get back to small towns and Nancy Hughes is going to make her potato salad for the Fourth of July picnic the way she has every year. it may not get you the huge ratings, but there is a place for that. If people could embrace that, you would have an audience that would sustain, but maybe not as many shows as the past. When you try to force a genre into something it's not, I don't think you can do it.
We Love Soaps: Perhaps there need to be new people in charge of some of these shows.
Louise Shaffer: I heard that when I was working too, "Why don't they just get rid of these people, they are burnt out. Why not bring in all new people?" But then they'd bring in new people who would decide something like the best way to save SEARCH FOR TOMORROW is to have the entire town flooded and everyone living in the same condo. The time to bring in new blood may not always be when you're on the brink. New people can turn things around and work a miracle, but...
We Love Soaps: Speaking of new blood, soaps are the only medium that has to deal with characters that have been around 30, 40 and even 50 years and honoring that history while bringing on new characters.
Louise Shaffer: The problem is finding the balance in bringing new people in, that next generation. But the question is - who do you lose when you bring in a new family? It's a very tricky balancing act.
We Love Soaps: You were nominated for a Supporting Actress Daytime Emmy two times for your role as Rae on RYAN'S HOPE, and then finally won in 1983. You left the show shortly after this during a big transition period for the series. It wasn't long before you replaced Maree Cheatham on SEARCH FOR TOMORROW.
Louise Shaffer: By the time I did SEARCH again, I had made the decision that this was the career I wanted for the rest of my life. Having been on RYAN'S, I had the chance to do some really good work on daytime. I knew there was really good acting you could do and still have a warm, regular life. You weren't going to be racing around the country doing rep, and you could stay in the City, and I was married by then, for the second time. I was settled, and I knew that I loved Manhattan and wouldn't want to live anywhere else. I saw daytime television as a career I really wanted to pursue.
We Love Soaps: What was it like returning to the show after so many years as a different character? How had daytime changed?
Louise Shaffer: When I started in the business there were a lot of older women working in daytime. It was a very safe place to be. If your character had a lot of longevity, you probably weren't going to get fired. There are still some shows that do that, but you don't find them writing story the way they did for Mary Stuart. Mary basically didn't get sidelined on her show until she was well along. In her 40s and 50s, I don't think anyone was trying to push Joanne aside. What happened was the industry changed out from under me, and all of a sudden you couldn't get arrested if you were in your 40s or 50s. And if you did hang on to your job, you were kind of wandering around the set saying to the young kids, "Darling, tell me about your troubles". You were the recap lady.
When I started in the business, it was a way to be a viable actress later on. I kind of got broadsided when I was let go from RYAN'S and there would be jobs I would hear about and my agent would say, "No, they are going to go younger with that." And you started finding on many shows that the men who had played your love interest were suddenly playing love stories with actresses young enough to be your daughter.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Click here for Part 2 where Shaffer talks about which soap role was her favorite, her transition to soap writer in the late 1980s and her present career as a successful novelist.