CONVERSATION WITH PETE LEMAY, A MAN OF SUBSTANCE
by Mari Lyn Henry
Soap Opera Digest
Harding "Pete" Lemay was born in a U.S. town on the Canadian border. He was the fifth of thirteen children. His mother had been raised on the St. Regis Indian Reservation not far from the farm where Pete and his siblings slopped pigs, milked cows, and fed hens. It was a childhood beset by dire poverty, domestic strife, and overcrowding. "I slept three to a bed," Pete recalls. He had escaped the grim reality of his early years by retreating into a world of books and attending movies. At the age of 17, upon high school graduation, with few assets, he headed east to New York City to become an actor.
The year was 1939, the year of the Worlds' Fair in New York City, a year which was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, and a year that saw war raging in Europe. With few qualifications for employment, he managed to find lodging at the Brace Memorial Home For Vagrant Boys, an institution dating from the Civil War when orphaned boys roamed the streets. Without strong guidance, these boys became a menace to respectable citizens. The Brace Home gave them a roof, food, and even provided them with job placement so they could earn a salary and improve their lot in life. He worked in a library, returning books to the shelves, and met a librarian who assigned him a classic book a week to read. She would discuss the book with him. This was like having a private tutor. He also worked for a stationer delivering packages. But he was determined to become an actor. As luck would have it, he was invited to attend a party where he met the brilliant Broadway star, Pauline Lord, who just happened to be a Trustee of the Neighborhood Playhouse. Through her recommendation he received a full scholarship without an audition. After three months at the Playhouse he was drafted and served the next four years in the army, eventually in Germany. When he returned, he completed his training at the Playhouse on the G. I. Bill. His classmates included wonderful actresses like Marian Seldes, Barbara Baxley, and Anne Meacham (whom he later cast as Louise Goddard in ANOTHER WORLD). It was while he was on a forty week tour as Jack in "The Importance of Being Earnest" that he realized he wasn't a very good actor and began writing plays. That was his true calling. Since that time, he has had many plays produced both here and abroad and is currently working on a new one.
He published his autobiography, "Inside, Looking Out: A Personal Memoir" in 1971. The reviews were favorable. He started receiving calls from executives at soap operas to see if he would be interested in writing scripts. He loved writing plays but knew nothing about writing for soap operas. He did respond to interest from Procter & Gamble regarding headwriting ANOTHER WORLD. Between 1971 and 1979, he was in charge and he has chronicled his daytime role in the compelling book, "Eight Years In Another World" (Atheneum, 1981). For anyone interested in writing a soap opera or gaining insight into the process, this book is a must-read.
Pete (Harding is what his immediate family calls him) and I meet one afternoon at the Players, the beautiful theatrical club founded by Edwin Booth where he has been a member since 1972. He recalled what it was like at the start of his soapwriting career and his meetings with ANOTHER WORLD's creator, Irna Phillips, whom Procter & Gamble hired as a consultant to work with him.
HARDING LEMAY: I came into soaps as a playwright, not as a soap writer or a radio soap writer as Irna had. I never watched the soaps. I had no idea what they were. I met with Irna in Chicago where she lived. Irna saw me on a local talk show where I admitted that I had never watched a soap opera. She was furious. She was like a hawk. She listened to everything I said. But she did create a great tradition and she trained not only me, but she trained Agnes Nixon and Bill Bell.
ANOTHER WORLD was written originally from Irna's view of the world. Now I wished to project my vision, my view, my sense of character. That is where we disagreed most. When I got more experience as head writer, her consultation was no longer necessary.
MARI LYN HENRY: What about the value of collaboration? What did you think about having subwriters and a staff?
LEMAY: I did have a staff for a while. Then I got rid of them but not intentionally. It was a fluke because one of the writers sued or went through some official channels to be named as an employee in my corporation rather than an independent contractor so he would be eligible for health benefits. I couldn't afford to have six writers on health benefits. In my corporation, I wasn't making that kind of money. So I did all the writing after that and it was much easier.
MLH: Does the head writer's salary still pay for the subwriters?
LEMAY: In the old days you got a package. For example, $20,000 a week for an hour show. Out of that, you paid a writer $1500 for a script or maybe less depending on the negotiation. Then the head writer ended up with the remainder. Since I did all the work anyway, I realized it was stupid for me to be paying a writer a thousand dollars a script when I accidentally assigned the same script to two writers. I didn't have a writer for the other script so I wrote it. It took me less time than rewriting the scripts that came in which I had been doing for three years.
MLH: But perhaps you needed that three year period to become more confident with the form?
LEMAY: Maybe. Except I am finding out while I am working on a new play, that I am a very quick, facile writer. I will rewrite a play 15 or 20 times. In a soap opera, you don't have that luxury. I know I can write dialogue because I write it from what they are doing, not what they are saying. What do they want? Who is standing in whose way? That creates the situation. It is basic dramatic stuff I could write those soap scripts because I had been a playwright. I had been writing plays while I was maintaining a very very difficult job at A. Knopf Publishing.
MLH: Soap operas are driven by character. When you took over the writing on ANOTHER WORLD, the prevailing theory was that plot was more important, wasn't it?
LEMAY: That is still the problem. People are doing ridiculous things on soaps they don't have to do at all.
MLH: How did you convince the executives to change from plot to character?
LEMAY: We had great actors in those days. Doug Watson [Mac Cory] was a marvel. Anne Meacham and Irene Dailey [Liz Matthews], Connie Ford [Ada Davis] and Nick Coster [Robert Delandy]. Hugh Marlowe (All About Eve), Paul Stevens [Brian Bancroft] and Leora Dana [Sylvia Koslow]. We had companies you couldn't get on Broadway together. They were wonderful to work with and they had the range to portray multi-dimensional characters. We had young people who were also wonderful like Ray Liotta [Joey Perrini] (Field of Dreams, Goodfellas, Copland).
MLH: In your book you mention conferring directly with Susan Sullivan on the approach to a role you were creating for her. Today the writers are usually kept isolated from the actors. That kind of interactivity is non-existent.
LEMAY: That is a terrible loss. The actor feeds off the writer and the writer feeds off the actor. When an actor approaches you with a wonderful story idea, you may listen but you don't pay much attention. But the writer is observing that actor, because the writer is using that actor as the character. You don't write a soap the way you write a play. In my new play, I am writing five characters. I don't know who is going to play these people. I am creating them out of my head. I don't describe them because I don't know who the actors are going to be. But when you write for a soap, you've got that face right there. I learned it very quickly from Connie Ford [Ada Davis]. Connie would cut. She was playing a very laconic woman who wasn't verbal. You'd give her a speech that went on for a page and she'd say, "What's all this?" and cut it down to one line and she would do the rest with a look. I learned it very quickly because, boy, was she wonderful!
And Bev McKinsey [Iris Carrington] was a marvel in another way. She memorized colons, everything on the page. She and Connie were in a play of mine called "The Off Season." They played sisters-in-law. It was the most fun I ever had. It is about two couples who mistakenly share their joint house the same weekend. Problems ensue because they are having secret lives.
MLH: So coming from the theatre you were used to talking to the actors.
LEMAY: Yes, but there were directors who wouldn't let you do that. What I found was that I knew actors. I had been in the theatre a long time. So when they hired actors like Irene Dailey, who I had known for many years, or Annie Meacham, who was at the Neighborhood Playhouse with me, you couldn't tell me not to call them. I'd known these people all my life. They would call me. I don't object to that. The producer, Paul Rauch, trusted me with actors. He knew I wasn't going to say what he wouldn't agree with.
MLH: Were there actors you couldn't write for?
LEMAY: There were a lot of them.
MLH: When you started observing the soaps, you noticed that a great many of the actors were pretty or handsome, cut from the same cloth. Since your book was published in 1981, have there been any changes in soap opera types?
LEMAY: There are still pretty people who have no theatre training. I am always astonished at the lack of speech facility. Young actors who don't pronounce the final consonants in words. They are beautiful but that is boring. After the first three minutes, you've seen it all. Unless there is something deeper. Susan Sullivan [Lenore Curtin] is a very beautiful woman but she is a very good actress. Anna Holbrook [Sharlene] is an excellent actress who comes from the stage. Paul and I both tried to go for that. We would attend plays together. Off-Broadway in particular and we would say let's try to get this or that performer and we did.
MLH: Like Louis B. Mayer and Darryl Zanuck?
LEMAY: Well, you have only got these actors for two years and then if they are good, they go. I mean Ray Liotta lasted two years and then he went and he should have. He has made a great career. Anne Heche [Vicky/Marley], the same thing.
MLH: You mention that Eric Roberts [Ted Bancroft] wasn't very good.
LEMAY: Well, it was his first job. He had a lot to learn.
MLH: Is there a difference between a "big screen" actor and a "small screen" actor?
LEMAY: I don't really know because I don't go to the movies much. I prefer French films because they are more explicit and honest about human relationships and they are so beautifully done and acted. When I was a child and went to the movies, I loved Carole Lombard.
MLH: Did screen personalities of the thirties you admired -- Lombard, Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Kay Francis -- have qualities you could transpose in a soap role?
LEMAY: Yes. I never told anybody in the business that when I was writing a certain part, I would say that is a "Margaret Sullivan" kind of girl. Or a "Mary Astor."
MLH: Do you know there are actors today who might look at you and ask, Mary who?
LEMAY: Yes, I know. But maybe they have seen The Maltese Falcon.
My favorite film actress was a woman I got to know. Ann Harding, a great star in the early thirties when I was a boy, did a play of mine. [Ann Harding made her movie debut in 1929, received an Oscar nomination for the film of Holiday in 1930 and did many other films before her retirement in 1957]. For ten years she was a big Broadway star before she went to the movies. She had total control of what she was doing as an actress. That kind of actor doesn't exist anymore.
MLH: What do you think about the hour format on the soaps?
LEMAY: I was the first writer to take a soap to an hour. I was eager to do it because I wanted to write longer scenes. I wanted to write a scene that you build as you do in the theatre with the beginning of the conflict, escalating that conflict, and resolving it more or less if you could within one scene so that you get an emotional play. We did it for the first year. We were very successful. Now they have taken that six minutes between commercials, and chopped it up into two or three scenes, three usually, sometimes four, and what I really wanted was a six minute scene. The first one we did was a reconciliation scene between Steve Frame and Alice Mathews. It was like writing for the theatre again. Now they do a thing where you see three short scenes telling you who is going to be on that day or what the story is going to be about that day. The philosophy behind it seems to be that if you don't find your favorite character in the first three minutes, you can switch over to something else. You should let them wonder if they are going to see them.
MLH: True, but they are so ratings-conscious that they are doing everything they can to titillate the potential new viewer and keep the old viewer tuning in.
LEMAY: I am asked very often to watch a soap for a month, make notes and send my comments to the network execs or the producer. I am paid well for doing it, but my point always is how do you attract the new viewer? It has to be simpler, clearer, and you have to be interesting dramatically and emotionally. People don't say to me that they remember the wonderful story I did about so and so. They remember the wonderful characters of Sven and his wife Helga. They remember the characters and their emotional lives. People have to be first. The story will follow. When I am beginning to work on a play, people always drive me to write the play. Why would that guy do what he did? Six months later I come up with a situation I want to explore.
MLH: You were ahead of your time when you created a homosexual story that was approved by Procter & Gamble and the network vice-president. Why didn't it materialize?
LEMAY: I signed my contract. You see, I never signed a five year contract. I would never do that. I signed every two years. I wanted to be able to say if I don't want to do this after two years, I will get out of it.
MLH: But there was a big search for the actor to play the role. Paul searched in California. The actor relocated here and then the story changed. How did that affect the actor?
LEMAY: The actor, Lionel Johnston, was married and had a child and we were very upfront with him. At that point the boy [Michael Randolph] was going to discover in college that he was in love with his roommate. It was going to be a major story. I wanted to split up his parents in an unusual way. The father [John Randolph] was going to be so outraged that he was going to have nothing to do with his son. The mother [Pat Randolph] was going to be very supportive saying whatever he is, he is our son. Once the homosexual story was pulled, we fell back on the thing that I always hated -- the abortion the twin sister had. So we had to create a romance for her and an illicit abortion in New York. It didn't work because my conviction wasn't in it. We kept Lionel for a year or two. He was an engaging actor. I hope he has been successful since. I don't know.
MLH: What about recasting a part? While I was at ABC, Taylor Miller, the original Nina on All My Children left the show after establishing a strong presence. We recast the role twice and the fans were still unsatisfied.
LEMAY: There are always a group of fans who never accept it or it can take a year or two. Our biggest one was the recasting of Rachel. Robin Strasser had been so successful, but when her husband moved to Hollywood for career purposes, she went with him. We recast a young actress who looked somewhat like her but wasn't right. Then Paul discovered that Vicky Wyndham, who had been on GUIDING LIGHT, was free. She didn't look like Robin at all and in many ways she was more interesting to write for. Robin is a very good actress but can be one-dimensional while Vicky could play everything, the bitchy and the sweet.
MLH: I think Robin finds the note for the character, like in music.
LEMAY: And the writer tends to write into that note. It is not always her fault. What happened with Vicky is that when we cast her, a lot of people didn't like her. A lot of the fans wrote in. Of course, you only hear from the fans when they are unhappy. She made the part her own within a year and then she did something I always wanted to do. We changed her during Ada's pregnancy story.
It was a very successful story. I hounded P&G to let me do it until finally Bob Short said let him do it. Dolph Sweet and Connie Ford were like a couple of teenagers when they discovered Ada was pregnant. Vicky as Rachel became the mother to her mother. There was a switch in sympathies because Ada was frightened due to her age at the time of the pregnancy. I had moved into place the woman I wanted to be the bitch of the show and that was Iris Carrington [Bev McKinsey]. I had already set her up so that we could shift the whole focus. For four years we had a triangle -- Rachel, her husband Mac [Doug Watson], and Mac's daughter Iris. Loyalties were split. Some people loved Iris.
MLH: Well, you had a beautiful and extremely intelligent actress playing that part. She preceded the Alexis character on DYNASTY.
LEMAY: Two prime time soaps took names from my characters. The Ewings were on DALLAS; the Carringtons were on DYNASTY.
MLH: Sounds like the creators of these series watched ANOTHER WORLD.
LEMAY: Oh yes, the Shapiros, David and Esther. I knew them.
MLH: When you articulate the writer's process in soapwriting, it boggles my mind. The concept of the triangle you created is fascinating.
LEMAY: Now they are getting stuck in the romantic triangles, two men and a woman, two women and a man. It can be mother, daughter. You can play off all the relationships in a triangle.
MLH: I was watching a soap and observed a succession of two people scenes, talking heads without background texture or interruptions. Why?
LEMAY: It is easier. The mark of a true dramatist is that he can invent. Not that he can write dialogue. Anyone can write dialogue. If you invent the proper situations, the dialogue is there waiting to be written. There are very good playwrights who write bad dialogue. Lillian Hellman's dialogue is not her best thing and neither is Arthur Miller's. But they are writing strong, strong characters.
What I find in dealing with soaps today is that they don't think enough about why the people are saying what they are saying. Therefore they don't have what we call subtext. In the theatre if you have a character say, "Hey, I'd like to talk to you later." Well, there are fifteen different ways of doing that. One can be threatening, one can be friendly. The actor makes that choice because he knows the subtext. What does he really want? Well, if the writer doesn't give him the right subtext, the subtext the writer wants, the actor may choose the wrong one. George Reinholt [Steven Frame] did that all the time. Even when he had the right one he wouldn't do it.
MLH: Did he understand it?
LEMAY: Well, I have some doubts. I don't know if it takes a certain intellectual approach to get it. I was a very bad actor primarily because I could not stop thinking. I could not get to the point where I became the character I was playing. I always had my mind working against it. I knew Marlon Brando when he was young and playing Stanley on Broadway in "Streetcar Named Desire." I used to watch him and I would be astonished at this kid. I mean he was my age, but he knew so much more emotionally and he wasn't very bright.
MLH: Is that instinct? A gut reaction?
LEMAY: I don't know. It is having within your nature the ability to understand a lot of things and be able to express them. I can do it through words as a writer. He could do it through behavior. There was something within that boy when he was 25 that was so heartbreaking that you watched him and he was beautiful.
George Reinholt was a very interesting actor to me. He was a man who was caught as a human being within a certain ambivalence of his own nature. That came across as a brooding (what I said about Brando) young man who is terribly hurt by something and that attracts women, young women in particular. They were crazy about him. I understood it and I tried to write into it which is why I gave him two loves, Rachel, a brunette passionate creature, and Alice, a blonde and more passive girl. I wanted to play off both sides of him. I have great respect for George in many ways. He was alive! He was difficult as a human being on the set. It was more Paul's decision than mine that we get rid of him because he was just impossible to work with. Other actors were complaining. He wasted a lot of time. We had gone from the half hour to the hour and we didn't have time to indulge actors.
MLH: Sometimes an actor is given a scene that has tremendous emotional impact. You write shock and disbelief at the tragedy. But the actor chooses to overreact hysterically, undermining the moment and upsetting the balance of the scene. Was that a problem you encountered on ANOTHER WORLD or were there actors who paraphrased the dialogue so much, you no longer recognized what you had written?
LEMAY: Well I think that problem is caused by laziness on the part of the actors. The actors make an enormous amount of money and come into it having not made any money. They make a huge leap from waiting tables and driving taxis to making two or three hundred thousand dollars a year. After a while they begin to think they are entitled and they think they don't have to do the work. Especially if they are not trained actors. If you don't get, as Doug Watson did, or Ray Liotta did, a certain joy out of the process of acting, then you tend to do just the least you can to get by and collect your check.
Now, we had an actress who paraphrased until I made them get rid of her. She was a very popular actress but she never stuck to the dialogue. When I killed her off on Good Friday, I got a little note from the man who played her husband. It read, "God bless you, Pete!" He had never been able to get a cue!
MLH: Tell me about the role of the producer on a soap opera.
LEMAY: I think a good producer is a person who brings out of the writer, the actor and the technicians more than they knew they could do. The best producer I have ever worked with is a lady named Jill Farren Phelps. She can sit in a room with five or six writers and myself as a consultant, and can rip apart a whole week of breakdowns and you sit there and say "My god, she is absolutely right!" She has an amazing gift of being outside of it as well as being inside of it. She can look at it from the outside. She deals beautifully with actors. She got David Forsythe [John] and Linda Dano [Felicia] to do that crucial scene with Anna Holbrook [Sharlene] in the triangle they were doing. She got amazing things out of those actors. Paul was a marvelous producer but he was difficult to deal with. You had to fight him. I had to bully him.
MLH: But he responded to you.
LEMAY: Because he couldn't bully me. But it worked with us for six out of the eight years and for all kinds of other reasons I was getting burned out and Paul was having his own problems, and Procter & Gamble was getting antsy so that the combination didn't work anymore. For six years it was wonderful working with him. And we were both trained the same way. Paul went to the Neighborhood Playhouse. So did I. He understood acting and so did I. Paul may not understand writing as well, but he was willing to admit that if you could convince him, he would give in.
MLH: Is it difficult to be a good producer?
LEMAY: I think it is because you have so many things you have to be in control of. To be able to sit in the control room and say "take that shot not that one" to your director over and over again. You have to have a sense of costuming which is so important, a sense of music.
ABC asked me to watch THE CITY. I found it to be disastrous. It was all about the same kinds of people. Sixteen characters who are all alike. They didn't have a generational thing. Take "Hamlet." If you cut out the generational thing, you don't have a play. You have Hamlet and his buddies. The characters on THE CITY all lived in the same apartment house. Nobody lived alone with a mother, which would have made an interesting difference. It was all on a peer level. That is not how you write drama.
MLH: Let us shift the focus to the fans. People might not realize that writers can be phoned at their homes by outraged fans, that fans will track them down in a London hotel, send nasty letters denouncing writers as murderers or keep nagging them to set the date for their favorite characters to get married, simply because they have bought the dress for the on-camera wedding.
LEMAY: A fan wrote me she had bought a dress five times.
MLH: How do you cope with these intrusions?
LEMAY: Luckily, I had a wife who was very amused by all of them. She didn't watch soaps much except for what I wrote. She read the mail and burst into peals of laughter every now and then. But then I began to have a different fix on it. I began to think that if you were living alone in the winter, let's say, in Idaho with the snow all around you a hundred and fifty years ago, what was your contact with the outside world? None. Today you have television. You can watch other people's lives and get so involved in them that you know more and care more about them than you do your children. Which very often happens. People get very upset with what happens to characters on a soap. Now we have moved into something else which is a big threat to the soaps. We have moved into the talk shows. They get other people's stories, the real, gritty, what we used to call "Swamp Yankee" stories where I grew up -- incest, mothers stealing their daughters' husbands -- and in a way that is what soaps used to do with more taste.
MLH: Does art imitate life or does life imitate art?
LEMAY: Art comes from life. Nothing you can write about is as insane as the real. Look what happened to Princess Diana. Who could have written that? People need to project themselves into somebody else. We cannot contain ourselves in the envelope nature gave us. We try to get into somebody else's consciousness. We do it through fiction, plays, television, talk shows. That is why in a way the whole phenomenon of Princess Di is interesting to me. All these people who are mourning her quite genuinely are not mourning the real Princess Di. They didn't know her. They are mourning some image that she and the press and others created for them as they mourned Elvis, John Lennon, or Marilyn Monroe. They become fictional in a way. While we didn't know everything about Monroe until after her death, we have known about Diana's problems because she exposed them. She talked about her bulimia, her suicide attempts, her marriage. In the old days that would have happened after her death. Now it is as if people's lives in the news are on top of us all the time. It is like war. When I was a soldier fifty years ago in combat in Germany, nobody knew what we were going through. There were no films of it. In Vietnam you could see what was going on.
MLH: Watergate and Vietnam were major historical events during the seventies. You created a story where Iris is bugging her husband's hotel suite before they found the Watergate tapes. How could you know?
LEMAY: I didn't. I just figured that was an interesting story and I got a call from the Wall Street Journal. They did a whole piece about it, asking me when I wrote it. I said the script had been taped ten days earlier meaning I had written it three weeks before and they were amazed.
MLH: How did you invent a situation using the latest technology?
LEMAY: As a writer, you ask, "What do they want and how do they get it?" "How far will they go?" She wanted evidence that he was sleeping with Alice.
MLH: What about Vietnam. Did that war have any impact on you?
LEMAY: I suspect it had very little on me. We tend to think of wars, if we are involved in them, as our war. My war is World War II because that was my experience in combat. Recently, as a consultant for ANOTHER WORLD, we did a story for David Forsythe [John] about when his wife is gone and he is going through psychological and medical problems. He breaks down in a car to Felicia because a boy had just died in the hospital and he is reminded of a boy he couldn't save in Vietnam. We used it because I knew David had been in Vietnam. Since I had been in combat in Europe, I transposed it. I knew what my emotions would have been if I had had that situation which I never had. David is a marvelous actor and he called me, astounded about the truth of the experience thrown into his character. He knew I couldn't know what his personal experience was. I said no, but I knew mine and the parallels were strong enough. Susan Sullivan once said when we were doing an interview together that sometimes she felt I was under her bed listening to her conversations, because they would show up on the set in the scripts.
MLH: Have you ever been accused of psychic ability?
LEMAY: No, I don't have that.
MLH: What about strong intuitions and imagination?
LEMAY: Most of that I can't take credit for. It comes from reading. If you read for sixty years and you read serious writers you come across almost every human condition and situation and perception that there is and you remember them. Dostoevsky, Proust, Trollope, George Eliot....
MLH: You have said and I quote, "Casting a soap is a tiresome process in which one out of ten actors proves adequate and only one out of 25 is exceptional." What makes the one out of 25 exceptional?
LEMAY: An instinct. I will tell you a story about casting a play that relates to that. I did a play about my family, mother, brothers and sisters. It was a very emotional play about dealing with my father's suicide. There is a scene in it and we auditioned actor after actor with this scene. Anne Meacham was playing the leading role of the mother and she auditioned with all those young actors who would be playing her favorite son. The scene was about this very irrational woman asking her son to take her back to New York with him and leave the terrible rundown country farm. And he won't do it. She asks him, "What has happened to you?" He responds, "You, you happened to me." Every actor read it as an accusation. Nick Coster came in and when he got to that moment, he took her face in his hands and he played it as a love scene. And he broke my heart. I couldn't watch it. I couldn't watch it during rehearsals or performance. After the play was over, I took him for a drink and asked him how he chose to do that. I hadn't written it that way. He gave it something that should have been there. He said, "While I was reading it before the audition, I thought "God, I should have said that to my mother." Now that is what makes an actor. That was taken right out of his gut. So you look for the thing that's surprising. It may come out of left field but it is interesting. It doesn't matter whether it is right or not. It just means that he or she has the imagination to do something. It is not the traditional reading of the lines.
MLH: What would be something that would turn you off? Body Language?
LEMAY: Body language very often. An actor who is not free with his body is not a good actor usually with emotional things. If you are going to play uptight people, that might be all right. The kind of actor who has freedom, not only in body language, but in his voice, the way he looks at other people, eye contact, very much present in the reality, not afraid to touch. Does the actor who says to another, "There, there that's all right" sit there or does he move toward the other person and pat his hand while saying the line? Nine times out of ten you don't get that. So when you do, you pay attention.
I almost always sat in on casting sessions for major parts. I love actors. I was trained with them and I was taught by good actors like Uta Hagen and Sandy Meisner and others. I respect them. Those actors who take chances have saved writing that wasn't as good as it should be. My work and other's. You see it in plays that have been revived. I saw "Moon For the Misbegotten" when the wonderful actress Wendy Hiller did it with Franchot Tone and it wasn't very good. Then years later I saw Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards do it and it was absolutely wonderful. It is all the connection of the material and the actor.
MLH: How did you feel about going to the studio?
LEMAY: I didn't like to visit the studio because I don't like writing any place but at home. I would get up at 4 in the morning. If I had to be at the studio at 10 AM a car would have to pick me up at 9:30. That meant I'd have to get up earlier than 4 in order to complete the script. I never write at night because my energy is gone. Morning is a time of renewal.
MLH: Did you find yourself becoming obsessed with the characters?
LEMAY: The characters took on their own lives with me. I was trying to solve their problems. I might be walking down the street or lying in bed before falling asleep thinking about how I would solve Mac's problem or Rachel's problem. How could I make it work? That was the kind of obsession I had. I have it now in the play I'm writing. I wake up thinking about a solution. All writing really is problem solving. It is fun but it also drives you bats because you don't get the solution very often.
MLH: How much influence did the environment where you were raised, the people you knew, members of your family, childhood incidents and life experience have on the creation of soap characters and situations?
LEMAY: My children and I talk about this a great deal. My daughter is a painter and she recently asked me what it is that starts me? When I was her daughter's age, nine, I can remember just sitting and watching people. What are they doing? Why are they talking that way? That is the experience. Asking the questions. If you are one of thirteen children, you have a lot of whys.
MLH: When you won the Daytime Emmy for Writing ANOTHER WORLD, what did it feel like?
LEMAY: Well, I had been nominated for the National Book Award for my first book, "Inside, Looking Out: A Personal Memoir." There were five other nominations including Joe Lash (Franklin and Eleanor) and Edmund Wilson. When my editor asked me to write an acceptance speech should I win, I told him how could I think to win opposite writers like those? So for the Emmy nomination, I didn't expect to win. However, when the announcement was being made of the winner, the TV cameras swung to another head writer who was also nominated. He jumped to his feet and was ready to go. I suppose I was amused and embarrassed for him. I might have done the same thing. But I wouldn't leap to my feet until I knew.
MLH: How did Paul react to your winning?
LEMAY: He was delighted. He was always very pleased when I got recognition. We were partners, particularly at that period. We created a soap opera together, LOVERS AND FRIENDS. That lasted a year or two. It was too much. I found it interesting to be working on one soap and to be able to switch my mind completely into a whole other set of characters. We had wonderful actors like Nancy Marchand and Richard Backus. It didn't work because I didn't have the energy to fight for what I wanted to do and they changed a whole lot of things. After the first six months I didn't write it anymore. I just collected the royalties.
MLH: With all the professional ups and downs in your life, there is one word that describes you so aptly and you have admitted that it fits and that is Tenacity. Holding on to survive.
LEMAY: I think it is essential for any creative person. There are so many disappointments. You start as a writer without knowing what you are doing. You write a novel as I did and you get a rejection letter. You go on to the next one. You keep hoping the rejection won't happen and that someone eventually will find out you are good.
I wrote for 17 years before I made a penny. It was not because I wanted to be successful but I loved the process. I wanted to be able to be good at it. I had enormous help. I had a wife, who, now that she is dead, I can say things that would only have embarrassed her if she ever heard me say them. She took my life and switched it around and made me not only able to do what I wanted to do, but made a life for me that made me proud of doing it and she was proud of it. Within that 41 years of marriage, the kids, and the difficulties of bringing up kids in New York, and not having money -- I was 50 before I made a decent salary -- well, all that made the tenacity work. I have seen people who are defeated in life. I have never been defeated. I have never had therapy. I think they would have robbed me of my tenacity. Part of it is being one of 13 children. In order to survive as one of 13 children, you have to be tenacious and we all are.
Nobody was ever going to do anything for me while I was growing up and even now I find it hard to let anyone do things for me. I have just read "Angela's Ashes," a most extraordinary piece of work. It is also about tenacity. The fact that Frank McCourt and his brother Malachy have hung on and become what they are. There is something about survival and I find it interesting just having children of my own. They have led more sheltered lives than I did at their age and yet they don't have that drive that is part of tenacity. The ugly things in my life happened during the war going into Dachau, the concentration camp, about six hours after the infantry did. The things that I saw there probably shook me up more than anything else. Those are the events that shaped me more than any of my childhood. The older you get the more you look back on your early life. There were a lot of lovely things about my growing up there too which I wasn't aware of then. The warmth of people, the kindness of people. But then people have always been kind to me. I have never had any objections or complaints.
MLH: I would like to know who is the person you have trusted most in your life?
LEMAY: My wife.
MLH: What about in your professional life? A writer for example?
LEMAY: A man who recently died. William Humphrey, the novelist, who wrote "Home From the Hill." I worked with him at Knopf. Doug Watson.
MLH: What was there about Doug?
LEMAY: He was the most generous, sweetest-natured, empathetic man in the world and when he died it was so sudden. I thought he would always be there. He was a little older than I. He would call me after I had left ANOTHER WORLD, when I could no longer do him any favors as Mac Cory. He would come to town and invite us to have dinner with him and his wife and hear Barbara Cook. He would take us to the Plaza and spend hundreds of dollars. I would ask him why he was spending all this money and he would say "I wouldn't make this money if it weren't for you, so shut up."
Another time he visited us when he and his wife were going to use our house at Fire Island for a weekend and he wanted to know if we had seen "Nicholas Nickleby." I said I wasn't going to spend a hundred bucks for a ticket. They left and when I went to empty an ashtray, there were two one hundred dollar bills under it. That was so typical of him.
MLH: Is the soap opera in its present form going to survive the millennium?
LEMAY: I hope so because it is a great form. It is the only form in which you follow a story day by day. You can follow a woman's pregnancy as we did with Ada for six or seven months. I think soaps will survive if they concentrate on that aspect of them that you don't get anywhere else, the human aspect, the great empathy. The late Gilbert Seldes once wrote that people watch soaps as if they were listening in on other people's lives. That is what they should be. It couldn't be that if they were all going to do Raiders of the Lost Ark or Fatal Attraction plots. All the soaps are stealing from the movies. I remember a big fight when I was a consultant on AS THE WORLD TURNS and they wanted to have Lisa (Eileen Fulton) have cancer and I kept saying, "I don't think that is a good idea. You are going to turn off half your older audience. They are all terrified of death." They agreed but said it worked in Terms of Endearment. I said in the first place it was the daughter who had cancer in that film. In the second place, a movie is two hours long. You don't stretch it out over six to ten weeks.
There is a strange thing about writing and the producer's attitude about writing that if something works one place, it should be able to work again. I used to get calls from P&G that DAYS OF OUR LIVES was doing such and such and such and why didn't we do something like that and I said, why don't we do something that's ours, not theirs.
MLH: Let me ask you about the sexuality on soaps. So much of the soap and the promo for it is about disrobing, copulating, making love in the shower and so on. Has sex become the common denominator whether it has meaning or not?
LEMAY: I watch French films a lot. They are very explicit about sex. But sex is only a part of what they are about. It is a nourishing part of what they are about. I just watched Ma Saison Preferee with Deneuve. It is an extraordinary movie about a brother and a sister. There is a lot of sexual stuff in it. A lot of nudity. An uncle comes into a room where two young people are stark naked. He apologizes and returns with a bottle of champagne. It is all part of a bigger texture. I feel we don't get what sex is about. I think the most fascinating area of human life is sexuality. It is the most mysterious. No one knows why we are at the mercy of this except nature wants it that way and when we are younger, it is very strong. But my objection is that they don't take it the way it happens. They don't show the courtships, they don't show the tenderness. They just show tongues going down throats and clothes being ripped off and people taking showers together. They don't show the real beauty of sex ever and that is terrifying to me. What do young people of 11 or 12 who watch this think sex is? Sex is a culmination of something. It is not the thing. The marriage ceremony says you are now one and that is the true meaning of sex. It is the whole business of seeing something rather than feeling it. We don't get the mood or the emotion. They have lost touch with what romance is about and what attraction between two human beings is about.
Did you see "A Doll's House"? That play, which is 120 years old, was informed by sex all the way through and it was so powerful. When they lost it at the end, when they were never going to sleep together again, the husband is as bereft as the woman is. The actors chose to make the play about the sex drive. Ibsen didn't know how to write it that way. The director of "A Doll's House" decided to go into the play and find what was there. He didn't sabotage it by putting it in contemporary New York or Boston. When you understand the essence of the play, you find out what is really there.
MLH: What can take soap opera's place?
LEMAY: Nothing. Because nothing touches human beings as much as other people's stories, dramatically told. I think it will swing back to what it was. There has to be a point where people are going to get bored with the tackiness they hear on talk shows.
MLH: You are so fascinating and I have loved getting your perspective about what soaps were and what they could still be. Before I end our conversation I have to ask you what your advice would be to someone who is interested in writing a soap opera?
LEMAY: I get asked that question a lot. I think if you want to write for a soap opera more than anything else in the world, you have to read and read and read. I came into it from the back door. It was thrust on me and yet I know so many people who would love to do it. I should think that the best way to become a soap writer is to watch four soaps very carefully, find out the differences between them, what the approaches seem to be if you can find that out, and then write sample scripts of your own. Not full scripts. I would suggest a couple of scenes like a scene between equally strong characters like Dorian and Vicky on ONE LIFE TO LIVE. Find out if you can do it. One of the problems with most of the writers on soaps is that all the characters sound alike with no individuality as people. The mandate is that it has to come from character and then answer the question, "Why?"
Pete Lemay has been dubbed" Mr. Why" by producers, fellow writers, sponsors and network executives. He practices what he advises the aspiring soap writer to do. The fearlessness he learned in his childhood has inspired the kind of tenacity and drive and relentless search for what rings true in his life and in the fictional worlds he has helped to create.
I think it is fitting to conclude our conversation with a passage from his enlightening book, "Eight Years in Another World," where he describes the evolution of the soap opera plot.
"It takes time to shift dramatic emphasis on a soap opera. The form itself mirrors the leisurely pace of ordinary life, which is one of its strongest appeals to viewers. Love affairs begin slowly as characters circle warily around each other, too familiar through past experience with the pain that lies in store if they are mistaken, as they invariably are. It takes months to set a suspense story in motion, and daily scripts must gain tension by pitting characters against each other as they pursue those means that will give them access to worlds they prefer to their own."