Harding Lemay Interview: Part One

Meeting Harding Lemay surpassed my wildest dreams as a writer. This esteemed soap writing legend agreed to sit down and chat with me last week in his gorgeous Manhattan apartment. At 87-years-old, he is strong, healthy, and sharper than many 30-somethings I know! For the young ‘uns out there, Mr. Lemay took over head writing duties of ANOTHER WORLD in 1971 and stayed until 1979. He won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Daytime Drama Series in 1975 (shared with Douglas Marland, among others), the show won Outstanding Drama Series in 1976. He kept the series near the top of the ratings for most of his run. Please join me in appreciating and celebrating the amazing mind and talents of Mr. Harding Lemay!

We Love Soaps: Mr. Lemay, what an honor to meet you. You are so esteemed in this community! Your years on ANOTHER WORLD are still talked about with such nostalgic and splendor. Did you ever think your work would still be celebrated 30 years later?
Harding Lemay: No, and I fell into this quite accidentally. I had written a memoir about my life. I grew up being one of 13 children, and I ran away to New York. I was living in a home for vagrant boys, then working as an actor, then the army, then in publishing. I got a call from Procter & Gamble asking me if I wanted to write for a soap. I said, “I’ve never seen a soap, I don’t know what they are.” They said, “we’ll pay you $1000 if you watch ANOTHER WORLD for a month and then have lunch with us.”

Harding Lemay: So I did. I didn’t like it, I thought it was dreadful. I thought it was ridiculous. But I watched a lot of other soaps because I didn’t want to just judge it by itself. And I didn’t like them either. [Laughs] I watched AS THE WORLD TURNS, GUIDING LIGHT and SEARCH FOR TOMORROW. When I had the lunch, it included a number of executives from P&G and the network. I criticized ANOTHER WORLD very harshly and said, “But it wasn’t the worst one I watched!” Then I went into the others, thinking I could get a better word in. I needed the work because I was flat broke. I savaged the other shows and the guy sitting next to me said, “I think I should tell you that we produce all those shows.” So I thought I lost the job. I had two kids in school, a house in Fire Island, and no money left. But they hired me. And years later I asked Bob Short [of P&G] “Why? I had nothing good to say about their soaps” And he said, “Well, we thought everybody else wanted you.”

I didn’t know how to do it So they hired Irna Phillips to tutor me. Now Irna Phillips was a terror. She was a bitter, spiteful old woman. We didn’t get on at all. In the first place I didn’t agree with what she was doing as a writer. She thought people were either saints or sinners, they were all good or all bad. And I thought they were a mixture. So she was always screaming at me on the phone that everything I was doing was wrong. But the ratings suddenly began to go up. So P&G decided to keep me on and let her go because I couldn’t work with her. And then we were the first show to expand to an hour. It was great fun to do. But I had never had any idea it was what they would call “The Golden Age” of soaps. The actors didn’t, I didn’t, and the producers didn’t. We were just doing it.

We Love Soaps: You have talked about your experience in World War II. You were part of the U.S. liberation army in Dachau, is that right?
Harding Lemay: It wasn’t Dachau, but it was a camp like Dachau. This was a smaller one, it was in Austria.

We Love Soaps: So you witnessed many of the atrocities of Nazi Germany?
Harding Lemay: We went in the day after the infantry. I was in the field artillery in the Battle of the Bulge. So we saw all the prisoners, the inmates. It was dreadful, absolutely mind boggling, what went on. And for young people, I was 21, and never knew people did that to each other. It never occurred to me that people did those things. To children, to old people, to anybody. It colored me and my attitude towards people a great deal.

We Love Soaps: Do you think it colored your writing?
Harding Lemay: It gave it a darker slant. That’s much more in my plays than in the soap. But it certainly made me understand how people do things when they’re trapped, how they go along with things they don’t agree with because they are trapped. What are going to do, sacrifice your family because you don’t agree with the government? It’s a tough decision, and we’ve never had to face it.

We Love Soaps: Was there a reflection of that darkness in ANOTHER WORLD?
Harding Lemay: No. The sponsors didn’t allow us to go into that kind of thing. If you even brought up a mention of it they would say, “No, we don’t want that.” The censorship was very implicit, and it would usually come about after you had already written it into the script. They’d say, “We can’t use that.” Everything you wrote went through not only the network, but the advertising agency, and the sponsor. I wanted to do a gay story. They had already cast the guy, and we were ready to do it, then they just wouldn’t go along with it.

We Love Soaps: Speaking of that story, how did you decide to have the character of Michael Randolph come out of the closet?
Harding Lemay: Well, I wanted to break up his parents. And I didn’t want to go to the usual route. He was a twin. I wanted him to confide to his sister that he had just started college and had fallen in love with a boy. And they all agreed with it. It was all in the script. I had not signed the renewal of my contract yet. And once I signed it they pulled out the rug from under this story.

We Love Soaps: Who was “they?” Who exactly made this decision?
Harding Lemay: Procter & Gamble, probably.

We Love Soaps: How did they communicate that to you?
Harding Lemay: I got a call from Bob Short, who always leveled with me, saying, “We’re just not going to do it, because we don’t think the audience would appreciate it. They’d turn over to GENERAL HOSPITAL or something.” When I first took the show over, Irna said, “You can’t have a black person have lunch with a white person, or you’d lose everyone in the South.” And so one of the first things I did was to have a white nurse have lunch with a black nurse, and build up a black character. And nobody turned it off, it was just as popular as it always had been. There were a lot of myths about what people would watch or wouldn’t tolerate. There were all these things that they felt very strongly about. And this was way back in 1970, before you were born probably. People go on clichés about what other people think and what they want to see on television. I think that’s why television is so bad. Nobody takes a chance on anything. It was always a big fight to get anything going that was close to reality. Aggie Nixon did it from time to time later on. She always did topical things on ALL MY CHILDREN. She also did gay stories, but that was quite a bit later on.

We Love Soaps: What could you imagine the impact would have been on soaps if you had been allowed to tell that story?
Harding Lemay: One of the reasons I think it would have been successful is because we were very careful in the casting. We got a very good young actor, a very normal, straight, young actor. And he was very ingratiating. And also the audience had known the characters since they were toddlers. You weren’t introducing a new character saying, “Here’s a gay guy.” You were saying that this character, who they had known since he was a baby, was gay. Finally what we decided on, because they wouldn’t let me do the gay story, was that the daughter would become pregnant, and have an abortion. And that’s what would split their parents up.

Stay tuned for Part Two to learn which actor helped Mr. Lemay learn how to write for soaps, which leading actress irritated him by reading lines off her sleeve cuffs, and his unique experience working with Paul Rauch.

Damon L. Jacobs is a Marriage Family Therapist practicing in New York City, and the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." He blogs regularly at www.shouldless.com.

5 comments:

  1. "His unique experience working with Paul Rauch"?

    Jeepers, that's a kind way of saying that Rauch was/is a douche bag? ;-)

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  2. re not showing a black and white character having lunch, i wonder if harding lemay knew this about irna phillips:

    "Phillips never shied away from controversy--when writing for the soap Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, she attempted to introduce an interracial romance. When the network balked, Phillips quit the show."

    that was in 1967-68, and interracial referred to an asian-american woman and caucasian man.

    http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/P/htmlP/phillipsirn/phillipsirn.htm

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  3. Lynn's comment about Phillips' attempt at an interracial romance is interesting. I wonder if Irna just though that it was "easier" to attempt an interracial romance with an Asian-American woman and a Caucasian man over trying to establish any sort of relationship, platonic or otherwise, between a person of color and a Caucasian.

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  4. i think it was more about acknowledging the original "love is a many splendored thing," which was a 1955 movie about a romance between an american war correspondent and an eurasian doctor and the prejudice they encountered in hong kong during the chinese revolution.

    but there had been african-amercan characters on p&g soaps. in 1966, james earl jones plated dr. jerry turner on atwt. then in 1967 jones and ruby dee played married doctor and nurse jim and martha fraizer on guiding light. whether or not these characters ever had lunch with a caucasian character i can't say.

    it would be interesting to know whether irna shared her experience on 'splendored thing with lemay when she made her suggestion.

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  5. Lynn,

    I can confirm that Billy Dee Williams (the original "Dr. Jim Frazier") indeed had lunch with a caucasian - the proof is now on YouTube, as "ClassicGL" posted a clip from 1966 of Jim Frazier having lunch with the original Joe McIntyre. However, I don't know if Irna was even involved with GL at that point. I believe Agnes Nixon was writing it then.

    Although, I don't know if anyone will read this 7 months after the fact, either...

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