We Love Soaps: Why do you think after 20+ years of trying to cater to the younger generation, only to see ratings fall, that the networks still push for this?
Harding Lemay: There’s no explanation. One of the things I found very difficult about the network people was that they come from a different background. They come from business. They have no idea what goes into writing and what goes into character...or even what goes into life.
We Love Soaps: But even from a business perspective, your show was number one for much of the 1970’s. And the number one show now for the past 20 years has been THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS, which traditionally features multigenerational stories.
Harding Lemay: I’ve always been baffled by the network mind. But then, I’m baffled by the producer’s mind, and usually the director’s as well.
We Love Soaps: Do you remember the stories you wanted to tell when you returned to ANOTHER WORLD in 1988?
Harding Lemay: There was a story I wanted to tell, and we had almost cast it with, about a woman who was kidnapping young migrant children, and farming them out as laborers. And I had done a whole story on it. And she is discovered because someone gives a bath to a six-year-old child and realizes it’s not a dark-skinned child at all. He’s white. And they realize that this is a gang. And this is something I was very interested in. Etan Patz had been kidnapped in New York, and still hasn’t been found to this day. And they agreed to it, and then backed out. They said it was too, I forgot the words they used, not “sordid,” but “downbeat” and “too depressing." That people wouldn’t be interested in it. But it was really a long term story about missing children in Bay City.
We Love Soaps: And the fact that they would have the audacity to tell you what people would or would not be interested in after you had proven yourself for so many years just baffles me as well.
Harding Lemay: Well I never wrote because I knew what people were interested in because I was never sure myself. But I knew what I was interested in. And I knew what I could write. I knew where my strengths were as a writer and where my weaknesses were. I can write character. And plot, I’m not great on plot. I used to criticized, even when the ratings were high, because they said I was to Tchekhovian. And I said, “What’s wrong with that, he’s a great writer.” But they don’t get the sense that all human life is interesting if you make it interesting. And that conflicts between husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, is what all drama is about. It’s crazy they don’t have any reference point that you can deal with. They had a reference point for what’s happening on GENERAL HOSPITAL, or another soap. I always said, “Don’t do what other soaps are doing, do your own.” And that’s what we did. The thing with Iris and Mac and Rachel was a great incest story basically. And we never had to say it. They played it for all it was worth.
We Love Soaps: You were instrumental in bringing Iris back in 1988?
Harding Lemay: Yes, well, with a different actress. And she wasn’t Bevey McKinsey. She was Australian, actually. I wasn’t there when they cast her.
We Love Soaps: What story would you have told for Mac and Rachel?
Harding Lemay: I wouldn’t have broken them up, I’ll tell you that. That was too strong a core relationship. I would have built on her relationship with Jamie and Matthew.
We Love Soaps: You have worked on several shows [GUIDING LIGHT, ANOTHER WORLD and ONE LIFE TO LIVE] with Jill Farren Phelps, and you have spoken in other interviews very favorably of her. That is surprising to me, only because my experience of her work is that she is very plot based and little concern is given to character.
Harding Lemay: That’s why she called me as a consultant. She knew that, and she wanted me to build the characters and that’s what I did as a consultant on three shows with her. As I said, writers tend to go to plot because it’s quicker. I mean, you don’t have to think as much, you just steal a plot from something. I used to steal plots. I stole them from Balzac and Jane Austen and everything I read. [Laughs] But I stole from things nobody else read. I didn’t steal from movies, I stole from literature. Jane Austen takes 400 pages keeping two young lovers apart and you can do that in a soap, the technique is the same.
We Love Soaps: Do you feel like you were a good balance for her? Did you feel like she respected you?
Harding Lemay: Yes, yes she did. I haven’t seen her work since I finished my consultant work, and I gave up doing consulting because it was too toxic. That’s the reason it’s so plotty—the writers don’t agree and whoever is the head writer pushes through plots. And it’s easier to convince the sponsors and the networks to do plot. You don’t have the fights with them that you do with characters. When you’re doing character the sponsors and networks are always saying, “What happens, what happens?” Even when our ratings were number one I would always get these questions from an outline, “But nothing is happening in the scene.” I said, “We wait until it’s done.”
We Love Soaps: They were always asking, “What what what?” You were always asking, “Why why why?”
Harding Lemay: Right. And if you know the “why” and work on the “why” then the “what” takes care of itself.
We Love Soaps: So the last time you consulted was will Jill at ONE LIFE TO LIVE [in 1998]. Did they listen to you when you did consult?
Harding Lemay: I used to say “Well I don’t know why you are paying me all this money, nobody pays attention.” Jill would say, “We need your insight.” They did listen somewhat when it came to character and I said, “Look, you have got to make this character clear, you’ve got to make sure we know why he’s doing what he’s doing.” I didn’t get involved much in their plotting. That was their problem, not mine. I’m no good at it anyway.
We Love Soaps: Jill has been known to be pretty insensitive, to be diplomatic, to viewers, in the way that she treats the characters. And it feels like a 180 [from you]. For example, the killing of Maureen Bauer on GUIDING LIGHT and the brutal violent murder of Frankie Frame on ANOTHER WORLD.
Harding Lemay: I didn’t know that.
We Love Soaps: She is classically known for killing off the heroines that people love. So Frankie Frame, who was part of the Frame family you had written for in the 1970's, was not only killed, but she was violently strangled as she pleaded for her life to her strangler. It was part of a serial killer story line that was dropped about a month later, there were no long term repercussions. It was purely for plot, purely for ratings.
Harding Lemay: I never would have done that. I avoided killings like mad. I really think they’re unnecessary and gratuitous. They can be offstage, I mean, we killed Val Dafour [Walter Curtain] by sending him over a cliff in a car, but that’s not murder.
I found there were very difficult areas to deal with. I wanted to do a story about a social worker who was helping Rachel [Cory] with her problems with Jamie. And they were insisting she be a Margaret Hamilton witch type [The Wicket Witch in The Wizard of Oz]. And I said, “Look, there are thousands and millions of people who need social workers, and I’m not going to write that.” I wanted a warm-hearted sympathetic woman who is really trying to help and does help. And they backed down. Once I said, “There are millions of people who need them,” they didn’t have a leg to stand on. But their attitude is the cliché, “Let’s go for the cliché.” Every time. And the cliché is dumb! It’s never truthful, and it doesn’t work dramatically.
Stay tuned for the Part Five, the final part of my interview with Mr. Lemay, in which he comments on more recent stories such as Noah and the Purple Heart (ATWT), Chris Engen's leaving Y&R, and his take on "Marland's Rules."
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.