This is the final part of my interview with Harding Lemay. I wish every writer and executive were willing to consider his approach to storytelling, and how everyone wins when multi-generational stories are produced. Please read on to find out what he had to say about ATWT's burning of the Purple Heart, Chris Engen's exit, and the role the internet has played in soap watching in recent years. Thank you so much for reading!
We Love Soaps: In some ways, some shows have taken more risks in recent years. On AS THE WORLD TURNS, Luke Grimaldi has come out as gay and has a partner.
Harding Lemay: Wow, that’s a long switch from where I was.
We Love Soaps: Do you think you ever could have told a story like that?
Harding Lemay: I would have if they had let me.
We Love Soaps: So recently on AS THE WORLD TURNS, the character of Noah, explained that he psychologically needed to rid himself of his murderous father’s belongings. In the process of burning his father’s belongings, he burnt a Purple Heart on screen. This is creating a huge ruckus.
Harding Lemay: Oh I’ll bet.
We Love Soaps: Would you ever have a character do something like this?
Harding Lemay: I wouldn’t bother. [Laughs] I don't have any particular reverence for the Purple Heart. It’s a symbol, that’s all. I’m sure a lot of mean people have won them. And a lot of good people have too. It seems so odd that there would be a big ruckus about it anyway. It must be coming from the Religious Right or some basic off-right faction in the country. I don’t remember any controversy about anything we did, but then we didn’t get into any areas like that. I think people do more now.
Harding Lemay: There’s much more freedom in soaps now. When I took over [ANOTHER WORLD] you weren’t allowed to show a man and a woman in bed together. Now you not only see them in bed, you see them on top of desks, and things, and that was another Jill Phelps thing. I always thought that it was much better to leave it to the imagination, like the old movies.
We Love Soaps: There’s another question I have for you about something happening currently. [Describes Adam Newman’s crimes and Chris Engen’s decision to leave THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS allegedly when it was written that his character would kiss another man]. The controversy comes from people who believe he had the right to say no to doing something he didn’t believe in, and then the other faction that perceives it as an act of hatred on his part, that he’s a paid employee, he doesn’t get to dictate story. Any thoughts?
Harding Lemay: I think that was handled very badly by the producer. I mean they should have told him long beforehand. And there are ways of doing what they wanted to do without him kissing a man. I think he had the right...what if it was something else? What if it weren’t kissing a man, what if it were slashing a woman’s face, but really slashing it? Then would there be the same controversy? There are certain things you do not ask actors to do without telling them beforehand. They do that in the movies. This whole business of contracts, you know, actors are not slaves. My feeling is that you try to make it comfortable for the actor to do his job. If he’s uncomfortable then it’s going to be a lousy scene, to say the least. It’s not going to serve the purpose the writer has for it if he’s uncomfortable doing it. And I think the producer and the director could have worked that out. They just got obstinate, probably, and he got obstinate, and it’s stupid. I think the whole situation is stupid.
We Love Soaps: So if you were writing a scene like this and an actor...
Harding Lemay: I would never write that scene. I would never ever put an actor in that position unless he had agreed to do it beforehand. I would call him before I wrote the scene. I did that a lot, and even Paul [Rauch] would object sometimes. I would go to the actor. I’d say, “Do you object to doing this?” Because it’s a personal thing. You know, he’s got a family , he’s got friends, you don’t deprive actors of their image, of their sense of themselves. I sort of admire him for standing up for what he feels. Just as I would admire a gay actor who would stand up for his being gay in a scene where people are denigrating being gay. It’s a weird business, isn’t it?
We Love Soaps: It sure is. And I think the other thing that has changed in the last ten years or so is how much of this information is now public. Thanks (or curses) to the internet, we now have up to the minute information about personal things, such as contract negotiations, arguments on the set.
Harding Lemay: Where do they get this information?
We Love Soaps: Well, from the site I write for.
Harding Lemay: [Laughs]
We Love Soaps: But it’s also coming sometimes from the actors themselves. Whereas there used to be an unwritten code of secrecy, now the lid is blown off of that. What do you think about that?
Harding Lemay: I think there are good and bad things about that. I think there used to be a lot of secrecy that should not have been secret, just as in government. I think transparency is a very good thing. Whether it hurts people or not is something else. And whether it’s truthful or not—there’s no way to verify a lot of the stuff you see. I don’t watch the internet, I don’t use it very much. But my feeling is there is a lot of stuff out there that can’t be verified. It’s just somebody’s opinion sometimes, so there’s no way of knowing what the truth is. I think you have to see these things as possibly not true. But they have a right to be there, people have a right to express what they express as far as I’m concerned. Unless it’s about me. [Laughs]
We Love Soaps: Has anyone ever said a mean word about you in public?
Harding Lemay: Not to my knowledge. [Laughs]. Maybe behind my back.
We Love Soaps: The other downside is that anything that happens on the show is told in advance. And this is coming from the publicity department.
Harding Lemay: That never used to happen. That takes all the fun out of it.
We Love Soaps: Doug Marland had his infamous “Marland’s Rules.” I’d like to know what Lemay’s Rules are?
Harding Lemay: I don’t have any. I know Doug was rather rigid about a lot of things. I trained Doug actually. Very interesting writer. There was a very very dark underside to all his writing. Good characters though. I think everything you write creates it’s own rules. Whether it’s a play or a book or a script. Every situation you write creates it’s own rules and that rule is the truth of the situation. You can’t have rigid rules. Because you lock yourself into a dramatic box. And it doesn’t work. And that was one of Doug’s problems as a writer. The people who wrote with him would often be confronted with Doug’s rigid idea of what was right and what was not right. My attitude was, “Try it, see if it works.”
We Love Soaps: How would you know when something wasn’t working?
Harding Lemay: On the page I know. Because it’s not truthful. I think if you go with what is truth, it will work. And the actors know what’s true. I’ve never had an actor call and say, “I don’t believe this.” I’ve had actors call and say, “How do I do this?” Doug Watson [Mac Cory] would do that a lot. Writing for actors is writing behavior. And behavior has to be true. If there’s a point when the truth fails, then the story fails. That in a way is why I left. It wasn’t truthful for me anymore. Maybe it’s because I was tired by then, maybe it’s because they weren’t interested in my kind of truth anymore.
We Love Soaps: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would like to share with us?
Harding Lemay: I learned a lot from writing soaps. I learned a lot about how to write a play. The hardest thing about writing a soap is creating tension. Because the conflict is a long, long stretch. It’s going to be six months of the same conflict. So every scene you write has to have tension. And my solution to it very early on was never put two characters in a scene who agree with each other. If it was a mother or father, if it was Alice’s mother or father, they have to disagree about what they’re talking about. Whether Alice is doing the right thing or not. They cannot agree. It’s deadly if they agree. That’s why Aunt Liz [Irene Dailey] was such a wonderful character on that show. Because she was so impossible. She meant well, but she did it all wrong. So one thing I really learned about writing, for a play too, was to keep the tension. More than the overall conflict. If the actors don’t have that tension then it doesn’t work.
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.