Fierce. Beautiful. Independent. Determined. These are just some of the words that come to mind when one reflects on Jacklyn Zeman’s 33 years on daytime soaps. But how does such a creative force of nature maintain her optimism and resilience within an industry that creates and maintains oppressive standards against aging? Find out in this revealing We Love Soaps interview.
In Part One, Zeman recalls her daytime experiences before GENERAL HOSPITAL and discusses the psychological backstory behind the Spencer family dramas.
We Love Soaps: Before you worked on soaps, you were a professional dancer.
Jacklyn Zeman: Yes. I started when I was five. My mother would take me to dance class. I used to dance around my living room. I have such fond memories as a kid of growing up and having something as a kid that empowered me to feel creative, to feel unique, to feel I was doing something different than everyone else in my family.
We Love Soaps: And then your career path led you to a role on THE EDGE OF NIGHT.
Jacklyn Zeman: Yes! Wow, that was like a gazillion years ago. I’m surprised you even know about that! Tony Craig and Dixie Carter, that’s who I got to work with.
We Love Soaps: Do you remember your story?
Jacklyn Zeman: I wasn’t on a long time. It was a short stint. But I loved it. I was so excited. It was my first opportunity to be on anything. I had never worked as an under five or an extra. I walked in and got the part. I was so excited. It gave me such self-confidence that somebody actually trusted me enough to give me a real part on a show. It made me believe in myself to know that I could to this and do it well.
We Love Soaps: Did you not have that confidence before appearing on EDGE OF NIGHT?
Jacklyn Zeman: I wasn’t sure. I grew up watching soap operas with my mother when I was elementary school. My school was two and a half blocks from my house so you were allowed to go home for lunch. And some of the shows were only 15 minutes then. So we watched SEARCH FOR TOMORROW, GUIDING LIGHT, LOVE OF LIFE, and I loved them. It was a warm and fuzzy feeling because it was time with my mother.
We Love Soaps: You then had a brief stint on ONE LIFE TO LIVE as a very self-destructive young woman [named Lana McClain].
Jacklyn Zeman: Very self-destructive, which was so opposite from who I am as a person so it really required me to hone my acting skills. Most people thought that actors on soaps were kind of like their characters, that they just showed up and were playing themselves. Sort of like reality TV today, it was the most reality TV we had, or that was the perception of the viewers. It certainly was my perception growing up watching soaps. Those people were real to me. They were like family and weren’t just actors playing parts.
We Love Soaps: So given that viewers frequently confused actors with their parts, I imagine you must have received some negative responses when you started as Bobbie Spencer on GENERAL HOSPITAL.
Jacklyn Zeman: Oh yeah! Bobbie was an opportunist. She had a major agenda. But I love the fact that she’s always been very intelligent. That was a part of the character that I really loved. And the good parts of her, the maternal parts, the part that wanted to nurture, how that nursing aspect carried over into her personal relationships, that’s how I was able to justify some of the not-so-attractive behavior. She was never an evil person. She was just a person who came from a very dysfunctional family and didn’t know any better because she had never had a good example of what kind, generous person does. She learned that for herself. It was a long journey the past 30 odd years of seeing her transform from a very needy opportunistic person to someone who I’m told by the audience became a role model. Bobbie would confront her problems, face her fears, have courage even when everything was wrong and everything was bad. Bobbie never ducked responsibility. That’s something in real life that I think is very valuable. I wish I had more of it.
We Love Soaps: What you speak to is how I believe soaps used to be - very therapeutic, offering role models. They showed our favorite characters going through horrible things, but learning to take responsibility and carry on year after year. That was a wonderful message. I don’t think they’re really sending that now.
Jacklyn Zeman: I think that shifted. I don’t know when. In those days the shows were character driven. The fun of watching was like watching a train about to crash. You’d know the characters so well, you’d pray they’d get it right, and sometimes they would and sometimes they wouldn’t. To be honest with you, I don’t watch a lot of daytime now. But from what I understand they are very plot driven. It’s a different thing. It’s a different kind of commitment from the viewer. It’s a different investment emotionally from the audience. I do know that some of the ratings are down, sponsorship is tough, and the advertising dollars aren’t as much. You know very well doing all these interviews, budgets have been cut, characters have been written out, sets are less, a lot of scenes have to be written on two or three sets they can use.
We Love Soaps: What was life like at GENERAL HOSPITAL at the height of all the that media attention in the late 1970s and early 1980s?
Jacklyn Zeman: It was great. Every day there were new things to do. We were so busy. It was like this constant machine. You never knew what was next and they never told you where the story was headed. You got your script two or three days before you’d shoot it. That’s all we knew. The writers had the power in those days to write the story they wanted to write. So they’d call it, “The Book,” a six month to one year plan of where a character was going to go and where the spiritual and emotional development of that character was going to go. It was really fun to get to play that as an actor.
We Love Soaps: Bobbie was a nurse, but she was also a teenage prostitute. And there always seemed to be a dichotomy there. Even between her caring side versus her self-serving side. When you first took on the role of Bobbie, did they tell you her backstory?
Jacklyn Zeman: There was no mention of that. Doug Marland was the writer who created Bobbie. He was such an icon, such an amazing writer. The fact that the characters he created are still alive and living today is a testament to his ability to create something that was really interesting to the audience. So no, they didn’t tell me that. I never even asked him. But then Gloria Monty came on and was producing the show. Gloria was really good at taking adventure storylines and putting romance into them. She, over the years, did some stories that were pretty controversial in their day.
We Love Soaps: When did they start to give you the backstory of Bobbie having been prostituted by her own aunt?
Jacklyn Zeman: If I recall it was when they decided to bring Norma Connolly on as Ruby [in 1979]. Tony [Geary] came on as Luke, and they were looking for ways to find conflict within the family. And they were looking for ways to find that bond between Bobbie and Luke. There’s such a difference between them. Bobbie is always seeing life as positive, that the glass is half full, life is good, you can trust people, love will win out. She’s the ultimate romantic. Luke was written as the opposite, as everyone is out to screw you, don’t trust anybody, the world is a bad place. He’s an atheist, and doesn’t believe in God. There’s a dark side to Luke that Bobbie learned to understand but she doesn’t relate to it at all. And then finding out that Bobbie had been a prostitute and that Ruby had been her madame, that was pretty racy at the time. It was a way for Bobbie to have to open the door to deal with her sexuality.
It was never on camera, but we had discussed [Bobbie and Luke’s] backstory as our father having been an abuser. He abused the mom and us. And although we never had a lot of deep scenes about it, reference was made to it, thus getting ourselves to Florida at a very young age. We talked about how old we were supposed to be, and we decided I was seven, Luke was nine. The father was an alcoholic, the mother was weak, and the mother was beaten all the time and she died. And there we were, two kids that were not going to get stuck in the foster care system. So we just took off and went to the only person we knew, who was Ruby. There Bobbie became a teenage prostitute. They never really went into how long, how much, how often. At one point they said it wasn’t that long. Once Ruby came on as a character they said that when she discovered what was going on she said, “No, even though I’m running a house, I don’t want this for you.” At that point, Bobbie came to Port Charles and became a student nurse and got her education. That was when she came to say, “My mother was abused, I was an abused child, I saw my brother abused, I’m not going to go that way.”
People found Bobbie’s past shocking and interesting. But it also inspired them. They would say, “If she could pick herself from her boot straps and come from where she’s been and end up okay with a good job and an education and still love men and be comfortable with her sexuality,” this was a comfort to a lot of women. I mean, soap operas are entertainment, we’re not doing brain surgery here. But there’s also a comfort and courage from watching these characters and relating to that. I would get a lot of letters from people that would relate to that and talk to me about how they relate to Bobbie’s life.
Please come back for Part Two of our interview where Zeman discusses highlights from Bobbie Spencer’s time in Port Charles, including her abusive marriage and the devastating loss of B.J.
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.