In Part One of my interview with legendary soap writer Claire Labine, Ms. Labine shared her writing process, reflections on her early career, and how mothering contributed to her understanding of soaps In Part Two, the Emmy winner discussed her battles with ABC, struggles with recasts, and the psychological underpinnings of the Ryan family.
Every great talent looks back at their career with some modicum of regret. But changing stories about gorillas isn’t always one of them! Please enjoy Part Three of the interview in which Claire Labine discusses controversial storyline choices on RYAN'S HOPE and GENERAL HOSPITAL, and her reaction to the criticism that her work is “too depressing.”
We Love Soaps: Looking back, in your words, what happened to RYAN'S HOPE? How did it go from being this cherished and protected...
Claire Labine: It wasn’t though. It was never cherished or protected. After 1980, we had the George Steinbrenner New York Yankees relationship with the network which was, “You’re fired. Oh, you’re hired! Oh we quit. Oh, please come back. No. Then we’re glad we fired you the first time. Please come back...” That went on for quite some time.
I would say network interference and pressure from other shows that wanted the time slot [is what happened to it]. And the loyalty of the network to those other shows and rightly so. Ms. Nixon had made that network so much money you couldn’t even begin to count it. When she wanted something she generally got it. And what she wanted was the time slot [for LOVING]. That made a difference. And the writing changed to a considerable degree. I knew when Eleanor [Labine] and I went back in 1987 it was going to be canceled. I knew from people highly placed in the network who were fond of me. They said, “Don’t get messed up in that again. It’s going down. It’s inevitable it’s going down.” And that actually was my motivation. I didn’t want it to go off the air in the condition it was in.
We Love Soaps: Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently on RYAN'S HOPE?
Claire Labine: I would have done thousands of things differently.
We Love Soaps: Can you tell me what some of those are?
Claire Labine: I would have been much more tactful with the network. I would have tried to have handled that better, and not been so confrontational. I tell you what would have really have helped. In about 1980, when we sold it [to ABC], if they had said, “Take a year off. Come back in a year. We’ll handle it,” I could have gotten that, I think. But I was afraid to let go of it because I felt like the sharks were circling. But that would have helped, because I was bone tired. And I think I would have been more collaborative, which I later learned to do with Matthew and Eleanor [Labine]. They would call me on it, and they would say, “Mom, you can’t do it all, you shouldn’t do it all, and if you think we’re competent then let us fill in the blanks.” That really worked on GENERAL HOSPITAL. You’ve got to let the people working with you feel it’s theirs too. Paul and I did not initially do that, except with Mary Munisteri.
We Love Soaps: How about creatively on screen? Anything you would do differently?
Claire Labine: In terms of story? Yes. What we referred to as “Terry The Tumor,” which was Tom McGreevy’s character Tom’s departure from the show. I would have done that differently. It was far-fetched. Also, everyone always sites Prince Albert the Ape story as a mistake. But I’d do that again! I loved those scenes. It was a story about alienation. It was Delia relating to the one persona that she could relate to at that point. We were quite fascinated by all the ape research that was in the era when that was first being explored. We were really interested in that. So I’d probably try to do that again.
We Love Soaps: What about the killing of Baby Edmund Coleridge?
Claire Labine: Yes, I would do it again, though maybe differently. Though we swore we never kill another baby because people were so outraged. But Nancy Addison, in the drug story that came off of it, did some of the best acting of her whole life. She was unbelievably good. And there was some reason why we didn’t want the baby, and I can’t remember what it was. It was a practical reason, but I can’t remember. We had Little John on the show, that was certainly an argument for keeping him alive. If the show had been on the air as long as some of the others he could have come in very handy as a rival to Little John. We would seriously examine the concept of not killing him had I to do it all over again. But I still think weighing everything we still would have done it again.
We Love Soaps: When you came back to write for GENERAL HOSPITAL, was ABC supportive this time?
Claire Labine: Oh my God they were wonderful. Mickey Dwyer-Dobbin was the head of daytime. And she and Wendy [Riche, EP of General Hospital] agreed to turn us loose and not to interfere. And Wendy backed us up. If we said we wanted it, she would stand in front of a truck and get it for us. And we loved working on that show.
I loved that cast. There wasn’t a bad apple there. The whole Lois/Ned thing just delighted us. When we took on forays into melodrama Wendy produced the hell out of it. I was talking to someone last night about the heart transplant story and the impact that had with the Organ Donor Association. There were a huge number of volunteers after that story ran. We were so happy to do that story. Monica’s breast cancer story was another one. We got an award from the Susan G. Komen program [in 1995] that does breast cancer research. They had a big award thing in Dallas. Lucy Baines Johnson presented me with the award for that story. Her mother had just recovered from breast cancer. And she said to me on stage, “I said to my mother ‘you have to come watch this’.” They watched the story together. And [Lucy] said, “I sat there and watched my mother cry.” And I said, “I don’t want to make Lady Bird cry, I love Lady Bird Johnson!” That meant a great deal to me.
And then the AIDS story. That was before the cocktail. That came up at the very end of it [before the current medications were available]. So I couldn’t bare to watch it. I don’t know how they handled it with Robin. I couldn’t. It was too painful. We really had invested in those characters and it’s hard to go back and not know what they’re up to. It feels like abandoning your children. I didn’t watch after I left, and I don’t know how they played it out with Robin. It was certainly there to be used. We left it there to be used in an ongoing honest way.
We Love Soaps: You certainly made your mark on the show, and I mean that in the best way possible. Those years you wrote for GENERAL HOSPITAL are some of the best in my 38 years of soap viewing. You did use the daytime genre to illuminate not only the social issues, but the psychological issues that underpinned their motivations.
Claire Labine: We tried.
We Love Soaps: But many at the time were very critical of you, and considered the show to be “too depressing.” What do you think of that criticism?
Claire Labine: That’s ridiculous. If they were paying attention, Wally and Rena [Ned and Lois] were turning in some of the most complex and lovely character work which we desperately tried to make entertaining and funny. Ditto Kevin and Mac and Lucy. Hello out there? There was comedy going on!
But I’ve been hideously criticized. I love the audience, I respect the audience. but I’m not writing for audience, I’m writing for me. I’m writing what I want to see those characters do. And if the audience loves it, that’s great. I’m only doing what I can do. I can’t write in response to reactions to the story. And the bloggers, I mean, with all due respect, I love the fact that people get so involved and they have this whole huge network of commentary and criticism. That’s the way it should be. But don’t expect me to write in response to it. Because I can’t. It’s physically impossible since everything is laid out so far and in advance and you don’t go shifting pieces. Or you do, but it’s at your own peril. Besides which if it’s not in my psyche, I can’t write something I’m not feeling.
We Love Soaps: I never understood that criticism either. I always thought your work was balanced not only by the comedic aspects you mentioned, but all of the stories that we’ve talked about always had an inspirational message behind them.
Claire Labine: They did! We tried to. The degree of ignorance of AIDS in that era was stunning! People really thought you could catch it by shaking hands. I did feel impassioned about that story. I got the fastest approval for that story ever. We were at a retreat with Pat [Fili-Krushel, head of ABC daytime from 1993-2000]. We were at breakfast and Wendy said, “What we really need is a Romeo and Juliet story.” And it just came to me: “Stone is HIV positive and he and Robin become lovers and she’s infected.” Pat looked at me and said, “Can you really make a story out of that?” And I said, “You bet we can.” And she said, “Approved!” And she let us do it!
At the very end, just before Robin’s diagnosis, Pat called and asked, “Does she really really have to be HIV positive?” And I said, “Well, if she isn’t the whole story is pointless.” She said, “Alright, but this is breaking my heart.” I said, “Good! That what it’s intended to do!” So if it depressed people, I’m sorry. Was it what we intended to do? You bet!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Come back for Part Four where Ms. Labine dishes about life at GENERAL HOSPITAL, the pressures of continuing the Luke and Laura legacy, inventing Sonny and Brenda, and why Jason Quartermaine was given amnesia.
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 has started blogging again at www.shouldless.com.