I had the extreme honor of speaking with the profoundly gifted and intelligent Don Hastings recently. Although most know him as the honorable pillar "Dr. Bob Hughes" on AS THE WORLD TURNS, many are not aware of how Mr. Hastings was a pioneer embarking in a brand new entertainment called television back when other actors had their fears and trepidations about an unfamiliar new medium (sound familiar?). Please enjoy this interview as we explore his past as a child star in theater and radio, his reflections on Bob Hughes, and insights into facing unemployment for the first time in 61 years. You don't want to miss this one!
We Love Soaps: Mr. Hastings, it is such an honor and a privilege to speak with you. Let’s start by going back. I know you were born here in Brooklyn and you started singing professionally as a child, is that correct?
Don Hastings: I did some singing on the radio. I started when I was about six years old on the Blue Network at NBC. They had two networks in those days, the blue and the red. The blue became ABC. There was a show called, “Coast to Coast On A Bus,” that my brother [Bob Hastings] proceeded me on. When I went into visit him one time they asked me if I did anything, to which I said, “Not really.” I guess somebody said, “He can sing a little,” so I started singing a little. And then there was a little acting involved.
We Love Soaps: That’s so young! What was it like to be a child actor?
Don Hastings: It was great. I had fun. It was a kid’s program, so there were a lot of kids. And there wasn’t a lot involved to do at that time. You just showed up for rehearsal on Saturday, did the show on Sunday. It was live, of course. Through doing that, close to a year later somebody said they were looking for someone for the national company of “Life With Father.” It was the longest running Broadway play until...several shows have beaten it. It was a straight play that was very popular in the late '30s and early '40s. I spent three years doing that. I was seven years old. We did 40 states in 10 months. We went from coast to coast. That was very exciting for me. I still enjoy traveling by train, everything was by train in those days. Then the war broke out. I was in “Life With Father” in 1941. Then I went out for a second and third year. By the time I got back I was 10 years old and finally started to go to regular school. My education is a little bit checkered.
We Love Soaps: You hear about disaster stories of children who grow up acting and have a difficult time adjusting as adults.
Don Hastings: I didn’t have that problem because I continued to work. I worked in the theater and in radio until I was about 14 years old. Then I started doing television and spent 1949-1955 on CAPTAIN VIDEO on the DuMont Network. So that was a transition of becoming a young man from being a kid.
We Love Soaps: What was that like to be on television at the dawn of the medium?
Don Hastings: That was kind of exciting. It was a new medium. Not a lot of people had television sets. I did several shows and then radio was still active. So I was doing television and network radio. There were big dramatic shows I used to do, and also soap operas. I used to work on radio soaps that Irna Phillips would do and Elaine Carrington and others.
We Love Soaps: Do you remember the names of any of the radio soaps you were on?
Don Hastings: There was ROAD TO LIFE, HILLTOP HOUSE, PORTIA FACES LIFE. I didn’t do GUIDING LIGHT, oddly enough. But there were a ton of them on in those days. There were big nighttime radio shows. The Theater Guild had THE THEATER GUILD ON THE AIR. And DuPont had CAVALCADE OF AMERICA. There was a series that Eugene Hershel did called DR. CHRISTIAN which they later did as movies, but it was originally a radio show. STUDIO ONE started on radio and then became a television series. These were shows that you wore tuxedos for. And all the big shows had [live] audiences. So you’d perform it in a proscenium on a stage. You did a live version, and then they would record that and play it for the West Coast later. Or, you’d have to come back and do the same thing again at a later hour. In those days when they’d record it, it was on wax, on a record. It wasn’t on tape. So if there was some thumping around, or if the record wasn’t any good, you’d have to go back and do it again at 11 o’clock at night.
We Love Soaps: You did these shows at the same time you were doing CAPTAIN VIDEO?
Don Hastings: By the time 1950-51 came around, network radio was on the wane. More people had television sets. The soaps were still on, but a lot of the big radio shows can now be heard on Satellite Radio. If you listen to Radio Classics you hear it. My brother did a lot more radio so I hear him all the time.
We Love Soaps: Were you enjoying this? Did it feel like this was the right thing for you to be doing at that age?
Don Hastings: I had a great time. It was a lot of fun. I learned a lot because I worked with the best people in the business. And the people I worked with on Broadway after "Life with Father" were like [taking] acting lessons. If you kept your mouth shut and your eyes open and your ears open, you could learn a lot. I think that’s still true of young actors.
We Love Soaps: Who would you say you learned the most from back then?
Don Hastings: A lot of them were movie stars on radio. And some of them who became big stars, like Marlon Brando, I didn’t learn a hell of a lot from. He was kind of strange. I did a play called, "I Remember Mama" and he was in that. I probably learned more from someone like Mattie Christian. You probably don’t remember that name, but she was a fine actress. And I worked with Josh Logan, with the woman who started the Alley Theater in Houston [Nina Vance]. Most of the actors I worked with on radio. Don MacLaughlin was one of the best actors I ever worked with, he played my father on WORLD TURNS. I also had my brother, watching him and what he did. He did GENERAL HOSPITAL for seven years and McHALE’S NAVY for several years. A lot of the actors I could mention are not big names. They’re just people that I thought, “Boy, there’s a guy who’s got a lot of good stuff going there.” You don’t imitate people but you watch how they work. Knowing their lines, being on time, being good to the other people in the cast even when they were the stars.
That was always one of the things about WORLD TURNS that interested me. The tone was set by Don MacLaughlin. There were no big stars. Everybody was a journeyman actor in a sense. You’re doing live television, you’re in each other’s hands every day. You could lose your job if you gave a bad performance. Irna Phillips was always watching. If you were dogging it, not learning your lines, or screwing up regularly, you were out. A lot of guys would show up Monday and there would be another actor playing the part on Tuesday.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Press here for Part Two in which Don Hastings shares memories of starting on AS THE WORLD TURNS in 1960. Plus, which long-term West Coast soap tried to steal him away? And what does he think about Bob and Lisa’s relationship?
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 is re-imagining a world without "shoulds" at www.shouldless.com.