Peggy McCay has been known to daytime viewers as the beloved feisty matriarch Caroline Brady on DAYS OF OUR LIVES for over 25 years now. What most don't know is that this accomplished actress has guest starred on over 100 primetime shows in the past 60 years, and that she is featured in this week's episode of the CBS drama COLD CASE - airing Sunday, February 21st, Sunday at 10 p.m ET/9 p.m. CT. We took the opportunity to chat with this legendary actress about her upcoming role, and her history of work on prime time and daytime shows.
We Love Soaps: It is so wonderful to speak with you again. Let’s talk first about your appearance on the CBS show COLD CASE, on Sunday, February 21st.
Peggy McCay: I was so delighted because she’s such a colorful character, and such a change of pace from Caroline Brady. The people were absolutely great to work with, they were so friendly and open. The character was quite unique. She is "Zelda, Queen Of The Night," a circus performer. She has a bad temper and said that accounted for three our of her four divorces. She’s a knife thrower in the circus, and obviously she came too close when she threw the knife at her husbands. This episode is titled, “Metamorphosis,” based on the act of a butterfly, and an accident which is found out to be a murder. I am one of the performers in the circus at the time this happened. COLD CASE as you know goes back to the incident, and then comes forward 40 years or so the solving of the case. She is quite funny. The first thing she says to the cop is, “Geez, if I knew you were this handsome I would have sprinted all the way from Atlantic City.” She’s pretty outspoken.
We Love Soaps: Did you actually get to throw a knife?
Peggy McCay: Yes, I did. I always do some kind of research. I learned that a lot of knife throwers throw knives at their families or husbands or whatever because in case of an accident there is less liability. That explains the line about losing three of her husbands.
We Love Soaps: How did this gig come about for you?
Peggy McCay: I’ve auditioned before for COLD CASE. It’s difficult to cast because you have to find someone who looks the same 30 years later [resembling] the one you casted in the present story. They liked what I did. I used a New York accent so I kind of stuck her with that.
We Love Soaps: Has it been important for you to continue to stretch your wings in primetime?
Peggy McCay: I received a primetime Emmy award [in 1991] while working on DAYS OF OUR LIVES. If I had an opportunity they didn’t stand in my way, they were always very gracious. I did quite a few other shows while doing DAYS. It didn’t conflict. I am the only Academy member who had a daytime and primetime Emmy nomination in the same year [in 1986]. I think as an actor you want to be able to play different roles, at least I always have.
We Love Soaps: The show you won the Emmy for was called, THE TRIALS OF ROSIE O' NEILL...
Peggy McCay: With Sharon Gless. It was that of a homeless mentally ill woman [named Irene]. It was beautifully written. Barney Rosenzweig produced that show, as he did CAGNEY & LACEY. When my agent called up I was told that role had been promised to Tyne Daly, and I thought, “Oh, I lost that.” Then Barney called me and said, “She can’t do it Peggy, but we’d love for you to do it.” I was a happy person. It was written by Beth Sullivan, the lady who later wrote for DR. QUINN, MEDICINE WOMAN. I just felt Irene was a very moving character and both the writer and myself were given a special award by the John Henry Mental Health Foundation as the most sensitive and truthful portrait of a mentally ill person on television. That was a great honor, both of us were very touched by that. It’s unusual. You don’t get something like that very often. I was very proud of that.
We Love Soaps: What disorder did your character suffer with?
Peggy McCay: She was schizophrenic, but not violent. She had a great line, “I went once to a forest. I can live there, but I can’t live in the world.” That was such a touching line. She was a very gentle person who just could not cope with the world. It was a beautiful role.
We Love Soaps: Did that lead to other opportunities?
Peggy McCay: Well most of my career is prime time. I think people have the idea that all I’ve ever done is soap operas. That is not true. I made my living for year on nighttime television. So I love being on DAYS OF OUR LIVES, but I also love that you have more time on nighttime, and the characters are a little more complicated.
We Love Soaps: Looking at your resume, there are so many prime time dramas and comedies. You had a role on LOU GRANT for awhile.
Peggy McCay: I had a running role on that. It was delightful to be on. They were all wonderful actors. I was the wife of the managing editor of the paper. I was in the desert doing a small movie while doing LOU GRANT. Gene [Reynolds, the producer] said, “When you get through we’ll send a helicopter to get you.” Someone on the crew said, “Who the hell is that for? I haven’t seen that since Frank Sinatra.” I said, “It’s for me!” [laughs]. I was so impressed. As usual I got there and had to wait three hours anyway. I guess they really wanted me.
We Love Soaps: You grew up in New York City and went to Barnard College at Columbia. Was acting always the focus of your education?
Peggy McCay: I thought I wanted to be a science researcher. But I had a lot of trouble with math, and that doesn’t help you in that field one bit. My parents made me promise that if I didn’t get a job in two years that I would give this crazy notion up. And two weeks after I graduated I got a job in television, then another one, and another one, and on it went. From the moment I started, I worked. It became the thing I did and the thing I got paid for. It’s wonderful, and very rare. Many actors with much talent have trouble working. I loved the years at Warner Brothers. I was there under contract for two years, it was a lot of fun. We were the very last of the Hollywood contract players, no other studio had contract players except for Warner Brothers. We had a ball. Because I was flexible as an actress, they didn’t have to send out somebody else to play guest rolls. I played all the guest roles, prostitutes, all these different roles, and that was heaven for me.
We Love Soaps: Did you like the idea of coming in and out as a guest or do you prefer the context of having a regular character who is featured over the years?
Peggy McCay: Each has it’s pluses and minuses. The daytime show has to vary storyline. You either have a storyline or you don’t . Whereas when you’re a guest on a nighttime show you usually have a pretty good role. Or they don’t send for you.
We Love Soaps: They don’t send a helicopter for you just to put you on the side.
Peggy McCay: No, they don’t!
We Love Soaps: So it’s a double edge sword in a way. Daytime offers stability, but doesn’t always have you at the front of the action.
Peggy McCay: Yes. But I must say at this stage in my career, nothing could be better. I know so many fine older actresses who aren’t working. I am fortunate to have come into DAYS OF OUR LIVES with a great storyline. And I love all the people I work with. They are exceptional. The crew, the actors, the writers, it’s a pleasure to come to work in that situation.
We Love Soaps: And with the ratings going up I am sure there must be some relief.
Peggy McCay: It is. We were worried, and most daytime shows are worried.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Press here for Part Two of our interview, in which Peggy shares memories of her roles on LOVE OF LIFE, THE YOUNG MARRIEDS, and GENERAL HOSPITAL. How did she feel about working with the beloved Brenda Benet and Michael Landon? On which show she did she receive a sequined fly swatter? Come back and find out!
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.