We Love Soaps: Your daytime career started as the primary heroine Vanessa Dale on LOVE OF LIFE.
Peggy McCay: I was very young. They wanted me to be older but I wasn’t. I was giving advice to my 45-year-old brother. I thought, “This seems odd to me, what do I know?” I was very popular, but they were not very pleasant to work for. It was quite difficult to work for them. I also had ambitions to do other things so I chose to leave that show. My father thought I was nuts because I was making a lot of money. But my friend Marcel Marceau said, “You should do Chekhov.” So I listened to him, and it turned out all right.
We Love Soaps: Do you remember that famous tag line for LOVE OF LIFE?
Peggy McCay: Yes, because the writer for the show was actually a comedy writer. And he had a show on Broadway that was a comedy. He wrote that tagline as a joke. It was, “And now LOVE OF LIFE, the exciting story of Vanessa Dale and her heroic struggle for human dignity.” And they loved it! He said, “Oh my God, they think it’s great, now they’re going to use it every day!” The advertisers thought it was great. It was a joke on his part to begin with, but they didn’t now that. So he didn’t protest.
We Love Soaps: That whole tagline was based on your character Vanessa.
Peggy McCay: Yes, I was the lead of that show. It’s amazing at such an early age, I was just twenty. Here I am with all these actors who had done so much more. But I could do it and that was fortunate that I could. I was blessed with a photographic memory. That’s pretty good for a daytime actor. There is so much material, it helped. Margo Jones was a director who gave me the chance to be in her repertoire theater. After the first rehearsal I didn’t need the first playbook. She asked me why I didn’t have it, and I explained I knew the lines. She said, “Carry the book. All the other actors are going to hate you if you don’t carry it.” So I did. But I already had it memorized.
We Love Soaps: LOVE OF LIVE was one of the first televised soaps.
Peggy McCay: Yes, there was SEARCH FOR TOMORROW, GUIDING LIGHT, and then there was THE SECRET STORM. Those were the ones that were on at the time. There’s a funny story about THE SECRET STORM. I was a friend of Gloria Monty in New York. She told me they had originally called it THE STORM WITHIN. And the ad agent came in and said, “Are you crazy? Our sponsor is Bisodol! [A product for indigestion] You can’t call it THE STORM WITHIN.” So they had to change it to THE SECRET STORM. Which still could have been objectionable, but they went ahead with it.
We Love Soaps: Vanessa took off right away. She was very popular, very beloved.
Peggy McCay: Very popular! I got 500 letters a week.
We Love Soaps: Were you expecting that? This was such a new medium.
Peggy McCay: First of all, I have to admit I didn’t know what a soap opera was, I had never listened to one. Then I began to see that I was the one who solved everything and was so perfect. I said, “Why is it that?” And they said, “Because you are Vanessa Dale.” In other words I could do no wrong. I could solve drug deals, crime problems, which was kind of strange because my husband was an F.B.I. agent. They said, “You are Vanessa Dale.” Okay, alright, I’m perfect.
We Love Soaps: What was that like for you?
Peggy McCay: I used to do crazy things like get on motorcycles or ride horses, anything I could think of to distinguish myself from this woman I played. Finally in the third year somebody sent me a fly swatter that was covered in sequins and I found myself saying, “Vanessa would never get a gift like that.” And I thought, “Oh God, I’m turning into Vanessa Dale.” I got very worried about that. There was an actress on SEARCH FOR TOMORROW and she really lived as though she was her character. When her fictional husband died, she went into real life mourning. I thought to myself, “You’ve got to watch out for this stuff.” That’s one of the reasons I left, I thought, “You're starting to believe you are Vanessa Dale, and you’re not.” So I left to do other things. It’s like Charlotte Ross (Eve 1987-1991) on DAYS. She came to me and said, “I’d like to do other things, what do you think?” I said, “Well I did. You are very young, you can always work. I think you should go out and do other things.” And she did, she worked a lot.
We Love Soaps: After LOVE OF LIFE you did a lot of prime time work including PERRY MASON and the ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR. Then you came back to daytime in 1964 for THE YOUNG MARRIEDS.
Peggy McCay: The producer was a friend of mine and someone I admired greatly named Dick Dunn. He had come on to LOVE OF LIFE right before I left and I got to know what a wonderful guy he was. So I said to him, “Please don’t think I’m going to hold you up for money. I just want to know I’ve got a clause to get out of my contract at the end of a year because I’m not sure I can do this.” He said, “Sure, I know you are a person of your word.” Unfortunately it was a really good show but they wanted to transfer it back to New York so we lost it.
We Love Soaps: What was it like? I’ve never seen it.
Peggy McCay: First of all it had the charming presence of Charles Grodin and Ted Knight, who were hilarious. Every day we would go out at lunch and write a small take off of a scene in the show. We never messed up the blocking, we just changed the words. Charles Grodin is still a friend today. But they got so bad they couldn’t put them in a scene together because they couldn’t keep a straight face. That was a pleasure, and I’m sorry that show didn’t go. It was one of those network decisions that had nothing to do with the quality of the show.
We Love Soaps: On that show you worked with such a rich cast of talent. Including Susan Seaforth Hayes.
Peggy McCay: That was wonderful. We appreciated each other, it was a pleasure to do that show. I’m really sorry they made that kind of decision.
We Love Soaps: What was it like working with the late Brenda Benet?
Peggy McCay: [Pause] That breaks my heart. I have to say. She was so beautiful and so sweet. One of the sweetest people I have ever met. She looked like a Madonna, she was so lovely. It’s just horrible. I wish I had a clue, I wish any one of us had a clue how she felt. I don’t know if it would have made a difference. I’m crying now...I always think of her. It was a shock. A big shock. She was beautiful in every way.
We Love Soaps: Had you had much contact with her after THE YOUNG MARRIEDS?
Peggy McCay: We loved working together, that was about it. When you do a daytime show there isn’t much time for a social life. You’re working so hard daily.
We Love Soaps: And after that show ended, you made the move to GENERAL HOSPITAL.
Peggy McCay: Yes, I did. I loved the name of the character, Iris Fairchild. She was an alcoholic nurse who fell in love with her best friend’s boss. Talk about a sad situation. I finally left that, I just wore out. It was every day crying, I just left. They didn’t want me to leave but I felt I should so I did.
We Love Soaps: For the next ten years you did regular guest work on prime time. What were some of your favorite roles?
Peggy McCay: One of my favorite roles I did with Efrian Zimbalist. I played a recluse on 77 SUNSET STRIP (1961). He was so lovely to work with. But my favorite role of all time was the one that won me an Emmy [in 1991], it was beautifully written. It was so real to me.
We Love Soaps: During this time you made an appearance on Michael Landon’s HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN .
Peggy McCay: Now there’s someone you could love forever. It was around Christmas time and we were in Sonora, California. The episode was called, “One Winged Angels,” and it was about him getting involved emotionally where he shouldn’t have. He was so great to work with. He was the nicest sweetest person ever. He said to me, “Are you please with that or would you like to do it again?” I was flabbergasted! I said, “I think it went well.” He said, “I think so too, but if you want to do it again...” At the end I told him, “I thought you were just acting being an angel. You are one.” He was so kind to people. I knew a driver who worked with him who would say that Michael would give him a roll of money and say, “Take these orphans out to the circus,” and so forth. He was always doing kind generous sweet things. I will always remember him and love him.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Press here for Part Three in which the outspoken Emmy Winning talent discusses her return to daytime on DAYS OF OUR LIVES and how she fought against being the "Ma Perkins" type of mother. And don't forget to watch COLD CASE on CBS, Sunday February 21st, 10/9C
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.