Wisner Washam is a Daytime Emmy Award-winning soap opera writer best known for his many years writing for ALL MY CHILDREN from the 1970s to the 1990s. He also had a stint writing for GUIDING LIGHT, developed multiple soaps of his own and has been married to former soap star Judith Barcroft for the past 40 years. In this exclusive interview with We Love Soaps, Washam shares his experiences of moving to New York to be an actor, landing a writing gig with Agnes Nixon, and details of the many projects he's worked on over the past 20 years.
We Love Soaps: You grew up in North Carolina. Did you always want to be an actor?
Wisner Washam: Yes, I did very much. This morning I was remembering when I was kid I made a stage out of cardboard and used little figures from the Lionel Trains set that were about three inches tall. I would make scenery and do plays with these little characters. When I grew up and got this job, it was like a dream come true. It was a childhood dream and we really had fun in the early days of the show. It was like having little characters we could play with. We made ourselves laugh a lot, and made ourselves cry too. It was a glorious time in the early years at ALL MY CHILDREN.
We Love Soaps: Let's talk more about your background. Where did you go to school?
Wisner Washam: I went to the University of North Carolina. Actually I went to a little Baptist school my freshman year called Mars Hill near Asheville. I got a taste of being in plays there. I played George in "Our Town." I got in with a group of people whom I really enjoyed and they were a year older and transferring to the university at Chapel Hill the next year. I was chaffing with the restrictions at Mars Hill and I transferred too and became a member of the Carolina Playmakers. I got a degree in Drama. I'm not sure how valuable it is or was [laughs].
Then I went to the U.S. Army and served two years in France. I came back and was a camera man, lighting man, boom boy, floor manager for the CBS outlet in Charlotte. That lasted two years but it was a dead end road. One day on a lark, I went by a local station and dropped off an audition tape I had made at Chapel Hill, when I was working on the university radio station, and I got a job as a D.J. It was one of those jobs where you didn't have to talk very much. You'd read five minutes of news every hour and give the time and temperature and commercials and play the Top 50 records. Then I met the people at the Little Theater in Charlotte and did some plays there. They said, "You should go be an actor."
I found out by sheer chance I was eligible for the G.I. Bill because of my service in France. I wanted to go back to France and study cinematography but I wasn't very proficient in French. So I found a one year course in London at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and was a member of the foreigners class of mostly Americans. I had a marvelous year in London. The dollar was very strong back then so I went to the theater frequently and saw the finest actors that England had to offer. Then I sailed back to New York and had $200 when I arrived. That didn't last very long.
We Love Soaps: How did your parents feel about you pursuing acting as a career?
Wisner Washam: They were very supportive. They did not finance it, and felt I should earn my own way, and I did, but they were very proud. Toward the end of my step-father's life I got this job at ALL MY CHILDREN and started making decent money, got married and had a baby, and he felt I had arrived. They were patient with me.
We Love Soaps: So you came to New York. You did some theater. You got married to actress from ANOTHER WORLD, Judith Barcroft. But how did the writing career at ALL MY CHILDREN come about?
Wisner Washam: She got me the job. I was working on Broadway with Neil Simon and Saint Subber and did four shows for that company. Then Neil and Saint had a falling out. My job was assistant stage manager/understudy, so they would save a salary. One of the shows I did was "Plaza Suite." Judith was understudying the bride and I was understudying the groom. It was a long run, running over 1,100 performances. And during that time we fell in love, got married and bought a co-op.
She became pregnant and the show closed and Neil and Saint Subber had a falling out. When Neil got a new producer I was not hired as the stage manager. Suddenly I had a wife and co-op and a baby on the way but nothing to do. I did some Off-Broadway things like "House of Blue Leaves" but that didn't pay any money. So Judith said, "Why don't you try writing a script for a soap?" because I had been watching her on ANOTHER WORLD.
We Love Soaps: Judith was playing a popular role on ANOTHER WORLD as Lenore. What did you think about soap operas at that point?
Wisner Washam: I only watched because I wanted to see what she was doing. I was only interested in soaps because of her. So she suggested I write a script so I submitted one to Robert Cenedella [who had taken over as head writer from Agnes Nixon] at ANOTHER WORLD but he didn't need anyone. So Judith said, "Try Agnes Nixon." I think Agnes needed script help desperately so she said, "Would you mind if we put this on the air? We'll pay you $300." That was more than I would make in a whole week! I was absolutely thrilled and I knew I had better take advantage of this opportunity, and I did.
I wrote scripts for a while, but I had a lot of ideas. I didn't just take the outlines and write verbatim. I had ideas for modifying and improving them and she said, "Why don't you try to write outlines?" I started doing that and that's where I did my best work. I worked with a wonderful team of people, then the show went to an hour and we doubled our staff. It was a very busy, demanding time, but fun.
We Love Soaps: Judith had moved to ALL MY CHILDREN after ANOTHER WORLD. Did it cross your mind that writing for the soap your wife was starring on was a bad idea?
Wisner Washam: Well, Agnes didn't think it was a good idea, except that she thought I was a good writer. But for about the first year I got no credit. No one knew I was writing it because they felt it would be nepotism because I was married to Judith who was the star of the show. Actors love to get to writers and put a bug in their ear. Judith didn't do that, God bless her, but others would have done that if they had known. So I was a closet writer for a year. We weren't required to be in the union at that point. The show wasn't unionized as far as writers went.
We Love Soaps: Eventually you killed her character off! But before that they recast the role with another actress. What was that like?
Wisner Washam: It was not satisfying for anybody. Judith had our second baby and left the show. She is so unique that nobody could have filled her shoes. That's why we decided to killed the character off, it wasn't just my decision. I thought it would be a darn good Friday ending if she got into a car that had a bomb in it. So we killed off the other actress.
We Love Soaps: Was Judith happy with you making that decision.
Wisner Washam: Well, at the time I don't think she minded. But years later she would say, "You really did me in!" But if she had wanted to come back, we could have found a way. Dead characters come back all the time on soaps.
We Love Soaps: Your relationship with Agnes Nixon lasted for many years throughout the '70s and '80s.
Wisner Washam: She is a wonderful dreamer and I am a realist and that's one reason we worked well together. The combination was very workable and good for the show.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In Part 2, Washam discusses more about his time at ALL MY CHILDREN and leaving the show.