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.
In Part One, Washam recalled his journey from North Carolina to New York city. In Part Two, he shares memories of working on ALL MY CHILDREN and why he ultimately left for good.
We Love Soaps: IMDB and Wikipedia are not very clear on the dates of your run at ALL MY CHILDREN or the exact time you took over as head writer.
Wisner Washam: I don't know exactly what year. There was no day in which I was crowned head writer as I recall. It just evolved that I took over as Agnes found other things she needed and wanted to do, and I was a good leader for the team of writers.
We Love Soaps: Let's talk about some of the memorable storylines you wrote. I loved the story of Jesse and Angie falling in love.
Wisner Washam: It was a wonderful story, very romantic, and unusual. Prior to that time, a lot of the black actors considered themselves token black characters, and called themselves such, because they were just friends of friends and didn't have much center stage activity. Lord knows Angie and Jesse were center stage and extremely popular.
We Love Soaps: Cliff and Nina came on and really took off a couple of years earlier. Were you able to get a good sense of what was going to become popular with fans versus the things that might not go over as well?
Wisner Washam: No. I certainly never could. That's why we religiously watched the show every single day at 1 o'clock. I ran a different kind of office than people run these days. All of our people came to a central place here in Manhattan at 9 o'clock in the morning and stay until five. We worked under the same roof. We talked to each other, we laughed, we conferred, and had meetings and came up with ideas. And we changed roles - sometimes you'd be writing an outline and the next day you'd be editing a script or you might help write a long-term story. It was really a team effort and I was very proud of that and still think it works very well. Now with the internet you don't have to be together at all and I think the shows have probably suffered because of that.
We Love Soaps: One of the things your ALL MY CHILDREN had that is lacking today are many veteran actors and character actors that added depth to the show. People like Myra added so much to the show for me. You don't see characters like that today.
Wisner Washam: I'm sorry about that. The powers that be at the networks these days are extremely short-sighted. They figure if you want to appeal to the 18-45 age group you must cast characters in that age group, none younger and none older.
We Love Soaps: I interviewed Taylor Miller recently who played Nina. As much as I loved Cliff and Nina, I loved her relationships with Palmer, Myra and Daisy just as much. There were so many rich relationships during that time on the show.
Wisner Washam: You know who I was thinking about last night because I saw her in a clip online -- Donna and Chuck Tyler. The young prostitute and the rich heir and it was a beautiful story. Agnes came up with it from an article in The New York Times magazine section called "Little Ladies of the Night" about prostitutes in the Times Square area. It was a real life scandal back then and we took real life and ran with it, and used our imagination to embellish it. Remember Lettie Jean? The old hooker who worked at Foxy's.
We Love Soaps: [Laughs] Yes! There was such a great mix of humor and drama and romance.
Wisner Washam: That was wonderfully written.
We Love Soaps: During your time on ALL MY CHILDREN, how was ABC's relationship with the writers and did it change over time.
Wisner Washam: Oh, it absolutely changed. When I first started, we never saw them. Agnes had a meeting once in a week with a guy named Michael Brockman, who was a very hands off head of daytime. But then Michael went to the West Coast or some place. As the soaps became more popular the networks realized they were really sitting on a goldmine and they couldn't keep their hands out of the pot.
The trouble really started with a Vice President of Daytime named Jacqueline Smith, who brought in all these new procedures and focus sessions. We never had focus sessions before. They required us to go and waste a morning watching 12 ladies from the Bronx discuss who they liked and didn't like. Jackie took the opinions of those 12 women as almost words from the Mount. We were asked to write according to their opinions.
And then they brought in something called Q scores, where each person is rated in a national survey. If someone's Q scores went down, one of the vice presidents, Jozie Emmerich, said we had to write them off, even if they were a very popular and useful character. They might have been going through a slightly down period because they had been used up doing other things. You can't have every character in the middle of a crisis constantly.
We Love Soaps: Were there every any characters that were written off because of that?
Wisner Washam: Oh, yes. I can't remember who. I do remember Josie wanted to write one of the favorites out, Tom Cudahy. Tom was a very useful and likeable character played by a good actor (Richard Shoberg). His Qs began to drop and she wanted to get rid of him. We fought her and kept him for a while, but he's dust now. It just got worse and worse with every passing year. Frankly, I don't know how the writers can do it now. They not only are told what to write but when to write it. And they're doing such terrible things as product placements. You have to write a real life product into the script. I know the networks need money but I'm glad I'm not part of that process.
We Love Soaps: There has been some talk in recent years about the soaps possibly scaling back to half an hour. You were on the writing staff when ALL MY CHILDREN expanded to an hour. What was that like?
Wisner Washam: I had two stipulations in addition to my salary. I asked to have twice as many character on contract and twice as many sets available. They were so desperate to make the move they met those stipulations. That gave us a tremendous paint set if you will. We had 20 characters back in the half hour show under contract and we went to 40. We had eight sets and went to 16 set. That was glorious. I think that helped to make the show more appealing. It began to look a little more like movies because we'd cut here and there and back and forth.
We Love Soaps: ALL MY CHILDREN told one of the first AIDS storylines on soaps, and in my opinion the best one, featuring Cindy, played by Ellen Wheeler. Were you a part of that?
Wisner Washam: That was just during the time I was leaving the show. That character is credited to Lorraine Broderick. It was her idea.
We Love Soaps: So you left the show at one point in the '80s?
Wisner Washam: Sometimes I shared credit with Lorraine. I saw a crawl last night on YouTube and my name was underneath Lorraine's. That was during a transition period when I was about to given the gate. She had been there for a long time and knew the show and was my right hand. I never had any feeling of resentment toward her as far as taking over my job.
We Love Soaps: After some time away, you returned to ALL MY CHILDREN then left again for good. What led you to leaving?
Wisner Washam: Megan McTavish.
We Love Soaps: Interesting you say that. Among fans online, she is very unpopular writer in ALL MY CHILDREN history.
Wisner Washam: She wasn't a pleasant person to be with every day, I'll tell you that. She drove me away.
We Love Soaps: What was her role at that point on the staff?
Wisner Washam: She was one of the outline writers. But she has a big mouth. And a very domineering personality.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Stay tuned for the third and final part of our interview to hear about Wisner Washam's life post-ALL MY CHILDREN.