Picture, if you will, an era in which daytime television made an abundance of money, actors were hired more for talent than looks, and time and energy were channeled into fostering complex character developments and intelligent writing. Jean LeClerc was one of the profiteers and then one of the casualties of this special era of the 1980's in which daytime thrived on quality and integrity. Please join me for this special interview as he discusses his current role in Montreal in "The Madonna Painter," and then recalls his highs and lows on ABC daytime between 1985-1995.
We Love Soaps: Tell me about your current role in "The Madonna Painter" in Montreal.
Jean LeClerc: It is a new play from the prolific writer Michel Marc Bouchard whose plays have been done in so many languages around the world. We are giving the English language debut here in Montreal. It was written in French, and translated into Italian for Florence and Rome. Then in sixteen different languages. Now it’s finally being done in English. The story is about the religious Catholics in 1918 in rural Quebec. In it I am playing a very peculiar doctor, who is more like a butcher. He is taking care of everyone on one side, but on the other side has a personal quest, like a Holy Grail, which is to see a soul. How far he will go to get there is what this play is about.
We Love Soaps: He wants to see a soul?
Jean LeClerc: He is slightly misguided, I would call it. He uses his skill as a doctor. He agrees to give the money to a painter to paint the madonna, but he has to decide which face he wants in the madonna painting. That is the plot and the intrigue of the entire play. People at the end are mesmerized by his choice and to what lengths he goes to get that. People come out of the play and say, “Oh My God!”
We Love Soaps: What are some of the themes that make the play embraced cross-culturally?
Jean LeClerc: It's in rural Quebec in 1918, the values and fear that religion imposed, and then you have this doctor who believes he is above all that. He imposes his law by his stature and his non-conformity, his atheism, and he is making fun of the habits of the people for his own sake. In this village comes a priest who has just come out of the seminary, and he intends to rule this little village, but not over the doctor. He happens to be a beautiful young man. The doctor says, “I think I have found the perfect soul.” He wants to preserve the perfect face. And then there is a shock.
We Love Soaps: So you get to play this extremely immoral doctor...
Jean LeClerc: It is immoral but at the same time he is devoted and is facing human misery every day in 1918, when cholera and influenza are rampant. There is an epidemic going on. He is amputating left and right, but he doesn’t have many manners doing it. This doctor has influence in the village that is good and evil, he is the most important person. That is the duality of the character, that is what is so interesting to play. But then the priest comes, and everyone has to live under his rules. It’s fascinating.
We Love Soaps: And it’s a far cry from the heroism of Jeremy Hunter on ALL MY CHILDREN.
Jean LeClerc: Jeremy was such a good boy.
We Love Soaps: I understand you did theater work before starting on soaps.
Jean LeClerc: In 1978 I came to New York from Canada to star on Broadway in "Dracula."
We Love Soaps: How did you get a lead on Broadway without living here?
Jean LeClerc: I had done a movie called Divine Sarah about the life Sarah Bernhardt, the great French actress, in which I played her husband. It was BBC / CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] production. As usual PBS in the United States bought these Masterpiece Theater productions. It was airing on PBS and that’s when the producers of Broadway found me, called me at home, and asked me to read for them. I came to New York and became the best bloodsucker in America.
We Love Soaps: What was it like to play the role of a someone immoral who just takes what he wants?
Jean LeClerc: He’s larger than life, and possessed something that everyone would like to have, which is eternity. What does it mean to have eternity, it’s extraordinary. The people were excited to see this character go on because everyone would like to have eternity. He can appear and disappear in a sexy way. This version of Dracula was very sexy, so women were offering me their necks. It was fun. It lasted two years on Broadway.
We Love Soaps: Before ALL MY CHILDREN you had been on several other soaps. What do you remember about those times?
Jean LeClerc: I think I played a villain on EDGE OF NIGHT. And at THE DOCTORS I shared a dressing room with Alec Baldwin. We were babies then. We were all full of dreams and bewilderment and wonder thinking of what our lives will be. Soap opera was a major reason to be in New York. I love New York City. Alec was just a kid amongst other kids.
I had done a segment on ONE LIFE TO LIVE that we shot in Venice, Italy. I was the head of some villainous something. Paul Rauch and I got along famously. Paul said, “Would you be interested in considering a contract? We really like you.” I said yes, but I would need specifics. While they were considering it, ALL MY CHILDREN came up with Jeremy Hunter. I won the part and later met with Paul who said, “How stupid of me not to have made you an offer.” I said, “Look I’m still part of ABC,” and remained close friends with Paul and the people at ONE LIFE TO LIVE. Incidentally, at one point, they made Jeremy travel through the network being at ALL MY CHILDREN, LOVING, and ONE LIFE TO LIVE. They thought it was nice to have one character swimming through the network in the afternoon. The problem was to coincide inside the story lines.
We Love Soaps: How did ALL MY CHILDREN come about for you?
Jean LeClerc: After "Dracula," I lingered a bit in New York. Then I was asked to go to California, where I did many series such as GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, THE DEVLIN CONNECTION. Glen Larson [producer of MAGNUM, P.I. and KNIGHT RIDER] developed a series for me that was not picked up by NBC. One day I got a call from ABC asking me to come in They were looking for a new leading man for Susan Lucci. The character would be called Jeremy Hunter. They sent me a synopsis of the character in L.A. that said, “Tall, blonde, all-American, with a British background.” I called back and said, “Have you seen me? I don’t have even one of these things.” But they said it didn’t matter, and they gave me a first class plane ticket to audition on tape.
I was not a soap person at that time, mainly because I was involved in theater. I had no idea who Susan Lucci was. They said, “You will be paired with the Queen of Daytime Television. Her name is Susan Lucci, she plays the character of Erica Kane, have you ever heard her?” I said, “no.” I remember waiting for her to come in for my screen test, and there came this tiny little woman who was absolutely charming. We looked at each other and smiled. So I auditioned, but said to them, “I’m nothing like this Jeremy Hunter.” They said, “Never mind, we’ll make him look like you.” The rest is history.
We Love Soaps: She didn’t mind working with someone who didn’t know her?
Jean LeClerc: She wasn’t insulted. This was not my world. It was a new art form I was coming into it, and I was immensely welcomed by her and ABC and they became my family. I was amazed to be part of a cast of such quality actors. To be with Eileen Herlie, Ruth Warrick, James Mitchell, Susan Lucci, David Canary. I was looking at them in awe, at the quality of these people, and how intelligent the series was written...then.
I always go back to the main reasons soaps worked so well—it was all about the writing. The head writers then knew what soaps were about. I always thought ALL MY CHILDREN was the most exciting place to be. It was the quality, the care, the family, the atmosphere we had in the studio. There was no competition. It was about doing the work. And doing it well. I’ve learned a lot of things working with these people.
We Love Soaps: What did you learn?
Jean LeClerc: Professionalism. Humility. Devotion to the fans. Respect for the other actors. Discipline. Back then it was a time when we were entering very early in the morning, getting our blocking done, having a bite to eat, a run though, and then taping the show scene-by-scene. It was not set-by-set as it is done now. We were doing a complete show in order like a play. It was wonderful. For practical reasons now they don’t do it that way anymore. We were the only show still doing it that way until around 1995.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Press here for Part Two in which the multi-talented actor explains how his "golden bridge" between Pine Valley and Corinth closed down, and reflects on working with Genie Francis, James Michell, and David Canary.
Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City at Mental Health Counseling & Marriage And Family Therapy Of New York. He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve".