We Love Soaps: Wendy it is so wonderful to talk with you. I have mentioned to you that I love soaps personally and professionally because of how they can tell stories that enhance mental wellness and ascend the human spirit in ways that no art form can accomplish. Your tenure on GENERAL HOSPITAL succeeded in these areas from my perspective. I would like to start by asking you how you became an Executive Producer of a daytime soap in the first place?
Wendy Riche: I was the head of movies for television at the Fox Broadcast Company, which was an innovative area of programming that had never been done before on Fox. We did thirteen original films in one year for an average cost of about $2.2 million. It was phenomenal. We developed 80 original teleplays. When I left I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted a big task. I asked for a big task to come to me, and it did.
I got a phone call from Linda Gottlieb who was producing ONE LIFE TO LIVE at the time. She suggested this to me. I had worked my whole life so I didn’t know soaps. I watched GENERAL HOSPITAL for two weeks and was just so taken in by the characters and their stories and their story possibilities. So I met with Mickey Dwyer-Dobbin. She was so passionate about the work she was doing, and that was inspiring. From there I decided this would be wonderful. We could tell fabulous stories every day with characters that are clearly beloved in a world that was like the audience’s own town, and their own families. I said, “I would love to do this.” But I jumped without really having any experience in soaps. I met with every actor and talked about their character and their stories so I got from them more than what I was given to read. I read up a lot on each character, but it was far more important for me to sit and talk to the actors to hear their interpretation of the character, who they were, and why they thought they were the way they were.
We Love Soaps: You actually sat with the actors and listened to their input?
Wendy Riche: I absolutely did.
We Love Soaps: Which is nearly unheard of today.
Wendy Riche: I don’t understand that. The actors know their characters well, they know the character's history and they have a lot to offer. Some of the actors may laugh at this when they read this because I did at one point have an issue with how much rewriting was going on, mainly because you could not keep continuity of the character or of the stories, and that was really important to the viewer. So we set up a system. When there was a problem, a question, or when there was a suggestion, or even a suggestion for a storyline, [I said] "Come to me." So they did. But for me to understand the characters and the actors interpretation of their character, it was critical that I sat with every actor.
We Love Soaps: That first year that you worked as Executive Producer, there seemed to be backstage turbulence with writers. You had several headwriters come in and out, including Marilyn Thoma, Bill Levinson. Jane Elliot publicly made statements to the press at the time speaking out against the writing, and the anti-choice stance taken by the character of Tracy Quartermaine. As someone who cares so much about the show and the actors, what was that like for you?
Wendy Riche: There was another headwriter when I first got there, Norma Monty, Gloria’s sister. How did I deal with the turbulence? It was concerning. It is upsetting when an actor is upset. I did the best I could to try to bridge the gap and share with them the understanding that this took time. We needed time to get the characters on track. Not only did that need time, but we needed a writer who could really move each character forward, to integrate the characters and their stories within the community of Port Charles the way they had been in the past. It was a very difficult time. I understand why Jane spoke out. It’s always upsetting to an Executive Producer if an actress speaks out against a show. But in any transition you need patience. You are transitioning, a team, a whole show. There is no perfection and we stumbled a lot that first year.
It's a difficult situation when an actor who has played their character for years is upset about a story point. Sometimes they are right and we'd make the adjustment. Sometimes they are reacting to the character only as they have known it, not to how it could possibly be when another layer is peeled. Our reactions to incidents in life often bring out sides of ourselves that we didn't know existed. For an actor, I think it can be disturbing at first, especially if their personal politics enter the equation. But characters with the most controversy inspire the most thought. Preaching never gets through to an audience, it's only through a character's growth that the audience grows.
One of the first things I did was to give the characters three dimensions, and to give their families layers with different generations. I remember asking, “Where are the kids?” I asked Jackie Zeman (Bobbie), “Don’t you have some kids somewhere, where are they?” She said, “We keep them in the basement.” She cracked me up, and I said, “We need to get those kids out of the basement.” It’s a family genre, it’s very important that we meet the family, that we meet the generations in each family, and that we interface those families in the town. That was one of the first goals. That’s why we created the Karen/Jagger/Brenda triangle. To get some new young characters into the show who could relate to the adults, or who would be tied to the adults. That was a priority as well as getting the main characters back on track, like Luke and Bobbie.
We Love Soaps: Despite the turbulence we’ve described, you made some inspired casting choices. You chose unknown actors such as Anthony Sabato Jr, Vanessa Marcil, Steve Burton, all of whom made indelible imprints on the show. What was the key to finding and casting these young actors that would find such success on and off GENERAL HOSPITAL?
Wendy Riche: It starts with a vision of character. I would talk to the headwriter and with [Consulting Producer] Shelly Curtis. It starts with characters and archetypes of characters. Good girl / bad girl, but multi-leveled. Then there was the supposed bad guy who comes in with a good heart. We saw this when Jagger’s friends were going to steal from Kelly’s, and go after Ruby. It was designed so that we had a window into Jagger's heart because in his stopping the violence, we knew he wasn't all bad. We knew he was worth saving. From that moment on he was endearing to the audience and everyone wanted to save him, as did Karen and Brenda. So we designed the dynamic, and then I would sit down with Mark Teschner, because you need a brilliant casting director to work with to capture your vision. Casting is a very unique process. You cannot cast by committee. There has to be a clear vision, and Mark found this great talent. He knew what I was looking for and he found them.
Wendy Riche: We would meet with the whole team at GENERAL HOSPITAL, from the producing team to the writing team, directing team, to hair, make-up, and wardrobe, and art department, regularly and talk about the specificity of each character. About all the characters, not just the new characters. When wardrobe would be involved, we discussed what that character would wear rather than what to put on that character. We wouldn’t just put the characters in clothing from Port Charles. Bob Miller made the clothes support the character, not distract from the character. There were specifics about each character’s look, hair, make-up, lifestyle, etc.
And we had dynamic actors who were young, hungry, and wanted to learn. Same thing when Amber Tamblyn came in. We knew the moment we met her there was magnificence here and unparalleled talent. And then Jonathan Jackson! The moment we saw him we knew that was Luke and Laura’s son. He is so talented, so gifted, so accessible, so at ease with himself and work.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Please press here for Part Two as Riche shares memories, reflections, and proudest moments during her time working with Claire Labine. Which Port Charles character was originally intended to contract HIV? Come back to find out!
- WLS Interview Archive: Claire Labine
- WLS Interview Archive: Jacklyn Zeman
- Sarah Brown: Daytime Entertainment Creative Arts Emmy Awards
Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City. He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve"