In Part One of our interview with Wendy Riche, the Emmy-winning producer of GENERAL HOSPITAL (1992-2001) discussed how her move to soaps came about, how she managed off-screen turbulence her first year on GH, and how she was able to successfully cast unknowns such as Antonio Sabato Jr., Vanessa Marcil, and Steve Burton. In Part Two below, Riche discusses her successful collaboration with Claire Labine, and revisits many of the stories and moments that are beloved by viewers today.
We Love Soaps: How did the collaboration with Claire Labine come about?
Wendy Riche: ABC knew Claire well of her work from RYAN’S HOPE. I didn’t have enough time to study all the writing on all the soaps over the past 20 years. They knew we needed a writer that would fit with me, and whom I would fit. Because it is a fit, it is like a marriage, you work with a writer and you have to have a similar vision, concern, care, ideology. Not that we were exactly alike, we had great debates and we both loved that part of the relationship. We knew how to challenge each other in a healthy way.
We Love Soaps: Can you recall any debates?
Wendy Riche: I remember one debate we had ongoing. Claire would ask if I believed that everyone is capable of killing another person, whether murder or otherwise Something like that. We had many debates about this, about the nature of man/womankind. I loved it and I loved Claire asking such challenging questions. It was a very open relationship. Claire was very open. She was very clear about what she wanted, but she was open to listen and to hear a good suggestion. She was open to elements of story and she would run with them. BJ’s heart transplant was a combination of elements. It was Claire’s inspriation and story and it included a combination of elements coming out of meetings between Claire, Shelley, and me. It’s Claire’s story, she wrote it beautifully. But she was very open to suggestions, turning points or scenes, that sort of thing. She wasn't afraid to use something from another person if it worked. Her ego always sat in the right place. It was all about the characters and the storytelling. She is a great writer and a great collaborator.
I wanted to do a story about AIDS when I first got to GH. AIDS was on the rise, a non-discriminating disease that didn't care who it attacked. I felt it was an issue of great importance and wanted to find a way to interface many of the characters of Port Charles with the hospital. At first, I thought it could be a story for A.J. Quartermaine. I thought, what would happen if A.J. had another drunken night in college, one of many, and explore what would happen when a friend, a male friend, from college shows up at the Quartermaine mansion wanting A.J.'s help since his family threw him out because he had AIDS. And A.J. doesn’t remember who had sex with who, and what he did during so many drunken orgies. They could have both had sex with a woman who was a drug addict. The intention was not to make them gay, but the implication might have stirred up a lot. We could have asked, “Why does everyone care so much if he was gay? Why does he care? How would Edward Quatermaine react and what would Lila do to bring the family back together?” We could have looked at it all. But it wasn’t about being gay, I didn’t want to be, “Oh those gay people, of course they screw around so much...” of some B.S. like that. AIDS is a non-discriminating disease, it doesn't care who you are are or what your sexuality is. If you do stupid things, have unprotected sex, you risk getting it. If we had done it with a gay character we would not have gotten the message of urgency across.
So the intention was to have a smart person who was not gay but made stupid choices get AIDS. I didn’t have Claire at the time, and I don’t know if Claire would have even wanted to do it that way, but the network did not want to do that story. They didn’t want A.J. to be in question of having AIDS, or maybe not being 100% heterosexual, they just didn’t want to go there because he was a Quartermaine, which of course, is exactly why I wanted to go there.
I talked to Claire about this, and she came up with Robin and Stone. She was not ready to do this story at the beginning of her run on GH. But one day, a year later, we were at a company retreat dinner and she looked at me with that twinkle in her eye, learned over, and whispered, “I think I’ve got it.” She told me the story in two lines and I loved it. It was everything I hoped for. We were so excited, we told Pat [Fili-Krushel] right then and there and she said to go with it. Claire and I had driven up to Connecticut together for the retreat and what was wonderful is that we had the long trip to talk about it.
We Love Soaps: Those two stories you mentioned are still some of the most powerful stories I have ever seen. You can see them now on YouTube and notice how detailed the crafting was.
Wendy Riche: The crafting of the writing was the best I have ever experienced. Claire Labine is a master craftsman and a great leader and the the writers on the team were a unit that was so tight, and felt so free, that the writing soared. Writing as an isolated, very personal, art form, and we ask ten writers to collaborate on one vision. That’s a mighty task. And the writers at GENERAL HOSPITAL during that time were all on the same page, they all contributed, and they all took the story beyond. They loved Claire, they loved the show, they loved the actors and they wrote their very best. As did the directors, as did the actors. The entire cast and crew were behind the story and many tears were shed on set.
We Love Soaps: How much did ABC fight against Robin becoming positive for HIV?
Wendy Riche: Pat Fili-Krushel didn't hesitate. She asked a lot of questions but her instincts were so good and she trusted them. And she trusted us. After telling her about it at the retreat, Claire worked on laying it out and we presented it to Pat and she loved it. She knew that the the timing for this story was right. And we all believed in Claire’s ability to tell the story. You can’t just have a good idea, you have to be able to execute it. We all had faith that Claire could execute this well and she did brilliantly.
We Love Soaps: Looking back on those years of collaboration, what moments do you feel most proud of?
Wendy Riche: That’s such a hard question. I am so proud of my time there. Of all the stories that were told. But especially the BJ story line, and Robin and Stone. The two scenes that are pivotal to me are when Tony comes to Frisco and tells him what happened. And that he has a heart for Maxie. One brother actually giving the heart of his dying daughter to his brother's living child who would/could die without it. And then when Felicia drops to the floor when she learns what happened. Then when Brad listenes to BJ’s heart in Maxie’s body. I will never forget those moments. And I will never forget Stone opening his dying eyes, saying to Robin, “I see you.” Right before he dies he has clarity of his love and of his purpose. It was extraordinary.
Then in the Lois and Ned love story there were so many moments that were spectacular. I will never forget the look of pure joy on Lois' face when she stood in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge with Ned. Rena Sofer is an incredible woman and actress and she brought so many layers to her dramatic and comedic portrayal of Lois...her joyfulness and sense of wonder, her determination and intensity, her big heart, her moral compass, her sense of friendship and honor. A great character in a really fun story.
And then we had Monica's breast cancer story. We wanted to do a story of survival and we wanted a story for Leslie Charleston. This was a story both Claire and I wanted to tackle for lots of reasons. We knew it would be good for the show and we both had people or relatives, like my mother, who had had survived breast cancer. There were too many scenes to count that were moving and significant, and Leslie did such a superb job. She is a wonderful actress, and that was very rewarding.
We Love Soaps: As someone who grew up with a mother who fought breast cancer, I personally related to that story, especially as watching it through the eyes of a child, played by Amber Tamblyn. That was particuarly emotional for me.
Wendy Riche: My mother had breast cancer as well, which is part of why I wanted to do a story about it. When Claire wanted to also, I was thrilled. We could explore it from the woman’s point-of-view, but from the child’s point-of-view as well. As well as how our breasts are so much a part of our identity. Every woman has dealt with this issue of breasts in some way whether they are large or small, or some issue going on. All of us have known someone who had had breast cancer. I don’t think there is a person who doesn’t. I’m glad it was very moving for you, it was so important to us.
We Love Soaps: That had to do in large part, again, with how the story was crafted. It reached me in a way no other show has.
Wendy Riche: We would have Directors meetings with Claire and the producers. That was something else very important to me and to Claire, that we would have a clear line of communication from the page to the stage. They got it, and they were so attentive to making every scene work, and giving the actors a chance to bring more than what time usually allows on soap opears. But it didn’t take extra time, it just took extra deep breaths and a commitment to doing this right. There was a real continuity which I think contributed to our success.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Please press here for Part Three in which Wendy Riche shares more about hiring Maurice Benard, Sarah Brown, and Nancy Lee Grahn, as well as reflections on the rise and fall of PORT CHARLES.
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"