In Parts One and Two of our interview with Wendy Riche, the multi-talented and Emmy winning producer discussed her beginnings on GENERAL HOSPITAL, as well as the ingredients that led to the successful collaboration with Claire Labine. In Part Three below, Riche shares insights into casting choices and storyline decisions during her successful tenure. Plus, find out her thoughts on the rise and fall of spin-off series PORT CHARLES.
We Love Soaps: What led to the decision to bring Luke and Laura back?
Wendy Riche: I think it was just time. We did that with Claire. Claire was such a joy to work with and she never stopped thinking about the characters. She was working from Brooklyn and I was in L.A. and we would speak every morning around 5:30 a.m. PT, and talk about the show, the episodes, the characters, everything. Claire is a brilliant writer, a great storyteller, always pursuing the characters authentic truth. Claire and I would sit and discuss character. Where is this character at, what would they do? Not, what would we do with them, but what would they do? And we talked about Luke a lot. Claire respected Tony [Geary] so much and this story was a natural. We wanted to see how they grew as parents and get to know their child. That could only have been done with great writing and with Claire at the helm, we knew it would be beautifully written and powerful. And it gave the actors so much to work with.
When Bob Guza was head writer, Michele Val Jean suggested the Elizabeth rape story as a natural outgrowth of Luke and Laura's story; to explore how they would deal with the truth being revealed and how Lucky would deal with the reality of his parents history and what would evolve from that with Luke and Laura. That was a very great idea that Bob and his team handled brilliantly. It could only have been done with very great writing.
Genie Francis' portrayal of Laura as a mother was extraordinary - every complicated aspect of reliving her past, coupled with her mother's instinct and wisdom knowing how deeply their truth would affect Lucky. There were times her fear was palpable -the fear that everything she'd worked so hard at holding together could implode. Genie's maturity and wisdom made experiencing Laura as a mother a true gift. Luke faced with the reality that it was rape and to be confronted by his son was devastating for him. Luke, the master of escape, could not escape his own personal nightmare. His internal conflict of his deep love for Laura and Lucky and his commitment to his family, versus his spirit needing to be free remained, no matter how much he had grown. Tony was riveting.
We Love Soaps: In mid-1993, you hired Maurice Benard to take on the role of Sonny Corinthos. How did this come about? Did you ever foresee him as becoming the focal point of the show?
Wendy Riche: Sonny came on the canvas in Karen's story, when she was a stripper. [Casting director] Mark Teschner and I discussed the character and he showed me tape of Maurice that I loved. He was such a powerful actor with smoldering good looks. I knew he could become very important part of the show. When Claire came on GH she changed the way the story was going and took it to a much stronger place. She made Sonny's character more interesting, layered, powerful, and then brought in Brenda. Claire knew exactly what was needed and from then on we had fireworks and magic.
We Love Soaps: You also were there when an unknown talent named Sarah Brown jump-started the role of Carly in a way that is rarely seen nowadays. Did you know from the outset she was going to be play such a powerful role and make such an impact?
Wendy Riche: Claire wanted a story for Bobbie Spencer that would rattle her perfect little world. She looked to her prostitute past and created Carly, the daughter she never knew who wanted to make her mother's life miserable. We were looking for a strong actress who could play the defiant Carly without hesitation. Sarah had the talent, self-confidence, and the balls. She blew us away.
When Claire left and Bob [Guza] came on board, he of course discussed every character with his team. Carly was relatively new to the show and still developing . They could see her strength and knew she could hold her own up against Sonny. So Bob took her into Sonny's direction and created a pivotal role for her. It was a genius move.
We Love Soaps: Nancy Lee Grahn was also a perfect casting choice for Alexis. How did that come about?
Wendy Riche: Nancy had worked with Bob, Michelle Val Jean, and several of the other writers on SANTA BARBARA. They all had history and I believe it was coming from that wonderful history. It was a stroke of genius on Bob and Michelle’s part. When people work together and have a very good relationship, they want to work together again. And I know Nancy’s name was always talked about, and they eventually came up with the right character for Nancy at the right time for the show. She brought a great energy to GENERAL HOSPITAL.
We Love Soaps: From that perspective of an executive producer, what were the biggest differences between working with head writers Claire Labine and Bob Guza?
Wendy Riche: That's a tough question and frankly, I don't think I should even attempt to answer it. The relationship between the executive producer and the head writer is deeply personal. I look back on my time with both Claire and Bob with gratitude for the opportunity to work with them. Writing for daytime is a daunting task and both Claire and Bob are incredibly talented storytellers who love and understand the form. They are both tireless in their pursuit of excellence and want their stories to move the audience in a deep and emotional way. Just as every writer is different, so is every writer's process unique. It's my job to understand them and their process and to support and guide their genius. While it's impossible to agree on everything and I sometimes wish I'd served them both better. But I did the best I could do with the awareness I had at the time.
We Love Soaps: How did the spin-off PORT CHARLES come about?
Wendy Riche: We knew that THE CITY was probably not going to last. I was having lunch with Pat [Fili-Krushel] at some event. We were talking about THE CITY and what to do with that timeslot. I said, “If I were a programmer, I would start the ABC lineup with a half hour of the west wing of General Hospital with the interns in a learning hospital, and cap the day off with GENERAL HOSPITAL. I would interface the characters in Port Charles with both wings of General Hospital.” Pat thought that was a great idea. She thought about it for a few hours, ran it by upper management, and told me to write it up. I sat down, wrote down some characters and storylines, sent her back some pages, and created the show. That was a natural bridge as a programmer. I had worked as a programmer at ABC and FOX so my head also thinks in those terms. We wanted to bring continuity to the show, which was Lucy, Kevin, and Scotty.
We Love Soaps: You were executive producing two daytime shows for several years. Looking back on it, were you spreading yourself too thin?
Wendy Riche: I think it was right to begin with. I could only have done it with Julie Hanan Carruthers and the team of players we had at that time. I didn’t do it alone, I didn’t do anything alone. None of us do anything alone. We are all supported by each other in some way. And I had the best team in daytime working with me. But we had to do it in six months. Once Pat sold it she said, “Okay, I want it on the air in six months.” And Barbara Bloom, who was at the network, shepherded it and guided the whole thing through. Barbara was wonderful to work with. After a couple of years, we all talked, and we were all spread too thin. So we made the decision together that there was no one better than Julie to take over PORT CHARLES. I would still consult with her but we were focused on our individual shows. We would collaborate on both because we were friends, we worked in the same space, and we loved both shows. But she could really make one her own, and I could come back to GENERAL HOSPITAL and give it the attention it needed.
We Love Soaps: PORT CHARLES never really seemed to take off. It never built on the explosive momentum of GH. What happened?
Wendy Riche: I think the time period where it aired was very tricky. And launching a new show is very difficult. It takes time. I don’t think you can compare it to the success of GENERAL HOSPITAL, which had been on the air for almost 40 years. PORT CHARLES was a beloved show, but it just didn’t make sense in the numbers, the dollars. That’s where Disney came in. Because it was less expensive to do another kind of programming in that period. And that was a very bottom line decision, which was obviously disappointing to the cast, to the crew, and most importantly, the fans. So I see the show as a successful show, but I’m not comparing it to GENERAL HOSPITAL, that’s just not right. They are not comparable. It might have been as big in 30 years. But to expect a show in six years to be as big as a show that had been on for 40 years in that genre when there a fewer people watching, it’s not the right comparison.
We Love Soaps: Once again your eye for casting was amazing. Julie Pinson, who started on PORT CHARLES, just won her first Emmy. How did you decide to hire her?
Wendy Riche: Julie's a really good actress and she nailed the audition. She was Eve. She had all the qualities we were looking for in Eve - the girl with a sordid past determined to be somebody. Julie has the strength, the vulnerability, the innate sensuality and a sense of humor.
We Love Soaps: Creatively, the show changed gears halfway through. It broke from the traditional continuing story to telling 13 week arcs. How did that change come about?
Wendy Riche: I remember Pat Fili-Krushel discussing telenovelas when she was there. We were all aware of the success of telenovelas in Latin America. I believe it was under Angela [Shapiro] that they made that change. It made sense to keep your continuing character's stories, but to tighten the overall story a little bit, to see how that would work. It worked successfully in other countries, so we decided to try it here. It felt like the right thing to do for a half hour show.
We Love Soaps: Knowing what you know now, would you have gone in the direction of 13 week arcs, or stuck with more traditional continuing stories?
Wendy Riche: I like that kind of story as long as there was character continuity that floated from story to story. You’re just tightening an ending that is a new beginning. Yes, I would do it again, I liked it. Did you find it not to be successful?
We Love Soaps: I personally don’t enjoy supernatural stories on daytime television.
Wendy Riche: What about the 13 week arc?
We Love Soaps: For me it was not as engaging. I enjoy the ongoing stories that unfold over a year or more. Monica’s breast cancer, Sonny & Brenda’s romance, I like the kind of stories that build month after month, year after year. That’s a personal preference. But at the same time, I have enjoyed Spanish telenovelas. I have watched them to learn Spanish, as well as see a great story.
Wendy Riche: And initially your commitment would be less. The soaps have lost a lot of audience. Part of the reason is that more people are working, our lives have become busier and the commitment is just too great. I have a grown son who said to me, “I don’t even watch television anymore, I have too much going on in my life.” There are so many things to watch on television. The supernatural was fun to try at the time. I had a thought way early on at GH about doing vampire stories. Have you seen Twilight?
We Love Soaps: No.
Wendy Riche: Well, you have to go see Twilight. I'm going to see Eclipse next week with my eleven year old granddaughter Carly and we both can't wait! The inspiration for a vampire storyline comes from romance. It comes from unrequited love. And that you have to be together, but you can not get together. That’s one of the major elements of soap opera storytelling. It’s not coming from the thought, “Let’s do something supernatural.” That is too mechanical in thinking. It comes our hearts, as women, loving that kind of storytelling. Loving the kind of man who would do anything for you, even if meant not being with you. That’s why Twilight was so successful. I knew there was something about vampires that was sexy and romantic if it was done right.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Press here for Part Four which covers Riche leaving GENERAL HOSPITAL and her current/future projects. Plus, Riche addresses the ALL MY CHILDREN rumors head-on. Was she really going to AMC? Find out in Part Four!
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"