In Parts One and Two of our interview with the illustrious Nicolas Coster, the actor shared memories of his early stints on YOUNG DOCTOR MALONE, THE SECRET STORM, SOMERSET, and the experience of working on ANOTHER WORLD at the height of its 1970s phenomenal run. In Part Three below, Coster shares more of the highs and lows of playing Lionel on SANTA BARABARA, as well as his enjoyable run as Steve on ALL MY CHILDREN.
We Love Soaps: Lionel was interesting. He was always the underdog compared to the Capwells. We wanted to root for him, but he could also be very tragic and self-destructive.
Nicolas Coster: He screwed up a lot. Part of that was his unabashed adventurousness. When you take risks, you are going to take falls. To make it spicy, he had to be a bit of a Lothario. I thought what was interesting is that they made Louise’s character [Augusta] mess around as well. It wasn’t just a one-sided womanizing guy.
The other relationship I also loved, which they didn’t make much of because we were in a transitional phase, was with Lenore Kasdorf [as Caroline]. She was so special. I got injured almost fatally in a traffic accident. Don Stewart filled in for me. He was a good friend from New York who is now gone. I went back to work and couldn’t remember my name, much less the lines. At that time we had cue cards. I told Lenore, “I don’t know how much I’ll be able to remember. When you’re on camera and I see my red light go off, do you mind terribly if I look at my lines on the cards?” She said, “Nicky, do what you have to do.” She was so patient. It was the single greatest act of kindness I’ve had on television. She never let on. I always like to pay tribute to her because she is some gal.
We Love Soaps: I didn’t realize any of that was going on. I just remember enjoying that relationship between Lionel and Caroline because it was so different from who he was with Augusta and Sophia.
Nicolas Coster: People expected a repeat of Sophia and Augusta, but it wasn’t that. Just like in my own personal life, it’s never been the same. I’ve never repeated any kind of relationship. I don’t have a pattern in my response to women. My first wife was blond and my present wife has auburn hair. They are quite radically different. I don’t have a pattern but some men do, they marry the same type of woman over and over. But that’s not me, and that was reflected in the character of Lionel. I ended up with Robin Mattson [as Gina] and that was fabulous. We had a different kind of fun, but as much fun as I had with Louise. There was having a child in a veterinarian office, getting married in a Shakespearean troop. They allowed us this wedding on a stage as we were escaping the police in a Shakespearean troop! They allowed me to recite an entire Shakespeare sonnet as my wedding vows to Gina. How often has a classically trained actor been able to recite an entire sonnet on daytime television?
Before that, Lionel had been a naughty boy and become impotent. He had to take a job as a host on a television show. I said, “Look, I know we’re making a comedy about this, but I must tell you that millions of men suffer from this dysfunction.” This was in the days before you could advertise Viagra on television. I said, “I would like to be allowed to put in a disclaimer on this show within a show, as Lionel, to tell men that if they have this condition to see a physician, or a psychotherapist, or both.” They allowed me to do that.
The second thing they allowed me to do later in that same series of shows, when he and Augusta reunited, was to recite a poem. Frank Salisbury was the writer that day, and in those days we could communicate with the writers, especially those of us with some literary sense. I called Frank and said, “This is an E.E. Cummings poem, don’t you think it’s a little acerbic for this moment?” He said, “Yes, I agree, what do you have in mind?” I said, “One of the romantics.” He said, “Which one?” I said, “No, better yet, a poet from the first World War.” He said, “Who, Owens?” I said, “No, Brooks.” He asked, “Which poem?” and I quoted him a poem. He said, “Right!” You can quote that totally if you would. How many daytime actors get to have that kind of literary conversation with a writer?
We Love Soaps: That’s unheard of, especially in this day and age.
Nicolas Coster: That’s one of the problems with soaps today. They patronize the audience. I learned not to do that from Laurence Olivier on Broadway. But I also learned that as a founding member of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. I had given tickets to my mechanic who had kept my beat-up junk yard car going. I gave him opening night tickets to "Hamlet." The guy didn’t even have a high school education. The next day I saw him. He said, “I loved it. I admit I didn’t understand every word, but I got what was happening.” I said, “That’s art! That’s communication!”
We Love Soaps: And that’s one thing SANTA BARBARA followed at first. They did not play down to their audience.
Nicolas Coster: Not until a certain producer came in and started all that bullshit fantastic stuff that didn’t play. That wasn’t believable, it was phony. That’s when I quit and went over to ALL MY CHILDREN. Lionel was not a bad guy. He wasn’t evil, he was just naughty, and got himself in trouble from time to time. Some men have their brains some place other than their head. But then Lionel actually witnessed his own funeral and enjoyed it because he was cheating an insurance company. He witnessed his children grieving over him! I said, “No. That is so grotesque. It is unbelievable, out of character.” The producer at the time didn’t believe I had a contract that let me get out. I said, “Look at the contract, pal. If you insist on me doing that, I am not going to be here.” And I quit. And they picked me up at ALL MY CHILDREN, which was another legendary time.
We Love Soaps: Over at ALL MY CHILDREN you played Steve Andrews.
Nicolas Coster: He was Steve, and Dave. As a mechanic he was Dave. As a terrorist kidnapper, he was Steve. Steve was hired by Travis to kidnap him by his own design. Travis was played by that wonderful actor Larkin Malloy. He and I got to be great pals, we still cross paths on Facebook. It was a schizophrenic character. Erica had run away to a boarding house when she found her husband had kidnapped himself. Travis had betrayed Steve, I can’t remember why, so he beat Travis up on a rooftop. Then he went looking for Erica, who had left Travis after finding out about this self-kidnap. She had left him and gone to work as a waitress in a little Tunaville town and lived in a boarding house. Steve went down, pretended he was a car mechanic who moved in the same boarding house and started dating her. Then they fell in love, for real. It was a fabulous time.
Now we’re going to do a flashback. Remember Jada Rowland from THE SECRET STORM? She eventually married an Astronomer, and became a very famous writer and illustrator of children’s books. There was a critical big scene in which I’m off with Susan Lucci in my van. We were at a lake, and they had me point out the stars, the constellations. All throughout rehearsal, I quoted constellations. I called in to Jada’s husband, who was an Astronomer at Columbia University. He called me mid morning. I said, “What do you think of the constellations [written in the script]?” He said, “First of all, those are day constellations, you can’t see them at night.” So he gave me several actual constellations to draw out by his instruction. I held it for the actual taping. Susan is such a good and open actress. She sat there really amazed that I knew the real constellations. That was a moment of such purity and genuineness, and she played it so beautifully. We had a terrific connection as friends, as actors. When I left that show to go back to SANTA BARBARA, she gave me a $5,000 dinner party.
We Love Soaps: If things were going so well, why did you leave?
Nicolas Coster: They had changed producers at SANTA BARBARA. They lost the producer I had been working with and simultaneously they asked me to come back. Plus, they really didn’t know where to go with the new writer and producer at ALL MY CHILDREN. I said, “Well, gee, in case it doesn’t work out...” I left. It was very pleasant, very friendly. So I went back and stayed on SANTA BARBARA till the end, which may or may not have been a good idea.
We Love Soaps: Why do you say that?
Nicolas Coster: I think it really went down hill. By that time, most of the soap operas had lost the essence of daytime drama, which to me is Greek drama. The excellent plots were based on Greek and Shakespearian drama, albeit simplified, but not over simplistic. I think they went for production values instead. They were trying to compete with Russ Meyer movies, practically doing soft porn. That’s just my opinion. It’s a very tough opinion, but it’s my opinion. They were trying to sex these things up when they were given more latitude. I think they forgot the importance of basic stories. They forgot that family struggles were most important.
Now, to give them some credit, this happened with the increase of available programming. The cynical critics said, “See, the American audience never did have any concentration span.” That’s simply not true. ANOTHER WORLD had been a huge hit for an hour long. But they had great writers such as Bill Bell, Agnes Nixon and Harding Lemay. I don’t want to seem like an old reactionary. I’m not bemoaning the “good old days.” That always changes. I think they now have an opportunity to recapture that audience with the interview, and with the shows that still have a degree of excellence, such as THE YOUNG & THE RESTLESS.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Come back for Part Four in which the insightful actor shares perspective on what soaps can still do to survive, as well the tragic ending of SANTA BARBARA, and his return to AS THE WORLD TURNS. What was it like to work with Eileen Fulton after so many years?
Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals, couples, and families 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."