We Love Soaps: This part of our interview is going to appear the day before the AS THE WORLD TURNS finale. Based on your experience, what could have been done to have kept it on the air longer?
Colleen Zenk: I think we needed to have focused on core characters awhile back. I think we needed to stop focusing on story lines that the audience didn’t find as important. I’m not blaming anybody. But I think the focus needed to be on the core families and the core characters because they are the reasons the audience tunes in. The core characters are the reasons the audience is bereft right now. Because we are family to all these people, to generations of viewers.
We also needed to find ways to incorporate new media early on, to get creative with new media early on. Fifteen years ago they should have been thinking how to sell it differently. Why didn’t we use the Bell model and go sell these shows abroad the way BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL did? I remember being at P&G headquarters some twenty years ago in Cincinnati and seeing us in the German translation version where we were being dubbed. But it wasn’t done enough, we were not being promoted and marketed heavily enough. Why are we number one in Amsterdam? Because we are on in prime time, I think we are on three times a day. I know we’re on 10:30 at night because one of my childhood girlfriends is over there and she watches it every night. There were things that could have been done. I was in Ireland in 1997 and was recognized all over because we were on the Star Channel over there. We should have been sent to Amsterdam, we should have been sent to Ireland. They sent Luke & Noah to Paris. That was great, why weren’t we doing that 15 years ago? We should have been getting the fan base stirred up over seas long ago.
That’s only part of it. There was a lot of cross-promoting with the network that should have happened that didn’t happen. Part of it was the fact we were owned by Proctor & Gamble and only licensed by CBS. That was at cross purposes. Back when we were the number one show on daytime television and the money was rolling in, it was a very different story. CBS loved the fact they had the number one show. They should have continued to support us in every way they could instead of going after cutting our licensing fees. It all comes down to money, it call comes down to the economy. We’re all dinosaurs, and we have to all find a way to reinvent ourselves otherwise the only show left on the air will be BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.
We Love Soaps: For most of the '90s, aside from the John Dixon romance, we weren’t seeing Barbara. Our friend Jon Reiner did one of my favorite interviews with you in 1998 and discussed your absence. You shared you had gotten your real estate license. That stuck out for me because I thought it was really cool that instead of waiting around for a story, you went back to school and did something proactive to take charge of yourself and your career.
Colleen Zenk: I felt at the time I had to do something because it wasn’t going to come to me. I had also just gone through my very first pay cut on the show. That was under Felicia [Minei Behr]. What she told me at the time was that I was the “first soldier on the beach.” Her words., meaning I was the first one to take a pay cut. What I took was not actually a pay cut, but a cut in guarantees. I had a hefty guarantee. I think I was where Don [Hastings], Kathy [Hays], and Eileen [Fulton] were, at a very different age level. So they cut me. That’s when I went, “Uh oh, I’m the first soldier on the beach.” That was the beginning of budget cuts.
We Love Soaps: You then took it upon yourself to diversify yourself.
Colleen Zenk: I saw the writing on the wall in the summer of 1998, and then I forgot about it. Then fortunately, not long after that Hogan Sheffer came in, resurrected Barbara, and I completely forgot that things were going down the toilet for daytime and that I should be on the lookout.
We Love Soaps: So suddenly in 2000, this character that had been there yet absent for so many years, was given new life.
Colleen Zenk: Hogan took one look at me and said, “What do you mean you’re not using this character? Look at the history of this character! Look at this actress, she looks okay! Let’s see what she can do.” So they looked at what I could do. He completely resurrected Barbara, and I became his muse.
We Love Soaps: That was such a treat for us to see Barbara causing lots of trouble again.
Colleen Zenk: I had so much fun, I can’t tell you. I had the time of my life with Hogan. When he left it nearly killed me. I was really upset. I didn’t think I would ever get back up to that level where he had me. I was wrong.
We Love Soaps: Some of the most memorable Barbara moments came during that time. When Barbara was scarred in the fire, and revealed her burned face in the court room.
Colleen Zenk: Classic soap opera. So much fun. A lot of people felt Hogan destroyed the show because of the way he told story. I completely disagree. I thought he completely revived us and saved us from the chopping block all those years ago. We weren’t looking good there for awhile. He saved us, and he certainly saved Barbara, that’s for sure. I also want to set the record straight on something. There was something written years ago, and then the fans picked up on it, that Barbara was supposed to die in the fire, and then they changed their minds. I was never supposed to die in the fire! It was all part of the entire plan. Barbara was never going to die, yet the folklore is out there that I had a last minute reprieve. It’s not true at all. The plan was that Barbara had to be there to get rid of the three women. They had three pregnant actresses and asked, “What are we doing to do with them?” The master plan was carried out. Somewhere along the way someone wrote, “They’re going to kill Colleen off.” That was not the case.
We Love Soaps: Were you glad at that point that you had not quit a few years earlier?
Colleen Zenk: I don’t think that I ever thought about quitting. Not then. The times I thought about quitting were in the early '80s when I was a kid and not really understanding at that point what a great gig I had. That’s when I thought about quitting. After my original three year contract, I would resign for six months, nine months, another six months. I didn’t have a full contract until after Kelsey was born in 1984.
We Love Soaps: After Hogan left, the show did change quite a bit. One of the significant stories that stood out after that was Barbara losing her adult daughter Jennifer. We had seen her mourn the loss of her baby Johnny but this time it was a grown woman. As a mother, what was it like for you play these scenes out?
Colleen Zenk: Even more difficult than being a mother was the fact that my own sister had recently died. It was so difficult after my sister died, I can’t tell you.
We Love Soaps: What did she pass away from?
Colleen Zenk: My sister died the day after her 43rd birthday of cirrhosis of the liver, which was also how my father died. It’s hard. She was 43 and beautiful. And we didn’t know. It was classic. I did not know she was an alcoholic, I did not know she was ill. All of a sudden my mother showed up with a bunch of my girlfriends at a matinee of “Hello Dolly” and tells me that on the way down there she received a call from my brother-in-law telling her my sister was in a coma in the hospital. Five days later she was gone. It was very difficult [pause], very difficult. Benjamin and I bonded together again over “Dolly” and my sister’s death. He was very comforting. Then I had to play it with Jennifer’s death the following year. It was very tough.
We Love Soaps: How do you do that? How do you go through these real life tragedies and then play a fictional character who is losing her daughter?
Colleen Zenk: All I can say is that thank God I have my own kids and they are healthy. I have been very fortunate with good health with my own children. Had I been going through then what I have been going through these last couple of years, I don’t think I would have been able to hold it together. I’ve been through so much these last couple of years myself, starting with the death of my sister. It’s hard to separate. But it’s not as hard as fans think. People always say, “You must take your work home,” or “How do you stop being Barbara?” There are all those silly questions that people ask from time to time. I look at them and say, “It’s my job.” But what is hard to turn off is when you are so emotionally drained. The emotions may be what you are portraying, but the tears are real. When you pour your heart out with a character, and what that character has been doing and feeling, the tears are real and you are exhausted at the end of the day. You are completely wiped out. Not that it’s hard to get over the emotion of it, it’s hard to get over the physical fatigue of going through the emotion. That’s what is hard to leave behind.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Press here for Part Five where we discuss Zenk's courageous struggle with oral cancer, and how she is managing her current real life struggles.
CBS's "World" stops turning this week, but yours doesn't have to! Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist specializing in Grief/Loss work and is now taking new clients in New York City. He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve."