Legendary actress Denise Alexander performed in over 2500 radio shows in New York starting at age 6, and was part of the transition from radio to television 60 years ago. In the 1950s she appeared in numerous primetime shows as a teenager, and in 1960 made her television soap debut on the West Coast in THE CLEAR HORIZON. Following a stint on BEN JERROD she was cast in the breakthrough role of Susan Hunter Martin on DAYS OF OUR LIVES. In 1973 GENERAL HOSPITAL was able to sign her to a contract as Lesley Webber, a role she's played on and off ever since. Earlier this year she was named on of the 50 Greatest Soap Actress of All-Time by our panel of critics. In 2010 she's part of another transition, from television to the internet, as she will be guest starring on the upcoming second season of the hilarious web series PRETTY. In this exclusive multi-part interview with WE LOVE SOAPS TV, Alexander shares memories from her remarkable career, discusses the future of entertainment on the web, and previews her web series debut.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You were involved in the industry when it was transitioning from radio to TV.
Denise Alexander: At the tail end of it. I got to do a little bit of everything.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I compare that to what's happening now with the web. A lot of people are doing a lot of different types of shows and experimenting.
Denise Alexander: That's the fun of it. That's why I'm involved with PRETTY. My dear friend Steve [Silverman, creator of PRETTY] asked if I would like to come and play and it's really a kick. I never thought about it as a kid. There was television, there was radio, I did theater, I did everything there was to to do, and it seemed natural. Now when I look back I think, "How lucky was I," because a lot of people didn't have those experiences. Here I am now because of Steve. And this is really such a baby form of entertainment.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: We post a lot of classic articles and I remember one from 1960 when the last four old radio soaps ended. The writer was still saying television soaps would not catch on.
Denise Alexander: They said television wouldn't last because people wanted to go to the movies. They always...
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: There are always skeptics.
Denise Alexander: Yes.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You did a lot of TV in the 1950s - FATHER KNOWS BEST, the ROBERT MONTGOMERY show, TWILIGHT ZONE, but your first soap was CLEAR HORIZON in 1960.
Denise Alexander: On television. I did tons of radio soaps. My dad at one point counted up the number I had done and it was 2,500 radio shows. You would get out of school and go from one show to the next. They were 15 minute or half-hour shows and you would sit around the table, read the script, rehearse a couple of times and do it. Then you were out of there and onto the next one. And sometimes it was in the next studio. I did way more than people know I did. IMDb doesn't list all the episodes.
I did a thing for Showtime which I co-produced and acted in and IMDb refused to accept it because it's not in their database. Showtime did a series called SHOWTIME ON BROADWAY and I have the tape. It was a concept somebody had of taking interesting video pieces and filming them. I don't know how many they did. Something else I did called SHAFT OF LOVE, which was actually a kind of soap opera spoof or farce written by a fellow who had been a head writer, will not be listed by IMDb either. And you have no way to reach them! I've probably done thousands of shows with GENERAL HOSPITAL and they only show 40. So if you're really proud of your body of work, and the only place they have to go is there, well, it's not going to do you any good.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Do you remember anything about CLEAR HORIZON and the character of Lois Adams. It's the 50th anniversary of you joining the show. Was it live?
Denise Alexander: I'm the worst person to ask this [laughs]. I'm going to hold my breath and tell you that I think it was on tape. It was set in Cape Canaveral. It was families who were on an air base entering into the space age. There was an older teenager, and I played the younger teenager in the family, just discovering boys and getting into trouble. Back in the half-hour format, it was common to share a stage with another soap. One show would work in the morning and one in the afternoon.
I remember doing a scene in a bathing suit with this guy who was like a young military guy on the base. My character was somebody's daughter, the leading man. I remember that scene between the two younger people on the beach. You ask me what I remember about that show, that's about it [laughs].
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I read somewhere the show was canceled then came back a while later and was then canceled again.
Denise Alexander: I don't remember that.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Then you did BEN JERROD where you played Emily Sanders.
Denise Alexander: I don't remember BEN JERROD at all [laughs]. You have to remember I've been doing this 156 years and other people know more about what I did than I do.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: [Laughs] 156 years is a long time!
Denise Alexander: I've gotta get my story straight.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Let's talk about DAYS OF OUR LIVES. Your character, Susan Hunter Martin, was very popular, one of the stars on the show for a long time.
Denise Alexander: It wasn't meant to be like that. I adored DAYS OF OUR LIVES. I had worked for the Cordays in New York, so when they started DAYS [in 1965], they called and asked me to play this teenager character. When you're an actor and you get a call and don't have to audition it's like a high point in your life and you're going to remember that. It was the character of Julie. I was a fanatic and hated the idea of long contracts and getting tied down. I was used to free-lancing. When I worked in New York I had been under contract, even as a kid, but I wasn't aware of that. So I said no and went into college [at UCLA].
Then later they called again [in 1966] with another character that was going to start on April 1st. They had a summer story with the Julie character, who was played by Charla Doherty at the time. This role was going to be Julie's nemesis through the summer with all the teenagers and I thought it could be fun. In the summer, soaps liked to do stories to catch the kids who were out of school. I was trying to decide if I wanted to keep acting at that point. I knew the Cordays and was very fond of them and it was something I went and did.
She started out as the bad girl and was thrown out of boarding school for smoking and drinking just as her mother was starting a romance with Mickey Horton. Suddenly she had this problem teenager on her hands. The character caught on and sparked something with the audience and that is how Susan became an important part of the show. I was there for almost seven years.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Were you finished with college at that point?
Denise Alexander: No, I was still in college. I was doing both.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Do you have a favorite storyline or memory from working on DAYS?
Denise Alexander: I just have to tell you, I had such a wonderful time on DAYS. It was like going to camp every day for me. I loved the people, loved the show and loved what I got to do. They loved the character and liked me as an actor and gave me lots of neat stuff to do.
I didn't even ask for a vacation for five years because if I worked 365 days a year I thought I was great. It was a very good time in my life.
What I didn't like is more of what didn't happen. At one point I remember getting a petition and went around the studio with this piece of paper for all the actors and the crew to sign that said, "Whereas the show would be much more interesting if the character of Susan Martin got into a romantic relationship." I never got the part where you got to neck and make out with the guys. I started out as the bad girl but wound up as a good girl. Her big activity was baking at one point. So it was more of, "Boy, I wish I could have something like...," but I loved the show.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Stay tuned for Part Two in which Alexander shares details of how she left DAYS OF OUR LIVES and joined GENERAL HOSPITAL during a lapsed contract and memories from GH.
Roger Newcomb is a producer and writer in New York City. Aside from co-hosting WE LOVE SOAPS TV, he has written and produced a full-length indie film, Manhattanites, and two radio soap operas, SCRIPTS & SCRUPLES and ROCKLAND COUNTY. He has also made acting appearances in indie web series IMAGINARY BITCHES and EMPIRE. He has consulted on numerous indie soaps and is currently an associate producer on THE BAY and executive producer on the upcoming indie short May Mercy Lie.