In Part One of our interview with Denise Alexander, the legendary actress spoke about her early career on radio and television, her first three TV soaps including the breakthrough role of Susan Hunter Martin on DAYS OF OUR LIVES. She also revealed how her guest appearance on the web series PRETTY came about. In Part Two below, Alexander talks about leaving DAYS and joining the cast of GENERAL HOSPITAL as Lesley Webber, her years on that soap, and how it felt during the height of fame during the show's glory years.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I've read that you left DAYS OF OUR LIVES during a period of time when your contract had lapsed and GENERAL HOSPITAL snapped you up.
Denise Alexander: It's a longer story than that, but that is absolutely true.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: So you were a star on DAYS and GH wasn't doing well in the ratings at the time and wanted to add some star power?
Denise Alexander: The reason why my contract on DAYS had lapsed was Corday Productions was getting ready to start THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS. That was Bill Bell and Betty Corday and all of their attention was going toward that. There had been some sticking point in the negotiations. It wasn't anything bad or terrible. I was probably ready for a vacation at that point. I remember having a conversation with Betty and Bill, and Bill was trying to figure out what the storyline would be. He had focused on the character of Susan for so many years and needed to focus on this new show and also keep some of the other characters going on DAYS. The agreement kind of was we would take a little break so they could get the other show going and then we would, in good faith, start up the negotiations again.
Somehow the guys at ABC heard about that and I got a call from a vice president there and they asked if it was true. I said, "Yes, but you have to understand that we have an agreement and I made a promise that I would talk to them as soon as they could get this show started, and we would try to work out a contractual agreement." He did one of those, "Oh, don't talk to anybody. We'll meet or beat anything they have to offer. Go to Palm Springs on vacation and we'll pay for it. Don't talk to them." I said, "I can't do that. I have to be honorable." So what started was the old "offer you can't refuse" situation.
I went back to Betty and said, "I have to tell you what's going on." I told her what they had offered me. I can't tell you how many times more, and it was because they were in terrible trouble and, as you said, they thought if they could get some star power it would help them. They were trying to keep it on the air because ABC owned the show and it wasn't from a production company.
It was Betty Corday who sent me to GENERAL HOPSITAL. She said, "You must do this." I told you what wonderful people they were. So when I went to GENERAL HOSPITAL, they didn't have a character for me. They had a character that was coming in, a woman doctor who was going to have a romance with John Beradino. And that was obviously wrong for me or for John. But they took the character and a couple of scripts of her arrival they had written and had to scramble to create a storyline.
I have to tell you, at that time I was walking around with my head in a little pink cloud. I didn't sit down with people and say, "Tell me what you're going to do with this character before I make a decision." I just said, "Oh, that sounds like fun." And, "That much, huh?"
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: In your early stories, Lesley was married to Cameron and then she found out her daughter Laura was alive.
Denise Alexander: Yes. I think they already had the character of Cameron, a very moneyed, very gorgeous man.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: And you worked with Michael Gregory.
Denise Alexander: Yes. He was the first Rick Webber.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I mention him because we posted a "Where Are They Now" story about him recently. He was doing a political ad in Seattle. He played a grocer.
Denise Alexander: Michael has always kept working and we do keep in touch. He's a very lovely person.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Then you worked with Chris Robinson as Rick, and he would later come onto ANOTHER WORLD after you had joined that show.
Denise Alexander: When it was Chris and me, Rick and Lesley were the Luke and Laura of their day. GENERAL HOSPITAL went to number one for the first time during the Rick and Lesley and Monica triangle storyline. Of course, Luke and Laura took it heights of ratings no one had ever hit before or since. Gloria [Monty] and I used to laugh about that. I remember Gloria coming down to the stage and saying, "We just made number one."
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Gloria wasn't there when you first started though.
Denise Alexander: Right. When I started it was a production company that was really a problem with ABC, and they had to wait out that company's hold on the show contractually. Then they were able to hire their own people and brought on a man named Tom Donovan, a brilliant man who came out from New York and took over the show [in 1975] not long before it went to 45 minutes [in 1976]. He changed everything. The other production company was not up to date. We had really bad lighting and bad cameras and the studio wasn't set up properly. Tom made a huge turnaround in how the show was done technically. The show was about to go off the air and he got the show technologically brought up to the 20th century. Then it had problems again after change to the 45 minute format and the ratings started to drop and they brought Gloria in. She was a genius dramatically. So we had the benefit of several people pulling us out of being a few weeks away from ABC almost canceling their own show.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Including Douglas Marland.
Denise Alexander: Doug Marland did write the show at one point.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: As someone who had been doing this a long time, what you were thinking in 1980-1981 when GENERAL HOSPITAL was at the height of fame? The show as everywhere.
Denise Alexander: I have a theory. There are different types of people who work on soaps. There are people who are beginning their career, who are pretty and they start and learn, and "it's a great training ground" is a phrase you'll hear a lot. There are people who are working actors and have a background in acting, and this is another venue to do what they love doing. And there are some people who go on from that to other things and people who stay with it. I was a person who loved acting By the time I got to do soaps from a way of life, I was a working actor who was highly regarded enough that I never had to work under five or never had to do extra work or had to starve. I worked in features in what would be called "guest starring roles" now. So I had a lot of success and satisfaction. For me, to have a place to go to work where I had an important role, and the people in charge liked and respected what I did and valued what I offered and brought to it, was wonderful.
The early '80s on GENERAL HOSPITAL? The Webber family got all the great sitcom scenes. We were like a sitcom within this drama show. And I had some searing dramatic scenes to do. And I had the boring stuff that you did to just keep the storyline going. Or I was the one at the party who had just three lines to say but you made your same salary so you were fine. It was a great experience. It was like actors being a part of rep theater because you're doing a different play every week. You get to stretch and you are challenged, sometimes as the lead and sometimes as the background.
Lesley was really important on the show, and I got to go to work every day in a leading role. The audience would surround your car and scream when you would try to drive away from some appearance. Financially it was great. And I didn't have to go out on audition and be told I was too young, too old, too short, too fat, too boring, nothing. It was a great place to be and a great job and a great gift for an actor. And everybody got famous and that was fun. Then everyone once in a while I got to be jealous because where was all that fame when we were the Luke and Laura [laughs]. I had it all and was so grateful and thankful, and figured I would be able to work the rest of my life on the basis of this.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In Part Three, Alexander discusses leaving GENERAL HOSPITAL, commuting cross country to ANOTHER WORLD, and returning to GH years later.
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.