In Parts One and Two of our interview with Denise Alexander, the legendary actress spoke about her early career on radio and television, hear early soap roles including DAYS OF OUR LIVES, and her brilliant run on GENERAL HOSPITAL. She also revealed how her guest appearance on the web series PRETTY came about. In Part Three below, Alexander talks about leaving GH, joining ANOTHER WORLD, and returning to Port Charles many years later.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: In 1984 the character of Lesley was killed off GENERAL HOSPITAL. Was it your choice to leave at that point?
Denise Alexander: I had been working a long time. I had a very strong contract and the network was cutting back on a lot of people and guarantees where you were going to get paid even if you didn't do the episodes. They were letting people go but they offered me a raise. Because I had been kind of a big noise in the field, and had a great agent who was very trend setting in how he negotiated for his clients, I had a three show guarantee. They could not book me for four shows more than half a dozen times a year. They had some storylines coming up and didn't want those restrictions.
They offered me a raise but wanted to get rid of the "no four show week" restriction. I was really tired and asked them if I could have a couple of months off becase I was exhausted. They wouldn't give it to me and said, "No, no, you're too important, we have this great storyline coming up." I said, "Look, I'm really happy with everything I have now, I don't need the raise." No actor ever says this. It drove my agent crazy. I just wanted my same contract to continue but need a little vacation time.
My agent negotiated directly with the head of daytime because he knew her for many years and they were very friendly and worked together a lot. They had often just talked through deals without business affairs getting involved. He was having conversations where she would get very angry saying I was so "ungrateful" because they were offering me this and cutting everyone else back. She was being a little more antagonistic than he was used to. At one point she said, "We will kill off the character," in a kind of threatening way. He was so stunned and that came out of nowhere. All he could say to her was, "It is your character, of course, you can do whatever you want." He said to me at one point, "Look, you've been talking about stopping, maybe you should think about that."
Anyway, there was a falling out between them and it became a mutual decision that nobody was happy about. The network wasn't happy, and I wasn't happy. I didn't get fired and I didn't quit. But I did get out of it a couple of years to live out sort of a fantasy dream. I wanted to see what life would be like if I wasn't working. I had been working since I was five-and-a-half or six years old. I didn't know if the people I loved knew anything about me if I wasn't this actor person with whatever fame I had then or wasn't working. I said to myself that I needed to spend some time just living like a person and have a home and learn how to be a good cook and do all those things.
So I kind of eased myself into it and moved away from thinking of myself as an actor. It was exactly what I wanted. I had the opportunity to do that and have as many animals as I wanted and live in the country. I did get to be a good cook and learned what it was like without having the structure of being an actor in it.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You had been memorizing pages and pages of dialogue for decades. What was it like to suddenly not be doing that and have that mental break?
Denise Alexander: At first I was like, "Wee! I'm free!" I had never known what it was like. No one was setting my schedule but me. I didn't have to worry about what time I had a call or if I could take a vacation in a month and a half. Nobody controlled what I was going to do. It was the first time in my life it had happened. It was total and complete freedom. I had exactly the life I wanted. I bought a house in the country. The man I was in love with and have since married was working around the world and anytime he was working in Paris or wherever it was I could go. It lasted a couple of years and I was thrilled with it.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: How did NBC talk you into moving across the country to New York to play Mary McKinnon on ANOTHER WORLD in 1986.
Denise Alexander: I was sitting in my house in the country in a town that I loved and realizing I wasn't structuring my life myself. I think the truth of it was I was missing the work that I did, but I didn't read it that way. I read it as I needed to go back to work. I didn't want to be a person who has a messy, sloppy life where you need a little more structure. I was thinking all that to myself and that afternoon I got a phone call from the lady who had represented me. She said she had just heard from NBC that I wanted to come back and do a soap in New York. I think it was Brian Frons actually. They knew me from my history and John Whitesell knew of me and they were looking for star power.
They had two wonderful leading ladies and it was always a difficult situation but they needed somebody new and exciting because the show had been around for the while and they thought I could bring some audience with me. They called me at a time when I was thinking, "Gee, maybe I need to go back to work a little while." I didn't ask any of the right questions and wound up in New York in a very difficult logistical situation for me in my life. Lovely darling people every one of them, and lovely show, but very difficult situation because I had to be away from home for years and didn't set it up right.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I enjoyed Mary a lot and her relationship with Vince, played by both Duke Stroud and Robert Hogan.
Denise Alexander: I really knew Bob [Hogan] best. John Considine (Reginald) and Bob became my two best friends in New York.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Did you know John before ANOTHER WORLD?
Denise Alexander: I met both of them there. John was a Beverly Hills kid and I had moved there. We had interesting connections in our lives but had kind of missed each other. But what delicious men to work with they were.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: A year after you joined the cast, they brought on Chris Robinson as well.
Denise Alexander: When I came on it was again "can you lift our ratings?" And the ratings went up. Then somebody got the idea, because of whatever was going on with my character at the time, to have another guy for this character to play against. It was the network's decision to call in Chris. And then they gave us almost nothing to do together.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: In the mid-1990s GENERAL HOSPITAL revealed Lesley wasn't dead after all. You've been on and off the show ever since.
Denise Alexander: It's been good for me. You either live as an actor or you don't live as an actor. How you keep in shape and how you go on auditions is the primary thing in your life as an actor. I had gotten away from that. I've been so blessed all these years to get to go play a few times a year and not have to audition. Anything I can do and not have to audition is wondrous [laughs].
I was sad when I left the show. When you have played a character that long and had fun with it, you can feel the fan's sorrow. I missed the character and it's a fun thing for me she came back to life. It's a character I know and there's still a few people I know there. It's been great fun.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In Part Four, Alexander discusses meeting PRETTY creator Steven Silverman, working on the web series and what she would change if she could do it all again.
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.