In the latest installment of our series highlighting the many special performances preserved in the various Soap Classics DVD collections, We Love Soaps visits with Denise Pence, still fondly remembered for her eight year run as Nurse Katie Parker on GUIDING LIGHT, which started 35 years ago.
Denise Pence joined the cast of GUIDING LIGHT in 1977 when the show's head writers, Bridget and Jerome Dobson, created the character of Katie.
"When I hit GUIDING LIGHT, I was young and newly married," Pence explains to We Love Soaps. "After that first year I was pretty solid on the show, which totally surprised me, so my husband and I decided to get pregnant. We asked permission, and my pregnancy I think helped boost Katie's appeal. She had a fat storyline that they covered up Katie's pregnancy with, so I laughed through the first nine months of my life there."
GUIDING LIGHT expanded from a 30-minute daily to 60 minutes on November 7, 1977.
"I was on the half-hour show, and it was a very close-knit family," she remembers. "It was beautiful. I can't tell you how much of a repertory company we had. Because it was small, it was more intimate. We worked as a half hour for quite a while."
The atmosphere of GUIDING LIGHT was different in the early years Pence was on the show.
"I don't believe they were pushing as much then for that media thing," Pence adds. "I think it surprised them in 1979 when we got best show for the first time in a long time. The whole aura of GUIDING LIGHT at that time was a collaborative effort. The Dobsons wrote in a sketchy kind of way. They gave an overview of what they wanted which allowed the writers to take a scene and create whatever they felt would give added input. And then when we hit the set we had the director, John Pasquin at the time (married to JoBeth Williams, who played Brandy on GL), a theater director, who would go into those dry rehearsals as if he was directing theater. We as actors were working as theater actors. It was fun. I can't even compare it to anything else."
EDITOR'S NOTE: John Pasquin is currently the director of ABC's LAST MAN STANDING starring Tim Allen.
What was the Dobson's original plan for the character of Katie?
"That's the other thing that was kind of weird about Katie," she laughs. "I don't think I was meant to go anywhere. I auditioned for the character of Jackie [Marler], opposite Tom O'Rourke [who played Jackie's husband, Justin]. At the time Fran Myers [who played Peggy], who was an integral part of the nurse's station, was leaving the show. She had given notice and was going to California, so there was this open slot. They hired Cindy Pickett as Jackie and didn't know what to do with me, but they wanted to keep me. I was young and pretty, and they didn't know where it would go, but I had Broadway credits. It's all an unknown thing when you come into any show. It's kind of like playing craps with your life."
In screening old episodes, the tape date is usually a week in advance of when it aired.
"We got our scripts a week in advance," Pence recalls. "Sometimes they would have a writer's strike and would try to put as many episodes in the can as they could. I'd get the next week's script the week prior. It's an amazing training ground. It's not an easy business. I was extremely fortunate to get that shot. The timing of my audition and everything just fell into place. And then the fans just kept me there."
Fans loved the humor of GUIDING LIGHT in the late '70s with Katie, and her friendship with Hillary, being a big part of that.
"The friendship with Hillary was something wonderful," she recalls. "From a writing point of view, they had to figure out a way to keep Katie valuable to the story somehow. I wasn't a character married to a main family. It wasn't part of the writer's history. Making Katie friends with Hillary Bauer, from a core family, allowed me to work my way in there."
During Pence's run on GUIDING LIGHT, the show changed writers and producers multiple times. First, Douglas Marland replaced the Dobsons as head writer of the soap. But what changed for Katie?
"Everything," Pence says. "I started polishing this little halo as the perfect nurse. I was also playing a victim which I really hated. She was in love with Andy, a bad guy. The guy who played Andy was a wonderful actor and we had a good time on set. I enjoyed working with him in scenes but audiences hated us together. They made him a bad boy and wanted the best for Katie. He beat her one time. I remember the feeling when all that shifted."
Continue to Part 2...
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 a producer on THE BAY and executive producer on the indie short May Mercy Lie, which is currently making the rounds at film festivals.