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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Catching Up With Ellen Wheeler As She Begins A New Project With Old Friends (Part 1 of 2)

Left to Right: Kurt McKinney, Frank Dicopoulos, Robert Newman,
Ellen Wheeler, Michael O'Leary and Jordan Clarke.
Photo Credit: Sue Coflin/Max Photos.
Former GUIDING LIGHT executive producer Ellen Wheeler began her career in Daytime as an actress. She landed the role of Marley Love on ANOTHER WORLD in 1984 and, a year later, she began playing Marley's twin, Victoria. Soon, she won an Emmy (for work in 1986).

She took on the role of Cindy Parker on ALL MY CHILDREN the next year, in what turned out to be one of the most moving HIV/AIDS stories ever told on television, and won another Emmy (for her work in 1988).

Primetime roles on DARK SHADOWS, HUNTER, STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE and ER followed. She guest-starred on THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and returned to ANOTHER WORLD as Marley for its final year. That's when she first moved behind the camera and directed episodes of AS THE WORLD TURNS, earning three more Emmy nominations. Then, in 2004, Wheeler was named executive producer of GUIDING LIGHT.

Ranked last among the nine remaining daytime soap operas (at the time, in the key ratings demo) GUIDING LIGHT was only beating PASSIONS in total viewers. Forced to move to a new production model, with little time for the cast and crew to adjust (and no time at all for the audience), ratings dipped again in 2008, as the loss of fan favorites Beth Ehlers and Ricky Paul Goldin exacerbated the sense the show was, at times, physically jarring to watch.

Ironically, by the start of 2009 (CBS announced cancellation of the 72-year-old soap on April Fools Day) GUIDING LIGHT was back on solid footing. Some of the technical kinks had been worked out, Grant Aleksander returned as Phillip Spaulding and the Olivia and Natalia slow-burn love story garnered the show more buzz than it had received in years. Nevertheless, GUIDING LIGHT went off the air on September 18, 2009, with cast and crew moving on to other projects.

Wheeler and oher GL alums recently got together on a beautiful fall Sunday for a day of taping, talking and pizza. Dubbed "A New Project With Old Friends," it was a chance for much of the old gang to get back together, shoot some scenes and catch up. We Love Soaps recently spoke with Wheeler about this reunion, what she's been doing since GUIDING LIGHT and where it might go in the future.

Read Part 1 of our exclusive interview below.

WE LOVE SOAPS: I can't believe it has been over four years since GUIDING LIGHT went off the air.
ELLEN WHEELER: My children were in junior high and high school at the time. It was so hard for the show to be over but one thing that was good in my life was thinking how lucky I was to have a couple of years while my kids were still at home to be at home. So that became my entire goal. I was this busy, busy working mom through all their elementary and junior high years so it gave me a chance to be at home and be the mom who sent them off to school, baked cookies, and was there when they got home, or when their friends came over. Literally, that's what I've done the last few years. Even though there have been some incredibly wonderful and gracious offers to go do other things and be other places, I really just wanted to relish that time.

When they get into high school you realize you only have four years left. Today I had to drop my son off at school then make sure his costumes were ready - because he's doing West Side Story.

WE LOVE SOAPS: Is he following in your footsteps?
ELLEN WHEELER: He's in high school so I don't want to put too much on him yet; my job is to get some laundry done, vacuum the floor and take him to rehearsal by five o'clock. I'm happy doing that. I love spending my time on my kids for a change.

Robert Newman spoke to several of his former GUIDING LIGHT
co-stars when they reunited recently in Peapack for a day of shooting
scenes.  Pictured left to right: Yvonna Wright, Caitlin Van Zandt,
Kurt McKinney, Jessica Leccia, Jennifer Roszell, Beth Chamberlin,
Michael O'Leary, Michelle Ray Smith, Bonnie Dennison, Elizabeth
Keifer and Tom Pelphrey. Photo Credit: Sue Coflin/Max Photos
When Lou [Grieci] and Jill [Lorie Hurst, former GUIDING LIGHT head writer] called and said there was some interest in possibly getting the band back together, that was the first time I hung up and told my husband I didn't know what would happen with it but I was very excited about the idea of going back, even for a day or few hours, to be with a group of people that had done GUIDING LIGHT in the past. And this wasn't a money offer. The other calls asked if I wanted this job or that job and I told them I would love the job but I would prefer to have time with my kids at this juncture of my life.

The people at GUIDING LIGHT were so talented and devoted and such a family. With so much trust in each other and so willing to take risks - sort of in the same way Irna [Phillips] had always developed her shows in the beginning. You rarely get a chance to experience that kind of thing, people who are so devoted to each other and devoted to creating stories that reflect the lives of people in America, and delivering the kind of storytelling that is meaningful in the fabric of society we live in. They want to do it because they love the fans and can feel how much the fans love them.

When we got back together, I heard them talk about how much they trusted each other, and how relaxed they were - and able to take risks - when they worked with one another. That part of working on GUIDING LIGHT is like nothing else I've had the chance to experience. So, did I want to go back and spend a day with that cast, and that crew, with those hair and make-up, wardrobe, actors, production people, lighting, camera? Who wouldn't want to spend more time with those people?

My time there was an incredibly moving six years, where I asked a lot of people, and they delivered beyond anything I could have ever expected. I don't know what will come of this, but I think for all of us, as we spent time together and thought about producing stories again, we felt it was a rewarding group of people to work with - and a rewarding group of fans to deliver for. This group of people understands how to deliver stories about families interacting with each other, and figuring things out together, in good times and in bad. Each individual realizes the greatest potential by functioning within these family units, and this group of people wants to tell those stories. I think there are a lot of important stories to be told, especially with things so up in the air in our country.

WE LOVE SOAPS: You are still in the early stages, but as far as you know, will this be a show for the web, a TV pilot or a movie?
ELLEN WHEELER: It would probably be for the web. I came in further along the line than Jill or Lou and I love how it came to be. Here we were all living our lives after GUIDING LIGHT with everyone making their own new way. Jill had gone on to a different job and was out walking her dog in New York, the same way she had done for years, and as she chatted with people at the dog park, one of them was somebody who worked on the web in a different way than production. They walked their dogs at the same time and met at the dog park, and because their dogs started to like each other they talked more and more.

As Jill told him about what she used to do he told her, based on what he did on the web, he thought people would be interested in seeing that same group of people back together telling those kind of stories. He told her that he wanted to explore whether that was true or not. All of us, right now, are interested in pursuing it, too.

Since we love these fans, love working together and delivering these kinds of stories, we have everything to gain by getting together for a day (or a week or a month) to see if we can create something new out of this incredible set of relationships that exist.

I think we said in one of our last promotions, "Life happens here," and life just continues to happen. Sometimes life brings you back in a big circle to places you didn't expect to be.

WE LOVE SOAPS: I worked as editorial director for SoapClassics when they were putting episodes of GUIDING LIGHT and AS THE WORLD TURNS on DVD. When they came to me and said they wanted to release the final 10 episodes on DVD, I was worried they might not sell as well as some of the others - because it was so recent, and fans have uploaded them to YouTube, and so on. But as it turned out, those DVDs sold really well.
ELLEN WHEELER: I think they miss the relationships - and the actors love the relationships - they created with each other and with the fans. As wacky and crazy as old-time soap opera stories could be, you can't write wackier and crazier things than are actually happening in people's lives. There was something about GUIDING LIGHT that was able to take even those outlandish stories and turn them into something that always felt real. Not that the people weren't beautiful or wonderful, but it wasn't about just glamour and glitz, it was about saying these same kind of moments were happening to all of us.

The reason I love production - film, television, theater - is because it is a collaborative art, a group of people have to come together to create it, and they all have to bring their life experience to bare. Once they've all put in their own life experience creating it, the audience watches it and interprets it based on their own life experience, and then react to it. By their reaction you temper the next piece of art, so it's completely collaborative between the production team and the audience.

Everyone is putting-in to this community, helping to create a piece of art that helps us look at ourselves. That is one of the things that serial drama has been able to do so well. We're losing some of that sense of community in our storytelling today, and I think it's really important to have it. In this time when things can be so disconnected, serial drama allows us, as a society, to connect with each other.

Beth Chamberlin was one of many former GUIDING
LIGHT cast members that recently reunited to kick
off a brand new project. Photo Credit: Sue Coflin/
Max Photos.
WE LOVE SOAPS: Can you talk about who will be involved with this project?
ELLEN WHEELER: Right now, because it's not a closed-end project it is completely open. There's no one particular, or 10 particular, actors. This is still an ember of an idea, but we want to open the doors to anyone who wants to be involved in getting the old gang back together. You're catching us at the most beginning stage, but we're so excited to be back together that it's kind of hard to contain that excitement.

We've reached out to people and will continue to reach out. We want to be able to include as much of "the band" as we can. The people that were able to come to Peapack that Sunday, that wasn't the entire list of people that were contacted - or will be contacted in the future.

The last 10 years on soap operas were very different than they ever were before that. In that last year of GUIDING LIGHT we didn't necessarily know if it would be the end but every once and a while it was threatened to be the end, I cannot tell you the incredible generosity and sacrifices the GUIDING LIGHT family was willing to make on behalf of the show, the fans and each other to make sure we could continue telling these stories. When people are willing to step up and serve each other, something else happens.

Irna had already created something in that show that was so full of depth it wasn't just about having a job, being famous or just making television. She started the show with the [Edwin Markham] poem, "There's a destiny that makes us brothers." She was saying she wanted to tell stories about how we're all connected to each other. Even if you didn't know some of that history, there was a real feeling in the show that "that's why we're here."

We were supposed to share with audiences why this connection of relationships and fabric of communities is so important in our lives. Everyone knew they had a responsibility towards that. And as there was a threat to that possibly stopping, anyone who was around really took to heart the idea of stepping up and putting something out there, knowing it might not come back to them that day - but at some point it would.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Click here to read Part 2 of our interview with Ellen Wheeler, which includes more photos from the recent GUIDING LIGHT reunion.

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. He has also made acting appearances in indie web series such as IMAGINARY BITCHES, and produces the annual Indie Soap Awards. He served as a producer on the first two seasons of Emmy-nominated THE BAY, and is executive producer on the indie short May Mercy Lie, which is currently making the rounds at film festivals. He appeared in FRANCOPRHENIA in 2012 and the documentary SOAP LIFE, out on DVD in 2013.

23 comments:

  1. It's nice seeing the cast of GL back together again.

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  2. This show was a part of my life for many, many yearss. Most of the cast are longtime friends of mine including Ellen. I will welcome back any and all of this project.done with so much love.

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  3. Love that group of people. I would definitely support what they are doing. Looking forward to it. With AMC and OLTL biting the dust again there certainly is an audience that needs something that Ellen, Jill and all these wonderful folks can bring.

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  4. I watched GL with my Grandma when it was only 15 minutes long! So excited with the possibilities. This is a very creative group of people. I admire what Ellen was able to do against great odds in the waning days of GL. Brava to all of them .I am happy to support their efforts. :)

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  5. I think I cried on and off all weekend after I saw the GL finale episode. GL was the soap that I watched the longest. I started watching back in 1990 when Reva drove her car off the bridge. Plus, I had eventually bought all 13 SoapClassics DVDs with my first two purchases being the last episodes of both GL and ATWT. Personally, I think that this soap project in the works will be a big plus if it doesn't fall through. Ever since they took all of the good soaps off the air and replaced them with talk shows that I don't care to watch (I forgave CBS over GL because they brought back LMAD, but not when they replaced ATWT with The Talk.), I hardly care to watch daytime TV anymore except for LMAD and Price Is Right. I'll keep my fingers crossed that this new potential soap reincarnation does happen.

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  6. I have the last couple of esp of GL and ATWT's saved on my DVR and watch them periodically and I still cry so anything that would bring back our beloved show would be wonderful even if it is on the web.

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  7. GL WAS AWSOME SO SO MISS SEEING GRANDMA WOULD ALWAYS HAVE IT ON JUST HEARING IT MAKES ME THINK OF HOME ,FAMILY ,LOVE ,WHY THEY REMOVED IT IS CRAZY WHEN THERE IS SO MUCH TRASH ON TV THESE DAYS PLEASE COME BACK (I WISH )<3

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  8. BRING BACK GUIDING LIGHT ELLEN YOUR VERSION OF GUIDING LIGHT WAS SO MUCH MORE REALISTIC

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  9. Creativity is great. Just to see the actors(and by that I also mean actresses) on screen somewhere is great. It's a joy to see them pop up as guest appearances on NY based prime time series, but together, even more of a joy. I'd even love to see Ellen Wheeler on camera too, if her friend is reading this, please pass on that on. She was great as Marley/Vicky on AW and Cindy on AMC, sadly youtube has very few videos of her early days just as Marley. But she was on an episode of Facts of Life around the same time, which thankfully shows a similar Marley role. :)

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  10. By the way, Roger, any other recent photos of Ellen or the cast?

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  11. I'll watch whatever it is. I hope it's a new soap that features most of the old cast of GL.

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  12. This would be so wonderful! Guiding Light was my favorite since childhood and it was on the radio. I miss it very much.

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  13. Is this a project of all new characters with the same actors or the same beloved characters? Too bad Alan Spalding's character was killed off. Jeffrey could resurface. Olivia Spencer and Natalia Rivera with Emma are also characters I would love to see together again. Never saw them in the farmhouse after they were "family"; it seemed incomplete.

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  14. Guiding LIght was a family show. Generations of families watched the show together. I can't believe that I'm crying as I write this. Please bring the actors back together. For long time viewers, the characters were like old friends and we miss them very much.

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  15. Some "reunion." It's always the same losers/publicity whores who represent Guiding Light (the ones who got the show cancelled), never the truly beloved stars. Wheeler killed Guiding Light. She was the worst producer ever.

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  16. I loved those last few years of GL. Soap but with some grit and realism. Champion stuff.

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  17. I had a whole thing written out and lost it. Grr. Looking forward to this new project! Thanks for the interview - look forward to the next part. :)

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  18. This story makes me happy. GL is my favorite soap. My mother watched it from the 50s until the end. I'd love to see these relationships again and get reacquainted with old "friends". I hope this works out.

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  19. people seem to be confusing actors and characters here. i think it's pretty obvious that EL wouldn't have the rights (or the money to acquire the rights) to the GL characters from P&G. so many people up here seem to think this - if it does come to fruition - will be a GL reboot.

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  20. Ellen Wheeler is fantastic-with just as many daytime accolades (and then some) as any Guiding Light heavyweight. Ellen did not get the show cancelled. The nail in GL's coffin was the unforgivable and merciless firing of Michael Zaslow for reasons of illness. Proctor and Gamble and CBS were anything but family to him and not only was CBS's opportunity to give Roger/Holly the best forever love story irrevocably lost (not to mention a real chance to genuinely educate people about ALS), but Guiding Light's reputation as a family was damaged and with good reason. You don't do what they did to MZ when you so much as care people, let alone when you call yourself a family. Guiding Light was dead long before EW ever even got there. After Michael, there was Jerry Ver Dorn, who GL let go-and after all those years-simply because there was a possibility he's cancer might have returned. That's equally as sour. In both cases, OLTL embraced these men. Now that's what I call class and GL should take note (even now). Once an avid fan of the show, it now makes me sick to know that GL survived as long as it did-and its cancellation remains its just desserts. Kim Zimmer spoke very negatively of EW in her memoir, I'm just sayin', and, ok yes, while I am an avid fan of Ellen's, I lost some respect for Kimmy on so many levels, as it is obvious Ellen had nothing to do with GL's cancellation. The stench of prejudice is difficult to beat down. God Bless Michael, and Ellen, and Jerry. Thanks for this. I look forward to part two. EW rocks:)!

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  21. Hands down, it was Ellen Wheeler that got the show cancelled... Plain and simple.

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  22. The nail in the coffin was Michael Zaslow? Really? That was years before GL's decline... For me, it was 2006, but Ellen Wheeler drove GL into the ground.

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  23. yes, the nail in the coffin WAS michael zaslow, really. Zaslow was prejudiciously fired in 1997, which is hardly light years away from 2009, especially in terms of the time it takes to achieve social change; eleven years is like days; all it took was for people to discover that Guiding Light was not a family show; that the exclusion of human beings was the name of the game. Why fire someone so sick if he is still so talented. Why? And, especially, when you've toted yourself across the universe as a family show. Interestingly 2006, the year you mention, happens to be the JVD was "let go" for similar reasons. Bottom Line, it's easier to blame Ellen Wheeler. For some reason, people seem to enjoy letting Kimmy Zimmer have her as a scapegoat, instead of remembering that she's in the same league as Kimmy (and then some) with just as many awards and honors to prove it. Ellen Wheeler just rocks the rocks!:)!

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