Tuesday, January 19, 2010

NY Times Arts & Leisure Weekend: AMC Event, Part One

On Sunday, January 10th, The New York Times Arts & Leisure Weekend celebrated the beloved institution of ALL MY CHILDREN.  This popular event  was dedicated to the show's 40th anniversary. Jacques Steinberg hosted a panel sessions at the TimesCenter Stage which included creator Agnes Nixon, executive producer Julie Hanan Carruthers, and stars Susan Lucci, Debbi Morgan, Cameron Mathison and Rebecca Budig. Nixon and Lucci were much of the focus.  Moments from this panel were featured on WE LOVE SOAPS TV last week. Here are transcribed highlights from the panel:

Jacques Steinberg: We really are in the presence of living television history by having Agnes Nixon with us today.  If you were trying to put together a hall of fame for TV pioneers I’m sure you would put Steve Allen, Sid Caesar, Rod Sterling, Don Hewitt, Barbara Walters, and Agnes Nixon would be on that list.  That’s a testimony to the staying power of what Agnes created.  Imagine a world where ALL MY CHILDREN started in 1970 compared to where it is now.  You seen competition on the internet, you see daytime dramas such AS THE WORLD TURNS going of the air, shows like JERSEY SHORE on MTV, yet ALL MY CHILDREN not only endures, but it thrives and is still relevant.  It’s a tremendous accomplishment.  Agnes, where did this idea come from?
Agnes Nixon: I think it’s called being a writer.  The characters came into my head.  I started with Philip Brent, and the two young men who are in love with the same girl.  Then what came into my imagination was Erica Kane.  Then Susan Lucci created Erica.  We are family, we are an ensemble.  Writing the dramatic word means that it doesn’t come alive until the actors are playing the parts.  And that’s what all these wonderful actors have done for forty years.  So I can’t say where it came from except it’s being a writer.  Their work inspired me and I got more ideas from what, for example, what Susan would do with Erica gave me new ideas.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, don’t you think Susan?
Susan Lucci: Yes I do Agnes. But i must say that as an actress, to read the scripts I was given, to read the audition scene that I was given, I would see these scripts coming my way and say, “Oh God, I am so lucky to have this material.”  So the words were on the page. 

Jacques Steinberg: What were some of the challenges in the early days of getting it on the air?
Agnes Nixon:  I must say that ABC didn’t give me much to overcome.  I asked ABC if I could do the social issues, and they said absolutely.  They had confidence that I wouldn’t make it like The National Inquirer.  The things I had to overcome were before ALL MY CHILDREN and ONE LIFE TO LIVE.  Debbi Morgan as Angela, and Jesse, they were the first African-American couple.
Debbi Morgan:  No, Nancy Grant... 
Agnes Nixon: Oh that’s right.  We Erica had the first abortion on daytime television...
Susan Lucci:  On television.
Agnes Nixon: On television.  The show started with Vietnam and the only thing was with the Mother’s March against Vietnam, ABC did ask that we have the “hawks” as well as the “doves.”  Charles Tyler, played by Hugh Franklin, was such a dove, and he had to play a hawk.  He did his finest acting.  So when you present a problem with two sides to it, one has to give the person you don’t agree with some equal time.  But that’s just the way America is.  It wasn’t difficult.

Jacques Steinberg: Daytime dramas often don’t do deal with issues we’re talking about here.  The war, interracial romance.
Agnes Nixon: Would you like me to tell you an instance before ALL MY CHILDREN? Years ago, my first job was head writing GUIDING LIGHT.  I had a friend die of cancer. I wanted to do a social issues story that showed urinary cancer is 100 percent curable if caught in time.  And so I was writing for P&G on CBS.  Both P&G and CBS said, “No no no, you don’t want to do that.  This is an entertainment show, that is a social issue.  We have programs for that.”  Those programs were shown when people were in church or asleep.  First of all they said, “Okay, you can do it, but don’t say ‘uterus,’ don’t say ‘cancer’, don’t say ‘hysterectomy.’” Then they said, “Well, how is it going to end?”  I wrote a long term story projection about how Bert Bauer was going to have artificial cells.  It finally went on.  40 years later I was congratulated by the American Cancer Society.  Anyway, those were the problems.  That’s why it was such a joy to go to ABC.

Jacques Steinberg: We’re amongst friends here.  But as you know, sometimes the media, the press, academia is not always kind to it.  There was an article about you in the L.A. Times in 1991 in which a professor named Robert Allen said, ‘”It’s hard to think of a more despised and scorned art form except maybe pornography.”  How you respond to that?
Agnes Nixon:  I think it’s a quote from the NY Times from about forty years ago that said, “You’re doing some educating with your show.”  I said, “Education can be entertaining!” And we were. As long as you keep it in the context of a viable interesting suspenseful story.  Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait. 

Jacques Steinberg: Tell me how you crossed paths with Susan.
Agnes Nixon: I didn’t until her audition.

Jacques Steinberg: Tell me about her audition. 
Agnes Nixon: Our producer called me and said, “We found her.”  I think they sent me the tape, and I said, “Yes I think you have.”  We were working very hard.  Twenty fours years later someone writing their dissertation on soap operas asked me how long it took me to write a twenty four year long term story.  I said, “Honey, were just hoping to get renewed after six months!” We were just thinking about the next day!
Susan Lucci: One thing, if I may say, Agnes was saying about the story about Vietnam and presenting the larger social issues representing everyone’s point-of-view.  What I have adored in the scripts that Agnes has written, is that on ALL MY CHILDREN, even in the interpersonal relationships or anything going on, the characters in Agnes’s hands are so well defined.   So that in any situation, whether it’s a socially relevant topic, or an interpersonal relationship, that’s where the drama comes in.  Everybody is so well defined, and they are operating from their own points-of-view.  Therefore there are clashes.  And in Agnes’s hands there was always humor.  Sometimes with the biggest clashes.  My audition scene was with Mona and a 15-year-old Erica Kane.  I read it, and I laughed it out loud, I thought it was great.  This was before The Brat Pack, before there was humor on daytime television, and the mother/daughter relationship was not a Hallmark greeting card.  And I thought, “This is so refreshing, this is fantastic!”  They were very well drawn and there was humor there.  That has continued and it is so important to our show.
Agnes Nixon: The main reason is Susan Lucci as Erica that we’ve had such a wonderful run.  But I think because we told the viewers from the beginning that Erica suffered from an abandonment complex.  Her father left her and her mother when she was nine-years-old.  So they understand that as many bad things as Erica has done, she suffers greatly herself.  That’s been a motif throughout the series.  One thing about soap opera is that it’s the form of entertainment nearest to real life.  Every day the curtain goes up.  So to me, it’s just part of life. 

Jacques Steinberg: I said at the outset that Agnes would obviously be in the hall of fame for pioneers. Susan, you’ve played one character on television for 40 years, I can’t even think what the precedent for that would be.  You talk about defining the characters.  How many marriages has Erica had to date?
Susan Lucci: I’ll bet the audience knows that too.  Erica went into double digits a couple of summers ago.  So ten marriages.  But I think it was only seven men. 

Jacques Steinberg: There was one Erica stabbed, is that right?
Susan Lucci: Yes, she was married to him several times.
Agnes Nixon: He deserved stabbing!

Jacques Steinberg: This was Dimitri?
Susan Lucci: Yes.

Jacques Steinberg: Where do you find this character? This is not what you are like. What do you draw on to make this person seem real?
Susan Lucci: Erica was suffering when she did the stabbing from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.  I don’t have any personal reference to that.  But it's imagination, as Agnes says.  For example, Erica had an addiction to pain killers and prescription drugs.  And then she went into getting anything she could get her hands on.  It was wonderful ABC put me in touch with counselors at The Betty Ford Center.  I could speak to them by phone.  I wanted to know exactly what the emotional, the mental, and the physical, the specifics, were to that addiction.  And pretty much along the way, if I needed to do research I could do that, and I did that. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Please come back to read Julie Hanan Carruthers discuss the process of taping episodes, insights on cutbacks, as well as Debbi Morgan and Rebecca Budig's discussion about returning to the show.  Plus, how does Ms. Nixon justify bringing Jesse back from the dead?  Find out here!

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