Monday, January 4, 2010

Talkin' with Thom Racina: The WLS Interview, Part Two

In Part One of our interview with the legendary head writer Thom Racina, he discussed how he came up with The Ice Princess story on GENERAL HOSPITAL, and shared his insights into the past and present state of daytime.  In Part Two, he reveals more about the daily life of a headwriter on a daytime soap, how his creation of Helena Cassadine shaped Luke and Laura's destiny for decades, and why the FBI was called to GH set!

Nelson Aspen: We met on ANOTHER WORLD.  Go ahead, shamelessly rattle off your resume.
Thom Racina: It was GENERAL HOSPITAL (1981-1984), then DAYS (1984-1986), then ANOTHER WORLD (1986-1988).  GENERATIONS came next (1989-1991), then SANTA BARBARA (1991-1993).  I did this awful show in Toronto called FAMILY PASSIONS (1993) that was SO bad they aired it at 3 am.  They should have packaged it as how not to do a soap opera.  It would have made a lot of money.

I had enough. I got to a point where I thought, they hire me because I’m a good story teller...then they never let me tell a story.  You’re thrown in a locked cage, and they throw red meat in once a day and feed you, and you spit out pages, that’s the deal.  But you get a big healthy paycheck at the end of the week.  That’s not such a bad deal.  But you get to a point in your life where you want to do something else, or you want to feel more creative.  I gave up novels after doing “The Great L.A. Blizzard.” Suddenly I was whore for the money and the soap career.  I wanted to go back to writing novels because you have that one editor.  You don’t have that team of people telling you, “This is shit, this is bad.”

Nelson Aspen: You just said they won’t let you.  In your experience, who are “they?”
Thom Racina: The network.  Procter & Gamble.  Anybody who had a voice.  So few of them were really creative people.

Nelson Aspen: They’re not creative people, they’re business people.
Thom Racina: So why not hire the creative people, let them write, leave them alone, and you take the credit for finding them, and your show’s ratings go up?  I never quite got why they had to justify their salaries by inputting all these ideas and story changes which a lot of times were ludicrous. 

Nelson Aspen: I had an interesting text from Mary Kay Adams, who was India von Halkein on GUIDING LIGHT and Neal on AS THE WORLD TURNS.  She said, “They’re falling like dominos.” To which my reply was, “We were so lucky to work in daytime back when it was fun.” Now it’s this atmosphere of fear, dread, and downsizing.  What are some of your most extravagant memories?  What were some of the Oh-My-God-Pinch-Me moment that you had as a soap writer?
Thom Racina: The biggest pinch-me moment was having a writer’s meeting on GENERAL HOSPITAL where we were clearly leading Luke and Laura to the alter.  We went into the writer’s conference room off Gloria [Monty’s] office and there was a red phone in the corner to the Pope.  It never rang when we were in a conference because they cut off Jackie Smith calling in from New York.

Thom Racina: We were arguing about marrying them.  I was saying, “No, we shouldn’t marry them.” I had talked about this publicly, that I felt we should hold off another year.  The phone rings.  Gloria picks up, and it wasn’t Jackie, obviously.  She’s listening to this little itty bitty voice that we could hear SCREAMING at her.  She can’t get a word in, and Gloria could out talk anybody, she spits when she eats.  She said, “Talk to they guy who is responsible,” and she hands the phone to me! I said, “Who is this?,” and Gloria just sat back and grinned.  I hear this woman say, “I’ll be damned if you’re not giving me a wedding.  You don’t know how many movie sets I shut down in the last three years to watch Luke and Laura at 3 O’Clock goddamn it!”  I said, “This sounds like Elizabeth Taylor.”  She said, “It IS Elizabeth Taylor!” She was my favorite movie star, and I’m in the phone with her! I’m thinking, “Oh My God, this is crazy!” She said, “I’ve got to have this wedding, you’re not going to not marry them.”  I said, “We’ll do it if you come,” as a joke.

Thom Racina: Three days later, Jackie Smith called me and said, “Well, Elizabeth Taylor just signed on to do Luke and Laura’s wedding. Now we have to do it.”  We had decided in the meeting after she hung up that we weren’t going to marry them. So then we had to reverse it.  We did it all for her.  We gave her that wedding.  I saw her a few years ago at one of Streisand’s goodbye concerts, she was sitting in front of me.  I tapped her on the shoulder, I said, “You probably don’t remember me.”  She looked at me and said, “General Hospital.” I told her [this story] and she said, “You mean it was my goddamned fault?”

Nelson Aspen: I wonder how she feels about Luke marrying Tracy Quatermaine.  So did you specifically create the character of Helena Cassadine for her?
Thom Racina: I did it alone because Gloria said, “You’ve got to come up with something for her.” I thought, a-ha, the widow Cassadine.  Twenty years later, they were still playing the curse. 

Nelson Aspen: What do you think about Constance Towers?
Thom Racina: She’s a great actress.  I would have rather had Elizabeth continue to do it but she had better fish to fry.  The whole GENERAL HOSPITAL thing was great . It was like writing pop history.  We had the cover of Newsweek, Time, People. We even had the FBI come and talk to us about car bombs!  Jackie Zeman was getting death threats, Tony [Geary] had bodyguards coming into the studio, it was a real heady time. 

Nelson Aspen: We just can’t even fathom with the state of daytime now seeing what that was like then.  What was FRIENDS AND LOVERS?
Thom Racina: There was a show Ken Corday wanted to do that I wrote the Bible for.  I wrote five scripts for it, and they even got to the point where they were going to cast the pilot for a new daytime serial.  And then it all fell apart.  I don’t know it it was the network or Fox or Tri-Star, but it all fell apart. 

Nelson Aspen: We’re seeing a lot of daytime big stars, such as Martha Byrne [GOTHAM] and Crystal Chappell [VENICE] starting web series.  Are these ultimately going to prove to be futile vanity projects?
Thom Racina: I don’t know.  All of last year I toyed with this with Patch and Kayla, with Stephen Nichols and Mary Beth Evans.  They really wanted to do something like this.  And we heard interest from a lot of people.  Sally Sussman and I were going to do it, and we finally got to a point where we said, “Do we really want to work this hard for nothing?” I can write another book, and I’d rather spend the time doing that.  It’s for the 18-year-olds, it’s for the 22-year-olds that are looking to build a career. I’ve been there and done that.  I don’t know where it’s going.  I think it’s going to be a long time before it makes money.  I’m not sure, I don’t know enough about it. I’m a dinosaur. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Press here for the final part of Nelson Aspen’s Interview with Thom, where they dish about Thom giving Brad Pitt his start, fighting to keep Anne Heche on ANOTHER WORLD, and his insights on how to end a long term canceled series.

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