Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Colleen Zenk: The We Love Soaps Interview, Part Three

In Parts One and Two of our interview with Colleen Zenk, the legendary and captivating actress reviewed her pre-AS THE WORLD TURNS years, Barbara's whirlwind romances with James and Gunnar, and the emergence of "Bad Barbara" under Douglas Marland.  In the next part below, Zenk discusses working with Larry Bryggman (John Dixon) and Benjamin Hendrickson (Hal Munson).  Plus, for the first time, she shares insight into the suicide of Hendrickson in 2006.

We Love Soaps: Barbara’s romance with John Dixon started with a lot of romance and fun, then took a very tragic turn.
Colleen Zenk: It ended up tragic.  Barbara was caught in the church fire while she was pregnant.  John had to decide to save his wife or save his baby.  He decided to save his wife.  The baby died in his arms while Barbara was still in a coma.  Larry was brilliant.  Incredibly, extraordinarily brilliant. I grew as an actor working with him.  Working with an actor of that caliber who cared about the material in a different way that Benjamin [Hendrickson] did, approached the material in a different way, and with a different attitude.

We Love Soaps: What were the differences between Larry Bryggman and Benjamin Hendrickson’s approaches to the work?
Colleen Zenk: [Pause] I used to get very frustrated with Benjamin.  As much as we all loved Benjamin, he came in many times never having read a script.  It was frustrating, not just for me, but for the directors and for the other actors.  I’m a person who needs to prepare.  I would come in prepared.  When you are working with an actor who had never even opened up their script before walking in the rehearsal hall, it gets frustrating.  Now as the years wore on, and as became more and more efficient, and working faster and faster, he had to finally start doing some homework.  So the last years before he died he finally started stepping up to the plate.  It had been a long time since he had done that.

Larry on the hand would come in with ideas.  A lot of times he would be be complaining about the material [laughs].  But everyone complains about the material and figures out a way to do it.  He would come in with a very different set of preparations and ideas of how a scene should play or how a story should play.  For him it was always about the integrity of the material, the integrity of the storyline, and the integrity of the characters.  And he cared.  He pretended he didn’t, but he cared big time.  You can see it right now in the work that is airing now.  You can see what kind of actor he is.  He makes it look so easy, like he’s throwing it away.  But that’s what good actors do, they make it look easy.  Benjamin did the same thing.  He would make it look easy.

Benjamin was a fabulous actor.  A lot of times they did not give Hal the kind of material that would stretch Benjamin.  Some of it was too much cops and robbers stuff .  Not too often did he get to play story lines that touched the heart.  There were a number of them over the years and God knows we had great fights.  We got into Hal and Barbara great-fight mode and had great fights.  We had great rhythm together once he would get going.  It was too bad they could not find a way to allow him to show what he could really do.  I think that frustrated him as well.  He knew he was better than most of the material he was getting.

We Love Soaps: On July 3, 2006, we learned on Benjamin’s suicide.  It was a shock for viewers. 
Colleen Zenk: Horrible and sad and tragic.  The one thing Benjamin never really understood was how loved he really was, by everybody.  He was his own worst critic.  He was very hard on himself.

We Love Soaps: Did you know he was struggling with depression?
Colleen Zenk: Oh yeah. I had known for years.  I knew more than most.  There were two people on the show who really knew the depths. 

We Love Soaps: Where were you when you found out?
Colleen Zenk: I was in my kitchen when the phone rang.  It was Eldo [Ray Estes], head of our make-up department.  He told me. 

We Love Soaps: How have you coped with this loss these past four years?
Colleen Zenk: I was just sad.  So sad.  Those of us that knew him deeply were not shocked.  We were just horribly sad that this is where it went and this is where it came to.  It was a loss for the show, a huge heavy loss for the show.  Benjamin always had this face of great camaraderie, a funny guy.  Only the people who really knew him knew the depth of depression.  It was a shock for a lot of people.  It was really hard to recover from that.  Story wise, very difficult to recover.  Chris [Goutman] said that Hal was always the moral compass of the show, even more so than Jack.  Jack made mistakes along the way that Hal didn’t make.  That was part of the difficulty for Benjamin, that he always played the good guy, not the flawed guy.  Jack was good but flawed.  Hal was just the good guy.  There was something in Benjamin that felt like, “I’m not playing who I am.”

We Love Soaps: He had left the show a few years prior and then returned.
Colleen Zenk: He actually left a few times.  The audience probably didn’t know. He was dealing with difficulties. 

We Love Soaps: It is common when someone we love takes their life to ask, “Could I have done anything different, or ‘should’ I have done anything different?” Did you ever have those thoughts?
Colleen Zenk: No. I tried for him.  I adored him.  I tried to find girls for him. I tried to find homes for him. I told him to come to Connecticut.  I think that was all very counter-productive.  In many ways my positive attitude irked him.  I didn’t know that at the time.  So rather than being someone who was supporting him, I think he found me like a gnat. “Get rid of that gnat.” I’m being very honest here.  That is part of what happened with our personal relationship.  I can’t speak for anyone else.  But that last year he tried to push people away.

We Love Soaps: Including you?
Colleen Zenk: Most definitely.  In 2005 I ran off and did “Hello Dolly,” and my sister died that Fall.  It was at that point we found a way to talk and communicate and share some things for the first time in a very long time.  It was over my sister’s death and me sharing photos of theater that I had done.  I was trying to share with him.  He showed that he was very happy to be back in communication with me.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Press here for Part Four during which we discuss the resurrection of Barbara Ryan under Hogan Scheffer's pen.

CBS's "World" stops turning this week, but yours doesn't have to! Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist specializing in Grief/Loss work and is now taking new clients in New York City.  He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve."


  1. Damon, you've done a lot of great interviews, but this may be the most insightful and sensitive one you've ever done.

    Thanks for interviewing Colleen, who we've all loved for so many years.

  2. I remember reading in soap magazine articles from the late 1990s & early 2000s that Ben Hendrickson was battling clinical depression because he had hard times dealing with the deaths of his father, his older brother Stephen Hendrickson whom Ben took care of because Stephen had an inoperable brain tumor in his head for over 14-15 years, & then his mother. Ben was the caretaker for Stephen & Stephen's teenage son & daughter during those years.

  3. I only started watching ATWT last summer, but knew of the show and had seen snippets over the years being a fan of soaps all around. But watching this show the past year, even though some have found it hard to watch, has been a truly joyful thing for me. A co-worker of mine went to the same high school in the chicago suburbs that coleen did and got to see her perform "love letters" there with her husband Mark for a fundraiser. She said they were amazing. I live in Chicago, so I unfortunately do not have access to see the remarkable talent of ATWT doing plays and shows like the New Yorkers do. I will miss this show, and I look forward to hearing of the wonderful post ATWT projects our Oakdale family gets into.

  4. This was a touching and sensitive interview. I haven't read the whole thing but I adore Colleen as well as Ben Hendrickson. It is sad that he never knew how much people cared about him and Hal.