Tuesday, January 3, 2012

FLASHBACK: 'One Life to Live' Hits Quarter Center; Still The Soap With A Social Conscience (1993)

Ryan Phillippe, Roy Thinnes and Erika Slezak

By Libby Slate
Los Angeles Times
July 11, 1993

"I had a recurring nightmare when I took over the show," says Linda Gottleib, executive producer of daytime's One Life to Live for the last two years. "I would turn on the set and there was the opening logo and theme music-and then a blank screen, nothing but static."

Gottleib needn't have worried. On Thursday she will help celebrate the ABC soap opera's 25th anniversary. During that quarter century, life in the fictional Philadelphia suburb of Llanview has overflowed with the romances, trials and tribulations of the families Lord, Wolek, Riley and Buchanan.

Along the way there have been side trips to heaven, the Old West and even a buried underground city named Eterna. The show made stars of Judith Light, who won back-to-back Daytime Emmy Awards in 1980 and 1981 as prostitute Karen Wolek, and fellow Emmy winners Erika Slezak as Victoria Buchanan and Robin Strasser as Dorian Lord. The first black actor to win a Daytime Emmy, Al Freeman Jr. in 1979, did so portraying police Capt. Ed Hall. Other ONE LIFE alums include Tom Berenger, Tommy Lee Jones, Jameson Parker, Phylicia Rashad and Esther Rolle.

The show was created in 1968 by the venerable Agnes Nixon, after ABC asked her to come up with a soap for the network. Nixon proposed a serial called BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL, dealing with relationships among different social classes and ethnic groups rather than the traditionally WASPish daytime characters.

The name may have changed before its debut, but the premise remained. The soap initially spotlighted the wealthy Lord family, whose patriarch Victor published the town's newspaper; the working-class Woleks, and the Irish-Catholic Riley clan.

"When I started," Gottleib recalls, "I asked Agnes what the core of the show was, in her view. She said, `The haves and the have-nots.' "

One Live to Live cast in 1993.
Nixon wasted no time delving into socially relevant issues as well, with a story about African-American secretary Carla Gray (Ellen Holly) passing as white and becoming involved with both a white man and a black man; numerous ABC affiliates refused to air the show. When Cathy Craig (Amy Levitt), the daughter of a Llanview doctor, became addicted to drugs, cameras showed the teen-ager at the New York rehab center Odyssey House in therapy with real addicts.

"Agnes felt a real moral responsibility to teach, to do something worthwhile for a half hour," says Slezak, who has been on the show since St. Patrick's Day, 1971. "I agree. You can do that and entertain at the same time."

Slezak, the show's longest-running cast member, plays stalwart Viki, who periodically has suffered from a split-personality disorder resulting in psychologically suspenseful Viki-Niki story lines. Slezak's favorite plot twists: a 1987 out-of-body experience in which she went to heaven for two weeks, and an Old West fantasy the following year, in which she played her own great-grandmother.

The show first took on a Western flavor in 1979-the era of the prime-time soap DALLAS-with the advent of the oil-rich Buchanan family. By the late 1980s, it took on a fantasy bent. But the ratings were anything but fantastic, with "One Life" usually at or near the bottom of the Nielsens.

In 1991, ABC daytime executive Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin recruited Gottleib to resurrect the once highly rated show. They had worked together in the early days of the "ABC Afterschool Special." Gottleib, who had had no previous soap experience (her credits include HBO's "Citizen Cohn" and the hit film "Dirty Dancing"), in turn hired novelist and fellow serial novice Michael Malone as head writer.

The two have worked to develop existing characters, create new ones and return to Nixon's original mission to be the soap with a social conscience. ONE LIFE now consistently finishes in fourth, fifth or sixth place among 10 soaps.

"The show has an even richer tapestry of characters than it did before," says Robin Strasser, who in February returned as Dorian after a five-year absence. "Linda and Michael have filled out this town, peopled it with quirky, interesting, full characters."

Both Gottleib, who has brought feature-film editing and music-scoring techniques to the show, and Malone say they believe in taking risks. Last summer they launched a soap first-a story line about homophobia that generated thousands of letters of gratitude from gay teens and their parents and has since been studied in college courses on popular culture.

Thursday's anniversary episode brings together many of the show's characters, including a confrontation between longtime adversaries Viki and Dorian. A future plot line, Malone says, will focus on the right-to-die issue.

Why has the soap been on so long? "I think it's because it's character-driven and has had a string of good actors," says Strasser. "It has deserved to stay around 25 years, because it's never been afraid to change and evolve."

One Life to Live airs weekdays at 1 p.m. on ABC.

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