Long Live Llanview!!!
Paley Center - NY
June 10, 2008
Independent film is usually par for the course here at The Film Panel Notetaker, so you might be wondering why I decided to cover a panel discussion on the 40th Anniversary of the Emmy-Award winning One Life to Live, one of the longest running daytime serial dramas in television history. To start, both genres when done right, are often bold, risky, and deal with thought-provoking socially relevant issues (such as interracial dating, drug and alcohol addiction, rape, AIDS, homophobia, breast cancer and other illnesses) that most other mainstream forms of entertainment generally gloss over. That’s not to say soap operas don’t also deal with outrageously absurd and over-the-top storylines from time to time (ie. an underground city, traveling back in time to the wild west, going to heaven in a space ship, etc.) That’s what I find so compelling about them. They can deal with both serious and humorous topics, that and the fact that they’re never ending. I just love not knowing what’s going to happen next. Secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever committed myself to anything as long as I have to this one program. I’m going on 22 years strong now with no signs of stopping. These characters and storylines that take place in the fictitious town of Llanview, Pennsylvania, have become a part of my own life. I’ve watched them grow up in front of my eyes. They’ve become my second family. What better way to mark this milestone than seeing a conversation with the cast and creative team behind my favorite show. Along with my very excited and newest contributing notetaker Ultradevotion (who provides color commentary on the aesthetics and fashions of the evening in italics throughout the below notes), we headed to the Paley Center (formerly the Museum of Television & Radio) in New York for the tribute.
Agnes Nixon – Creator
Erika Slezak – Victoria Lord Davidson
Robin Strasser – Dorian Cramer Lord
Robert S. Woods – Bo Buchanan
Hilary B. Smith – Nora Hanen
John-Paul Lavoisier – Rex Balsom
Kristen Alderson – Starr Manning
Frank Valentini – Executive Producer
Ron Carlivati – Head Writer
Donna Hanover – Former First Lady of New York
Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center, introduced the discussion and a reel of clips highlighting dramatic moments and musical numbers from over the years on One Life to Live. It was such a thrill to see the show blown up onto a big screen. The clips shown of episodes taped on location around the world were the very best; and were set to the song Roam by the legendary party band, The B52’s. I never realized how cinematic they could be. I got chills when I saw Clint Buchanan (as played by Clint Ritchie) on the ranch in Texas when airplanes flew over head. Ultradevotion gasped aloud when she saw Dorian in a 1980’s polka dot halter dress!
Before Hanover brought all the daytime players onto the stage, she revealed some funny news about her own personal drama, that being an item on Page Six in the New York Post which reported that Hanover had been walking down a New York City sidewalk talking on her cell phone about how she played Viki Davidson’s doctor on One Life to Live during the breast cancer storyline in 2000. As she mentioned her patient’s name and diagnosis, a woman came up to her on the street and scolded her for breaking doctor-patient confidentiality, even though Hanover isn’t really a doctor. She just played one on TV.
Hanover then called all the panelists onto the stage starting first and foremost with the show’s creator Agnes Nixon, who’s also responsible for creating All My Children and Loving. Nixon is also a recipient of numerous Daytime Emmys and a 2005 honoree in the Paley Center’s “She Made It” program.
Ultradevotion’s commentary: As the curator Ron Simon said, Agnes embodies the form of the daytime drama. This was evident as she was led to the stage. Delicately dressed in a cream colored suit, her hair perfect, was given a standing ovation led by the actors of OLTL. The women leads on OLTL are smart, powerful, and always remain classy and ladylike; a projection of Ms. Nixon. Erika Slezak, like her character is the epitome of class. In a smart blue jacket and pants ensemble, complimented by a lovely pearl necklace; she is totally put together. Robin Strasser is simply stunning. She is dressed in a light pink jacket, black pants, light cream flowered camisole. Her outfit is highlighted by gorgeous sparkling four-tier dark iridescent beaded necklace. Her skin is glowing, and her hair style is fantastic. Hillary B. Smith is very summery and youthful in a white camisole top. Natural makeup and her hair styled half up, she looks simply lovely. In a purple skinny strapped draped bubble dress and beaded necklace, Kristen Alderson is adorable and fresh faced.
Hanover (to Nixon): How did One Life to Live come about?
Nixon: I wanted to take soap operas out of WASP valley. I wanted to have multi-racial and ethnic stories. I’ve always applauded the socially relevant stories over the years.
Hanover (to Valentini): You’ve held many jobs over the years before becoming the executive producer. What’s that been like?
Valentini: In September, I’ll have worked at One Life to Live for 23 years. You learn by example and what doesn’t work. What the fans want and the contribution of the network are influences in how the show runs, but ultimately the decision rests on my shoulders. We always have Agnes Nixon’s vision in mind.
Hanover (to Carlivati): You’ve gone from a lawyer to a soap writer. How did you do it?
Carlivati: I worked in DC as a lawyer with author David Baldacci. He wrote his books on nights and weekends. This guy followed something he really wanted to do. I admitted to my parents that I really wanted to write a soap opera.
Hanover (to Slezak): You’ve been with the show for a long time and brought special things to the character of Viki. How’s that been?
Slezak: Viki started out looking up to her father Victor, then played by Ernie Graves. Only after he died, she grew up. She’s had to develop an extreme sense of humor. That’s very necessary in Llanview. It’s been an extraordinary journey, because it never finishes. It’s the closest thing to theater because we try to do it in one take. And it’s the closest thing to real life.
Hanover (to Strasser): You took over several roles in daytime including Dorian. How did you make her your own?
Strassser: Agnes Nixon gave me my first job and that was on Another World. Agnes said she thought I was a young Anna Magnani. I’m the third and fifth person to play Dorian. It’s a part I was allowed to put my fingerprints on.
Slezak: She’s the only Dorian.
Hanover: Have you formed long-term friendships with one another?
Slezak: Oh God yes. We’re a family. If you don’t like each other you’re in trouble. We spend more time with each other than with our own families.
Woods: The basement (in the studio where their dressing rooms are) is like a college dorm except you never graduate.
Smith: Including all the pranks!
Lavoisier: We also play poker. I’ve lost a total of $1,745 over the six years I’ve been with the show. I even lost to Eddie Alderson.
Hanover (to Alderson): You’ve been on the show for ten years since you were a little girl. How did you turn out so normal?
Alderson: One Life to Live is such a family. It’s totally like a dorm room. They welcomed me with open arms. Growing up with them is so much fun. They’re like my aunts and uncles.
Hanover: You’ve made a show that deals with things that aren’t considered showbizy. Why has this been so important over the years?
Valentini: Once, Timothy Stickney (who plays R.J. Gannon) and I were at a forum at the network and he said to me that he could remember seeing as a child a young African American man on television and running upstairs and saying “Mom, Mom there’s someone on TV who looks like me!” I’ve only been fortunate to have the best writers, Ron being the best so far. On a soap opera, you can explore entire emotions of an issue. With subjects like rape, breast cancer, and emotional abuse, the writers present them as issues interesting to the audience, and it is sensational enough for actors to sink their teeth into. Part of my job is to cess out what the issues are.
Hanover: In 1998, Michael Zaslow (who was diagnosed with ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease) came back to the show briefly as the character David Rinaldi. He had been let go from Guiding Light because he had problems speaking. What was it like having him back on the show?
Slezak: He could laugh. He was very happy to be back. It was very special for us. We loved him.
Hanover (to Carlivati): Do you have to be careful while writing the serious stuff to not drive away the audience?
Carlivati: There are always different storylines going on at the same time. Multiple story lines lend to multiple tones. For example, while Starr is 16 and pregnant, we also have someone going back in time. There is love, action adventure. We are not limited. The audience will go with us on the adventure, as long as the characters are staying true to themselves. Viki can go to heaven as long as she is still acting like Viki.
Hanover: Do you use focus groups to test the stories?
Valentini: Focus groups, yes are part of being a writer, just to know, right Ron?
Hanover: Is it more fun to play a bad guy or a good guy?
Slezak: I’m extremely lucky that there are six of us in here (referring to Viki’s alternate personalities.) It’s a lot of fun to play the bad guy.
Nixon: A lot of the stories are generated by people doing the wrong things for the right reasons. That’s life. That’s One Life.
Slezak: The reason Dorian works so brilliantly is because everything she’s done that so wrong is justified in her mind.
Strasser: That’s the franchise. That’s the recipe for the chicken.
Alderson: I started out as a sweet and innocent kindergartner, and then I started cutting peoples clothes up and running up credit cards. Her parents are Blair and Todd, they are bad examples but Starr has matured in a beautiful way.
Valentini: All of the actors here are able to play both sides of the personality. Even though Dorian does such horrible things, she loves her family. Viki is sweet and kind, but she’s not a doormat.
Hanover: There’s a crazy amount of lines you all have to learn each day. It’s remarkable. Do you develop any tricks?
Woods: We used to have teleprompters, which was really nice.
Strasser: 100 Years ago!
Smith: He has no short term memory.
Woods: I shrink my scripts down.
Lavoisier (To Woods): Tell them the napkin holder story.
Woods: When the crew went to strike the napkin dispenser once, a crew member said “we won’t have a show if you take it away” because I had all of the scripts taped inside. I used to write lines on white labels and stick them inside my cowboy hat and take it off to read them, or inside a coffee cup.
Slezak: Lee Paterson (who played Joe Reilly) once taped all of his dialogue on the dashboard of a car during one scene. He also writes his dialogue on a cigarette once and smoked the evidence away.
Nixon: Tony Ponzini used to write his lines on his fingers. During a scene and actor once said to him “If you’re going to write your line on a finger and shake it at me, please write my line!”
Hanover: Do people ever come up to you and tell you how your character should be?
Alderson: When I was seven or eight, fans would yell “brat” and “devil child.” They would be serious. They would just walk away.
Woods: You should have just spit pea soup at them.
Lavoisier: When Rex was trying to steal Natalie’s money, a male fan came up to me and said “I hate you, you’re not Natalie’s brother,” and then said “I don’t really watch. My daughter watches.” I had only aired for a week at that point, so it was my first fan experience.
Smith: Men don’t want to admit that they watch.
Woods: A lot of cops, bartenders, night workers, they watch. Snoop, Athletes, Sammy Davis, all have watched.
Smith: At super soap weekend I made the men that came up for autographs say
‘I’m a man, I watch soaps, and I love it!”
Hanover: How many weddings have there been altogether for all of you on the show?
Nixon: Oh no, I can’t count that high.
Strasser: That’s a good summer job for an intern.
Slezak: We’ve been married so many times.
Woods: It’s a small town. She’s (Nora) now dating my brother (Clint).
Strasser: When you see the wardrobe, you know what’s going to happen on the show, if there’s going to be a wedding. Susan Gamie and the design team were nominated for an Emmy. Sometimes I will think, “I’m gonna be axed any minute,” and then Susan will say “Let’s go shopping.” I think I’m good for another four months. The worse things you do the better dressed you have to be.” Ultradevotion can’t get over this quote, and thinks Ms. Strasser is simply fabulous.
Hanover: (to Slezak) Viki recently worked at a diner in Paris, Texas as a waitress. What was that like for you?
Slezak: It was wonderful story when Viki went off to find out what was left after leaving her house and her money. It was a wonderful, completely different story.
Hanover: You have to kiss a lot on the show. How do you deal with that and go home to your spouses? How do you make it look so sexy?
Slezak: It depends entirely on the actor and the actress. We’re actors. That’s what we get paid to do.
Woods: (Someone mentions bed scenes are awkward he responds) It’s all lit up on set, there are 25 to 30 guys looking at their watches, dying to get home. You have to focus, tune it out.
Strasser: And hope they photograph you from the right angle.
Q: Do you ever think about writing stories about rare diseases?
Carlivati: We’ve done a lot. The trick is sometimes we need to make up a disease to fit into a storyline. It’s a balance. We need to make sure we have cures and antidotes. It will be a rare tropical disease if it’s an adventure story, for example. We have great medical advisors. We try to be as realistic as we can, but my answer is, it’s a soap opera.
Nixon: We don’t want to do negative prognosis. People relate so much to the characters. Irna Phillips (creator of The Guidling Light and As the World Turns) who gave me my first job, told me about having a character that was told she was going to die. Emma received tons of letters saying “My doc told me I had a chance.”
Valentini: During Viki’s breast cancer storyline, women were reminded about going to get mammograms.
At this point in the program, a woman in a bright lime green shirt, spray tan, and over processed highlighted hair, stood up as she was given the microphone. Ultradevotion knew immediately, and wrote in her notes ‘this one wants to be an actress.’ The girl began, quite transparently, “Mrs. Nixon, it’s an honor to be here,” she said, and I quote “How involved is how you are in the casting?” That is how she phrased it, folks. Then, “Would you take my head shot?” Nixon, always the lady, graciously answered “I don’t have anything to do with casting anymore.” Ultradevotion thought 'So tacky!!!' This woman should have been asked to leave. The woman continued, “How do you handle casting?” Nixon talked about auditions and said when the right person comes, “you just know it’s a magical moment.”
(Because of the time limit, Strasser briefly interjects with a few comments about Nixon.)
Strasser: This morning, I thought about how there are only four daytime dramas left in New York City employing about 2,000 people. Out of the four shows, two are on ABC and both are created by Agnes Nixon.
Slezak: I must say though, it’s an ensemble effort. What we see you do sparks new ideas.
Nixon: It’s a wonderful life on One Life.
Strasser: When you’ve landed in Llanview, you know you’ve hit the right town, because, [said in a humorous whisper] we don’t look and act like those other shows.
Slezak: What we do is harder than any part of showbiz. Not just for the actors, but for the crew as well. We do a one-hour show everyday. Essentially, there’s no rehearsal. The fact that we’ve done 10,200 shows and we’re still here is so awesome.
Nixon: It’s as you say awesome.
Lavoisier: The interesting thing is we never do the same thing twice. I go to work every day and do something different. The only negative thing I don’t like about the job is having to shave every day and put makeup in my pores.
Smith: In a movie, you learn three pages of script a day. In daytime, you make lasting friendships. You don’t get that in any other medium as an actor.
Lavosier: There are just over six million cool things about the job. You never do the same thing twice. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, they have a lot of repetition.
Slezak: It’s a grand job.
Alsderson: At school (performing arts school) it is hard, other students can study and you are learning pages and pages. But it is so worth it, fun, and different.
Carlivati: She has the problems of a normal teacher plus 40 pages of dialogue.
Q: Will Bo and Nora ever get married again?
Woods: Were you there?
Carlivati: Bo has another wedding coming up that’s not with Nora. He has to get over this wedding before he marries anyone else. I don’t close off any possibilities. I will have an idea to send Viki to Mars, and Frank will say ‘I’ll call NASA.’ Someone will say something as a joke, and I say wait, why can’t we? But I’m always up for possibilities.
Q: How far in advance is the writing?
Carlivati: We’re writing September right now.
Valentini: We have brilliant stuff for the 40th Anniversary. We are brining back some older characters too. Agnes Nixon herself is going to make an appearance.
Q: Do you ever read what people say about you on the Internet?
Smith: Unless I hear from Frank or Rob, I’m not going to pay attention to anyone who doesn’t pay my paycheck.
Slezak: I don’t go in there. They are nameless, faceless, and cruel. But on the up side, they’re watching.
Carlivati: I do go online and I’m interested in what the fans are saying. There are a group of people who do write very thoughtfully about the show, even if it’s negative. I am curious and interested.