'One Life to Live' oral history author talks soap opera stigma
It’s no surprise daytime soaps get a bad rap. They’re on the air seemingly forever, and over the course of several decades, tackle everything from break-ups, hook-ups, and make-ups to out-of-body experiences, espionage, and even time travel.
Yet One Life to Live, which has included all of the above as plot points, has survived with a loyal following since premiering in 1968. Of course, the show has navigated some tricky daytime soap terrain in recent years: First, ABC canceled it (along with fellow long-running soap All My Children) in 2011. Then, it almost landed online as a web series with production company Prospect Park, but the deal fell through, and most of the cast left to join General Hospital. Finally, in January 2013, Prospect Park brought the show back as a half-hour daily series on Hulu and iTunes until the Oprah Winfrey Network picked it up in July.
In Llanview in the Afternoon: An Oral History of One Life to Live, entertainment writer Jeff Giles (not to be confused with EW’s deputy editor of the same name) spent 18 months talking to the show’s writers, producers, and cast and crew members about the stigma of soap operas and how OLTL managed to produce five hours of scripted content every week. Through his more than 50 interviews, including ones with Erika Slezak, Judith Light, and Nathan Fillion, Giles uncovered anecdotes from behind the scenes, as well as tales about the production’s challenges as a show struggling to survive on a medium actively rejecting daytime soaps.
Giles talked to EW about his writing process, the time he ate quiche with Slezak, and why he thinks Breaking Bad is a soap. And don’t worry, Llanview lovers: He doesn’t leave this interview on a cliffhanger.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the inspiration behind the book? When did you first think, “I should do a complete oral history of One Life to Live“?
JEFF GILES: I love a good underdog, and I’m fascinated by soaps, the medium, in general. I think they’ve been mishandled, and I’ve watched them be canceled over the last 10 or 15 years with a lot of dismay. I happened to do a profile on the then-music director on One Life to Live Paul Glass, and we struck up a friendship. He would tell me stories that happened behind the scenes, and it seemed really interesting to me and I thought that I would want to read a book-length examination of the show that took it seriously as an experience shared by professionals, rather than the kind of stuff you tend to see and read [about soaps] that’s about storylines and characters and baby switches and crap like that. It wasn’t supposed to be a tell-all, dirt-digging type thing. I mean, people spoke pretty frankly, but the intent was not to get people to say nasty things about each other.
How did you go about getting all of these cast and crew members to talk to you?
At first, I just did a lot of Googling, and that ended up being very time-intensive. I made a wish list of 100 people who’d been with the show for at least five years, and I started by talking to people who had not been on the show for a very long time. Most of them were actually retired, so they didn’t really have any kind of image to protect or a career to worry about so they would speak freely. The show seemed to be a positive experience for them and it was interesting for them to talk about the craft. Eventually, I wised up and got an IMDbPro account [so I could find everybody’s contact numbers], and that made it easier.
Do you have a favorite interview?
Well, I went through maybe nine or 10 months without contacting Erika Slezak, who was the Grande Dame of that show. She was the Emmy winner, and every soap has one face that’s attached to it one way or the other, and she would be the one for One Life. I finally reached out to her through LinkedIn, and she got back to me right away. After the first time we talked, she invited me out to her house in Vermont and baked me quiche. That was the most surreal experience out of all the surreal experiences I had writing the book: sitting at Erica Slezak’s dining table eating quiche and talking about One Life to Live.
What was your goal in writing this?
In the beginning, I was trying to make sort of a grand statement about how soaps have always been at the vanguard in ways that they don’t get credit for: They proved that serialized drama can work on television, and they proved that hour-long series can work on television. Breaking Bad is a soap, The Walking Dead is a soap — people just kind of forget, and they sneer at soaps, and they treat these shows as guilty pleasures, so I wanted to say, “You laugh these shows off the dial at your own peril,” but what I realized was that was not the story.
So what was?
The story was just that the idea of putting out five hours of television a week into perpetuity was just a crazy idea that should never have worked, and if anybody had thought about it for more than a couple of minutes, they wouldn’t have done it. Eventually all of these shows turned into machines that just were running, and anybody that got on or got off had to match that speed. It was not nearly as smooth as it seemed on the screen. The odds were always stacked against these shows from the very beginning. It’s just a tremendous amount of work for everybody, and I can understand why some of the actors who have gone on to bigger and better things are still a little ticked off about how soaps are disregarded. Nathan Fillion went out of his way to tell me that anytime anybody talks badly about soaps around him, he gets really upset because they don’t get it.
Did anyone else share Fillion’s view?
Judith Light. She was just as passionate about defending soaps as Nathan Fillion was. She laughed about telling her parents when she was a young actress that they didn’t need to worry about her going into such an unstable profession, because she was never going to do a soap opera or a sitcom, and then of course she went on to do both. This is such a strange gig for actors, because what they do tends to be so short-term. If you do a movie, you know you’re on set for a certain period of time, but if you take a gig on a soap, in theory, it could go on forever, and a lot of these people were brushed aside or gotten rid of without having any real opportunity to get closure. It affected some of them in profound ways. I always liked it when I could talk to somebody who walked away from the show on their own terms, because there weren’t that many of them.
What’s your takeaway about the soap landscape from all this? Do you think they’ve become irrelevant?
It’s hard to say, it seemed like it was hitting that direction a few years ago. When All My Children and One Life to Live “aired” online, it looked like that might be the start of something big, and another way for the soaps to be at the vanguard again to prove that original scripted content could make money online. It seems like any time you have a medium, people still love to tell a story and to see a story. I think it’s too early to tell what is going to happen. If you look at the primetime lineups, it seems like the last couple of years, the shows are soapier than ever, with Scandal and Betrayal and Revenge and Nashville and The Good Wife. Like I said, people love a story, people love melodrama, and I think above all, people love a good cliffhanger.
The book’s been out for a little while. Have you heard back from any of the stars you talked to?
A couple have called and said nice things. Bob Woods, who played Bo Buchanan, called and said, “I just want to tell you, I’m really proud of you and you did us all a really big favor.” It was a great message to get.
Llanview in the Afternoon is available on Amazon and for download on the Kindle.
One Life to Live