Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Fond Farewell to ONE LIFE TO LIVE, Part One

Like such destinations as Collinsport and Corinth, Monticello and Riverside, the Loft at 212 Greene Street in SoHo, sections of Port Charles and, most recently, all of Pine Valley, soon it will be lights out in the fictional town of Llanview, Pennsylvania, a place I have visited week-daily since the late autumn of 1983.  After forty-three years on the air, the regularly brilliant, sometimes wacky, but always entertaining and engaging daytime drama One Life to Live will soon end, leaving millions of broken hearts behind, mine being one of them.  From that autumn when I was eighteen, so impressionable and suffering through the loss of a good friend killed in a car accident, my one-hour escape into the travails of the Lord, Wolek, and larger-than-life Buchanan families has been a gift I've given myself for working hard as a writer, and for trying to live my life to its fullest potential.

OLTL began in 1968, the brainchild of the amazing Agnes Nixon, who I was so lucky to meet one day on the set of All My Children in the summer of 1994 when, as a professional writer, I had begun to interact with cast members and other creative forces associated with the ABC television family. My mother and grandmother had followed OLTL intently over the years, especially during the riveting 1979 arc that revealed that average everyday housewife Karen Wolek (played by Judith Light) was, secretly, a prostitute -- fairly bold subject matter for two o'clock in the afternoon in a programming landscape as-yet untainted by hair pulling and the use of the bleep button every few syllables.  My first introduction came in November of 1983, a few weeks after a tragic accident claimed the life of a high school friend. Such intense grief is difficult to digest at any age, but then it seemed insurmountable. There was only escaping it for brief interludes and, having been seduced into watching the return of Genie Francis to General Hospital, I found myself seated earlier and earlier in front of the tube. I was, after all, a young writer eager to understand plot, dialogue, and cliffhanger-based storytelling, and I could have done far worse than to embrace the art from an Agnes Nixon creation.  I was also in desperate need of forgetting my own troubles, and the citizens of Llanview helped me get through them.  I distinctly remember the inimitable Robin Strasser, chewing up scenery as the elegant and fiery Dorian Lord-Callison, dressed in black gown with bronze sequins, all bitch and zero apology as she enjoyed a torrid affair with hunky spy David Renaldi (the late, great Michael Zaslow).  For some reason, I also remember a vase of vibrant anemone flowers on a table.  I can't tell you why that image stays with me, only that in several of my published stories and novels, anemones appear. Until Strasser's final exit from OLTL over the summer of 2011, Dorian Kramer/Lord/Callison/Vickers was one of many reasons to tune in at two in the afternoon.

In 1985, Andrea Evans, "Tina Clayton" (only by then, she was revealed to be Tina Lord, the love child of villainous Victor Lord, half-sister to long-suffering heroine Victoria) visited my very cloistered corner of the world to sign autographs.  It was as though I'd been given a glimpse that said world wasn't so flat as I'd been led to believe.  By 1989, after six years of split personalities, returns from the dead, time travel, and global adventures (one of the most memorable resulting in Tina going over the Iguazu Falls in South America), then-executive producer Paul Rauch took viewers on one of the wildest daytime rides ever: beneath Llantano Mountain, to the lost city of Eterna, built by Victor Lord. For days, I was riveted, couldn't wait to tune in, and devoured that hour like an addict.  Several of the series regulars found themselves trapped in Eterna -- Tina, Vicki, Gabrielle (the gorgeous Fiona Hutchison), and handsome cad Michael Grande, played by the charismatic Dennis Parlato.  Four years later, when my writing was starting to be published in national magazines, through odd circumstances I found myself standing in the dark cavern of sister soap Loving's ABC studios at West 66th Street in New York City, talking with Parlato about the character of Michael Grande, who made it out of the city and off the mountain only to be murdered a year later.  Not surprising, Loving brought the actor in to play dastardly Clay Alden on the little soap that could (and did until its cancellation in 1995). Grande, he told me, had been a delight to portray.  He'd also loved that storyline, which wasn't a huge hit overall with viewers.  It was to us.  That afternoon at ABC, I saw how big the world truly was, and I set forth to explore it.

(Left, me with the lovely Hillary B. Smith, aka Nora Hannon Gannon Buchanan, and the talented Nathan Purdee, former Llanview Chief of Police Hank Gannon, Summer 2000 at their charity breakfast to benefit the Lupus Foundation.  The lovely lady to the right of Mr. Purdee is my best friend and oft-writing partner Laura A. Van Vleet, who I had the pleasure of working with as freelance writers on Star Trek: Voyager and reporters for the Sci Fi Channel, Cinescape Magazine, and Soap Opera Update, among others; my first brush with celebrity -- my autographed photo of Andrea Evans)

In 1992, unemployed and suffering for my art -- in other words, living off savings and small paychecks from my writing -- OLTL's dynamic head writer, the novelist Michael Malone, unveiled a storyline that dealt with homophobia and culminated with characters from the show visiting the A.I.D.S. memorial quilt.  During that time, eagerly awaiting each new episode and aching for the weekends to pass, so completely inspired, I wrote a series of modern gothic paranormal gay love stories, Ghost Kisses -- it would become my first published book and an effort I'm proud of, these many years later.  I may not have written the collection during any other time, with such intense passion, if not for the atmosphere OLTL helped to create that summer.

(Me with the fabulously glamorous Catherine Hickland -- the faceted villainess Lindsay Rappaport -- and with, clockwise, Tom Christopher as perhaps the most evil heavy in daytime history, Carlo Hesser, and Dennis Parlato.  In autumn of 1981, a young writer first starting to put pen to paper and dreaming big dreams, I watched Mister Christopher on the second season of Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century while sprawled across my bed or seated cross-legged on the floor, fresh pages routinely flying from my fingertips. Standing with Tom Christopher, who I would interview some years later for a feature on Buck Rogers, stole my breath, truly)

I have quite a bit left to say about One Life to Live -- and I will, on Friday morning, before the final episode airs and TV officially stops being fun to me.  But I feel compelled to mention actress Catherine Hickland especially, who was a regular part of the show's canvas for so many wonderful years.  I first had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Hickland in 1993 when she starred on Loving.  We hit it off instantly, bonded by our mutual love of and the need to advocate welfare for companion animals. Flash forward to the summer of 2001, when I was writing semi-regularly for the ASPCA's official national publication, Animal Watch.  I was assigned to provide a celebrity story on a notable animal rights advocate, and pursued Olivia Newton-John, even came very close to delivering the story. Because of Newton-John's touring conflicts and my looming deadline, I contacted Ms. Hickland, who made herself instantly available, and who had not only founded a cruelty-free cosmetics brand, Cat Cosmetics (used by the show's makeup department), but had also been instrumental in securing a mobile veterinary van for one of the city's shelters, completely outfitted, even with veterinarian.  To me, she was the perfect choice for such a story, a celebrity who was more about actions than words, and a humanitarian who delivered the goods.

My editor at the magazine was incensed.  "A soap opera actress," she barked over the speaker phone at me, one memorable Monday morning.  To this day, my blood boils whenever I remember that shameful remark.  The story was published.  Ms. Hickland told me she carried a copy of it to auditions and other professional engagements before her move from New York to Las Vegas following the end of her OLTL run in 2009.  For a long while, I got great feedback about that story, from unexpected places.  There are more than a few fan letters in my filing cabinet as a result. Catherine Hickland epitomized the depth of heart and charity in the fine cast that was One Life to Live, but she is hardly alone in her example.  I doubt such graciousness is going to be shown by the current crop of banshee housewives, Jersey Shore rejects, crap-dashians, or other talking heads glutting the wasteland that television has become, and being passed off as today's celebrities.

One Life to Live was more than just a TV show.  It was the finest, written by talented writers whose lines were performed by the best actors.  It was also a lifelong friend, and one I'll miss terribly once the final fade out takes place some forty-eight hours from now.

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