This is a 3 part series reflecting on an experience I had as a much younger man as an actor playing a lead role on CBS television’s daily soap opera, As The World Turns.
A thousand or so years ago I graduated from college and came to NYC to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater not to be an actor, but to learn the craft of acting so that I could be a director in the theater – my ambition.
Upon graduation from a two-year course at the Neighborhood Playhouse I actually tried my wings as an actor for a couple of years with some success. Acting, mind you, was not my primary ambition, but here I was in NYC with an acquired skill and, after all, I had to eat.
I spent the summer upon graduation having some remarkable luck doing television commercials – Dentyne, Tropicana, and, as memory serves me, even one for a small new computer company with the weird name of Apple. I was not at all the best actor in my graduation class, but, looking back, I guess I was just the right look at the right time.
I also had the beginnings of a strong craft under my belt taught by one of the greatest acting teachers in the world, Sanford Meisner.
That summer, as luck would have it, I did 10 national network commercials! My agent was thrilled. I was hot! In demand – and I’ll never really understand why. But I was out there “doin’ my thing” as the saying went at the time even if “my thing” was :30 (second) and :60 spots of acting. Nailing my lines down was never a problem in those situations. After all, how much can you say in that short time span to begin with? Usually it was just one or two lines.
In the Dentyne commercial it was, “She’s got the freshest mouth in town”, a slogan that became nationally iconic for a period of time, though that had nothing to do with the way that I said it, but more to do with the number of repetitions that the commercial got on television.
As the fall approached and I was already becoming bored with my :60 successes (though not with the royalty checks). I began to look for larger roles.
Here the famous quote, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it” applies. My agent called me one day and booked me for an audition for the TV soap opera, As The World Turns.
Now I had never even seen a soap opera and had no idea even why they were called such. I later found out three important things: 1. That they were called Soap Operas because often the sponsors were companies like Tide and Wisk and Clorox (I don’t know where the opera part came from. I never was asked to sing a note.) and 2. That the star of As The World Turns, Eileen Fulton, was considered one of the queens of the soaps and was watched by and thrilled 30,000,000 lonely housewives out there every day, and 3. That in the inner circle at CBS this famous drama was appropriately called “As The Stomach Turns.”
After a series of auditions and call-backs I was finally informed by my excited agent that “YOU GOT THE JOB!” I had no idea what this really meant.
What it really meant was that I was an instant TV star – of sorts. My mom, who had never watched a soap opera before, bless her soul, became an instant junkie. She got to spend time with me on TV for an hour nearly every day all the way from St. Louis. And the bragging rights at bridge parties changed the way she was perceived by all her women friends. Unfortunately, though she was not the type to brag, she learned a few things in the process about the jealousies of stardom as any number of her friends actually turned away from her.
But that’s another story …
So this job certainly changed my life and taught me what acting work was really like. I was hired to play Eileen Fulton’s misguided teenage son, Tom Hughes – basically a troubled kid. These, of course, are the best roles for an actor. Playing the bad seed is always more interesting and always gets the juiciest scripts and the most fun scenes to play.
For a couple of years I did 3-4 shows a week, made terrific money for a lad of 24 years and found myself the subject of teen fan mags and much attention constantly. I was recognized on the street by total strangers, I signed autographs, I did all those things that many dream about, but were never really a part of my dreams.
Trouble was that playing a bad guy played havoc on my mom’s reputation. At first she was the mother of a TV star and then she became the mother of a bad kid. Bridge party members in the suburbs of St. Louis actually got a bit confused by it all and thought I actually WAS Tom Hughes, this bad kid – somehow the sad mothering mistake of one Virginia Link.
I was on the bus one rainy day minding my own business. At one stop an elderly woman, recognizing me as Eileen Fulton’s belligerent son, sneered at me, got up, walked over to me and whacked me on the head with her umbrella and shouted for all to hear and speaking of Eileen, “How dare you treat your mother that way!” Then she stomped off the bus in a huff. The rest of the bus watched me warily out of the corners of their eyes.
I got off at the next stop.
Stardom had its pluses and minuses.
The actual work was much more than anticipated and turned out to be a very difficult two years. The memory work, for me, was rough and I’m not sure I ever got on top of it. Simply put, memory DID NOT serve me. As it turned out, though I was a crafted actor, I was not crafted at memorizing scripts and learning 3-4 scripts a week was a daunting task that I never really got on top of. Consequently I spent much of my off hours endlessly going over lines and learning new scripts – a royal pain in the butt for a 24 year old rich bachelor.
This memorization stuff they didn’t teach me at the Neighborhood Playhouse. On top of it all, I was a bit near-sighted and was never really able to see the teleprompters surrounding the sets, so I had no help from that angle either. And on top of that, As The Stomach Turns was the last soap to run ‘live’ shows – we only taped when there were kids or pets on set. The producers thought they got more edgy performances out of their actors that way. Edgy yes! If you made a mistake, you made it in front of 30 million people. The pressure was not fun for me. I was always out on the edge.
One morning we started blocking rehearsals at 6:30 AM and the actress, Helen Wagner, who played my grandmother, Nancy Hughes suddenly stopped me and said, “Wait a minute, you’re doing the wrong script!” Well it turned out that SHE had learned the wrong script, not me. Thank God! She grabbed a correct one and hurried out the door saying to the director, “Run another scene!” In 15 minutes she was back again and running the new scene with me. In 15 minutes she had learned her new lines better than I knew mine. I was so jealous of her abilities and decided then and there that this work was not for me — though I will always deeply respect her professionalism in that moment.
Soap Opera acting is a style unto itself. It is a bit over the top and ultra-emotional and I was told not to do the show for very long because I would develop many bad habits in the process. There was some truth to that, but as it turned out, I did not do the show for more than two years, moving on to other worlds.
The joke is that most actors value a part based upon the number of lines that they have. I, on the other hand, enjoyed the most the scenes where I had the least to say. My favorite scene I ever did was the time I had to break into the local drugstore at night and steal some drugs. I had not a word to say and played the scene with all my heart and soul. When it was over, all the people on the set, directors, actors and camera-men applauded (something I never experienced happening with anyone at any time in my two years).
The director said it was my best work.
I could have had a great acting career playing deaf mutes.