This is Part 2 of 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. I recommend, for clarity’s sake, starting with Part 1 if you can.
A sub-title for this post might be “Christmas Dinner At The Hughes.”
One of my most memorable adventures as an actor on “As The World Turns” was one year’s Christmas dinner. As CBS-TV’s number one leading soap opera, when the final show before Christmas came, they would pull out all the stops. On this particular Christmas show we were to have an assemblage of the entire Hughes family, about 20 or so troubled souls, (it was, after all, a soap opera) all coming together for an elegant dinner.
No expense was spared as the long banquet style table was appointed with elegant china, crystal glasses, silverware and food – real food, not plastic turkey props, but two gloriously cooked 25 pound turkeys replete with stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables of every kind, cranberry sauce – the whole works. The scene was to be a long one covering several commercial interruptions.
Technically it was difficult because with all those actors and all those dramatic stories all gathered at one table, touching each life problem for each character was a difficult objective. But the scene was clever and well written and we were all excited to work together and pull it off.
We rehearsed it and rehearsed it until we had the dialogue down and the banter back and forth natural and the camera shots organized. It was a massive rehearsal for a show that normally featured two talking heads discussing their life problems.
And please remember that the show was live – in front of 30 million people. There would be no fixing in the editing room at a later date. What was worse is that the entire scene, which probably ran nearly a half hour, ended with a total surprise, as drama would have it.
To digress momentarily, I loved working with Eileen Fulton, the star of the show, who played my mother. She was always kind, considerate and professional to me, the youngster. We developed a sweet friendship over the course of the show.
But my favorite actor and person in the entire experience was the actor who played her husband, and my father, Don Hastings. First of all he was a truly funny guy and kept all on the set constantly loose with his banter, enthusiasm and general good humor. On top of that, he was the consummate pro – always solid on his lines and a natural actor to play with in scenes. As head of the household, he, of course, played the role of a doctor and a surgeon at that. He was the good guy in a field of bad guys or confused guys or cheating guys or sad guys.
At Christmas dinner he sat at the head of the table where he belonged, surrounded by wife (Eileen), grandparents of both, as well as nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles and their troubled spouses on down the table.
After all the toasting, Christmas cheer and drama while we lingered on the salad, we were then, after the second commercial break, to move into the climax of the scene – and the climax of the year, for that matter.
Grandpa, sitting to Don Hastings left, was scripted to begin to choke on a hard roll with butter. Grandma would then discover him choking and begin to pound him on the back further lodging the supposed roll in his throat. Someone then was to grab Gramps and try the Heimlich maneuver on the old guy to no avail. With all hope lost and Gramps turning blue and dying in front of us all, Don (the surgeon) was to swing into action and save the day by sweeping the entire dinner — china, turkeys, and all — off the table onto the floor and hoisting Gramps, with the help of three others, on to the table laying him on his back. There Don would perform open throat surgery on Gramps with the turkey carving knife in front of us all and miraculously save the day … and Gramps.
Problem was, though we rehearsed over and over the preceding scene, we could not rehearse the scene once the table had been swept clear because as rich as CBS was, no one wanted to clean up the mess time and time again and reset the table with new food and unbroken china.
So, though we talked it through in great detail and even rehearsed it verbally, it was decided that it was best to improvise from the table-sweep on out and go with it as best we could staying within the very specific time limits dictated by television programming. The director would literally count us down to a fade-to-black as Surgeon Don performed his operation and all the rest of us stood aghast.
And so the moment came. In the commercial break just before the climax we talked it through once more. I remember being excited because I was one of the ones designated to do some of the sweeping of everything on to the floor. This seemed like a really cool thing to be able to do and get paid for as well.
All went as planned: The choking (Gramps was alarmingly convincing), the pounding (Grams was in a fright), the Heimlich maneuver done to a T.
Then with a great crash and a flurry of flying food from 20 place settings came the moment we were all waiting for. It was wild, slippery, — a panic of frenzied actors all improvising the horrid reality of the moment. Gramps was hoisted onto the table while I cleaned the lettuce leaves and mashed potatoes from around his now spasming body and Don rolled up his sleeves and, like any good surgeon, demanded the tools of his trade (the turkey carving knife). He did not actually say “scalpel”, but you get the point.
Trouble was that the carving knife had inadvertently ended up under the table under a pile of food and tablecloth and was nowhere to be found. The director began his countdown to black out and commercial. Someone grabbed the only thing in sight and handed it to Don. (After all, we were told to improvise)
It was a serving spoon from the mashed potatoes.
Don’s eyes widened at the thought, a slight goofy grin ran across his face, and then the surgeon in him took over and he went to work on the throat of a dying Gramps with the spoon.
The absurdity of it struck us all at the same time. It was, of course, the essence of great comedy.
We began to giggle.
It could not be helped. Everyone looked down at the floor as their eyes welled up in tears and their shoulders began to shake from the suppressed laughter. Don carved on, professionally saving Gramps life with his spoon from the mashed potatoes.
The cameras were never to show the actual operation. They were to stay on Don’s face as he operated and quick-cut to various characters standing aghast. Later on, people who had seen the scene told me how moving it was. They had seen the shaking shoulders and read it as a family sobbing – not giggling. They had seen the spoon come into the picture for one brief flash, but had dismissed it immediately. After all, why would a great surgeon choose to operate with a spoon?
The audience saw what they wanted to see, what they expected to see, even though none of that was actually going on. Even Ol’ Gramps was giggling as his throat was being cut.
It was Soap Opera at its best.
It was Christmas Dinner at the Hughes.