This is Part 3 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.
The ability to memorize nearly anything has been an elusive skill that has unfortunately haunted me all my life. Ever since the sixth grade when I completely blew my Captain of the Patrol Boys’ speech in front of the PTA, I have struggled with this seemingly simple act.
I jealously watched my wife, Julia, miraculously memorize her solos week after week for seven years and perform them flawlessly when she had her church gig in Boston. That’s one area where we are polar opposites.
Probably the first reason why I did not continue with my most successful career start as an actor was that I never really felt comfortable in anything I ever did because one part of my brain was always clutching up trying to remember my lines. Having written well over a thousand songs in my life, I could not sing one of them through for you without having the lyrics in front of me. The melodies? Easy. The words? Fogeddaboudit! And so I did.
Mind you, I can teach you how to memorize – I know all the tricks and all the roots of the process – I just don’t even try to do it anymore after a lifetime of failures.
So don’t try and write me your technique to show me how it’s done. I’m no longer interested – not in this lifetime.
So there …
Yeah, so here I am in this television soap opera struggling with 4 scripts a week, getting through it all somehow, receiving hundreds of letters of fan mail a week, but working under an enormous self-imposed pressure and never really enjoying the work because of this one sticky wicket. On top of it all, I was then a bit near-sighted and my character was not the eyeglasses type, so I could not read the teleprompters while performing, and was left to my own flawed devices – a boat without a paddle.
With all that said, I shall recount a harrowing story with a peculiar twist.
I played Tom Hughes, a troubled teen just starting college. On one particular day I had a rather long scene in my dorm room with my roommate, an actor who had just recently been introduced on the show and had only spoken a few lines a couple of times on previous days.
In this scene I was to get out of bed, get dressed and gather my books and papers for class as the scene progressed. My roommate was to come in the door just coming back from an earlier class and we were to discuss some drama as we both went about our daily business. The scene, as I said, was long (close to 10 minutes – long for a soap) and there were all kinds of timing problems and blocking to learn in our early morning rehearsals and run-thru for camera.
I remember that, knowing it would be a long and difficult scene, I had put extra time into the preparation in terms of my memory work, so I felt somewhat confident going into rehearsals that morning. My acting partner was young and somewhat inexperienced and struggled a bit with his lines in rehearsal, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. It was, however, just enough to put me on my guard and throw things a little off balance.
In the dress rehearsal in front of cameras, however, we sailed through the scene letter perfect. I remember breathing a sigh of relief as we prepared for the 1:00 live broadcast in front of our 3,000,000 fans.
The time came. The director counted us down … 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, action. I sat up in bed and began to groggily put my socks on. On cue, my roommate came in the door, put his books down and stood where he was to deliver the first line. I waited, now pretending to struggle with my sock for the line that never came. The pause was interminable.
I finally looked over at him. He was white as a sheet and frozen with a strange look of total wonder on his face. So I said his first line that he was having such a tough time remembering. “Good morning.”
His jaw dropped as if he was going to speak, but nothing came out. So for some plausible reason I said, “Well Bob, you’re supposed to say ‘good morning’”. He nodded somewhat dumbfounded, but never said a word.
He was gone. His brain had turned to mashed potatoes. I’m sure that he was on another planet somewhere in another dimension. He certainly was not here on the set of As The World Turns with me playing our scene in front of 3 million people.
There was nothing I could do. I recognized his state immediately, because I had been there before, but only for a few split seconds as I grappled with my own memory. But I was always able to jar myself loose from this comatose state and go on.
‘Bob’ was not able. He never said a word for the next ten minutes and never moved from his first position of blocking. It was as if time, for Bob, had become stuck and his being had stopped. Massive case of stage fright.
I knew the old show biz saying, “The show must go on.” And there was really no choice. I had to play the entire 10-minute scene with ‘Bob’ and somehow do all my blocking and handle both my lines and his and stick to the very exacting time limit of the scene.
So I started by saying, “I suppose you’re gonna tell me that you went out to that party last night.” His line.
Now my line: “And I’m gonna tell you that I’m glad you went even if Sally wouldn’t go with you.”
I went on. “And you’re probably gonna say that you didn’t want to take her anyway.” His line.
My Line: “And ya’ know what I’m gonna say to that? Well. I’m gonna tell you that Sally really thinks you are a cool guy, but she’s just getting over Charlie and probably not ready for a new romance quite yet.”
“And if I said that, you would probably protest that Charlie treated her bad in the first place and …”
You get the idea,
And on and on like that for ten minutes while I put my pants and shirt on, went over to my desk, gathered up my papers, downed a glass of O.J., combed my hair, put my shoes on and tied them, gathered up my books and watched my director out of the corner of my eye as I improvised the scene and basically stuck to the storyline accomplishing the salient points of the plot.
I was calm, relaxed and totally in control once I got over the shock of what was happening. I babbled and gabbed with ‘Bob’ (who never uttered a word) and kidded him and advised him on his love life and finally as I was summing up the plot of the scene, my director, who was now down on his knees in front of camera three to get my attention, started to count down with his fingers the last 10 seconds of the scene. So I gathered up my books and simply walked out the door with a “See ya’ later” leaving poor ‘Bob’ still standing in blocking position #1.
As the door shut behind me and we went to commercial, I heard a gentle but quiet applause coming from cast and crew as they instantly began to move and set up for the next scene after commercial. No victory celebrations, no pats on the back, no sighs of relief, but a genuine embrace from my relieved director.
Later I was told that the actor who played ‘Bob’ never said a word once the scene had broken either, but instead turned on one foot and ran out the door of the studio, through the lobby of CBS and out onto the NYC streets never to be heard of again. He didn’t even stop for his own clothes, but left wearing the ‘Bob’ costume he has appeared in. I don’t know what ever happened to the lad. Perhaps he gave up acting.
The interesting part about the experience for me was that though I had to remember and speak not only my own lines but also his, I was completely in control of the 10 minutes. Somehow I knew the logic of the scene and performed in a terribly pressurized situation without any pressure at all.
Fellow actors and camera-men asked me later how I was able to do it, but I had no real answers for them except to answer, “By the grace of God”.
Looking back, I believe that I was forced completely into the reality of doing by my comatose partner and I, out of self-preservation, simply became Tom Hughes, my character, and lived out the experience of having a deaf and dumb roommate. It was as easy as living life.
I never saw the scene. In those days the scenes weren’t taped. It was what it was – remembered by no one but yours truly, perhaps the director and most likely the actor who played ‘Bob’. For him, not a happy memory.
So here is one memory catastrophe that I actually escaped, in fact, I suppose triumphed over. I guess I’m big on happy endings.
Towards the end of my time with As The World Turns I got the lead in Hair on Broadway. For several months I did both the soap and 8 shows a week on Broadway. It was grueling, but when it rains it pours and I was young and contracted. It was especially tough on Wednesdays. Sometimes I would have a soap show in the morning followed by a matinee and then an evening performance of Hair. Not much I could do about it.
For the musical my hair, of course, grew longer and longer. Finally one day the producers of ATWT called me in and demanded that I cut my hair. I said to them, “Hey, I’m supposed to be a bad kid. Wouldn’t I defy my parents and let my hair grow long?” They didn’t see it that way, their show mostly appealing to Mid-American housewives.
I stuck to my guns. They stuck to theirs. They fired me for refusal to cut my hair. I was NOT heartbroken, simply exhausted.
My soap opera career came to a grateful end. All in all, though it was difficult for me because of the constant struggles with memorization and the constant pressure, it was a great life experience that taught me that even stardom is a lot of hard work.
I will always appreciate that special time.