Sex & Death in the Afternoon: An Oral History of the American Soap Opera

by: Lisa Rosen

Come with us now, on a long and twisty journey; a search for tomorrow and a look back on the days of our lives. Romance! Love! Agony! Adultery! Angry aliens! The American soap opera has seen them all, and much more. Their history is the history of TV itself—a genre that once held the fortunes of all three major networks in its hands. At its height, 19 shows represented 20 million loyal viewers who hung on to every tortured plot point, and went along for the ride when their programs shattered taboo after taboo. Now the daytime soap is on the brink of extinction. So join us for a wild, uncensored look behind the scenes of the rise, fall, and possible resurrection of an American Institution.

Part I: The Addiction Begins (1932–1963)

They started out on radio—live, 10- to 15-minute chunks of ongoing romance, anguish, and high drama, all aimed squarely at housewives and sponsored, as their moniker suggests, by soap conglomerates such as Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive. The first of the half hour–long television soaps, As the World Turns and The Edge of Night, premiered on the same day in 1956. And there was no turning back. Soaps quickly garnered a freakishly dedicated audience that was in agony every Friday when their “stories” left them with a cliffhanger.

The genre’s first auteur was an eccentric writer, producer, and former actress named Irna Phillips. She invented her first daytime network radio serial in 1930 at the age of 31 and then went on to create many of the biggest titles in radio and TV. In the same years she churned out 2 million words a year. And in doing so, she single-handedly invented most of the conventions that have defined soaps for the past century.

Ken Corday, executive producer, Days of Our Lives (1985–present), and a second-generation soap man (son of Days co-creators Ted and Betty Corday): Irna Phillips was the grand pharaoh of soap operas. She really cooked up all of it. She was a brilliant woman who lived a very secluded life. She only traveled by train; she never stayed above the second floor of any hotel. All of us knew about her quirks. But her imagination was so vivid that she was able to personify so many aspects of life and get them down on the page—and then into people’s homes.

Tim Brooks, former NBC executive, TV historian: There was a lot of experimentation going on in those days; stations and networks were just getting up and running. They were all trying to figure out this new medium. Soaps were a big part of that process. What could be done with them dramatically? And how much could they make? No one knew.

Ken Corday: My earliest memory is picking out the logo for As the World Turns with my father at the Museum of Natural History—that incredibly famous film clip of the Earth turning around and around. I was about 5. The show went on the air in 1956.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, soaps were increasingly welcomed into the daily lives of American women. Fans identified so strongly with the characters that the line between reality and fantasy often blurred. No matter what your life was really like, the life of a soap character was infinitely more interesting.

Sam Ford, co-editor, The Survival of Soap Opera: I had a high school teacher who came home from school one day, and her mother was talking to her aunt on the phone, saying, “You won’t believe what happened to Joe!” She listened to the conversation, and it was getting worse and worse, and she thought, “My God, which neighbor could she be talking about?” Of course, they were discussing soaps.

Wendy Riche, executive producer, General Hospital (1992–2001), Port Charles (1997–1999): Soaps first came into my consciousness when I moved back in with my parents—pregnant and not married. My mother was watching Days of Our Lives, and she said, “Ooh, look Wendy, they’ve got a story on that’s just like you!”

William Reynolds, writer, presidential historian, The Edge of Night superfan: In 1961, on The Edge of Night, a character was killed saving her toddler from an oncoming car. The switchboards lit up so much at CBS that the actors who played the husband and wife on the show appeared as themselves at the end of an episode a few days later to explain why the character was killed. Nothing like this had happened before, or since, on a daytime or nighttime show.

Between 1951 and 1959, 35 soaps had premiered— most produced in New York City—and the need for actors was overwhelming. While the genre was often derided for offering some of the worst acting ever broadcast, most of the thespians actually came from Broadway or film. It took a special performer to memorize a 44-page script up to five days a week for 50 weeks a year.

Don Hastings, actor (Jack Lane, The Edge of Night, 1956–1960, and Dr. Bob Hughes, As the World Turns, 1960–2010): Almost all of us came out of the theater or radio. There was no such thing as a “soap actor.”

Chris Goutman, executive producer, As the World Turns (1999–2010): I’ve been with the best theater and film actors who’ve been thrown into day roles on shows and who just couldn’t hack it.

William J. Reynolds: I always remember the episode where Lobo Haines kidnapped Mike Karr (actor Forrest Compton) on The Edge of Night in 1972. Karr was taken to a warehouse, tied up, and blindfolded, and because Compton was blindfolded, he couldn’t see the teleprompter, and he skipped a whole act’s worth of dialogue. This was aired live.

Don Hastings: It was murder. There were a lot of actors who would do one show and quit.

Erika Slezak, Daytime Emmy award–winning actress (Viki Lord, One Life to Live, 1971–present): (Producer) Doris Quinlan said to me, “I’d love to have your father (Tony award–winning actor Walter Slezak) on the show, but I can’t afford him.” I said, “Well, just ask him.” He spent three days on the show. He said it was the most difficult, nerve-wracking thing he’d ever done. We rehearsed all day and then taped at 4:30 p.m. He was used to six weeks of rehearsal. I was really worried about him because he kept saying, “It’s so hard! It’s so hard!”

Chris Goutman: One actor wrote his lines on the rim of his plate during restaurant scenes. You just hoped he would spin the plate in the right direction, so he’d get his lines right.

Jacklyn Zeman, actress (Bobbie Spencer, General Hospital, 1977–present): There were no makeup changes or hair changes during a show. That’s why we’d have full makeup on when we were shown in bed. The scene before might have been in a restaurant. During the commercial break you had only two minutes to get your negligee on—that was it. People didn’t understand why we all looked so glamorous while lying in bed. It wasn’t because we were too vain to take off our makeup; it’s because we didn’t have time.

Kimberly McCullough, actress (Robin Scorpio, General Hospital, 1985–present): There was this one actress who was really mad because she was fired, so on her last line of her last scene she opened up her shirt, took her bra off, looked at the camera, and said “F— you!” and walked off the set. Stuff like that happened all the time. I think every door in the building was broken from someone slamming it.

Ken Corday: William Bell (creator of The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful) had a great quote: “Give me a great script, two wonderful actors, and a waterfall—and who in God’s name needs the waterfall?”