Llanview in the Afternoon: An Oral History of One Life to Live

TV Features

When you think “small town in Pennsylvania,” the first things that come to mind are probably not time-traveling cowboys, underground cities, cantankerous oil barons or diabolical old newspaper publishers with a nasty habit of returning from the dead to try and harvest organs from their grandchildren. Fortunately for fans of delicious ongoing melodrama, the head writers of One Life to Live felt no such creative constraints, and for 45 years (and counting), the show has used fictional Llanview, Penn. as the occasionally unlikely frame for a colorful tapestry of stories that have run the gamut from timely, socially conscious commentary to sci-fi levels of implausibility.

As addictively fascinating as many of those plots may have been, they tend to pale in comparison with the true-life tales that unfolded behind the scenes: the actors who inhabited their characters through outlandish ups and downs while managing voluminous dialogue and ever-more-absurd taping schedules; the writers who somehow managed to churn out five episodes a week, 52 weeks a year; the producers who wrangled the whole thing into an Emmy-winning institution of daytime television.

Throughout 2012, I spoke with more than 50 veterans of the show’s cast and crew, following One Life to Live’s ups and downs through its 1968 debut, its ratings ascension in the ‘70s and ‘80s and its eventual cancellation in 2012—followed by its shocking, suitably soap-like return from the dead in 2013. The result is Llanview in the Afternoon: An Oral History of One Life to Live, now available in paperback and for the Kindle. Here’s an exclusive excerpt for Paste readers, in which some of the show’s more colorful villains discuss their experiences as daytime heavies, on and off the set.

Jack Betts (Ivan Kipling, 1979-82, 85): I liked playing Ivan very much, because he was such an evil man. An elegant, suave, crazy doctor. The character was so interesting—neurotic, crazy, wealthy, and charming, and I got to play all of that. I planted things in people’s brains and controlled what they did. I bought Judith Light’s character leather boots and brassieres. They went quite far with my character—I was bizarre. Everyone respected him, but he was really nuts.

Roy Thinnes (Alex Crown, 1984-85; Sloan Carpenter, 1992-95): I didn’t know that much about One Life to Live, with the exception of Erika Slezak, who I knew was a wonderful actress. It was for a limited engagement; I knew I’d be in and out within two years, so I thought I should do it. It was a very lucrative move, and an interesting character—and I got to work with Steven Hill, who played the Mob boss Aristotle Descamedes. He was brilliant in that role, so inventive. He made the character what it was. It was a lesson to us all.

Barbara Garrick (Allison Perkins, 1986-87, 2001-02, 2003, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013): Allison’s so different from any other character I’ve played, and so different from the way people usually cast me. It was a lot of fun to be encouraged to go crazy like that. I got to express a side of myself that most people don’t ever get to—at least not without going to prison. I think the only thing I regretted about Allison being so bad is that they always had to take me off the show at some point. They’d blame everything on me and then I’d have to go! My father even stopped watching at a certain point because he said he didn’t like “that Allison Perkins.” [Laughs]

Roscoe Born (Mitch Laurence, 1985-87, 2002-03, 2009-10, 2012): Between 1985 and 2012, I was actually in front of the camera and on the set for less than two years. Mitch was so well-written, and he affected so many people on the show—whenever he was there, he galvanized the town, and the aftershocks rippled out for years. Especially after they decided to make him Jessica Buchanan’s father. That really extended Mitch’s shelf life, and they didn’t actually need me there to have the character be present. I wish they’d done more flashbacks.

Jill Larson (Ursula Blackwell, 1988-89): It was so much fun, especially for a girl from Minnesota who was taught that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. You can imagine.

It gives you such tremendous license. I came from a theater background, so I was used to making big choices. I was scared—and I still am—of the kind of acting I see on primetime, or even a lot of times on daytime, where people deliver very sincere performances that are grounded in reality. It’s always my worry that I’m going to be over the top and too big, so I was fortunate to get the roles I’ve had—they could contain the style of acting I came with. I am sort of theatrical by nature, and playing Ursula gave me the ability to do that.

You don’t have to justify anything, you know? It’s such great fun. You can, like a child, throw yourself into the fantasy of an absurd story. It was just wonderful—every day, I’d come in so excited to play the part. You know? Things like showing off my scrapbook in the home for the clinically insane—my favorite line of all time was when the doctor came in and I said, “Doctor, you’d be so proud of me—I came this close to flipping out into dissociative behavior, but I stopped myself!” You can’t say a line like that without a little drama.

Before I started on daytime, sometimes I’d watch the shows and wonder how the actors managed to say some of the more unbelievable lines. That’s where I was very respectful and admiring, because I felt like there were actors who were grounding their performances while acting in storylines that push the boundaries of reality. That’s a tremendous skill—I wasn’t sure I could do that. But I learned.

Roscoe Born: It was outrageously fun in ‘85 and ‘86. It wasn’t nearly as much fun later on. It got a lot darker, and it started to get to me—I had some problems with some of that stuff. It bothered me, but I didn’t let it bother me. I wanted to make it as dark and ugly as possible.

I never tried to protect my image, but it was somewhere in the back of my consciousness that I was embodying evil—and this sounds kind of strange, but that I was channeling it in a way. I drew on what you might call the ugly aspects of my thoughts.

To act out that kind of stuff, it can release a lot, you know? It can actually make you nicer. [Laughs] Because that darker side of my thinking had a place to go. But other times, if I found it particularly ugly and I was feeling ugly about myself, then it would compound those feelings. I couldn’t judge Mitch, because I wouldn’t be able to play the part if I did. But it did make me judge the parts of myself that fed into Mitch.

There were times when I felt really ugly after doing a scene, because I had to play them with tremendous appetite. I had to play them like I was having an incredible, orgasmic meal. While I did it, I was relishing these horrible acts, and then afterwards…I’ve done things in my life that I’ve really regretted, you know? But I thought I was right when I did them. It’s only later that you come to your senses.

Hillary B. Smith (Nora Hanen, 1992- ): Oh God. God bless Roscoe Born. God bless that man. Mitch Laurence was the most heinous character, and the things they wrote for him to say—I would sometimes look at Roscoe and say, “I do not know how you are doing this.” He was raping his own daughter while spouting scripture! Are you kidding me? I was so turned off by that, I turned my own show off.

Roscoe Born: Obviously I never did anything as bad as Mitch Laurence, but to play that in such a focused manner—and see the immediate impact through a lot of really talented actors who allowed themselves to truly feel what Mitch was doing to them—on one level, you’re seeing what you’re inflicting on somebody. Mitch loved it; he loved to create pain. He loved pain.

Barbara Treutelaar (Didi O’Neill, 1984-88): Roscoe. All the girls had the hots for him. He was the sweetest guy—he’d come in with his schleppy hair, this quiet person, and then he’d go into makeup, come out, and be Mitch Laurence. On one of his last days—because there were like a zillion—Robin Strasser [who played Dorian Lord] made dinner and had a big gathering for him at her place. It was all of the women and Roscoe. It was hilarious. “Can we get something for you, Roscoe?”

Roscoe Born: I remember that party. It was pretty amazing. Robin Strasser owned this townhouse on the East Side, if I recall—and that’s still the only East Side townhouse I’ve ever been in.

Tonja Walker Davidson (Alex Olanov, 1990-97, 2001, 2002, 2007, 2009, 2011): You learn things about yourself—parts of yourself, things you’re capable of—through your character. For example, I didn’t know I could be taken seriously as a woman until I played Olivia on General Hospital. I didn’t know I could be taken seriously as a boss. I developed my own core of confidence and strength by not just being an ingenue, you know? And that continued throughout all the years I’ve played strong women. It’s helped me be a strong person.

Thom Christopher (Carlo Hesser, 1990-92, 96-97, 2005, 2008): The big thing for me was to retain Carlo’s essential humanity. That was what the writers and Paul tuned into on me. I remember there was one producer after Paul who called me to her office, and she’d wanted me to do something—unfortunately, the director on the set was a young guy and it was his first show—but it was very, very bad. I wasn’t going to do it. I said “Why? Why do we have to do this? Everyone already hates Carlo. Why would you show him doing this? It isn’t right. It’ll turn the audience off on the show.” And she screamed at me, “We don’t hate you enough.” To which I responded, “You don’t hate me enough. The story hates me enough.” I went back downstairs and I didn’t end up doing it.

Jack Betts: Whatever you’re doing in a situation like that, you just have to try and put yourself into the character by wondering what it would be like—how much fun it would be. It’s really like children playing. Elia Kazan once said “If you want to learn about acting, watch children,” because they have a level of belief in what they’re doing that’s so extraordinary and honest. I try and remember that—even when I was putting microchips into people’s heads.

Dennis Parlato (Michael Grande, 1988-90): Who wants to be a nice guy? It’s boring. And villains tend to show a lot of different colors—if they’re dealing with a villain, they’re formidable; if they’re dealing with a lover, they’re passionate.

Antagonizing the Buchanan family was great fun—playing with those guys. Bob Woods [Bo Buchanan], Phil Carey [Asa Buchanan], Clint Richie [Clint Buchanan]. Bob Woods was incredible on and off the set—just a great guy. And Phil was gold. Protege of John Wayne, wiseass, old-school guy. What a presence he had—he could plant and talk, and he was powerful. He’d joke about seeing his “acting coach,” which meant taking a drink, but even though he might have given the impression of not taking it very seriously, he loved good work. I remember one time, he took the time to call me and compliment my work on an episode, and he wasn’t even working that day. “I just want to tell you that that was first-class work.” It meant something to him. He cared.

I didn’t watch the show much while I was on. The few times I did, I mostly learned what not to do—you see yourself doing too much with your face, things like that. But I also learned that the moments when I’d go up on my lines—the ones that felt like an eternity while they were happening—I just looked very thoughtful. [Laughs]

Tonja Walker Davidson: I needed a job, and I was already a star, a little bit, because I’d been on General Hospital, so ABC flew me out to screen test for All My Children and One Life to Live. I was testing for Skye and Tina, which I obviously didn’t get, and then [executive producer] Paul Rauch had the part of Alex written for me. That was amazing.

My first scene, I showed up and Paul Rauch had gone off to Vermont on vacation, and everybody was messing up their lines. I froze and called “cut!”

The next day, I got called into Paul’s office, and he explained to me in no uncertain terms that actors do not cut scenes on his set. I said, “Paul, honey, if you’d been there—everybody messed up, and it was my first day. You want this character to be successful, don’t you?” And he just repeated himself: “Tonja, nobody says ‘cut’ except the director.” Well, okay.

Thom Christopher: I thought Carlo was just going to be a one-day role. They called my agent—I had a track record at this point, because I’d done daytime as well as a load of primetime shows. My God, I was approaching 50. They wanted to know if I’d come in and audition for a one-shot role where I’d play the ex-boyfriend of the lovely Patricia Elliott, who played Renee Divine.

My agent sent over my reels, and they decided they didn’t need me to audition. Paul Rauch, genius that he was, looked at my footage and brought me in for four scenes. I went in and did them, and here’s the creative genius of Paul, who might be one of the finest producers you’ll ever find—I loved him passionately. I did the scenes with Pat, and joked to my agent that I would have paid the show in order to do them—and then my agent got another call saying they wanted me to come in and do another scene where I would just walk across the back of the room and watch what was going on. They were going to cut to me, and that was it. I did that, and then the next day there was another call, and that’s how things got started. From January of 1990 until June of 1991, I think I worked every day. This is the process by which Paul and the writers created Carlo, and it was so wonderful to be able to watch that process.

Jill Larson: The way it came about was that I’d been doing a Bernard Slade summer stock play called—well, I don’t know. [Laughs] Louise Sorel was in the cast, and we became good buddies. At the time, she was with Paul Rauch, who came and saw the show, and I got to know him a tiny bit. When the role of Ursula came up, he called me in to read for it, and I got it. It was only supposed to be for eight days, and she was supposed to die falling out of a lighthouse. Athol Fugard played my father, and I was just so thrilled and intimidated to meet him—I was a big fan of his writing, and I had just seen him in Road to Mecca at the Beacon. That was the biggest thrill for me.

The second day of our working together, I said “So how was it for you yesterday?” And he said “You know, I was at the theater tonight, standing in the blackness of the wings waiting to go on, and I thought to myself, ‘I feel as safe as in my mother’s womb right now, after that day at One Life to Live.’” [Laughs] He said, “I’ve been on the wagon for 32 years, and I have never wanted a drink as bad as I did before that dress rehearsal yesterday!” He asked me if I’d want to do soaps long-term, and I said “No, no, no.” [Laughs]

Three or five days into our storyline, Paul called me into his office. He’s eccentric, you know, so he isn’t looking at me. He’s looking off into the distance, and I’m wondering what’s going on, and then he turns to me and says, “I have some news for you.” I’m thinking “Shit, I’m fired.” He says, “You’re not going to die when you fall out of the lighthouse.” Now, I had no idea—he might as well have been saying [makes gibberish noises]. I didn’t know what that meant, you know? But I quickly came to recognize—he told me they were going to write a fuller story, and he explained they were keeping me on. So I did three sort of six-week story arcs for them, which were all a lot of fun.

Especially in New York, it was really, at that time, the only way you could make any kind of a living. We didn’t have nighttime shows to speak of in New York then, and even though there are a growing number of shows shooting there now, it’s still nothing like Los Angeles. A Broadway show was nice, but even a weekly salary on one of those was about what you’d make in a day on a soap. It was great in that regard—to be able to pay your rent. But it was more than that! It was a great perk, obviously, but I—I didn’t know anything about daytime, quite honestly, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that. I quickly came to respect the work tremendously.

Thom Christopher: I’ve done so many things in daytime that I never would have gotten a crack at anywhere else. In movies, it’s the big stars who get the opportunities to play against type. Streep, Pacino, De Niro. Everyone else is cast to type—this is what you get from them. They do good, bad, smiley, nutty. But when you look at the panorama of daytime, the rules are different, and having the ability to go from playing Carlo, to Mortimer, to the homo-erotic hinge character seeking revenge, to being vulnerable with Renee—it was so creatively exciting. Each day was a different challenge.

Roscoe Born: I came up with the idea of having Mitch go through a phony religious conversion in prison. I even proposed having “love” and “hate” on my hands, like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. That was my idea, and they just ran with it.

Parts of it were so much fun. So fun. It was unbelievable. Those kinds of things—that character, he was the most fun of any character I’ve played. In theater, in nighttime TV, anywhere. The process wasn’t always fun, but Jesus, what could be more fun than playing a guy like Mitch? The entire experience of a day where, you know, you pop out of a coffin? The whole cast is sitting there, and they’ve all been crying, and then I show up and get to do that. There’s all this ghoulish humor—it was deliciously black. And everybody was laughing their ass off. Everyone was having a blast. God, that was fun. I had tons of stuff like that.

I remember when Mitch made this escape in a fat suit as a biker, they gave me this big, padded outfit that made me look like I weighed 240 pounds, and a bald pate with Ben Franklin hair and this really bushy beard. They had excellent makeup people, because they had money. I went out on the fucking street with that thing and scared people. Once, I went down Columbus with my brother and I saw Robby Benson, and I started screaming at him, looking like this Hell’s Angel biker.

The first day they put the biker makeup on me, I went upstairs to [head writer] Peggy O’Shea’s office and just stood in the door. She created the part, and I’d talked to her a bunch of times, but she’d never seen me in that outfit. She goes, “Yes?” And I just kept standing there, so she repeated herself, and I kept on standing. Finally, I took a move toward her, and she grabbed the phone. I said, “Peggy, it’s me!” [Laughs] She looked like she was gonna shit her pants, and then she cracked up.

Jack Betts: I loved when I got to play Ivan disguised as a 90-year-old man—four hours in prosthetics. I still have a picture of myself in that makeup. I was always in disguise; that was really just fun. Those were probably my favorite scenes. I loved being a character hiding behind a character. I also played an Indian guru—I still have that photo too, and I laugh like crazy.

Roscoe Born: I remember the first time I was recognized—I couldn’t believe it. I’d been on Ryan’s Hope for a couple of months, and I went out to lunch, and there were these girls—maybe eight or 10 of them, I don’t know if they were in high school or college. But all of a sudden, I realized they were all pointing at me and getting excited—I almost ran away from them, because it was so bizarre. At first, I didn’t know why they were doing it—and then I got this incredible rush. And then I felt almost ashamed of feeling so good—that attention from strangers could do that to me. And the sexual component of it all was incredible too, you know? To have that many girls all at once exuding this energy towards me. I almost literally ran back to the studio.

Jill Larson: I was suddenly in the spotlight in a way that I didn’t know how to be. I didn’t know what was expected of me. I’m from Minnesota, I’m Scandinavian—we appreciate appreciation, but we don’t run to the spotlight. It was disconcerting to me. Almost immediately, I felt like I’d get on a subway, and people would go [buzzing noise] until someone said something, and then I’d get on the next car and it would start all over again.

I didn’t know what my responsibility to the fans was—was I supposed to sit there and talk as long as they wanted to talk? It isn’t like they had anything to say other than that they enjoyed my work on the show. It was a quandary. It was [All My Children star] David Canary who taught me how to deal with it—I saw him come out of the studio, and there were a bunch of people there. He was gracious to everyone, and he signed everything, but he kept moving. It was clear he wasn’t going to stand there and spend the afternoon. I’ve since seen movie stars use the same technique.

Roscoe Born: If you were not in a good mood, it could be terrible. You know, I’d go to the laundromat and people would ask me what I was doing there, as if I wasn’t supposed to do my own laundry. Or I’d go to McDonald’s, because I was used to eating cheap, and people couldn’t believe I was in a place like that. Those are the places where people would talk to you, and in the more sophisticated places, you’d get people just looking at you but not saying anything. And then there were the people who’d be with someone else who recognized you, and they’d adamantly refuse to admit they knew anything about soaps—and treat you like shit, actually.

I had hookers and crack dealers come up to me on the street with these really hard-assed personas, and then they’d recognize me—and in a minute, they’d turn into little children. To watch the transformation of a crack whore who recognizes you and starts to ask you what Maeve from Ryan’s Hope is really like—and hard-assed cops would go through the same thing. Soaps were America’s guilty pleasure. People would practically whisper when they told you about their experiences watching the show.

Jill Larson: It’s really, you know, “You live at my house.” That’s the beauty of soaps.

Barbara Treutelaar: When Bo and Didi got married, we received gifts in the mail.

Barbara Garrick: People would say things like, “You’re much prettier in person.” Thank you…I think? But really, it was never anything but a positive experience with the fans. Ava Haddad, who played Cassie, and I were inseparable; we’d come out of the studio, and there would be fans waiting for us. They’d go shouting after us at the grocery store—people would ask me why I stole the baby. It was mayhem for a month or so there. We just had a great time. We were making so much money, and we were young. We had so much fun together.

Jack Betts: I loved all of it, and so did the audience. The fans got a kick out of my character; they were terrifically loyal. I was upset to leave, because I was having a ball. I was having a terrific time being evil—I loved it. Occasionally I do still get people who recognize me as Ivan, even though the show is off the air. I was at a party just the other night, and a woman walked up and started talking to me about what a fan she was.

Dennis Parlato: I had just the right amount of soap fame. It was fun; it wasn’t a pain in the ass. It’s funny, though—people still recognize me as Michael Grande on occasion, even now.

Barbara Garrick: I just had someone recognize me as Allison this morning.

Roscoe Born: Maybe a dozen people have come up to me knowing my name over the last 30 years. They often don’t even know which show they’ve seen me on, so what I do if it’s a woman is ask, “When were you pregnant?” or “When were you in college?” Then I can figure out which character they remember. I mean, I was recognized a ton in the ‘80s—we all were. Everybody went on all the talk shows and that stuff, and you’d get recognized 15-20 times a day in New York City, but nobody ever knew my name. People would yell out “Channel 7!” or “ABC!”

Jill Larson: My agent was kind of relieved when I got a different job, only because she worried that I was kind of in danger of being typecast—and she was right, because truck drivers would yell at me on the street. It was a different kind of fan attention than I got when I was Opal on All My Children. [Laughs]

Tonja Walker Davidson: I thought I’d do two years on OLTL and save up enough to go back to Los Angeles, but I never went back. I went through six producers, I think, and three or four of them wanted to kill me off.

Roscoe Born: I got killed four fucking times.

Dennis Parlato: I think Larry Pine, who played Roger Gordon, hit me over the head with an ashtray. It was a hell of a way to go.

Jerry verDorn (Clint Buchanan, 2005- ): If they fire an actor, they have to get their money’s worth, and send him out in a blaze of shark shit and flamingo feathers.

Roy Thinnes: Alex Crown died twice on One Life to Live. I’ve actually died three times on One Life to Live. But Alex died from a shotgun blast to the chest, so I assumed he was dead as a doornail, and two weeks later I was back in California when I got a call asking me to come back. I said, “I don’t have my apartment anymore, and you must have the wrong guy, because my character is dead.” They said, “We want to kill him again.” I said, “What? The show’s already been aired! What are you talking about?” They said, “It’s a very forgiving audience.”

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