The soap opera One Life to Live is going off the air. All My Children already gasped its last breath and General Hospital is teetering on its high heels.
Soap operas were originally broadcast over the radio and got their moniker because their sponsors were soap manufacturers like Proctor and Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive.
Back then their target audiences were the housewives who were at home during the day, doing the laundry and cleaning the house, while their kids were in school and their husbands were out in the workforce.
They also began to build a following among the college-aged kids…even guys reluctantly admitted they were hooked on the lives of the people who resided in the fictitious cities of Llanview, Pine Valley and Port Charles.
Soap operas depicted everyday life to the extreme, so in a sense they were the first reality shows. They took the family dynamic of wealth and power, pitted it against the ordinary working class and mixed in danger, romance, crime and poverty. Characters morphed from good to bad and back to good again. Sometimes they were good and bad at the same time. Every soap character seemed to have an evil twin story line or two. There was scandal and sorrow, greed and loss, love and hate. Just when you thought the story line couldn’t get any darker, they’d throw in a wedding or two, a natural catastrophe and the birth of a baby…sometimes all in the same hour.
As the censors began to loosen up, the episodes took on more challenging and contemporary story lines. Subjects that used to be taboo were played out on daytime television. Infidelity and divorce….homosexuality and interracial relationships…rape and disease…the best and the worst of humanity was played out in the soaps…and the viewers put their own reality aside to experience it.
Now the soaps are going the way of the dinosaur. In our fast fix culture, we no longer have the patience to watch a story line build over time. We just aren’t that interested in real reality.
Reality shows of today are slick and fast paced…manipulated to be outrageous rather than thought provoking.
I was a stuntwoman and worked most of the soaps shot in New York City. My specialty was stairfalls.
My mother used to watch All My Children and One Life to Live. She would call to give me a heads up when one of the characters became pregnant. I knew I’d be falling down the stairs about six weeks later because they almost always lost the baby in a tragic stair fall.
I’ve fallen down a well, gotten set on fire, caught in an avalanche of boulders in the Lost City of Eterna, been knocked out of a canoe and had an underwater cat fight, was chased by a cougar, pushed off a cliff, washed down a river, got trapped in burning buildings, tumbled down more stairs than I can count and gotten hit by a car…on purpose. And I had a blast.
Working on soaps is grueling…it’s a long long day and the crew and the actors are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen. When the cameras stop rolling, the actors continue to represent their shows by doing more charity work and personal appearances than any other performer. Their fans are very important to them and they are very generous with their time.
Tad and Dixie on All My Children had a story line where Tad’s evil twin chased them through a forest. I was hired as the stunt double for Dixie played by Cady McClain. They flew us all to an isolated mountain area in Toronto in November to do the location shoot. Michael E. Knight, who played Tad, was also playing his evil twin. They had an actor who stepped in when the scene called for both of them to be on camera at the same time. He was shot from behind. When they called the “twin” to set, he was referred to as “the head and shoulder”.
Tad’s evil twin knocked me off of a cliff with a tree branch…I was then washed down an icy cold river only to end up being chased through the forest by a vicious cougar. At least that was the plan.
The fall off of the cliff went without a hitch. Tad’s stunt double and I got washed down the river. It was winter, it was snowing, and the water was freezing. I was wearing a drysuit so my body didn’t get wet, but my head went under water. OMG.
They had the handler bring the cougar to the set the next day to meet me. Cougars are huge and this one was gorgeous. I’m not going to lie…he was also a little scary looking. He sniffed me up and down, but he didn’t lick his lips…so I felt good about that.
The handler explained to me that cougars pull their prey down by the legs and then go for the neck for the kill. He is saying this matter-of-factly and I am nodding like I’ve heard it before. At least I’ll know what to expect…huh…what?!?
He tells me that this particular cougar hasn’t demonstrated that kind of behavior before, but the whole time he is reassuring me, the cat is staring off into space. He has an opinion of his own.
The next morning we reported to the set. They had put big nets up and there were guys standing there with tranquilizer guns. Hmmm. The idea was to put me and the cougar inside the nets. I was to run to the tree at the end of the path…with the cougar chasing me. They had put little hand-holds into the back of the tree for me to grab to help me climb it.
I was looking at the cougar and thinking…I’ll be up that tree in ten seconds. I got inside the nets…they gave me a head start. I heard them put the cougar in behind me.
Most of you are probably too young to remember the old Tarzan movies. At some point, in every one of those films, Tarzan’s son Boy and his chimp Cheetah would be running for their lives and at the last minute they’d both climb a tree and get out of harm’s way. The camera would speed up the action and Boy and Cheetah looked like they were running a hundred miles an hour and they scaled the tree at the speed of light.
Well kids…as soon as they called “action” I started running down that path like Boy. I hit that tree and climbed it without ever touching the hand-holds. I got to the top and turned around. The cougar was laying on the path licking its paws…totally disinterested in me.
Take two. I went back up to the top of the path. The guys with the guns are watching the handler get the cougar back into his starting position. I make eye contact with the cat. He is expressionless and doesn’t even blink. Uh oh.
Action. I race down the path again and scramble up the tree. The cougar is walking slowly toward me. He knows exactly what he is doing. He is playing with me…big cat…little mouse. Everyone else thinks he’s being lazy and uncooperative…but I know the truth. I saw the smirk.
Two more takes…one has the cougar laying on his back stretching his legs in the air. The other has him leaning against the base of the tree like he’s had too much to drink. He is not drugged so I know this is an act. He knows that I am in a weakened state from supporting my body weight and climbing the tree so many times. I’m onto him.
I suggest they tie a pork chop to my ass, because in my heart I know I don’t have a lot of tree climbing left in me and I would much rather the cougar kill me while chasing me…than have me drop out of the tree like an apple right in front of him.
The handler decides that the cougar is getting irritated and has had enough. The director thinks they can piece it together…I know they have enough tree climbing footage. The first few takes I genuinely looked terrified…the last few I think I might have been laughing.
The next day I can’t lift my arms up over my head. Lucky for me, we were going back into the icy cold water, so I knew that at least the swelling would have a chance to do down.
After we wrapped shooting, there was a cast party at the hotel. The handler brought the cougar and it sat down next to me and put its paw on my foot. Cougars don’t smell that good. I was thinking they should have sprayed him with some air freshener. He never looked up at me once.
But any time I tried to shift or get up he put pressure down on my foot. I’m guessing he was telling me that he would chase me when HE felt like it and until then, I was going to sit there and wait like bait. He stayed for most of the party…and I never left my seat.
I did a car hit once on One Life to Live that could have gone better. Soaps didn’t go out of the studio that much…so location shoots were a big deal and it called for a lot of crew in addition to all the actors and stunt people.
Carlo Hesser, the villain of that particular story arch…was standing talking to Renee…Asa Buchanan’s wife…a car driven by Tina was hurtling toward them and at the last minute Carlo Hesser’s stunt double would dive out of the way…and Renee, who I was doubling, would be hit by the car.
I was wearing a full length sable coat which is kind of a greasy fur. I remember thinking that the hood of the car looked really shiny and I didn’t push off as hard…JUST IN CASE.
Well…when the coat hit the hood of the car, I slid so fast up it that my head went through the windshield. I flipped off the top of the roof and down the side of the car and the rear wheels ran over my legs.
This all happened in a matter of seconds. When my head went through the windshield I grayed out and I didn’t tuck my chin so my head slammed back on the pavement. I can still hear the sound it made…like a melon being tossed.
I was laying on the road looking up at the night sky. My whole upper body was numb. I remember thinking that the crescent moon looked like a cow should be jumping over it. I think I even said that out loud. It was a beautiful starry night and all I could think of was that I had paralyzed myself doing a soap opera stunt. I felt water on my face and I asked if it was raining.
The ambulance driver was leaning over me. He thought I was delirious. He was nervous and sweating profusely…all over me…it might have been his first job. He slapped a collar around my neck, strapped me to a board and off we went to the emergency room, siren blaring.
I felt the feeling coming back into my arms so I knew I was okay and asked if I could sit up but they wouldn’t let me. When we got to the hospital there was a lot of pandemonium in the hallway. I heard them say that a two hundred pound woman had been hit by a car and they were trying to decide if they needed to call in a trauma team.
An ABC rep had ridden with me in the ambulance. I looked up at her. “What a coincidence. Someone else was hit by a car too.”
I thought the ABC rep was there out of concern for me, but I think they sent her to make sure she got the sable back. They got the coat off of me and started cutting off my pants.
Stunt people take every kind of precaution. I was wearing a huge fur coat, so I had on every stunt pad I owned, including some heavy duty shin pads. I weighed less than 125 pounds, but underneath the coat I looked like the Michelin Tire Man.
“Where is she in here?” The doctor who was cutting my pants was getting frustrated.
“Do they think I’m the two hundred pound woman who got hit by a car? Ask them not to cut my pads…I need them for tomorrow.”
They scanned me from head to toe. I had a knot like a fist on the back of my head, but otherwise, I was fine. I was lucky too. Putting on all those pads probably saved my legs.
They salvaged my stunt pads and the next day I flew to Pittsburgh to get thrown around by a monster in a Steven King movie directed by George Romero. They had a hard time getting the wig over the knot on the back of my head. Otherwise, I was A-ok.
Months later on another location shoot, we were headed up in the elevator to the roof of a building. We were going to crawl across a ladder placed over the alleyway to the building on the other side. Some crew guys were telling me about a job they’d done where a stunt had gone bad.
“I can still hear that chick’s head hitting the road, man. It sounded like a freaking watermelon splitting.”
They were talking about me. Yikes.
Things change…popularity and staying power is determined by the advertising buck.
Who knows? The soaps could make a comeback.
I was lucky to be part of soap history. I fell down almost every staircase in Pine Valley and Llanview and I loved every step of it…
Day Three Hundred and thirty nine…One Life to Live is enough…if you do it right…