Age is just a number

The mainstream press has been buzzing in the last week over the fact that Madonna and Michael Jackson turned 50. Prince turned the big 5-0 in June, so this is something of a cultural milestone, especially for those of us who came of age in the mid-to-kate 1980s. 

We complain a great deal about the lack of balance when it comes to veterans and older actors in daytime, and there are some shows that are guiltier of this than others. (Jill Farren Phelps hasn’t met a middle-aged or older character she didn’t want to push down a metaphorical staircase to his or her death. For the “impact”, of course.) 

But I was kind of astonished, in a good way, about a few actors who are still visible in our daytime world, and I wanted to celebrate them here. 

A few weeks back, in late July, I was reading Roger Newcomb’s We Love Soaps website and saw that Kathryn Hays (Kim on As The World Turns)  was having a birthday. She was turning seventy-five. Seventy-five!

Hays looks fantastic, and if you have any impressions that Kim’s sitting around knitting and pouring coffee, think otherwise. Kim runs WOAK, executive produces Oakdale Now, and for sport, bares her claws and fans to longtime foe Susan Stewart. 

That scene also includes Don Hastings, who is turning seventy-five next year and is celebrating one of the longest runs in any acting role as Bob Hughes, as well as the divine Marie Masters, who at sixty-seven looks easily a decade or more younger. (Not featured in this clip but still actively seen on the show is Helen Wagner as matriarch Nancy Hughes. Wagner celebrates her 90th birthday next year!) 

Whatever you think of the current ATWT (I find it schizophrenic – sometimes great and sometimes awful) I have to give kudos to the writing team for including the Bob/Kim/Susan history. In fact, most of the writing teams since Doug Marland have done at least a serviceable job of remembering the history for Bob and Kim (and Susan). 

Sister P&G show Guiding Light hasn’t retained as much of its history (to the detriment of the show) and their most senior contract player is 60-year-old Justin Deas (Buzz). But I have been very glad to see more of Maeve Kinkead, who looks fantastic at sixty-two and still brings a much-needed grace and balance to GL any time she’s on screen. 

The ABC shows may have trimmed many of the vets from their ranks (especially at GH), but One Life to Live still features Erika Slezak, front and center at 60, and Robin Strasser, still a force of nature at 61 as Dorian. And All My Children has the sixty-two year old Susan Lucci as Erica Kane, and has brought Adam Chandler back to the front-burner, played by David Canary, who at 72 looks much as he did when he joined the show. (We miss seeing James Mitchell as Palmer, and Eileen Herlie as Myrtle; both actors are 88.) 

Of course, the most front-burner veteran character is undoubtedly Katherine Chancellor, played by Jeanne Cooper. Cooper turns 80 in October, and her portrayal of Katherine just won her an Emmy (her first), so clearly, she just gets better with age. 

I’m sure I’ve missed a few of your favorites – let me know who!

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9 thoughts on “Age is just a number

  1. I do not know why TPTB push the vets off to the side. I am 25 years old, and I love seeing the characters that I grew up with on screen. Some of the younger crowd are 1. plain boring. 2 can not act. As long as the story and acting is good, I do not care about the age of the characters.

  2. Emotionally, I agree with you.

    From a business sense, I think those who believe that soaps can be “rejunvenated” to appeal to a younger audience disagree with retention of vets, and from a business sense I agree.

    So, why do we want younger viewers? The old saw that younger viewers have more shape-able brand preferences is often given, but I think that may be specious. As many note, older boomers have more disposable income.

    There is another reason to want young viewers, and that is because the business model of these soaps is premised on multi-year investments. So, you need to replace your dying older audience.

    Now, as Kim says, young people don’t just want to watch young people, right? Well…I’m not so sure.

    Think about other forms of culture: primetime, music. Often, liking something that the older generation likes is the HEIGHT of uncool. Thus, we might reject music from a band that was hot 20 years ago…even if it is good…because it is a product of a past generation.

    So, the very veterans that please older viewers (and cause them to stick around…witness Young and Restless) are the “uncool” factor that harms “replacement” by younger viewers.

    (Of course, the other problem is that — via inflation alone — veterans can boost personnel costs for soaps…and that is a killer).

    In the end, it is for these reasons that I have personally concluded that soaps need to plan for shorter runs and generational replacement.

    A soap ought to plan, from the get go, to run for a shorter time. Maybe not a telenovela’s 13 weeks or 6 months…but maybe with a planned five year or seven year arc (as is implicit in many primetime shows). Then, in that time window, the plan is to cultivate “vets” [characters/actors from inception] who see you through to the end.

    But, to generate a new audience, you’ve also got to keep reinventing new soaps (continuing, dramatic, maybe melodramatic, and maybe daily) for the next generation. These soaps are NOT your mother’s shows. Ideally, your mother doesn’t want to watch them.

    Lastly, and quite tangentially, we need to revisit the time slot, ESPECIALLY for next generation shows. Daytime is NOT going to reach the younger viewers. After school/before primetime seems to work so well in Europe and Canada…I can’t help but believe that we need to unseat Oprah and Ellen and Dr. Phil and claim THEIR slots. The affiliates know these are the profitable times, so it will be hard to claim them. But here, I think there is hope.

    Wire services this weekend reported the rebirth of “The WB” as an all-internet service. More generally, affiliates are an antiquated distribution system that used to allow network signals to be widely spread over the air waves. But times are changing. Even local signals are going digital, and all the growth has been via non-local distribution (cable, satellite, and recently internet).

    I cannot wait for the day that ABC/NBC/CBS are FREE of their affiliates. Because at that point, they will need to again fill those late morning and late afternoon slots.

    In those slots, I think we might see a resurgence of the formats that worked so well back in the day…games and soaps. Eventually, too many talk and judge shows just can’t be enough.

    RESPONSE: Mark, I agree with most of your comments, especially from a business standpoint.

    But shows should be balanced. Going too much one way or the other in terms of the characters on the shows is a bad idea. This is a lot of what I’ve tried to convey on my “list” – that we have too small an array of characters. There isn’t a diversity of age, personality type, physical type, etc. I mean, we have Kendall on AMC, and six more characters almost exactly like her. That sort of thing.

    I just wanted to celebrate that these folks were still around.

    And I think it was Sam Ford’s class that blogged that their favorite characters were fiftysomething Margo and Lucinda. I know when I was 16, Bob and Kim were two of my favorites.

  3. Hi, Did you miss someone? I think so! What about Eileen Fulton on ATWT? She turns 75 in September 13th. I applaud ATWT for having these veterans on and it wouldn’t be the same show if they weren’t. There’s been a time when we hardly ever saw Kim, Bob, Lisa, Nancy and Lucinda and I really missed them! I’m glad they’re more in the picture now and I still think there should be more male veterans on the show!

    And in case you’re wondering: I’m only 43…

    RESPONSE: I think Miss Eileen prefers to be referred to as “ageless”!

  4. Thanks so much for this! Like many others, I began watching soaps when I was a kid and it was always the “older” characters that I loved. Vets have huge fan bases, there’s still lots of s/l potential for them and as Kim mentioned, they can act!! I’d love to see them better utilized on all the soaps.

    You mentioned some great ones! I’d add B&B’s Susan Flannery (69 this year), DAYS Diedre Hall (61 this year), Y&R’s Eric Braeden (67), GH’s Tony Geary (61) – all of them are FAB and have only gotten better with age 🙂

    RESPONSE: Thanks for those additions, Melanie!

  5. I know some others have already chimed in here regarding other ATWT cast members, surely the show that has kept the most longtime characters around. Lucinda and Emma Snyder both belong on the list, and I’ve been thinking considerably about how wonderful Kathleen Widdoes is (especially after seeing that clip of her in younger days on Mad Men a couple of weeks back), because–even though I don’t always like Emma’s stubborn narrow-mindedness, I realize what a wonderful performance Kathleen makes as a twist on the old voice of reason character in that her reasoning isn’t always right, and that self-righteousness that permeates throughout the Snyder family definitely comes from her. As for Liz Hubbard, well, Dave Feldman tells me that there was talk in the 1970s that they needed to get rid of Liz on Doctors because she was too old. Cut to 2008, and they’re teasing a love interest for her. Her Lucinda is timeless.

    As an aside, I think of veteran as character as much as by actor, so certainly ATWT should also be commended for continuing to give material to Colleen Zenk-Pinter and Scott Holmes, as well as Jon Hensley, the former who has been such a vital part of the show for many years now and the latter two who have turned in the type of performances that really paint a picture of characters that are rarely dramatic in the way one would expect from a soap opera. The nuance of Scott and Jon’s performance helps make both rounded and complicated characters. So, even as I often knock ATWT–my show–for its creative unevenness, they have manned the ship with so many pros that it helps see you through bad points…

    I feel that what daytime is lacking when it comes to this generational aspect is a.) confidence in storytelling and b.) lack of promotional savvy.

    RESPONSE: Sam, thanks for stopping by! I’d heard about the Widdoes appearance on Mad Men but haven’t seen it yet!

    I know ATWT is creatively uneven, and it hasn’t escaped change over the last decade. But I still maintain that, other than perhaps Y&R, ATWT still has the most recognizable landscape in terms of characters and narrative.

  6. This is in response to MarkH:

    I disagree with most of what was said! I am 32 years old, and have been watching GH since the early to mid 80s. I began watching the soap with my mother, and was quite young during the 80s when I watched. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying older characters like Sean and Tiffany, or Edward Q, or Robert and Anna, along with the younger crowd like Dawn and Decker, and Robin Scorpio, etc. In the 90s, I was in high school and I fell in love with Lucy and Kevin, while still loving the Karen/Jason/Jagger/Brenda quad. The point is, during the years, it didn’t matter the age, if the story was good, and the acting was decent, I liked it. Many people I know who watch GH are in the mid to late 20s/early 30s, and they all are thrilled every time Laura comes back. We were all very very young during the original Luke & Laura days, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate them now. And I almost take offense to the not liking music of another era because it’s “not hip”. How many teenagers today listen to 80s music? You can hear it on almost any mix music station of today. I was born in the 70s, but still appreciate classic rock bands and late 60s rock. To say that young people don’t like anything much older than themselves is sort of insulting.

    As I said, it doesn’t matter how old something or someONE is, if it’s good to watch or listen to, then I think people will give it a chance.

    The one thing I did agree with is possibly moving Daytime soaps to a different time period. Early evening actually sounds like a good idea. For the women who are now working, it would be the ideal if they’d like to start tuning back into an old soap. Soapnet is helpful in this aspect for those who work, but since I watch GH and Days, both soaps air too late for me on soapnet to watch later on, so I would just end up DVRing them if I missed the daytime airing anyway. But if all soaps moved into the 4pm-8pm bracket, it might be much more convenient for working women to tune back in.

    RESPONSE: Jenn, the early evening idea is a great one on paper. The UK has programmed Eastenders there for years with great success. I think the issue is the affiliates; that has been their time for many years and they are unlikely to reliquish it. Also, they can more cheaply program those house these days with 3 hours of news, vs. the cost of scripted programming (or even repeats of old sitcoms).

  7. Part of the reason why soaps appealed to me as a teen was the voyeurism of seeing older people deal with issues I couldn’t relate to yet. Now that I’m an adult, it’s because of my attachment to the characters. I don’t understand HOW the soap industry forgot their biggest selling point: the continuing story that goes on for decades. We follow these characters from the cradle to the grave, so why would we STOP just because they get a few wrinkles? Sam Ford is right. Even Jon Hensley is a veteran now, but if ATWT goes on for another 20 years and he’s still on, I expect to see Holden as a useful presence.

    That’s the main problem. ATWT is using its vets more effectively now, but only for the purpose of supporting younger people. In a business worried about budgets, why are actors with long term contracts being showcased on a recurring basis? It’s silly to me. Lucinda should ALWAYS drive stories. I can’t tell you how many times I wondered why Emma was absent from the drama evolving in her house this year. If the coveted youth demographic is only free to watch soaps during the summer, why have they held the industry hostage for so long? The other 9 months aren’t even safe for the rest of us anymore. Perhaps the time slot idea should be tried out, but then again good storytelling will draw viewers no matter when the shows air.

  8. Hey Patrick-
    Thanks for the age issue. And I can’t believe Kathryn Hays is 75?! How did that happen?
    I really miss having a older figure on GL. I always loved Bert bustling around in the kitchen, listening to the problems of everyone, or Henry and HB talking.

    On EE they just had John Bardon come back after a stroke. There was drama (a confrontation with a son he had problems with) tenderness (he bounded with one of his great-grandaughters played by Maisie Smith who, trust me, will be a star) and fab acting by Bardon and June Brown as his wife Dot, who realizes she must take care of him.

    Now people like Jill Farren Phelps might think this is boring, nobody cares about this.
    The ratings were sky high.

    RESPONSE: Hi Jennifer! Great to see you here!

    I couldn’t agree more about GL. I think GL has been missing that for a long time. (No offense to Marj Dusay, but Alexandra isn’t exactly a nurturing character – and we see little of her anyway.) I wish they would have made more of Mary Stuart as Meta than they did, and I really wish they had recast Meta. Barring that, introducing an elderly aunt for Jeffrey or something like that would do the trick. The show is sorely missing that nurturing older character. I love Reva, Lillian, and Vanessa but I don’t quite see any of them in that role.

    I agree about Eastenders too. It sounds like a great move they’ve made. (We have unfortunately seen what happens when a star gets ill and the show terminates his employment, as P&G did with Michael Zaslow.) I only ever caught the first few seasons of EE (then my PBS station dropped it and I never quite got back into the story) but my favorite character was Dot Cotton. She’s exactly what I mean when I talk about diversity – having someone who’s a grumpy gossip and disagreeable with other characters. I once described Dot as being kind of Phoebe Tyler-esque — if Phoebe was working class, chain-smoked, and worked in a laundromat.

  9. Patrick-
    Try YouTube for episodes of EE. Mostly it’s cut scenes but if you get lucky sometimes they show full episodes and also they show specials they do, like one on Dot. She’s my fave character on the show, and I can do a good Peggy Mitchell (Mostly it’s me bellowing “Get out of me pub!!!”

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