SOAPS

Writing about Brad Davis and soaps, reading the comments about GET OUT posted by multi-generational white friends reminded me how little I have engaged my professional history from the 70’s.

Yes, I enjoyed some early success, appearing weekly on all three networks. I’d been a working actor for barely four years. There was no cable then. One of those shows was a CBS newsmagazine called Channel 2: The People. I hosted it, was nominated for an Emmy. This was like ‘75 or so…During this time, my face became “familiar” to much of the civilized world…and remains so, to this day.

But I had a memorable meeting one day in NY with a casting agent for a soap opera. He’d known me from a couple plays I’d done at the Public Theater. I read the sides with him and Stanley Soble stopped me, before we’d finished. He had a yellow legal pad, filled from top to bottom with names. He said, “See this list? I have all these people scheduled…and I don’t want to see any of them. I want you to do this role.”

Can any actor imagine a more positive outcome from a meeting? Guess what I then said? “Stanley, I came today as a courtesy, wanting to meet you and be familiar to you. But yesterday I committed to a theatrical company at The Public Theater, to do Julius Caesar and Coriolanus in repertory. I won’t be available to shoot your soap.” And Stanley said, “Well, suppose you let me worry about that.”

I had no idea what that meant. But he called Joe Papp. They knew each other, because Stanley had been Joe’s casting director before moving to CBS…which is why he knew my work. And they worked out a schedule; I was allowed to do both. For an unforgettable six months, I rose early each day to shoot at CBS, caught a character class with Stella Adler in between and performed two Shakespearean plays in repertory at night. It was a time of incredible growth and focus for me. Challenging to my relationship but she was on board…and it was a rich and rewarding time in my life. That summer I was invited to do Shakespeare In The Park, for the first…and only time. I was burned out after that winter’s schedule, I turned it down. I think Denzel did my roles that summer.

The soap role was the personal assistant to a Ted Turner-like mogul, a billionaire. The soap was Search For Tomorrow. It had been on the air since 1951. Now twenty six years later, I would become the first actor of color to sign a contract on their show. It was sponsored by Proctor and Gamble. Most soaps were similarly sponsored, that’s why they called them “soaps”….

I don’t know anyone of color who didn’t then have an aunt or grandmother or church friend that was dedicated to “her stories.” That’s what black people called soaps. But the day was still young in TV land…and the daytime corporate establishment was hesitant about easing black actors and black lives into their white tableau. They wanted me to sign for two years. I agreed to sign for six months. I’d already shot 15 or 20 episodes by now, had all the go to hell money I’d ever need (from commercials) so I had a little leverage. I asked them to create a life for my character, Bobby Stuart. Stand up guy, professional, VERY well dressed, dedicated to his jefe, Travis Turner Sentell. (Rod Arrants, a great guy, very tall and handsome, engaged to an equally stunning heartbreaker, Sherry Mathis.  They were America’s daytime sweethearts.) But my characters life existed entirely to serve his needs. I wanted my own reality.

I’m gonna tell you a story to illustrate the creative realities at that time in American daytime TV, ‘76 or so. An episode involved a party Bobby and his lady were throwing. We’re set in Louisiana. I arrived on set that morning, noticed maybe 30 or so extras for the party…and realized that they were all white. Now I was clearly black…and the actress they’d cast as my lady, Marcia McBroom was also clearly black. (You’ll appreciate her in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.) And I mentioned to one of the producers, “You know…yes, Simone and I are both upscale…but don’t you think we would probably have at least two or three friends of color?”

It’s America in 1976, folks. Yet their response was surprising to me. They were, “Oh my…Oh! Of course you’re right. But it never even occurred to us…” That was the level of consciousness that existed. My six months came to an end. They asked that I re-sign for a year. I refused. P&G had them throw absurd money at me. “Just re-sign.” I didn’t want more money. It was never about the money. I wanted a commitment to a story line for a black character who had an independent life of his own. Their fear was that their longtime fan base, largely living in the south, would rebel and reject any such effort. So I walked. Principle. Economic security. And a commitment to what I believed could succeed, black story lines. I’m told there was later considerable upset, from on high. “What do you mean, you can’t sign him?”

So my life went on. And ABC aired Jessie and Angie on ALL MY CHILDREN. And they made daytime history! CBS, you silly wabbits. 😉

Postscript: Some years later, in the 80’s I was asked to do a few episodes on another long running soap, the one I called 1L2L. ONE LIFE TO LIVE. I forget my character…but the woman producing this show was the same woman who’d headed SEARCH. (You can do the scut work if you’re that obsessive…but I’m not gonna bust her.)

A character named Tucker was on this show, played by a young black actor…detective or agent, I dunno… I was walking behind the set and heard on the PA, “Tucker, report to the sound stage.” And I immediately wheeled and proceed to the set…and then stopped, realizing that this announcement was not meant for me.

I still remember then having this thought. She (Unidentified Producer) finally found a nigger named Tucker she could tell what to do.

Comments are closed.