In this age of social media and instant access and Donald Trump and caged children and a nation melting, I am thankful for Maggie Haberman. I am thankful for Jonathan Martin. I am thankful for Chuck Todd and Katy Tur and Chris Wallace.
I am thankful for Nancy Lee Grahn.
Now, to be honest, I’ve never watched an episode of General Hospital, the show on which Nancy has starred for decades. I’ve never seen Santa Barbara, another soap on which she appeared. I didn’t see when she guest-hosted The View and I only vaguely recall her briefer-than-brief stint on Little House on the Prairie (one of my childhood staples).
But here’s the thing: Nancy Lee Grahn kicks ass. She has a platform, she has a voice and she uses both of them to speak her mind. She’s loud and opinionated and smart and as socially conscious as any celebrity you’ll ever see. Her Twitter feed is often on fire. In a good way. Not literally.
Nancy’s Emmy-packed acting career is riveting, and this week’s 365th Quaz opens up on what it is to be a soap opera star; on her steamy relationship with Michael Landon; on Bill Bixby and fame and the pressing question she would ask Mr. T.
Nancy Lee Grahn—you are the newest Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Nancy, you’ve acted in a ton of different places within a wide variety of genres, but you’re best known for your work on “General Hospital” and “Santa Barbara.” And I wanted to ask, as a non-soap opera guy, why you think the soaps have lasted this long, and drawn so many fans/viewers? Is it the message? The medium? The time slot? The … what?
NANCY LEE GRAHN: Technically, we’re supposed to get our scripts 72 hours in advance. That used to matter to m e… now I can quickly assess the import of my material for the day and measure the time I need the material to ruminate in my brain. After all those years in acting school, along with acting every day for 31 years I’m fairly adept at doing this. So depending on the material, I can either learn lines on way up to shoot, or look them over a night or two before. And sometimes, even after I see scripts ahead of time, I have no idea what Alexis is doing or why. That used to upset me. Now I just say it fast and hope no one notices.
J.P.: Is fame great or awful? I mean, you’ve had this long, wonderful career. I’m sure you’ve been well compensated, etc. But—does being in the public eye become exhausting? Do you sorta cringe when people approach in, say, a restaurant? Are there times you wish you could be invisible?
N.L.G.: Never. I can honestly say I’venever had a moment of not enjoying my relationship with my audience. What could be so bad about having people come up to you and telling you how much they like you? My fame is very manageable and quite lovely. I don’t think I’d have the same feeling if I were Jennifer Anniston or Madonna, who can go nowhere unnoticed. For me it’s just a nice thing.
J.P.: I know you’re from Evanston, Illinois, I know your idol was Katharine Hepburn, I know you got your start in a community production of “Oklahoma.” But when did the acting bug first bite you? When did you first realize, “Holy shit! I want to do this”?
N.L.G.: I auditioned for “Bye Bye Birdie” my junior year in high school having not been in the theatre. I got the lead. I remember each night singing on stage and feeling 100 percent tapped in, tuned in, and turned on. I had this sense of confidence, centeredness and certainty. Still not believing acting was a practical choice for a career, I played the lead in my senior year musical. Someone saw me, and told me to audition for the Broadway Equity production of “Guys and Dolls” that was coming to the Goodman Theatre, a very reputable repertoire theatre in Chicago. They were looking for a couple roles to fill in Chicago. I auditioned and got the role. And so it goes.
J.P.: There’s a quote on your IMDB page—“I’m not a radical feminist, I’m an optimistic one.” And, truth be told, these days I’m having a ton of trouble feeling optimistic, what with Donald Trump’s pure awfulness, the rise of North Korea, climate change, etc. So … are you still optimostic? And, if so, how? And why?
N.L.G.: As you can tell from my Twitter, I’m filled with rage, shock, horror, and utter bafflement. I vent daily, RT info, call senators and scream at them, write checks to the blue team, and laugh when I can. But underneath it all, yes, I am optimistic. We unfortunately needed this contrast. We grew complacent and fine about sitting back and letting other’s handle things while whining about how unlikable really qualified women were. We forgot that democracy and equal rights aren’t to be taken for granted. They are privileges that need to be continually fought for. Everyone needed to wake up. And the inexplicable contrast that Trump and his baf-goons have presented us with, has awakened and activated us. It is a giant freakin soap opera that has us engaged, and mercifully schooled in civics like never before. I see the fire in the bellies of many of us, but mostly in these kids. They’re gonna shift the plates under our earth, stabilize us, and set us on a better course. Yes, I’m optimistic … when I’m not in a fetal position crying for my mommy.
J.P.: Hold on, Nancy! I was just reading your IMDB page and, in 1980, you played “Saloon Girl” in an episode of Little House. Ok, make my happy. How did you land the part? What do you remember?
N.L.G.: I slept with Michael Landon!
I auditioned for those coveted twO lines. I remember, Michael Landon who was a dream, meant nothing by it, but when giving me a direction, called me “sweetie.” I asked him if he could call me by my name. I’m such an asshole.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
N.L.G.: I like winning awards. So Emmys are nice moments … but I truly love what I do, so the great moments are many and the low ones are forgettable.
J.P.: Serious question—should we be giving soap operas more respect? What I mean is, I feel like there’s a certain eye roll with soaps. Like, “Yeah, she used to be in a soap, but now …” Do you feel like we idiots misunderstand the genius of the medium?
N.L.G.: This is such a good question and one I’ve never been asked after all these years. The lack of respect for soap operas is due to a lack of understanding for what we do. Let me start by saying that I have more of a sense humor about soap operas than anyone. There are days when I’m asked to do and say things that would never happen on planet earth. In order to act you have to be able to answer the question why
Why is my brother not dead, after I saw them extract his liver that was used to save my daughter? Why does my neighbor have a bomb strapped to him that goes off at his house, knock everyone in my house unconscious, while he walks out of his kitchen with a scrape on his forehead? On those days you either throw a fit about how no one can act this shit, you laugh your way through it, or you have an out-of-body experience while you’re acting it. I’ve done all three … sometimes at once.
But here’s the thing, we shoot seven, sometimes eight shows a week. Each script is approximately 150 pages. Writers, producers, directors, crew, have to navigate all of that, along with sets, lights, actor availability, and a myriad other things. The actors have to efficiently figure out how to make it all believable with only one rehearsal. It is not for sissies. And it is not a damned training ground. Never, ever, say that to an actor on Daytime television. It’s not an actor training ground, It’s a fucking acting warzone, and you’d better know what you’re doing or you’ll be chewed up and spit out. When young actors come in, they often stick out like a sore thumb until they catch on and most don’t. Even if you’re a pro … the last person who is very well known on prime time came on for five days and when it was over said, “I feel like I’ve been dragged through a swamp naked.”
Most of us who’ve been doing this for a while have figured out a method to be as good as we can with every limitation. We don’t have the luxury of budget, time and a team of 50 writers who have six months to weigh their every word and weave intricate, detailed stories. We are TV rep company. We do a different play every day on a dime and a prayer … and make a whole lotta people happy in the process. So, yeah, respect would be nice, but not necessary. We know who we are, and what we do. The truth is, I’ve gotten to say some incredibly beautiful words and do some great acting, over the years that I’m very proud of. I’ve watched others do the same. I’ve also been able to act regularly for 31 years, and I still love it. I love going to work. And on the days that are silly and I can’t answer the question why? … as my acting teacher, Sandy Meisner said to me … “You can always listen and respond.” True that.
J.P.: You’ve won multiple Emmy Awards, and while that’s awesome, I wonder whether, in acting, there’s such a thing as “best.” Maybe that sounda naïve or corny, but it seems that acting—like writing—is subjective. No? And, along those lines, what did it feel like to win the first Emmy?
N.L.G.: Winning an Emmy is lovely. It’s nice to imagine stuff and have it happen, but mostly it’s a great opportunity to go on a rampage of appreciation for your family and friends.
J.P.: You’re an actress in her early 60s who has managed to work and work and work. Which is amazing, but it also seems unlikely, given the way your profession seems to treat many women as they age. So how do you feel you’ve been able to survive and thrive? And do you feel like my take on the profession and women is right? Or overly simplistic?
S.L.G.: As a woman on General Hospital, I’m still relevant. I’m 60, having better sex on the show than … well, anyone … thriving … front burner and interesting. Soaps are better than any medium on television for honoring and respecting woman. I cannot stress enough the gender equality and lack of age discrimination that I’ve experienced on daytime television. I cannot say the same for primetime. The roles available to me as a woman on primetime are down to a five-line guest star with no substance or relevance. There is typically one white woman lead, an ethnic supporting woman ( thank God for that) and a thousand men. It is not OK. As archaic as people think soaps are, they value women more than most others.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH NANCY LEE GRAHN:
• I feel like your last name is begging for an M to replace the N. How often have you faced that misspelling in your life?: Oy! GRAHN. It’s AAAH not AT like in bat. Why don’t people get that?
• Three reasons one should make Skokie his/her next vacation destination: I’m not gonna lie. It’s a great place to grow up… not vacation.
• I’m wondering what—if anything—you remember about the whole Nazi/Skokie controversy from your youth?: I was there then. I was home visiting. As a daughter of a Jewish mom, which makes me Jewish, and growing up with many friends whose parents had numbers branded on their arms … it was jaw-droppingly horrifying and confusing. There was a part of me that said ignore these assholes. They are few and irrelevant. But the other part of me knew that, that is how the holocaust happened. No one should ever ignore this evil. Stomp it out.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Chicago Tribune, doing laundry, Tyrod Taylor, distance running, “All the President’s Men,” Kim Zimmer, the Electric Slide, Elton John, Winnie Cooper: Chicago Tribune (only because @rexhuppke writes for it and makes me laugh and think every day). Elton John (because Charlie, my daughter’s bestie in the pop program at USC, is the son of his guitarist). Kim Zimmer because she is my fellow soap diva, “All the President’s Men” because it is the truth and I hate the electric slide and don’t know who Winnie Cooper is and I’m sure she doesn’t know me either.
• Three memories from your appearance on The Incredible Hulk: I run like a really uncoordinated girl. I loved Bill Bixby. I learned to drive a stick shift on set and made Bill and my dog so nervous, they both pee’d in the seat.
• The world needs to know—what did David Hasselhoff’s hair smell like?: I did not smell David’s hair, although he was much funnier than I expected.
• We’ve both been blocked on Twitter by Scott Baio. What does that say about us?: Being blocked by Scott Baio shows good breeding.
• Tell us a joke, please: I am the worst joke teller ever. I laugh before the punch line.
• Without Googling, name every Donna Summer song you know: “Last Dance.”
• One question you would ask Mr. T were he here right now: Why?