When One Life to Live airs its last episode tomorrow after its historic 43-year run on ABC, nobody can ever say this show didn’t go down without a fight! After dodging cancellation rumors for several years, being moved to its new digs (when also canceled All My Children headed west to Los Angeles), they continued to deliver what the show is best known for: high-quality dramatic stories, one-of-a-kind performances and production values that for all its efforts ranked the series third among all of the current daytime soap operas. And, that’s even as they were axed from the network and as they sign-off tomorrow to make room for the new lifestyle/makeover show for women, The Revolution. A sign of the times—and a less expensive way to air some filler during the day seemed to be the order of the new focus of ABC’s daytime programming block. And thus, the most innovative, heart-tugging and creative soap of all-time will take its final bow.
As this sad kick-in-the-teeth twice story goes, ABC canned OLTL from their lineup, then Prospect Park (the entertainment media company) acquired the licensing rights to the show to move it to its new Online Network, only to pull out just five days after the series wrapped its final episode. The news rocked the soap world, and its devoted and loyal fans, that One Life, for all intent and purposes, will go to soap opera heaven with its epitaph reading: “You canceled the wrong show!”
The daytime drama, created by the legendary soap scribe Agnes Nixon was originally titled Between Heaven and Hell before it was renamed One Life to Live. And at its center was the story of Victoria Lord and her then-split personality, Niki Smith, who later in the series would splinter into multiple personalities when it was revealed that Viki was sexually abused by her father. The struggles of the working-class and the rich, and the ethnic diversity that ran through the town of Llanview over four decades, was unmatched in the annals of daytime soap. Over the last 20 years, the show has focused on four main core families and their friends, enemies and everyone in between—The Lords, The Buchanans, The Cramers and a sort of hybrid, The Mannings!
From romance, intrigue and courtroom drama unmatched anywhere in soaps; look no further than Judith Light’s Daytime Emmy-winning, unforgettable performance in 1979 as Karen Wolek (when she took the witness stand and admitted she was a prostitute in front of her husband and family) to exonerate her best friend, Viki. Stories on mental illness, social issues of the day, action/adventure soap style and some highly creative fantasy episodes and more, OLTL packed all of it into its 43 years. They accomplished this with a quirky and loveable appeal that made the audience at home on occasion have a good laugh—and ultimately what a good soap does best—made us reach for a box of tissues and have a good cry.
One Life to Live was also a leader with LGBT storylines and issues affecting the gay community. One of the most powerful stories in the history of the series was that of a young teenage boy, Billy Douglass (played by motion picture star Ryan Phillipe) and his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality while homophobia ran rampant in Llanview. The Rev. Andrew Carpenter (Wortham Krimmer) stood up for the young boy and to his very conservative father, Sloan (Roy Thinnes), who couldn’t come to terms that his other son, William, was gay and died of AIDS. And through this storyline in 1992, OLTL incorporated the AIDS Memorial Quilt into its theme, which was a historic moment for daytime and the LGBT community.
In 2009, OLTL ventured again into same-sex sexuality, by telling the love story of Oliver Fish (Scott Evans) and Kyle (Brett Claywell). The duo had the first gay “sex-scene” on soaps, and at the end of their aborted run on the show, won custody of Fish’s biological child and thus illustrated to the mainstream viewing audience that two men can be proven fit to raise a child, even if they are gay. With all the story points that were woven through the telling of this tale, including gay-bashing, there was a stand for equality in an episode of the show when it represented numerous same-sex couples being married in an outdoor ceremony at the same time. Dorian Lord (Robin Strasser) was incorporated into the mix when she chose gay marriage as her “hot-button” issue for her run in the Llanview mayoral race and pretended to be a lesbian. But when all was said and done, it was noted by the network that it was viewer backlash that wiped Kish (as Kyle and Fish were best known) off the canvas by 2010. However, the drama behind-the-scenes on why Kish was kiboshed had many variations on it, and to this day has been a cause for heated debate and controversy among fans of the series.
As the series prepares to say farewell to its loyal audience, Frontiers chatted with some of the stars from One Life who have made Llanview their home, and for television viewers, the best small town to visit in the afternoon for 43 years. Erika Slezak has played Victoria Lord Riley Burke Buchanan Buchanan Carpenter Davidson Banks for 40 years. A record-setting six Daytime Emmy wins later, Erika still reigns supreme as the greatest daytime actress the genre has ever seen and the leader of the One Life acting troupe. She related how difficult it is to have it all come to a close. “When we were canceled, I was walking to work one day and I got so sad, because I won’t be seeing my buddies or my friends anymore,” Erika poignantly said. “There is a life that lives in this building, obviously. Many of us have been here together for many years, and even people that have been here for two weeks become part of the family so quickly. I was sitting next to Agnes Nixon when we did our final cast photo and I started to cry. I told her, ‘You changed my life, and I have not been able to properly thank you.’ What she did for me and what she has done for the audience is quite remarkable. Thank God we did not do the photo shoot the last day of the show. I think we all would have been in tears. I don’t think any one of us could have gotten through it. It’s kind of amazing that we were all together one last time for the photo. I am trying very hard not to think about Friday.”
Erika revealed that through every ordeal that the writers have thrown at her for 40 years as Viki, and even though it happened to the character she played, she felt it personally as well! “What we do is we live here for hours and hours a day, and it can’t help but affect you. When you play something that is important it is life-changing. I have played stories from breast cancer … a heart transplant … marriages and deaths … of course, it has to affect you. I am very proud of this show and the actors on the show. People do not have any idea of how hard we work. It’s not easy to come in here at 7 in the morning and be on camera at 9:30 a.m. and don’t make any mistakes. I am so proud of everyone who has stayed with us—the actors, the audience and the people who put this show together. It was really awesome to be a part of it!”
And just how does Erika feel about the way Viki ends her on-screen life in Llanview? “I am happy and I am OK with the ending, because it leaves it hanging in a very nice way… because a lot of the characters will be left hanging, and should they go this way, or, should they go that way? That will be the question.”
Robert S. Woods (Bo) and Hillary B. Smith (Nora) have been married onscreen, then broken apart by some pretty soapy circumstances, yet fans stood by the couple for 10 years until they were finally remarried when Bo and Nora got a clue that they were meant to be together. Robert could not believe how the loyal One Life viewer contingent waited for the duo to find love with each other—again. “I was so struck by that, because I kept thinking and telling them, ‘No. It’s over. Don’t you get that? Their lives have taken completely different directions. Doesn’t anybody get it but me?' But as it turns out, I was the only guy who didn’t get it until we were reteamed, and then I went, ‘Wow, this is like stealing money and so easy!’ This last couple of years has been really fun. We came back together and it blew me away and I could not believe it. The fans are what kept us going. I know they are not happy about losing this soap. It is going to be a very devastating loss for them. They would make trips to the studio for hours and hours to just say hello to us and say thanks." Hillary related, “I want the fans to know, we know. They have been so generous and so kind. They have given to our charities and made us gifts and food, homemade rugulah for God sakes, we know.”
Michael Easton plays the smoldering silent type as John McBain. You see, whether it was as Lieutenant or Detective McBain, John solved all the crime sprees in Llanview, thus making him the show’s hero. Michael related how one fan experience touched him profoundly, illustrating the power of this dying genre. “I was down at Super Soap Weekend one year and there was a lady in my autograph line. She said, ‘My daughter goes for her chemotherapy every three weeks and she saves up your episodes, and we watch them while she is getting treatment for the five and half hours we are there.’ You hear something like that and it changes what you feel about what you are doing here. And for one moment, you feel pretty good. I know everybody says they have the best fans, and I know there must be some drunk and gambling crazy fans somewhere, but it is really true—we have the nicest people. Their commitment and passion for what we do is extraordinary.”
Kristen Alderson and Kassie DePaiva have played the mother/daughter duo of Starr Manning and Blair Cramer for decades. And fans of the series have watched Alderson grow up from a little tike right before their eyes, while fans have watched Blair be, shall we say, quite the slut at times. The two revealed just how much the fans meant to their stay in Llanview. Kristen began, “The fans are a family to us. They have been with us through so much. We feel like they have been there through all of it. They have seen my first kiss, my first love scene! I would not be on this show if it wasn’t for the fans falling in love with Starr, and so I have them to thank for everything.”
Kassie choked back the tears and began to say, “It’s a beautiful thing to go out and meet the fans and know how much your existence as Blair has changed their lives. But not only as Blair, but also as Kassie, and because of the soap magazines and the media, they also know about Kassie DePaiva’s journey. They know I have a deaf son and they prayed for me and prayed for my son. They sent blessings to me for my marriage. It is an amazing genre. I don’t think there is any genre that has such a beautiful fanbase. They search out information on us because they love us and they love the characters. They have taken the ride and escaped in the fantasy. It saddens me that this is ending a chapter on network television. This show has touched fans in such a miraculous way. I don’t think what the network puts in its place will ever be like this was.”
This week, One Life fans received some good news in all the sturm and drang of finale week: Michael Easton, Kassie DePaiva and Kristen Alderson, along with Roger Howarth (Todd), were all announced to be moving over to General Hospital as their One Life to Live characters. So fans will have the opportunity to see them in their new home in February. Just how they will integrate the foursome into the story is yet to be seen, but it is an attempt by the ABC brass, the show’s new creatives and former OLTL execs, Frank Valentini (EP) and Ron Carlivati (Head Writer), to bring some of the One Life audience over to GH (the lone ABC soap after tomorrow) to try to stave off another cancellation and get a ratings spike.
Ilene Kristen has played the ditzy-but-loveable Roxy Balsom. The show in its final month of episodes spoofed its own demise when Llanview’s long-running soap, Fraternity Row, got canceled. In the process, Roxy took it upon herself to start a campaign to save the soap, which mirrored and paid homage to the real-life campaigns started by the viewers, and the heartbreaking loss of OLTL. Kristen, who led the charge onscreen as her alter ego Roxy, is just as outspoken about the demise of her beloved show off-screen, stating, “I love the fans to pieces! I think they are sophisticated, and more sophisticated than anyone gives them credit for … more than the networks give them credit for. I think that when you have an audience of several million and treat them like, ‘We’re done with you,’ I don’t think that is a good thing. I think there will be repercussions from that for ABC. I think you have taken an audience who wouldn’t want to miss an episode, and now if they miss an episode of The Chew—who cares?” One of the cliffhangers for the show’s finale is: Can Roxy somehow resurrect Fraternity Row from its cancellation? We won’t say more. You just have to tune-in and find out.
And as in every soap, no matter what is thrown at the "young lovers," true love eventually wins out! One Life has its own real-life lovebirds that met on the set, fell in love and are starting their post-One Life together with a move from New York to Los Angeles—John-Paul Lavoisier (Rex) and Farah Fath (Gigi). Once again, with soap life mirroring real life, Rex and Gigi with their son Shane in tow, head for a brand-new start in London, saying goodbye to family and friends in Llanview, just as Farah and JP start out here in sunny California! Farah relayed, “We are walking away from OLTL with a tremendous amount of memories. I think for us in 10 and 15 years to go back to YouTube and see our first scenes or kiss together is such a unique way for a couple to have met. Rex and Gigi will always be in our hearts. One Life to Live is the foundation for John-Paul and Farah’s relationship, and so we will never forget this place.” JP concurred, “We will talk about this forever! Not a day will go by where we won’t think about One Life to Live. For the rest of my life, I am going to go ‘Remember this? Or Remember that?’ It was just a very special place.”
With so many memories and a long-standing history, unbelievable storytelling that is still relevant today, a fantastic and passionate fanbase and an extraordinary acting contingent who believes in their product and put 110 percent into their roles and their devotion to the show, it was still not enough to ward off its ultimate demise. So, as we fade to black on the final scene in Llanview on Friday, there will be no place to “tune-in tomorrow” to see what happens next. You will have to leave that to your imaginations, and after the beautiful and rich feast One Life has given to its audience, that shouldn’t be too hard. Rest in Peace, One Life to Live. We will miss you.
For more on the soaps, visit MichaelFairmanSoaps.com.