‘Soap’ Reunion 1990: Transcript

The following is a lengthy excerpt from the Soap reunion Q&A sponsored by the Museum of Broadcasting on March 22, 1990, all courtesy of Soap fan Jeff Krueger. Many thanks for sharing, Jeff!

ROBERT BATCHA, moderator:  When we put the Festival together each year, we try to demonstrate what we call — and it’s not the most exciting title in the world — but the breadth and depth of American television. We try to pick (programs) from the past, we try to pick programs from the present, and we try to look at what’s been done in between. But the core of what we try to do is demonstrate how exciting and creative the medium of television is. And about 12 years ago, there were a lot of very nervous executives concerned about a program that was about to debut. And in the 4 years that it was on the air there was virtually no subject that they didn’t tackle, and tackle with intelligence and great humor. And 12 years later it’s still as wonderful and exciting a show as it was then.

And one of the wonderful things about this festival, at least for us at the Museum, is what was going on backstage and what’s going on now in terms of a reunion of people who worked together 7 days a week and really sweated it out, put on a wonderful show, who haven’t been together in a long time. But they’re here. So without further ado, in alphabetical order, let me introduce the creative people who were involved in this show…

(He introduces the panelists: Rebecca Balding, Diana Canova, Robert Guillaume, Susan Harris, Katherine Helmond, Richard Libertini, Robert Mandan, Dinah Manoff, Caroline McWilliams, Richard Mulligan, Arthur Peterson, Katherine Reynolds, Jay Sandrich, Bob Seagren, Tony Thomas, Sal Viscuso and Paul Junger Witt. Billy Crystal was busy with the Oscars, which he would host for the first time 4 days later.)

PAUL JUNGER WITT:  This is without a doubt the best ensemble cast that’s ever been assembled. (Big audience applause.) And seeing them all together here makes me want to give them notes. Working with this cast, and with Susan Harris and with Jay Sandrich was the highlight and is the highlight of my career, and I’m sure I speak for my partners as well. It was also the most fun and we thank you for coming tonight to share the fun with us. We’re going to show you two episodes. We all have our favorites, so Jay, who was always the arbiter, picked two. Some of the people before you are not in those two but we’re sure you’ll remember their characters as the evening goes on. And again, thank you for coming.

(They screen Episode 1 from the first season and Episode 6 from Season 2. The audience eats it up and even claps along with the theme music during the end credits. Afterward, the panelists return to the stage.)

BATCHA:  Who would like to ask the first question?

AUDIENCE:  This question is directed to Miss Harris. Early in the series there were a couple sequences with a prostitute. Whatever became of that beautiful actress? And how on earth did you cast her?

SUSAN HARRIS  (laughs): I think the director should answer that. That was me.  Here I am.

KATHERINE HELMOND:  And when she did it, she said, after that week, “I will never do this again!”

ROBERT MANDAN:  She meant acting!  (Audience laughs)

AUD:  I’ve waited 10 years: What happened to Jessica at the firing squad?

HARRIS:  We have no idea. We were canceled!

AUD:  What would you have done?

HARRIS:  She would have lived.  (Audience applauds.)

AUD:  Were you already canceled? Because the show last night (final episode) you had everybody about to die. They repeated it last night on Channel 5. [Burt was] about to die, everybody was going to get shot. Was that because you were canceled?

HARRIS:  No. We found out we were canceled after that. We never would’ve ended it that way.

AUD:  I’m trying to figure out how you ever sold this idea to the network in the first place!

WITT:  We were really anxious to do something different and to push the envelope. There were some remarkably creative people at ABC at the time; a couple of them were Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, who were receptive to the kind of thinking we were involved with at the time. And when things are meant to be they have a way of working out. The right people were available, Jay was available and it all came together to be the kind of unbelievably wonderful experience that it was for all of us.

JAY SANDRICH [director]:  Interestingly enough, speaking of the right people, we did… you saw tonight the first part of the pilot, we actually did two, we did two half hours. And we did not have Cathryn Damon with us the first time we shot it. We had a different actress; the show just didn’t work as well. And at that time Fred Silverman was in charge of ABC and he knew that the show would be better if we could find the right Mary. So I think that was an unusual thing, too, and we reshot the 2 half hours, at least the scenes that Cathryn Damon was in. And Paul reminds me that was our third tennis player. We’d shot that scene twice before. And it was just one of those shows where we all tried to make it as wonderful as we could and the network really backed us up. I think Bob Urich was not available when we originally had done the pilot. By the time we got on the air they said he was available to do it. So he was in our first 12 shows I think.

AUD:  With the exception of Jessica and Mary, how come none of the Tates and Campbells talked among themselves in 4 years?

HARRIS:  Yeah, they talked.

AUD:  Very rarely.

HARRIS:  No, don’t you remember the food fights? They didn’t get along. But they got together.

HELMOND:  What could they say to each other?

HARRIS:  It’s been 12 years, it’s very hard to remember. I don’t remember what I did last week. (Points to Tony.) He says they talked!

TONY THOMAS:  They did. For example, when Jodie and Eunice were both having affairs and hiding them they became very friendly for a period of time.

AUD:  Even today the show is still pretty racy. How much trouble did you have with the censors? And was there anything that you weren’t able to do that you wanted to?

WITT:  The censors were incredibly cooperative. Whatever problems we had came from a group called the Moral Majority (audience hisses and boos,) which as it turns out had a phantom constituency. Unfortunately, that was found out after we had been canceled. In terms of Standards and Practices, they were very much behind the show. There were certain things that we couldn’t do that you still can’t do and maybe one day we’ll be able to. But we were very pleased with the kind of cooperation we had and we felt that some of the sillier rules that had been in place in regard to what we could do in television comedy were broken down.

SANDRICH:  The biggest problem we had is before we went on the air Newsweek wrote in an article about the show that a priest was going to be seduced in the church.

WITT:  In a confessional booth.

SANDRICH:  In a confessional booth (laughs).

VISCUSO:  I should be so lucky.

SANDRICH:  That was never Susan’s intention nor the plan. But because that had been printed we got tremendous problems from the church. And they were having meetings before the show ever went on the air. Plus we were picketed for about 3 weeks by gay liberation organizations, too, because they had read how “badly” we had treated Jodie’s character. So the show went on as though it was going to change the fabric of American society. And of course it didn’t. Or maybe it did.

AUDIENCE:  What made the show so great I think is that even the craziest characters you liked. Every one of those characters you liked. Have you considered putting it out on VCR format for those of us who can’t stay up until 11:30 at night (for the reruns)?

TONY THOMAS:  We would very much like to do that. We are trying to convince Columbia, who owns the distribution rights, to do that. (Audience applauds.) If you want to write them a letter. Sony, whatever.

AUD:  Is it possible to ask all the cast members what they’re currently doing (circa 1990)?

DINAH MANOFF (Elaine):  I’m on “Empty Nest” with Richard.

KATHERINE HELMOND (Jessica):  I’m doing “Who’s the Boss?”

ROBERT GUILLAUME (Benson):  I’m getting ready to do (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s) The Phantom (of the Opera).

KATHERINE REYNOLDS (Claire):  I’m doing a street opera that’s about to open in about 2 weeks called “Homeless” by Michael Kerns. Imagine, an opera called “Homeless.” Pretty strong.

ARTHUR PETERSON (The Major):  I’m in the sixth year of touring “Robert Frost: Fire and Ice,” a one-man show. And I also do, with my wife actress Norma Ransom, “Gin Game” around the country. And we kind of go here and there. And we’re dyed in the wool theater people. And I always felt “Soap” was so wonderful because we had so many wonderful people from the stage. Especially the theater people. And it seemed to me that the casting director at that time had come from New York and liked stage actors. I don’t really know the inside story of the casting. But it was such a wonderful “company” and the background was theater for so many of the people. It was just a great, great experience. We’ll never get over it!

ROBERT MANDAN (Chester):  I’m currently negotiating with Fred Silverman for a series, that happened this very afternoon as a matter of fact. I’ve been doing a lot of theater too. By the way, Arthur’s quite wonderful in “Gin Game” if you ever get the chance to see it. I did a musical at the Pasadena Playhouse for about a year and a half and we were an enormous success here in Los Angeles and then we “took it to New York.” And I think you all get the picture, they hated it a lot. And we got to stay in New York for about 4 months and then we wended our weary way back to L.A. I’ve been doing theater since then up till now and guest shots on various shows. “Murder, She Wrote” and… I don’t know, some other thing. Like Susan I can’t remember what yesterday was. (Someone reminds him he did “Golden Girls,” the Witt Thomas Harris show.) Ah! God, yes, “Golden Girls.” Sorry folks!

SAL VISCUSO (Father Tim):  Hey, I wanna do “Golden Girls”!

DIANA CANOVA (Corinne):  Well, let’s see. I’m shooting a pilot for NBC called “Social Studies” right now. So I’m employed. And I’m trying to stay one step ahead of my 6-year-old son.

SAL VISCUSO:  I’ve asked somebody to marry me. She hasn’t said yes yet. And on Monday I’m going to Canada to do a show for the Fox network.

RICHARD MULLIGAN (Burt):  Currently retired. I used to work with Dinah Manoff. (Laughter.) I’m with Paul and Tony and Susan with “Empty Nest.”

RICHARD LIBERTINI (the Godfather):  I just finished work on a film called “Awakenings” with Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. And I’m about to go back to New York to start filming “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Which means that I’m out of work.

BOB SEAGREN (Dennis):  I have a sports marketing company that I run and operate here in Los Angeles. And I also host the “Home Restoration/Remodeling” television show.

REBECCA BALDING (Carol):  I play Mary McBride, the saloon keeper’s wife, on a western called “Paradise” every Saturday night.

CAROLINE McWILLIAMS (Sally):  I’ve just finished a movie called “Mermaids” with Cher.

AUD:  I was wondering: who was the practical joker on the set?

MULLIGAN:  Billy did all that. Billy Crystal did all that. And Ted! Ted Wass, he was peculiar. I know those.

HELMOND:  Jay and Bob. Jay and Bob were funny.

SANDRICH:  Yeah, the fascinating thing was, any scene that Jay Johnson was in was an experience. Because Jay as a person was quiet and never said a word. And if he did say something it was always very nice. But the minute Bob opened his mouth….! Amazing, amazing split personality there.

MULLIGAN:  And everybody wanted a piece of Bob. I mean really. Ted Wass used to fight like, “I’m going to get him, Dad!”

PETERSON:  The microphone.

SANDRICH:  Arthur just reminded me that when we first did it, the mike operators would switch… (audience roars). And I was going to say the first time I walked into his dressing room and there was a little trunk… and Bob’s head was not on his body. And I couldn’t look at him!

MANDAN:  You might like to know that Jay also is doing, Jay and Bob, are doing an adventure series and he plays a psycho cop who has this… (audience laughs). And he’s kind of a sweet-faced killer, really.

SANDRICH:  Bob tried to get the part without Jay but they wouldn’t let him do it.

AUD:  How much were you all responsible for the direction that your characters went? I know I was always in love with Jessica Tate because the woman was just so incredibly beautiful, and I was really always touched (by her). Were you responsible for that? Was it strictly the writers? Did you guys get together and say, “I think my character should do this”?

GUILLAUME:  Yes! (laughter)

WITT:  Uh… I could be honest. It’s always at best a joint effort between the actor who’s portraying a character and the writers who are trying to give that character voice. And writers discover extraordinary things from the actors they’re working with and vice versa. So it’s really a symbiosis.

HELMOND:  I think Susan came with a very full-blown idea of the characters and where she wanted the play every week to go. And that was the delight for all of us because we had something to latch onto. And then what we brought to it was a kind of love of our characters. And then as we began to work together a love of each other. So then that gives her, and the director and everybody involved, an opportunity to take what the actors bring naturally and to begin to incorporate it.

MULLIGAN:  Also, you have to know that never before and not since that Susan Harris wrote… how many years? I don’t know, she was the only writer for like two… how long did you do it by yourself?

HARRIS:  A year and a half.

MULLIGAN:  A year and a half. Unheard of! I have 11 writers on my show.  (Susan gets a big ovation.)

MANDAN:  To add to something that Katherine said, and to Susan’s great credit, we were all handed what we called at the time “the bible.” And it was an outline of the story lines, I can’t remember how far in advance. So we all knew where we were starting and where we were going and rarely do you get an opportunity to do that, certainly not in television. Perhaps on the stage. You’re handed like an encyclopedia of all our relationships and where our characters are going and it made it a lot easier.

MULLIGAN:  It strengthened the possibilities.

MANOFF:  I didn’t get that because they knew I was going to die. I saw no bible!

HARRIS:  I have to say that as hard as it was, and it was very, very hard work, I don’t think I have ever had a better time in my life writing television. I don’t think I’ve ever done better work. The cast, I don’t think I’ve ever worked with people who could do nothing on stage and get laughs and move people. It was a pleasure writing the show. As difficult as it was, I don’t think I’ll ever have an experience like that again.

AUD:  For Miss Harris, how did you think of the concept?

HARRIS:  Autobiographical.  I told Paul and Tony that I wanted to do a series that didn’t have a different story every week, that was a serial. And then the 3 of us sat down just with that and eventually the Tates and the Campbells evolved. And it was many, many hours of the 3 of us sitting there and spitballing. And eventually it all happened and it kept evolving over the 4 years. I mean, originally Chuck and Bob were supposed to have been the murderers of Peter Campbell. But the audience response to them was so positive, people were so crazy about them we couldn’t eliminate them so we had to make it Chester.  (Mandan gives a hurt look; audience laughter.) Well, we weren’t going to eliminate Chester, no. Chester had a brain tumor.

SANDRICH:  I remember one incident too, we got the script and it was Caroline McWilliams’ first show. And all we knew on the stage was that she made a pass at Ted Wass and as he walked out the door she made a pass at Mulligan. That’s all we knew. So Susan, Paul and Tony came down and we said, “Why is she doing this?” And they said, “We don’t know yet.” So, for I don’t know how many weeks Caroline played this character and had no idea why she was doing anything she was doing.

McWILLIAMS:  I never got the bible.

AUD:   As hysterical as the show was and is, I’m wondering if you have something like a blooper reel?

WITT:  Many, many, many blooper reels.

AUD:  Will you ever share them?

WITT:  No, probably not. They really are funniest, I think, to the people who remember the specifics. I don’t know if all of it translates. And they were never meant to be distributed. We used to show them at Christmas parties, what have you. But there were quite a few in 4 years.

MANOFF:  I was too afraid to make mistakes!

MULLIGAN:  Boy, you’ve changed a lot since then.

AUD:  Were there ever any takes that just came out from improv?

SANDRICH:  No, we…I’ve got to tell you. We would sometimes get the script and as a group just sit there reading it and be very emotional because it was so wonderful. Whenever we had a problem with a scene, we would tell Paul and Tony and Susan what our problems were. Sometimes we would maybe have got some ideas for why we were having problems. But the words were so important. And the actors were so dedicated to respecting the words that we never had a need for improv.

HELMOND:  And farce is very difficult to do. It’s not like kind of an average comedy. Everything in farce has to be precise because it’s life slipping and you’re trying to grab it by the tail. And so you have to believe totally at the moment. So, every word, every movement is very important. (She’s been speaking without the microphone and Tony dramatically moves it toward her; gets a big laugh.)  And this is an example of timing!

THOMAS:  You’ve got a microphone right there. Pick that microphone up… We used to come down to the stage and, as good as every word was and Susan’s work was incredible, many, many “freebies,” as we would call them, from the stage with the talented cast and Jay’s direction.

GUILLAUME:  I must say that when I first came into the show I really had a gigantic chip on my shoulder. And everything they’d write for me I would check out assiduously. I would send it to the NAACP and these various organizations. And every time I’d say something to Tony, Paul and Susan they’d say, “What is it now, for God’s sake?! What is he talking about now?” But I must say that I have lived to see the time when I’m so happy that you guys chose me. I really am. And I can think of at least one thing that happened out of a sort of an improvisational manner. Do you remember when you first wrote that the doorbell rang and that I was to go to the door? I think what happened was that when you wrote that, being the nice, sweet man that I am, I said, “I’m not going to go to the door. And let’s see what happens.” And so we sat there and we just waited and waited. And then finally I said, “Do you want me to get that?” And she said…

HELMOND:  Well, yes!  (audience applauds the classic bit).

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18 comments on “‘Soap’ Reunion 1990: Transcript

      • My guess is Sony just went “cheap”, like they do on most of their classic TV releases, since they also couldn’t seem to have the original broadcast versions on the DVDs, like Columbia House did on their VHS tapes.

      • I get the impression that it was a bit more complicated than Sony going for the cheapest option, Albert. The syndicated-episode release did tick off a lot of people, including at least one of the producers, but locating the original full-length episodes was probably pretty difficult after nearly 30 years. And if they didn’t have somebody looking over their shoulder who knew exactly what they were looking at (which doesn’t always happen), I would suggest they could be forgiven for not knowing which versions of the episodes they were seeing. As for the bloopers, my understanding is that the quality of the reels is somewhat less than what has come to be expected in video releases today. I’m sure we all would agree that we would love to seem them no matter what quality they’re in…

  1. What a delight to hear about the show direct from those involved! That’s why I’m so looking forward to your book, Aaron. With the exception of this transcript and one section of a book called ‘They’ll Never Put That on the Air: An Oral History of Taboo-Breaking Comedy,’ there’s been little comment on “Soap.”

  2. It’s a marvelous look back at the show. One audience member asked Mulligan to do his auto sound routine (the one when he shows Danny how to overtake a speeder) and at first he didn’t recall it. When he did remember, he said, “I’ve been making a fool of myself for such a long time. BUT…I get paid.”

      • If only!! No, I watched the recording of it a couple of times at the museum when I lived in New York. One of the aspects that came across so vividly, even on tape, was the warmth between Katherine Helmond and Robert Guillaume. They were so obviously happy to see each other and share some of their common memories.

        What was it like to be there in person?

  3. It felt surreal that it was happening. I felt like I was the only one the show had an impact on. Great shows like “MASH”, “All in the Family” and “Mary Tyler Moore” seemed to get all the acclaim and then to be in an auditorium full of people clapping in time to the theme song and treating a TV writer like the star of the show (Susan Harris), I knew I wasn’t alone. Kind of like what the internet does now (at it’s best).
    And also it was great to see how much they liked each other and the show. They seemed genuinely happy to be back together and that felt good. It gave closure to the show, which wasn’t treated right at the end.

    • Watching the recording was also validating; it did make the show seem as important as I felt it should be. I understand what you meant about closure, too. I thought the most significant moment was the one you quoted when Susan Harris said that if they had known the show was canceled, they never would have ended it that way. I always wondered that, and it was nice to hear that they were simply surprised and not so embittered that they needed to kill off the entire cast.

      The other fascinating thing I remember learning wasthat Chuck and Bob were supposed to have killed Peter Campbell, and then been written out after they were caught, but Jay Johnson was so funny, they changed the story.

      Richard Mulligan also told a story about filming the earlier versions of the first shows with other actresses and being frustrated at their inability to find the right Mary. When he was told that the new Mary was Cathryn Damon from New York, he called a bartender friend who either knew every actor in NY or knew someone who knew them. He asked, “What do you know about Cathryn Damon?” The bartender said he didn’t know her but he would find out. A few minutes later, the phone rang, Mulligan answered, and the bartender said, “Good actress. Great set of pins.”

      • The whole “Chuck and Bob as killer” angle has an interesting backstory, and one I should mention that is detailed in ‘Soap: The Inside Story…’ (Apologies, but I have to mention this book every once in a while, if only to honor the fistfuls of hair I have torn out over the past four years writing it.)

  4. I guess I should add now this book feels surreal after all these years and it can’t help but feel full circle (especially with Billy hosting the Oscars again, which he did for the first time that month). Thanks, Aaron!

  5. I can’t wait to read more about ‘Chuck and Bob killed Peter.’ My immediate reaction is feeling glad they didn’t do that! It would have seemed too cartoonish for a show that had such warm and poignant moments.

  6. I forgot to add the factoid that when Paul Witt called “Soap” the “highlight” of his career he and Tony Thomas were at that moment Oscar nominees as producers of “Dead Poets Society”. So Paul, Tony and Susan were up front in the Best Picture section when Billy Crystal hosted his first Oscars.
    Tony is right behind Oliver Stone and when they cut to Stone’s wife Paul and Susan are behind her in this clip:

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