Reading Between the Lines : A Memoir

 By Janis Paige, 2020

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(...) When I was on Broadway and sleeping until nine or ten in the morning, my breakfast would be coffee, half a grapefruit, a doughnut and a soap opera. It was a habit I thoroughly enjoyed, while I wondered if I could ever do what these amazing actors did. They seemed to be operating at a different talent level, as if they were separated from the rest of us. I'd always admired their ability to learn copious lines of dialogue each day and portray such a variety of characters, sometimes changing overnight.

Often, their role would run for years and become attached to the character that finally owned the part. That's as far as I got toward soaps until I got a call one day.

"Janis, this is John Conboy. I produce a soap called Capitol, and I have a marvelous part I want you to do. Would you take a meeting with me ? The show has had wonderful reviews, but unfortunately we've been cancelled and have only three more months to go." I loved John's honesty, and we met the following day.

"I've never done a soap, and from what I hear, they're very different from what I've done all my life," I admitted to him. "It's making me nervous just thinking about it. I don't want to let you down, but I confess, my intense curiosity was alive and well whenever I watched one." John asked one of the show's leading characters if they would work in being introduced. That assurance was what I needed, and I said "Yes."

I would play a catatonic woman with no memory who finally speaks after being in a mental hospital for twenty years. Did I really think before I jumped, taking a leap of faith with no net ? Time would tell.

Learning lines was never a problem, but there were too many other surprises to consider on my way to feeling even a little bit satisfied with my work. The birthing pains were just that. It was the emotional ups, downs and doubts that I took home each night that were the most difficult to handle.

Finally, I accepted the fact that the clock running the show for everyone involved was real. There was no time for retakes and deep discussions of character choices, you soon learned that "That's a take" meant "That's a take, moving on."
"But, but, but..."
"Moving on !"

My fellow cast members assured me that they all went through the same thing. "One of these days it will all click," I was told, "and you'll wonder what you ever worried about." They were right. One day I heard and felt that click. I also realized that every part one plays, whether on TV, on Broadway, in films or in life itself, has a similar click. "It's a take, moving on, no time for perfection, that will have to be good enough" made me work even harder.

To me, my profession has always been a great analogy for living life each day. Some days I felt that I was an utter failure, but the next day, with its inevitable changes, the strive for perfection begins again.

Ah, perfection. I don't even know what that word means anymore. I think it's similar to happiness. We have the right to pursue it, but it's always our responsibility to listen for those inevitable clicks and then move on.

The inventive, brave and supportive cast members with whom I worked helped me to love and respect the art of the soap opera. I had the great good fortune of acting runs on two more serial daytime drama hits. One was General Hospital, on which I received a heart transplant and saw the strict technique of the preparation for that intricate operation.

I was hooked up to everything necessary to save my character's life. We rehearsed, and when I was finally ready for the scene, they called "Lunch !" I felt their scripts piling up on me and then silence. A few minutes passed and then my muffled "Hey" brought their laughter. I was unhooked, had lunch, got hooked up again and the "surgeon" gave me a new heart. All of it was technically correct ! Amazing !

John Conboy called again, asking me to replace the irreplaceable Dame Judith Anderson on NBC's Santa Barbara after she passed away.

"What did you say, John ? That's impossible !" I protested. "We want you to make this your own, Janis, and not copy Dame Judith," John assured me. "Good," I replied, "because I couldn't copy Dame Judith if I became Dame Judith."

I still remember that first day of work after Dame Judith was gone. Louise Sorel and Nicolas Coster had worked with her for years. As I made my entrance to the scene, I tried hard not to look at Louise's face as she made her instantaneous adjustment to this new Minx Lockridge. They were both gracefully stoic and welcoming to this new member of their family. Minx went through many changes, but I learned and thoroughly enjoyed my two years-plus on that wonderful show.

I was incredibly fortunate to work with some of the best actors I've ever known. I also made lifelong friends with people who today remain available, loving and caring. Francesca James and Louise Sorel are never far away. I think Dame Judith Anderson achieved perfection - but I'm sure she would have disagreed with me. Perfection is achieved by anyone who cares deeply about their job. But to me, she was perfect. (...)

Reading Between the Lines : A Memoir
By Janis Paige
© Janis Paige Gilbert, 2020