The Coster Chronicles

 By Laura Fissinger, Soap Opera Weekly, 1994

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"You know what really got me acting ? I don't think I ever told the press this story before." Lots of actors can tell the stories - if somebody else writes them. Nicolas Coster lives his own stories. And can he tell a tale ? Welcome to the Coster Chronicles.

During junior high school in California, he says, "One of my teachers, who was quite extraordinary, said, "Nicolas, you have to put that big mouth to some use. Come to my public-speaking class"." Coster did, winning competitions with original orations as soon as he started. "But the thing that sent me over the edge into this business came from home. My mother, brother and myself lived way out in the boonies - on days I had track team practice, I'd have to miss the school bus and hitchhike home. But this one rainy day, I had to walk all the way, the whole four miles. I was shivering and miserable at the end. So I came in the door playing it to the hilt - Mr. Misery.

Coster currently plays "Mr. Mystery" a.k.a the wry Eduardo Grimaldi, on As the World Turns. For all his danger in a designer suit, Eduardo makes subtle fun of himself quite often; Coster uses merciless self-mockery to keep the audience absorbed in his storytelling. "My mother said later that the day I came home soaked from track practice, I was like something out of an old melodrama. Yes, I truly was wet and miserable at that moment, but man, I was playing it, too. So, Mama just looked at me over those glasses she wore for reading and made one comment : "Get paid for it." Coster slaps the restaurant table, crackling at the threat he threw in Martha Coster's face, "I was so furious ! I said, " I will."

Now somewhere in his 50s, Nicolas Coster has spent three decades playing it to the hilt. Most daytime connoisseurs know that he holds the record for major contract roles : Eduardo makes it character N°10, on soap N° 9. Coster also nabbed four daytime Emmy awards nominations in the process. Given everything Coster's done outside daytime - Broadway theater, international stage work, major feature films and a lifetime's worth of guesting on nightime television - some observers have wondered why he keeps coming back to soapland. "I'm no Pollyanna, I don't cry over card tricks," Coster states straight up. "I stole that phrase, but it's true. And I'm telling you, sitting here, that there is no finer group of talent than the American daytime actors. I've worked with the best in the world in every medium - Sir Laurence Olivier, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Jessica Tandy, naming a few. So I think I can call myself an expert on what's good."

He also claims he's earned the right to give expert testimony on what's bad. "Hey, did you know the worst movie ever made on TV last night, and I was in it ? It's the Concorde - Airport '79. And remember the comedy spoof on the Airport movies called Airplane ? The spoofed my character !" Coster sounds almost as proud of this credit as anything else on his 1-mile-long résumé. Smart man. "They included the doctor carrying the heart that had to be transplanted into a little boy - that was me ! Anyway, in Concorde, I looked across the airplane the first day of shooting, and it was Cicely  Tyson I said, "what are you doing here ?!?" And she went, "same thing you are, honey - paying the rent".

Between the acting gigs, and during them as well, Coster has somehow equalled the number of characters he's played with the number of avocations he's pursued and the twists of late that have pursued him. The Coster Chrionicles have more chapters that War and Peace. And when a story comes from one of his tougher times, Coster doesn't play Mr. Misery. Serious "gloomy moods" descend hard enough and a litle too often, but all shadows pass quickly today.

The Chronicles open with World War II, which had a heavy hand in shaping the first years of Coster's life. He lived in England from birth through age 5, the son of New Zealand immigrant Ian Coster, a renowned British film critic. Martha Coster, an American Southerner and Radcliffe grad, who was a journalist and an award-winning display artist, returned to the States sans husband when World War II began heating up. "I do recall wearing a gas mask," Coster says, referring to practice drills. "I also remember crawling into trenches in the London park where Karl Marx was buried." It's still a time tragic enough to make him laugh a little. "As though those trenches would protect us if the Germans started dropping bombs."

Coster didn't see his father, who became a war hero, from age 5 to 16, "I eventually got sent back to him - I'd been manipulating it all along, I was a little juvenile delinquent, Dad didn't know I was coming. He'd married again, a wonderful woman, and they'd had a little boy. My mother never forgave me for liking my stepmum." Coster slides into mock gruffness, "This was a woman who didn't have to like me one bit, my dad's new wife. And I was probably a bit insufferable, I had some charm, but that was about it, I suppose." He laughs.

"Anyway, I called my dad and announced that I'd arrived, we wet at one of his clubs." Coster's British accent is impeccable. "He said, "My boy, you know, after 10 years, blood ties don't mean a hell of a lot. It's just a matter of whether you like somebody or not. And I think I am going to like you." The Ian Coster speech and posture vanish as fast as they came; his son tilts his head ever so slightly. "Yeah. It was honest. So, I has a year and a half with him. And then I left, because my mother wasn't well. At the train station, I had one of those awful premonitions I get - that's my American southern side. I looked into Dad's face, and I knew I'd never see him again. I didn't. He died a couple of years later. But it was a wonderful year and a half. Formative. I was lucky to get to know that guy."

Still, like many youths - with or without a resident father figure - Coster was baffled about what "a man" was supposed to be. Some ideas came from movies, other lessons came via work as a camp counselor and a tour of duty in "the peacetime army." A lot of so-called "guy stuff" came naturally : a robust appetite for fast cars, motorcycles, marathon socializing, scuba diving, boating - high speed living in general. Coster spent a lot of tim thinking; he still does. His soul stories are just as vivid as the adventures sagas. "One of the reasons that the identity of "man" - as in "males" - even became a question is thanks to my dear Mama. She never stopped being a searcher fior truth. She once defined a male as having within him the twin gods of violence and beauty. I believe now that men can take that violent energy and use it for disarmament. That gifts is part of what males have to give to humanity."

A certain story lies behind that belief. "This took place around the time when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was on the rise – a man who changed my life. I had a mortal combat situation in the streets of New York. Hand-to-hand combat; a physical flight. I'd learned some of the moves in the Army. I injured one of two men who came after me. Suffice it to say I felt perfectly justified when examining it afterward – because one of the two men was shooting at me, they were both on PCR, and they both wante to kill me. No robbery; they wanted to kill me. The gun was a 45, blowing hair off the back of my head." Coster shrugs. "So it was fairly dramatic. The Daily News, in its infinitely jesty way, printed a photo of my bullet-rid-den car, and said "Actor Plays Street Scene" - which is the title of a play.

"There were two things I realized about it afterward," he adds. "I felt a moment of exultation when that man went down by my hand. That goes back to the primordial ooze. But there's a thing that makes me not an animal who only feels exulted, something that makes me a civilized human who can understand Dr. Martin Luther King : at the moment I recognized that exultation and wasn't ashamed of it, I thought, "What is the next step in the evolution of this man ? Of me? It was that I would spend the rest of my life trying to disarm rather than overwhelm. And I've done it in three similar situations - not as bad as the first one, but they could have been."

Protecting himself and others emotionally forced Coster to face harder questions. He believed he had to end his first marriage, and eventually did, serving as "Mr. Mom" to his two daugthers for a time. A certain slowness remains in his cadence when he talks about those years. But the pace quickens again when he talks about his first wife and their children in the present tense. The girls, both in their 20s, enjoy a solid connection with their mother, and Coster himself refers to his older children as "two of my three best friends in the world."

Coster's third best friend was a 22-year-old New Yorker-turned-Californian when he "tried to pick her up" 16 years ago. "I said to Beth, "you ever been out with an older dude ?" You know I was being very suave." He pronounces the word so it rhymes with wave. The young woman said yes - age 28, to be specific. "And she said, "How old are you ?" I said, "forty-one." Coster stutters on 40. "I was 43, you know ? Never thinking I'd see her again. A week later, though, we were together, and it was my birthday. And she said, "You lied two years ?" He imitates her amused tone. "When she asked me why I lied, I said "Vanity". Coster's laughter busts out of the gate. "She said, "Don't you realize, at my age, that you could have said 35 or 50, and it wouldn't have made a difference ?""

Over 16 years, Beth and Nic have found plenty of differences that matter, but Coster couldn't make it more obvious that their ongoing saga is creating his favorite chapters of the Chronicles. Beth, his daughters, and "little man" Ian - his and Beth's 3 year-old-man - barely provide new stories fast enough to satisfy him. As for the accommodations that love requires, Coster "has no regrets. Yes, I would like to Gene Hackman's film career. But there's still time for me to do more good works, I hope."

But there's time to train another ace storyteller in the family. "I never missed having a son. But this little guy - it was truly funny to see that there really is a thing called testosterone. Being a grown-up juvenile myself, we have all these wonderful games. Like "the cave game", under the covers. Ian brings all his stuffed animals into the cave with us. And he love to hear me make the animals talk."

Mom, an L.A. city librarian, is helping train their young son, too. If Ian can learn to spin a yarn like his dad, she's in for a shamefully good time. "Talk about great wit, there's my wife's mother, Linda" says Coster. "One time I said to her, I'm terribly sorry for monopolizing your daugther's life. Beth could have done a lot better. I still don't know how I managed to win her hand." Linda said, "Oh, I do - you made her laugh." My wife enjoys laughing more than anything else in the world."