Doing it his way

 BMichael Logan, Soap Opera Digest, 1989

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Playing the ultimate, unobtainable object of desire - a priest - has Frank Runyeon in heaven. He slides into the restaurant booth sporting biceps that, if memory serves, didn't exist when he could have used them as lusty loverboy Steve Andropolous on As the World Turns. Never, he reports, has he been as fit. Never has he been as devoted to working out, to fresh air, to running on the beach. And never, one suspects, has such steam emanated from his fan mail. Letters from teenage girls and Social Security-types alike gushing "Father Michael, I love your muscles" and "You are so sexy and handsome and I have a priest just like you" arrive with a regularity that makes him almost giddy. In a way, it's as if being found attractive is some sort of new experience. As delirious as it would be for the class nerd to grow up, look in the mirror one day and discover he'd developed into William Hurt.

But it's all far from accidental. Before agreeing to sign up as Santa Barbara's man of cloth, Runyeon laid his cards on the table. "I wanted a commitment from the producers that this guy be intensely masculine," he reveals. "I wanted nothing about him to be wimpy." His demands were met, so much so that former cop Father Michael may be the first TV clergyman to do his pushups as often as he says his rosary. And the first to get a hot-to-trot following.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with that," comes Frank to the defense. "It's a level we all live on. We don't always go around with heady thoughts. We wake up in the morning and wonder "Am I overweight ?"... "Am I getting old ?" I think it's great when people say  : "Physically, I respond to you." On a vanity level, I love it. When people tell me there's sex in my performance, I think "Good, that's important - because since the ancient Greeks, drama has basically been about sex and violence. Of course, if 95 percent of my mail read "Father Michael, I can't wait to get you in an abandoned truck", I'd say that something was off-balance." Yeah, but it would still give him a rush.

Runyeon, contrary to his regard for a little healthy hedonism, is actually a devoted family man. Devoted almost to the point of being a pain. Though he has fathered three - ages seven, four and ten weeks old - he wants their names left out of print. Wife Annie, whom he met in the 1970s when he was a male secretary and she was an office personnel manager, completes the confidential clan. "My feelings for them are so intense, so private that I don't discuss them much. In early societies, the name of God was not spoken because of a sense of reverence and love. I feel that my family is just as sacred."

The actor, who, ironically, majored in religion at Princeton, does have a few words about other people's families. "I am so distressed at the number of actors that I have known and really liked who have destroyed their wives and children in pursuit of whatever their pants are hot about this week. I can't tell you how it rips my guts apart. The only thing that tests is your commitment to your family and friends. I've never walked away from my wife and kids the way everybody else I know has."

He speaks often - and at the risk of exhausting the listener - about the concepts of honor and commitment. "I was brought up by my parents and my grandparents with a deep sense of commitment to my word. If I look you in the eye, shake your hand, and give you my word, I honor it - so I am very upset by what I've encountered in the last two years since leaving As the World Turns. I'm still recovering; still scarred from my discovery of the profanity of this business."

Case in point : his leading role in the feature flick Sudden Death, a tale of a detective (Runyeon) who investigates a rape case only to fall in love with the victim. The actor deferred his salary in order to get the picture made, but now that it's been running ad infinitum to great success on cable television, the producer has reneged on the agreement and has paid Frank squat. Another case in point : even though he was promised a regular sidekick role on Dolly Parton's recent musical variety series - he even heard the words right out of Parton's mouth - the gig was handed to another actor at the eleventh hour. At the twelfth hour, the character got shelved altogether and it was his replacement who got the consolation pay. Ultimately, the program proved to be one of the biggest artistic and creative disasters in TV history - but Runyeon is still grumbling about it.

Prior to soaps, Runyeon tried but failed at a standup comedy career ("I wasn't ever very good, basically because I can't and I don't wish to get up and follow lesbian and f… jokes"), and still has a yen for it. So far, no go. "Again and again and again," claims Frank, "people want to see me playing an intense, passionate, dark rogue." So, OK, he keeps the customers satisfied. And as lofty as his thoughts can get (he fully admits that the first question he asks himself upon being offered a job is : "Is this role nourishing to our souls or not ?"), there's a practical side to Runyeon, too. "An actor is lucky to be offered a job. There are hundred of people with incredible talent, good looks, sexuality and all the rest of it and they never get a job."

Thus, perhaps, his return to daytime ? Maybe. Probably. But Frank Runyeon doesn't just sit around and count blessings. Like many soap actors, he may be delighted about the paycheck, but not above rewriting the script. "Sometimes writers miss the intentions," he notes. "It's the actor's job to clean it up. The other day, in a scene in which I spoke to the Bishop, I had a line that read : "Father, I feel lost and so small." I just said : "Father..." and then played out the intention silently. It's not that I'm cutting the writer's lines, it's just that I don't need to say them out loud. The audience will get it. Maybe if lines weren't difficult to make play, they wouldn't feel the need to take risks and, as a result, would be less entertaining. If you come across a really bad line, it could be your big opportunity."

But Runyeon, in all his sincerity, is a lot of fun to play with. Why does an actor such as himself feel so free to pick up a pencil and turn writer ? Would he climb up on a ladder and refocus a light ? Would he rip apart the work of the studio seamstress and stitch himself another hem ? With less than a second to ponder, he backs down. "By and large, writers have a better understanding of a character's motivations than most actors do - especially the actor who has just come off his surfboard or stepped out of his convertible to piss all over the script and change lines that the writers have spent three days worrying about. Sometimes the actor is right but frequently the actor is wrong. Many times, if an actor will leave the line alone and go through two or three hours of rehearsal, he will discover that the line is actually a great gift."

Yes, there are contradictions aplenty. But it's what makes him, well, him. One minute he's blowing hot air, the next he's cutting to the chose. One minute a writer must ask himself : "Am I getting the real story ?" The next : "Is there a real story ?" Runyeon's penchant for privacy and for tangents is maddening and there's no question that he tends toward the dramatic. But just when you want to throttle him, he can turn around and completely disarm you by wondering : "How on earth are you ever going to make me interesting ?"