Casting coups

 By Mary Beth Sammons, Soap Opera Digest, 1988

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Sometimes recasting a favorite character is a necessary evil that becomes a blessing in disguise. Stepping into another star's shoes isn't easy, but the rewards are great for those who can make the roles their own.

Landing a leading role on a soap opera isn't so wonderful. Not if you a victim of the dreaded "replacing a popular star" syndrome. Soap fans hold a strong allegiance to their favorite performers. They exalt their very being and look forward to seeing them every day. But when these viewers tune in to discover their favorite hero or heroine is vamoose, and some newcomer, some "nobody" in their minds, is now their cherished star's place, they get real mad.

Many an actor or actress has suffered from this "filing in for the famous" curse. Look at all the Ninas that have traipsed through Cortlandt Manor. Or the seemingly infinite number of redheads who have tried to find their niche as the fiery Siobhan Ryan Novak Dubujak Novak. The soap landscape is littered with-fill-in acts that just couldn't quite cut it. Many have fallen completely on their faces. But once in a while a substitute wins over the audience with a brilliant debut, crafting that difficult transition to perfection and capturing viewers' hearts.

Jess Walton (Jill, The Young and the Restless) is at the top of the roster. Other not-so-recent but equally successful notables includes Holly Gagnier (Cassie, One Life to Life); Anne Heche (Vicky / Marley, Another World); Hillary Bailey Smith (Margo, As the Word Turns) and her castmate Scott Holmes (Tom Hugues); Mary Beth Evans (Kayla, Days of Our Lives) and her castmate Drake Hogestyn (Roman). "It's a million times harder than starting a role yourself", says The Young and the Restless's Walton. "You're never sure if the audience is going to accept you, even though people do take over for stars all the time. But when you're walking into such an established key role, you've got a tremendous amount of pressure."

Hillary Bailey Smith, who in 1983 replaced the now popular primetime and film actress Margaret Colin as Margo on As the Word Turns, agrees. "It's really though. The first thing you think is, "Hey wait a minute, she was really great. They loved her. How am I going to pull this off ?" The first letter I received said, "Dear Bow Wow". Do you prefer Kibbles and Bits or some other kind of dog food ? I mean, people did not want Margaret to leave."

The pressure come from a number of directions and not just from fans who have invested their loyalty in a particular actor or actress. Mary Beth Evans may have been welcomed with open arms when she replaced Catherine Mary Steward as Kayla on Days of Our Lives in 1984, but she vividly recalls a not-so-warm reception during her stint on the now-defunct soap Rituals. "They'd just fired the actress I was replacing (Claire Yarlett) and the cast was allied with her. So for the first couples days, everybody sneered at me like I'd just slept with their husbands. It was awful," remembers Evans.

Jess Walton faced the tough task of filling in for Brenda Dickson, who, although popular with soap fans, had been fired from the show. "I thought I was doing great the first day when Lauralee Bell (who plays Cricket and is the daughter of the show's executive producer and creator, Bill Bell) came up to me and said, "You've already Jill to me"," remembers Walton.

But following in the shadow of daytime's famous can be a heavy load to bear. Just ask Another World's Anne Heche (Vicky / Marley). « Luckily, I hadn't watched the show before, so when I got the part, I really didn't know what I was getting into," Heche explains. "I arrived at work the first day like, "Hey, this isn't going to be too hard," and the producer took me aside and told me I was replacing someone who won an Emmy for the role." The producer was talking about Ellen Wheeler, now Cindy on All My Children and an Emmy-winner for her role on the show, too. "I was really scared and jolted," Heche remembers.

Most of the performers who have successfully taken over an existing role acknowledge that it is a Herculean task to try to step into the shoes of an extremely popular soap personality. But they say they try to ignore the high expectations thrust upon them, instead carving their own claim to fame. Some, like Drake Hogestyn, who replaced Wayne Northrop as Days of Our Lives's Roman Brady, prefer not to discuss it at all. Others are more open about how they met the challenge.

"Here (at Days of Our Lives), the producer and some of the cast members like Josh Taylor (ex-Chris) and Steve (Nichols, who plays Patch) were just great, taking me aside before scenes and filing me in on the history of the character", says Evans. "But once in a while someone would try to correct me and say, "she (the former actress) would have done it this way." I'd just ignore them and think, "though, I'm doing it my way.""

Many of the actors have gone to the extreme of not viewing the person they are replacing. For example, Santa Barbara's Kimberly McArthur deliberately avoided watching her predecessor, Robin Wright, as Kelly. "If I'd watched Robin, I'd be Robin Wright on the screen and not Kelly," says McArthur. "I think it's a trap for an actor to watch the other actor, because the special quality you bring to the role is yourself."

One Life to Life's Holly Gagnier strongly agrees. She ignored producer Paul Rauch's suggestion to view tapes of actresses Ava Haddad and Cusi Cram in the role of Cassie. "I wanted to bring me to Cassie and if I'd watched anyone else doing it, that just wouldn't have been possible. In fact, I know Ava and know we are very different, and I think I've really taken Cassie in a different direction."

The expectations of following a big-time star are perhaps one of the toughest things to deal with, but most of those who are successful said the transition usually is made easier when they receive the support from fellow cast members. "I had one week to get my whole life together and move from LA to New York and it was really scary," remembers Gagnier. "But everyone was so friendly and made me feel so welcome, like I'd always been on the show. The first day, Robin (Strasser, ex-Dorian) and some of the other cast members took me aside and said, "We know how difficult it is for you to be in this circumstance, coming in to play Cassie. But don't worry, we're all behind you.""

As the Word Turns's Scott Holmes, who says he's the thirteenth actor to play Tom Hugues (the impressive lineup of stars included Gregg Marx and Justin Deas) is convinced that the show's head honchos are responsible for spotting successful substitutions. "They know you're going to work when they see you. You've got to have that aura of feeling good about yourself and being positive that no matter how successful you predecessors were, you can take over."

Physical similarities often play a strong role in casting a substitute, but the actors agree that it is up to them to win over the audience with their individual personalities and style. "There's no question that Margaret and I are very similar in looks and mannerisms," says As the Word Turns's Hilary Bailey Smith. "Actually, it's kind of funny, because I came from prime time, and when she went out to LA, these casting directors were always telling her, "You know, you remind me of someone." Evidently, she hears that all the time. We'd never met, but have a lot of mutual friends. Once, when she was in New York doing the CBS Morning Show, I went down to the studio. She came out and started screaming, "It's you, you. Oh no." It was hysterical." Turning philosophical, Smith adds, "But, look aside, you get the part for a reason. There's got to be some essence about you that makes you different, special," says Smith.

The Young and the Restless's Walton cringes recalling how "they pouted my hair up those first few months. I had trouble making it through the doorway. I think they wanted to make me bigger than life, to make me reflect Brenda's style in the beginning to ease the transition. But now it's most definitely me in the part."

Santa Barbara's McArthur agrees. Although she and predecessor, Robin Wright, are strikingly similar in looks and mannerisms, she attributes any resemblance to their common Texas upbringing. In fact, when McArthur arrived at the studio gate to audition, the security guard waved her right through. "He thought I was Robin," she laughs. But she adds, "Sure, I think it eases the transition a little if you look like the person. I mean Kelly is an established Californian blonde role and a curly-headed brunette probably wouldn't cut it. It was funny thing. At the screen test, they narrowed it down to eight girls. I walked in and there were eight beautiful girls with long blond hair who looked like clones. But everyone had a uniqueness about them. And that is what it all comes down to. You've got to have some special quality."