Zen and the art of soap opera acting

 By Janet Di Lauro, Soap Opera Weekly, 1992

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Deja vu with a twist might be the best way to describe Stephen Nichols' return to daytime television. About two years after his departure from the legendary role of Steve "Patch" Johnson on Days of Our Lives, Nichols once again finds himself reporting for work on the Burbank studio lot, lunching at the NBC commissary and rubbing elbows with a few familiar crew members.

But Nichols is on a different show now - the multi-Emmy-award-winning Santa Barbara. He is portraying Skyler Gates, a Zen therapist specializing in Eastern philosophy and religion - a character who is the antithesis of his former Days of Our Lives alter ago. "It's like coming home in a way, but maybe to a new addition that's been built onto the house," the actor muses.

Nichols admits he missed certain aspects of the daytime medium. "The regular routine is nice… to know that you're going to the same place each day," he says. "There's something to be said for that consistency, that steadiness in daily life. That's one of the nice things about daytime. I enjoy that. Plus, I've got kids at home," he continues. "It's nice to be able to get off work, drive home, and there they are. I'm not on location in Tennessee or somewhere across the world. I'm at home."

Dressed casually in black jeans and a T-shirt, and surrounded by pictures of A Martinez (Cruz) and Martinez's family, Nichols is sitting in what used to be Martinez's dressing room, which now belongs to him. He appears relaxed and content in his new surroundings. Although he's only been on the job for a week at the time of this interview, Nichols has settled in quite comfortably. "My first day, they treated me like a king," he says. "Everybody was very nice, very friendly, Pam Long (Santa Barbara's head writer) even gave me a beautiful floral arrangement with a bit of Asian flavor to it."

Despite the Santa Barbara welcome wagon and Nichols' extensive acting experience, he admits he still experienced the usual first-day jitters. "Oh, sure," he says. "It's like being a kid again and going to a new school. You're not quite sure where anything is. I was kind of lost in the hallways. I had to get to know many new people. I got over it immediately though," he says. "After I got through the first dress rehearsal all the jitters were gone. I felt totally at home."

It helped to have a few co-stars around the set whom he already knew - people like Nancy Lee Grahn (Julia), Kim Zimmer (Jodie) and Eileen Davidson (Kelly), whom Nichols had met at various events during his time on Days of Our Lives. It also helped to hit the ground running with storyline co-stars Jack Wagner (Warren) and Sydney Penny (B.J.). "Jack's a real gas. He's cracking us up all day long. Of course, he stops just before we're ready to tape, but by then it's too late," laughs Nichols. "I really enjoy working with him." As for Penny, "This young woman is a very, very fine actress, and I'm sure that I'm not saying anything that people don't know already. She is really tuned in. It's a joy to work with her."

During his time away from the medium, Nichols has explored a number of other projects, fielded his share of daytime offers and endured countless "rumors" that he was joining other soaps (among them General Hospital) and returning to Days of Our Lives. "Most of the rumors were just that - rumors and nothing more," he says bluntly. Nichols concedes that he has been "approached a couple of times" by other soaps. "I've had some talks with some people in New York," he says. "It seemed that most people didn't understand what my needs were in coming into a daytime situation. So none of the situations worked out."

So Nichols continued working on other areas. Most recently, he completed a recurring role in the Aaron Spelling series 2000 Malibu Road, portraying a character named Brad Dimitri opposite Sally Kellerman. He also just finished producing a presentation pilot - a contemporary western called Wild Horses - in which he starred with his wife, Lisa.

Nichols explains the chain of events that led him to Santa Barbara. "The role came up and one of my agents called and suggested me for it. The Santa Barbara brass thought it was a good idea, called me in, and we had a little meeting. Pam Long and Paul Rauch described me the storyline to me in general and the type of person Skyler is. I was very intrigued by what I heard. Skyler sounded very interesting, not run-of-the-mill."

Nichols elaborates : "Skyler's a Harvard graduate who was schooled as a psychiatrist. During his training and his study of Eastern philosophy and religion, he found that the disciplines and practices in meditation, when applied to psychoanalysis, were very helpful. They brought a whole new area of intuitiveness into his work. He has a calmness and an easiness about him that puts other people at ease," Nichols continues. "He's easier to talk to. He's highly intuitive. He can go beyond what someone is saying and see the truth behind the words."

The character description of Skyler, along with a few other key factors, ultimately lured Nichols to Santa Barbara. First and foremost, the Santa Barbara brass did not insist that Nichols sign a lengthy pact with the show. Instead, they dangled the word "recurring" in front of him. "Because I was not obligated to sign a contact right off the bat, this was a good opportunity for me to feel things out," he says. "The reason that was so important to me is that I didn't want to go on a show and get involved in a heavy contract right away, and then end up as dead weight hanging around on a show that I wasn't happy on, where I was not working and putting something into it."

Santa Barbara's talented cast and writers were also major factors in his decisions. "I've taken tapes home. I spent half a day in my office watching several tapes to catch up on storylines and characters that I'm involved with. I was very impressed. I'm very proud to be a part of Santa Barbara."

For that reason, Nichols hopes he can make a statement as Skyler. Long dedicated to children's charity organizations, particularly those involved in fighting against child abuse, Nichols says he's putting his heart and soul into his role as therapist to abuse victim B.J. Walker. "All the actors involved in that story have done really a great work. The show's done a wonderful job in the writing and execution of the story. I hope that I can contribute to that in a good way."

Nichols also wants to educate daytime television audiences to the world of Eastern religion. "I hope to take away the sort of stigma or misconceptions people have about it," he explains. "I hope to be able to show that there is a basic truth in all religions and a common spirituality running through everyone's lives. I studied Eastern religion and philosophy for many years," he says. "I've been a member of the Self-Realization Fellowship for twenty years. I also have several people in my family who are into psychiatry and psychology and who have known actual Zen therapists. So I have a lot to draw from."

When asked if he's ever gone through therapy, Nichols responds wryly, "Hasn't every creative person had therapy at some time ? I don't know a person who hasn't been through some kind of therapy or analysis at one point in their life."

While Nichols believes the firsthand experience will be helpful in his portrayal of Skyler, he isn't one to get too caught up in it. "I really believe in playing pretend… just being like a child again," he says, describing his method of acting. "All this heavy-handed collecting, researching, and blah, blah, blah just gets very laborious most of the time. I believe it gets in the way. We're all human. I think that's the most important thing in acting - to be human and to relate to the people you're talking to. The rest of it just falls into place."

It's with that same ease that Nichols tackles the inevitable question : does he feel any pressure to save Santa Barbara, a show that's been living under the threat of cancellation for the past year ? "No, I don't feel any pressure at all," he says bluntly. "I'm just an actor who took a job and is willing to commit to it 100 percent. That's as far as my commitment goes. I'm not obligated to try and keep the show on the air or do anything beyond my job is as an actor."

However, Nichols is confident that Days of our Lives fans who loved him as Patch definitely will tune in to get to know him as Skyler. "Every single person who ever watched me on Days of our Lives will tune into this show to see me," he says. "Since I left Days of our Lives, I've kept all the fans in touch with where I am and what I'm doing. They've been following me from one project to the next," he notes. "I've always been able to generate my fans' interest for other projects that I'm doing. I've kind of educated people, in a way, not to be too attached to one particular character but to tune into everything that I'm doing, because it's much more fun. So everybody who's been following me since I left Days of our Lives is going to be here," he stresses. "I think there's going to be a great carryover. Then again, no pressure, right !" he adds with a laugh.

"There's some really wonderful stuff happening on this show," adds Nichols. "A lot of steam has been building up. It's just starting to gel now, and it's going to break loose. Santa Barbara is definitely something worth watching. I want people to know that."