If ‘General Hospital’ is good enough for James Franco… Are daytime soaps finally getting respect in Hollywood?
Ask any aspiring actor or actress where he or she would like to be in five or 10 years, and chances are, they won’t respond, “On a daytime soap opera.” Once upon a time, ambitious thespians — including Julianne Moore, Meg Ryan, Demi Moore, Tommy Lee Jones, and, um, David Hasselhoff — used soaps as a launching pad to (hopefully) bigger and better things, like prime time or the movies. Lately, though, Hollywood traffic has been flowing smoothly in the opposite direction, with more prime-time and film stars hitching a ride to daytime. The timing, however, is ironic, considering that the ratings for the soaps are at an all-time low, and since last year, two long-running shows — Guiding Light and As The World Turns — have been cancelled.
Big-name stars always have done occasional daytime drive-bys. Elizabeth Taylor appeared on three episodes of General Hospital in 1981, and Carol Burnett has done All My Children. For a period in the mid-’00s former prime-time soap stars (Dallas’s Patrick Duffy, Knot’s Landing’s Joan Van Ark, Dynasty’s John James) popped up regularly in daytime. Julianne Moore even recently did an As the World Turns walk-on to celebrate the wedding anniversary of her former character’s mom and dad.
But the current trend of daylighting stars seems to have been kicked off by — who else? — Betty White, whose recurring 2006-2009 turn as Ann Douglas on The Bold and the Beautiful just helped win the show a Daytime Emmy for Best Drama Series. Then late last year, James Franco, either inspired by White or by the stellar acting regularly displayed on General Hospital (I’m betting on the latter), contacted the GH producers to offer his thespian services. In November, he debuted as artist/serial killer Franco. Apparently, much of the daytime audience isn’t aware of Franco’s acclaimed work in movies like Milk and Pineapple Express: On GH online message boards, many viewers claimed not to know who he was. The storyline was panned in the soap press, and his 23 appearances between November and February failed to boost the show’s sagging ratings.
Not that it seems to matter to Franco (the actor and the character) — or GH’s suits. On June 30, they brought Franco back to GH for an encore, and this time Oscar nominee Bruce Davison (Longtime Companion) is along for the ride in a three-episode stint as Franco’s art dealer. (Davison debuted on July 9.) Meanwhile, four-time Emmy winner and former The Waltons star Michael Learned has been appearing on GH since April in the recurring role of terminal cancer patient Shirley Smith. (Poor Learned. She played a similar bed-ridden recurring role on Scrubs. It would be nice to see 71-year-old Olivia Walton up and about in a guest-starring stint for a change.)
Over at Days of Our Lives, Learned’s former Waltons husband and two-time Emmy nominee Ralph Waite has been appearing on and off as Father Matt since February of last year. In a possibly unintended coincidence, on one of last week’s GH episodes, Shirley was detailing her romantic history, and the name of one of her exes happend to be… Ralph.
Also crossing over to daytime is Sean Young (on The Young and the Restless) and Flashdance star Michael Nouri, who recently appeared on the FX cable series Damages and in the 2009 Sandra Bullock hit The Proposal. He’s currently on contract on All My Children as Erica Kane’s soon-to-be love interest Caleb Cooney.
I’m not sure how I feel about all of this stunt casting. Most of daytime’s crossover stars still work regularly on prime time and in film, so in a sense, they are taking jobs from out-of-work actors all over New York and L.A., where the six remaining soaps are based. (After 54 years on TV, As the World Turns will air for the final time on September 17.) Plus the ratings of the daytime dramas continue to drop, so there has been no discernible positive affect from a business stand point. As for the characters themselves, most of them haven’t been fan favorites and are expendable.
I was over Nouri, in particular, about two minutes into his first scene with Susan Lucci. Weeks later, he’s still not growing on me. Every time I see him, I keep wishing Jennifer Beals would show up wearing leg warmers, wielding a welder, and dancing like a maniac. Now that would be stunt casting at its kitschiest/most entertaining — and Erica Kane could use the competition.