Victoria Wyndham on Another World and another life
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Victoria Wyndham was one of the most seasoned and accomplished actresses in daytime soap opera television. She played Rachel Cory, the maven of Another World's fictional town, Bay City, from 1972 to 1999 when the show went off the air. Wyndham talks about how she was seen as the anchor of a show, and the political infighting to keep it on the air as NBC wanted to wrest control of the long-running soap from Procter & Gamble. Wyndham fought to keep it on the air, but eventually succumbed to the inevitable. She discusses life on the soap opera, and the seven years she spent wandering "in the woods" of Los Angeles seeking direction, now divorced from a character who had come to define her professional career. Happy, healthy and with a family she is proud of, Wyndham has found life after the death of Another World in painting and animals. Below is David Shankbone's interview with the soap diva.
Career and motherhood
((David Shankbone )) How are you doing?
- Victoria Wyndham: I’m doing great.
((DS )) You look great. You look amazing.
- VW: Well, I’m having a nice life now. It’s amazing. I’m having a very nice life.
((DS )) How’s the sculpture?
- VW: Well, it’s great. I’m really concentrating on my painting now because for a while I was out in California. I was commuting between the two coasts.
- VW: They are both very creative. Yes. My other son is a director, or hopes to be eventually. He’s got a baby. So he’s working as a photographer in the fashion world. But Christian said, “Mom, you’ve got to get these biographies. You guys are crediting me with one of his credits. He was the one who starred in Skylight on Broadway. I didn’t. I didn’t have a thing to do with that. So you have to get that better.” And that’s all in there.
((DS )) When your sons decided that they wanted to pursue careers that were not so assured in income, like a lawyer or a doctor, but more something that is a creative enterprise like a photographer or an actor …
- VW: My family has always, since the Seventeenth Century, been in show business. So the idea that any of my children would wind up being doctors or lawyers is pretty far-fetched. We were hoping…..[Laughs]
((DS )) As any mother would…
- VW: That they would not pick such a difficult row to hoe, but there was no way that wasn’t going to happen. I mean with two parents who were in show business and their mother in show business and their auntie … it was just inevitable. I’m not disappointed. As long as they are doing what they love. That’s all I care about.
((DS )) How has it been since you left ‘Another World?’
- VW: Terrifically stimulating and very interesting. First of all, while I was on ‘Another World,’ I was working as an actress in the theater. I did lots that I can’t even remember. I did Nefertiti and Rosa and Chakrelle before I went into ‘Another World.’ I was working for six years. I managed rock and roll bands. Everybody gets that wrong too. They think that I was managing a band my children were in. No. I was managing totally unknown group of four boys, to me unrelated, and …
((DS )) That’s after ‘Another World’?
- VW: No, no. It was while I was working. If you work for thirty years in one place, you’ve got to do other things or you go nuts, you know. And so it was ….
((DS )) Anywhere. It doesn’t matter what it is.
- VW: Right, right. You’ve got to do something else to stretch yourself. On the show, I did my own artwork so that was one outlet that I had creatively because I played a sculptor on the show and did a lot of my own work. I have a permanent piece in the Smithsonian. I came across a picture of that today. It was interesting. It’s the only picture I have of the sculpture. It’s good, So along with that, the boys were in their early teens and all of a sudden a driver of mine gave me a tape of his nephew, his band. I said I don’t do music. I’m an actor. I can’t help you. He said, “Oh, no, no, no, you know people. Just listen to it.” So I listened to it. But in among all of the noise you could hear ….
((DS )) Unrefined talent.
- VW: Yes, very raw. But it was like they had something. And we got as far as opening for Living Color and the Chili Peppers.
((DS )) Awesome. That’s big.
- VW: Yeah. And we played at CBGB's a lot and we played at the Ritz and the Palladium and all of the gigs around here. It became a wonderful family project because the kids were the roadies for the band. I guess that’s why people get it wrong and I’ve read that so often: ‘Oh she managed her children’s band.’ No she didn’t. She managed A band.
((DS )) They must get a kick out of that though.
- VW: No, it infuriates them! They want their own independent life. But I was managing up to four bands and doing their videos and producing them. It was very wearing. I was finally sleep deprived. I had to stop doing it because it meant I got three hours of sleep a night for six years. I was exhausted.
The politics behind the demise of Another World
((DS )) When you’re known so well for one particular role--Rachel Cory in Another World--yet you are multi-dimensional, how do you handle the frustration that must breed inside yourself?
- VW: I didn’t find it frustrating because I was always doing so many other things. On top of that, my big job was raising my children. I’m very proud of that and I was a very hands-on parent so that was my number one job. The soap was my way to finance that, since I was a single parent. Then the off-Broadway gigs came. I knew I wasn’t going to do a Broadway play or anything that demanded a long run because that would keep me away from my family too much. But when those would be offered to me, if I felt that they were good enough, I would do them. They were always limited runs. Then I had the sculpture. I had a one-woman show and The Smithsonian, which led to commissions.
((DS )) But it doesn’t bother you to just be recognized for one role?
- VW: It does when it means that now when I go online the only credit is Another World. That bothers me because all of the people that follow my career, the fan base, know that I do an awful lot more than that. So do the people who know me. While I was doing Rachel, I was never frustrated doing her. She was a fascinating character. I had a wonderful gig on that show and they let me do pretty much anything. I was able to explore all sorts of wacky things and playing the twin was really wacky.
((DS )) You weren’t particularly happy with that story line though. At first you didn’t mind, but then after …
- VW: Oh my God, you have done your research haven’t you? Yeah. It was fun at first and then what a lot of people don’t know is there was internecine warfare between NBC and Procter & Gamble at that point. So there was a lot of push and pull. I now know that NBC was doing an awful lot of sabotaging of the show and that particular character. They had, for many many years, tried to get me off the show, tried to separate me from the show.
((DS )) Why?
- VW: They wanted to take it off the air.
((DS )) And you were one of the main draws on the show? So if they got rid of you ….
- VW: And, of course, Procter & Gamble understood what they were trying to do and were supporting me. NBC never let me know that. This became clear, as it came to a head, before they finally yanked us.
((DS )) Why did they not want the show anymore?
- VW: Because they couldn’t own all of it. If Procter & Gamble had sold it to them, they undoubtedly would have gotten rid of me and made it a young, stupid show, the way they did with Passions, and it would have…….
((DS )) Flopped, like Passions did. They were throwing midgets out there--
- VW: Right. They weren’t really smart. I don’t know where that mandate was coming from, but I guess they were insisting and insisting and at some point I had a distinct feeling that NBC didn’t want to have soaps anymore. Brandon Tartikoff was the last programmer and he was certainly not daytime programming, but he was the last bit honcho at NBC who was honest with me. He was a huge fan of mine, which was just so adorable. He didn’t have time to watch the soaps, but he had said at one point when I ran into him and was introduced, “Oh my God, you’re the only reason we keep that show on the air.” I’m like ‘Wow. You are my favorite head of networks now!’
((DS )) How do you not let that go to your head? How do you keep calm after something like that?
- VW: Easy, because you know that he’s the only person in the whole network that feels that way.
((DS )) It’s tenuous, like a tooth hanging by a thread.
- VW: And he was dead shortly after that, so it didn’t help me very much. I don’t think it was anything personal. It was just business.
((DS )) NBC wanted all the profits.
- VW: Yeah, they didn’t want to share with Procter & Gamble. This was business and if Miss Wyndham wasn’t on the show, they could do what they wanted, and tank it or take it off the air or whatever. But Procter & Gamble wouldn’t let it go and believed in the show. They knew that I was an integral part and so they kept it.
Wyndham's efforts to save Another World
((DS )) Is that the soap opera model, that there needs to be certain character anchors--like a Susan Lucci--on the show that exist and then they can kind of shuffle up the newer characters?
- VW: I think you’re accurate, but that’s not just a soap model. Look at West Wing. What would West Wing have been without the president? Or those leads?
((DS )) Although it’s a different idea because a soap is daily and you have people who watch it as if it’s a part of their lives opposed to a weekly drama. I mean, you were twenty-five years on ’Another World’ ….
- VW: That is correct. But wait a second. You’ve just flipped the argument here. People often make that dubious distinction between the soap opera and how its architecture is different from any other show. Look at all the nighttime dramas. ’24.’ ’West Wing.’ Heroes.’ They’re all soap operas. It’s not soap operas and everything else. That’s the trouble with Hollywood. They think soap operas are creaky now. I tried for years and years and years with Procter & Gamble to bring them up to speed and make them less creaky. And Procter & Gamble was very behind that effort but NBC was scared to death it would be successful and didn’t want us to do it. So we were thwarted at every turn.
((DS )) What was the updated version of soap operas that you envisioned?
- VW: Well I pitched the last two years we were on. They often used me for story, long-term story, not just for my own character often but also for other characters.
((DS )) They would turn to you for ideas?
- VW: Yes, because I’m a writer also.
((DS )) And you also knew history.
- VW: Yes, but that was less important for them than the fact that I was a good storyteller.
((DS )) I read that they didn’t care about the history and the traditions in Another World?
- VW: They did not. They also knew that I knew the company, knew the actors we had. I knew what they could act with and what they couldn’t act with. So I could come up with story that would make them look good.
((DS )) “She’ll never be able to play that off. He’ll be able to…..” That kind of stuff?
- VW: It wasn’t that dishy. It was more like, “Look this gal can’t do this stuff you’ve been giving her. But if you give her a storyline like this, where she gets to just be beautiful, she can do that and it will be fabulous.” There were a number of times where I could help them. Other times when some of the male stars who were awfully good … and this is going way back in the seventies and eighties … and we were worried about losing them to Hollywood. And we did. Like Ray Liotta and Jerry Fitzpatrick. They would come to me and say, ‘Can we give them a good story? What would keep them?’ I’d come up with a storyline that they’d pay me for; they’d give it to their writers and my name was never on it because I didn’t want that responsibility. I didn’t want to be put in that situation with my cast. I didn’t want to be lobbied. And that worked. They knew my storylines worked. When they didn’t work it was usually because they’d taken away the very elements that made them work in order to homogenize them. That was an ongoing battle. Towards the end, when we were fighting for the life of the show and trying to keep it on, because I felt a great deal of responsibility to try and help it stay on the air. Those were jobs for almost three hundred people. That was like another family for me. Stage hands and property people.
((DS )) Do you still keep in touch with a lot of the people from the show?
- VW: Not too much. You never do.
((DS )) Isn’t that odd?
- VW: No, it isn’t odd. We’re not really a family. We’re a working family. As long as we were working together we had something in common. When you don’t work together, you don’t have anything more in common.
((DS )) Do you find that that’s true in almost every friendship situation though?
- VW: No, not every friendship situation.
((DS )) That there’s a need for commonality …..?
- VW: Well, if it’s a real friendship that will transcend the work situation, then you carry that one over. There are people I have carried on with. Charles, Connie Ford was a good friend, Douglass was a good friend. Sandy Ferguson was a good friend. Matt. I hung out a lot with him out in California when I was out there for those years after the show folded. But you don’t carry that with everybody. People go their separate ways. You run into them and you’re happy to see them, then you go your separate ways. It’s sort of the bittersweet, but wonderful thing, about show business. Nobody hangs on.
((DS )) They all move on to the next thing.
- VW: Yeah, happily. And then you’re always happy to see the person. Bump into them. You hang unto the people you have something in common with. Anyway, in those years I had come up with a storyline that I thought would really revolutionize the medium because the trouble is that’s it’s so creaky and it’s feeding on itself. There are boatloads of writers that come on these show, they write for your on it for a while and then they’re fired because they didn’t come up with enough good stuff. The next thing you know they’re on some other show. They rotate on all the shows and pretty soon you have no new blood and the same old bad, boring, clichéd stories are going around and around. I felt our best attempt to stay on the air would be to come up with something really revolutionary.
((DS )) What was that?
- VW: It was an idea to break the fourth wall and to do away with the commercials.
((DS )) What’s the fourth wall?
- VW: The television screen. It was very carefully worked out. It was a whole storyline. It would take much more than an hour for me to tell you. It was very involved. My other big idea was to get people not to switch on the commercials, which they do … people can watch three soaps because there’s so many commercial breaks, you can just switch and you can keep switching …
((DS )) Is that typical?
- VW: Oh yeah. They try to synchronize the commercials so they can’t do that. They are still worried about people Tivoing or taping because they think they go right through the commercials. I said we’re the one company that can do this because we’re sponsored by Procter & Gamble. We can put all of the commercials, which were mostly Proctor’s, into the show. Product placement. I had really cute ways of doing it so it that it was very comedic and sweet and fun. Then you’d never cut away to a commercial so you’d never lose your viewers. You would have all of the other viewers from the other shows go, ’You don’t have any commercials. That’s a straight hour of programming. Great!’ It really excited everybody. They flew me out to California. They had me do a big meeting for NBC. Everybody was seeing dollar signs. But the bottom line was NBC wanted to own the whole show and Procter & Gamble would not give it up. So they said no. Now we’re starting to see more and more of that happening.
The future of soap operas
((DS )) Where do you think soaps are going to go now?
- VW: I have no idea. I haven’t even addressed it. I’m so uninterested.
((DS )) Would you go back to one?
- VW: Oh, it would have to be an extraordinary offer and an extraordinary situation. In other words, probably not. I wasn’t interested in soaps. I was doing it because it was a good job.
((DS )) But twenty-five years on a soap. It’s so funny to hear you say you weren’t interested. I understand you had your children. It was a good gig, steady income. It kept you on the east coast.
- VW: Kept me on the east coast. Kept me coming home at night. I was there at dinnertime every night while my kids were home. When they went off to college, then I had an apartment in the city and I didn’t have to do that kind of commuting. But when they were little and under my auspices, I was there all the time. So it was a great gig. Was it something I intended to do for the rest of my life? Not at all. But when I realized what the alternative was and I had two children to raise, it was a pretty good gig. Also, when you do work for one entity, you know you become competitive about it. They become your family.
((DS )) If you’re going to do something, do it well.
- VW: Yeah. I wanted it to be good. I wanted it to be better than everyone … I wanted us to break ground. Procter & Gamble was thrilled with that idea. They could see it. Whalen retired when they took it off. He could see. “Wow, my God. This would revolutionize. Everybody would chase us. These would be incredible!” He gave me the go-ahead. He set up all the meetings. But the soaps, I don’t think, want to be different. They just don’t want to be different. And that’s fine.
((DS )) Why do they not want to change?
- VW: Because it’s easier not to. It’s the whole American thing. If it’s easier to be mediocre, why not be mediocre. It’s the thing that’s going to kill us as a nation if we don’t get over that. We didn’t used to be like that.
((DS )) Where else do you see that in the culture?
- VW: I see it in a lot of the big businesses, in many of the corporations. That won’t last very long now that we’re in a global market. But I see it in television in general, but not in HBO.
((DS )) Or Showtime.
- VW: HBO was the one who went gloves-off, ’We’re going to do this and we’re going to do this really well.’
((DS )) You saw that with The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.
- VW: Yeah. I think they’re starting to get blasé and take it for granted, so consequently Showtime is pushing it more. But I wasn’t interested in pushing it to the sleaze factor and the violent and the four-letter word and all that. I think that isn’t the only way you can push the envelope. You can push the envelope with -- what a concept -- good storytelling. What a great idea.
((DS )) Pay some writers.
- VW: Well, they didn’t pay me very much. But I knew what those actors could do and that they weren’t being challenged. And the ones that couldn’t do very much could be used in a very different way; you could support them and help them look better. Nobody cares. Nobody cares.
((DS )) How does someone become a soap actor? Is it something they fall into or is it something that is pursued?
- VW: They pursue it because they can’t get work in any other medium. It’s changed a lot so I don’t know the answer for sure to that. In my day, which is back in the sixties, you wanted a soap, and this is still the case, because you can’t afford to do theater. It doesn’t pay. It’s never paid enough. And I think that’s still the reason. That’s certainly the reason why my own son finally, after swearing he would never go up for a soap--he hit a dry spell for a while--found he would like a soap. It keeps paying your rent while you’re trying to get the next big commercial or the next nighttime gig. The percentage of people who get to do a lead on a nighttime television show are small and the people who get to do movies are small. So if you want to be an actor, it’s a good place to start. The other wonderful thing is it’s a wonderful way to learn how to do camera work. Camera acting and theater acting are very different. They both share the need to be real in a pretend situation. That’s the definition of acting. Real emotions in a pretend situation. They both require that. But after that, they’re very different technically. The scale that you have to work on when you’re doing the theater piece and the amount of voice you need to use and the gestures ….
((DS )) And the emotion that goes with live performance.
- VW: Well all of that has to be scaled large. Television has to be scaled conversationally and it has to be very very small and very very cool. Marshall LaPlume was right about that. It’s a cool medium. And if you’re too intense on television, it just looks awful. It also looks awful if you have nothing on your mind except, ‘Oh my God, what’s my next line?’ A lot of the young people, that’s all you see.
((DS )) Really? Is it more of a function of modernity or more of a function of youth that they‘re like that?
- VW: No, it’s a hard medium. You don’t get much rehearsal. You’re thrown on right away and you don’t get a chance to practice much unless you take it on yourself to do an awful lot of practicing. And if it’s not your show, if you’re guesting, it’s really hard. That’s true about nighttime too. Or movies. If you do a film and you’re just in a few segments, you’ve got so much time in between that it’s very hard to maintain your character. That’s the one type of acting I’ve never wanted to do. Film.
Wyndham's career and making it as a creative
((DS )) You’ve never wanted to do a film?
- VW: No, I’m too impatient. I like working quick. I like live. That’s what I liked about soaps when I started. They were live.
((DS )) Are you turning down projects now?
- VW: Look, when you get to be over 50, you’re not offered very much if you’re a lady. So I’m not offered very much. The things that I’m offered, as far as I’m concerned, are just not worth doing. I mean, why should I do those? I had a wonderful job. I worked for thirty-five years straight without ever a break. I was never unemployed. I did a certain amount of theater that I thought was worthwhile.
((DS )) You’re not at that point anymore where you need to work.
- VW: Thank God.
((DS )) Every actor’s worry.
- VW: It’s been a pretty active and exhausting life. I’ve done a lot. I’ve done a lot that people don’t know of. The writing alone. I mean at one point the show wanted me to take them over and be the head writer and I had turned in a 500-page long form story for them.
((DS )) Why haven’t you gone more toward the writing.
- VW: Well I’ve tried. I’ve tried. I have scripts up the wazoo! It’s not that easy to sell if you’re perceived as a soap actor. People brand you. They want to meet you. You have to pitch. I’m well known enough in Hollywood so that when I walk in, they know who I am.
((DS )) Have you ever tried to use a pseudonym?
- VW: No, but we did have this fantasy that my nephew would go in instead of me because he’s the youngest of the children in the family. The boys who are now the young men in our family have all read my stuff and they think it’s good.
((DS )) Just for fun you should do it, just as an experiment. Change your name and send it. Be like, “Hi, I’m a young intrepid writer and I have this script.” Not just a soap opera actress.
- VW: It’s just horrible. It’s just a real glass ceiling. And Hollywood will say, ’We don’t feel that way.’ But they do.
((DS )) But the difference is what they say and what they do. Show business is known as such a vicious industry.
- VW: It’s not vicious. They’re VERY nice. Everybody’s terribly nice--
((DS )) To your face.
- VW: Bingo.
((DS )) But isn’t that even more disenchanting when someone is like, “You’re the best. You’re so great.” And the next thing you know is, “That person thinks you suck.” And your like, “We just had this great meeting. I thought that they loved me.”
- VW: They were hilarious! They do that a lot! They say all the right things and you walk out not feeling defeated and feeling like, “Wow, good. This wasn’t as bad as everybody told me it would be.” Then you never hear again. And you go, “Oh, still branded with as a ‘soap actor.’”
((DS )) How do you persevere? Even when you were younger and not in the comfortable place you are now?
- VW: No, I didn’t persevere. I didn’t go out to Hollywood. I knew that would be what it is. If I had done that, I would have had to go out when I was in my early twenties and that’s when I was having my children. I didn’t want to bring my children up in California. I think I made the right decision.
((DS )) Aside from good acting, what was the secret to your longevity? It’s not just good acting that gets you staying around that long.
- VW: Well, it was the fans, it was the fans. Oh my God. And also Harding Lemay, Pete Lemay, writing wonderfully for seven years; they just wrote so wonderfully for all of us that he created the myth that then I was able to dine out on, for the rest of my life on that show. Together we created this character that had enough substance and a track record for the show. Even after he left and it went to ninety minutes for two years. It gave the show a certain track record and my character became the anchor person. You have to have a certain amount of range and do different kinds of acting. You know you’ve got to … if you can get any comedy in anywhere, you’ve got to try for it. Many actors aren’t that flexible. I can be real nasty, really quick. That was good. So it didn’t matter that she became a good character. She still had all those edges. She could be sarcastic. She could be bitchy. She could be manipulating in good ways and bad. And she could be awfully funny. She also had this artistic side. Then I had these wonderful fans who loved the show and it’s really amazing, really quite a phenomena, because those fans outwardly they looked like pretty simple folk, typical ladies, but they are amazingly bright. And so appreciative when they know you’re giving them everything you’ve got. Audiences are like that. Hollywood, whoever Hollywood is, keeps forgetting audiences aren’t stupid and the people that I believe are the most successful in Hollywood -- not the gazillionaires -- but the people who are steadily successful, just do good work. Like Aaron Sorkin, whose play I’m going to go see tonight …
((DS )) Or Norman Mailer …
- VW: Right. Those guys never write down. They lift an audience up to their level They make you think. They make you stick with them. I mean Sorkin has so many levels to his writing, he’s just a pleasure to watch. Even that wonderful series that was on HBO last season on about NBC. Did you see that series? It was about Saturday Night Live. It was Sorkin’s show. It was about Saturday Night Live, but it wasn’t done by the Saturday Night Live gal. It was really super and I don’t know why they yanked it, but it was a terrific cast. The guy from West Wing and Harry from Sex and the City. It was a fantastic series. And it was so bright. He’d just finished West Wing and then he uncorked this other one which was delightful, funny and hip and real inside.
Television's lust for youth
((DS )) Are you putting yourself out there for roles?
- VW: I did for seven years that I was out in L.A. You can’t put yourself out there for roles in L.A.. They call you. That’s the way they want to do it. So you’d have to strip and dance nude down Sunset Boulevard to put yourself out there. I don’t know how you do that.
((DS )) Do you think that that model where you have 23-year-olds playing 18-year-olds and you have 23-year-olds playing 30-year-olds is getting old? Don’t you think people are getting sick of seeing just …
- VW: Young people?
((DS )) Yeah. Don’t you think it’s at the point where it’s becoming a farce? Is that really what people want?
- VW: That’s where the Internet has become so fascinating to me. Because to me, the smart audience has gone, ‘You know what? You don’t speak to us anymore. So we’re not watching you. We’re going to go online.’
((DS )) I understand the WB and UPN Networks that 16-year-olds want to watch people who look like they’re 16.
- VW: But the rest of us don’t.
((DS )) That’s only a small portion of the populace.
- VW: The rest of us would rather have Netflix or …
((DS )) Some realistic depictions of life or interesting stories that are well written, but not all played by people who are 22.
- VW: I know. I don’t know when that’s going to change. I know there’s something about film and television, especially now that television is going to high def, that wants to look at no lines. No lines on the face. A good face. That’s real. I mean, even the artist in me… It’s a very unusual lady actor who can make you forget what she looks like. I’m not talking about men. Men look great as they age. They get better and better. But there’s something about it and I don’t know whether it’s our chauvinistic society today or whether we’re still all under that chauvinistic umbrella of seeing the world through a young man’s gaze.
((DS )) Could people transcend that? I was watching The Sopranos last night and Lauren Bacall was on it and I was transfixed watching her. Is it more because it’s Lauren Bacall or is it more so just cause it’s just interesting? Remember like the mother on that show ….
- VW: But that’s film. That’s film on television. Those are the scripts. That’s writing.
((DS )) So it’s laziness that’s giving us all of this all of this, “Oh just throw on a smooth skin and thus we don’t have to worry about the writing as much. We don’t have to worry about whether the story is engaging.”
- VW: I think so. But, interestingly enough, I’m an optimist, I’m afraid. I see little tiny change that might be happening because with HBO’s success …
((DS )) Which Showtime repeated.
- VW: And now Showtime is trying to do the same thing. But all of a sudden you’ve got a show that is very confusing to me. Heroes is very confusing to me. They’re at least attempting something. Now yes, they‘ve got a whole bunch of teeny-boppers …..
((DS )) But they’ve got fat people. They’ve got short people. They’ve got nerds.
- VW: They’ve got a lot of nerds. They’ve got people all different skin tones. So they’re attempting something.
((DS )) Normal people. And that was wildly popular.
- VW: I think maybe network is trying to break out of its shell, but I think because network is always after huge numbers, that’s always going to homogenize anything they do, any niche market. That’s why the Internet is giving television such a run for its money because Internet and cable is making it imperative that you seek out the audience that is right for your thing. I believe in that. I believe it’s silly to go after. If you’re good and you get a rating of two or three, which used to seem like nothing when I started television, but now it’s a pretty mediocre rating, You know a 3.0 or a 2.5 on a rating, that’s not awful. That’s good, that’s good enough. That’s two million people. That’s enough. But it’s the greediness. The greediness homogenizes everything, makes everything bland.
((DS )) It’s self defeating because in the end people stop watching.
- VW: You and I can say that, and I’ve been saying that till I’m blue in the face, since 1970 to my network, NBC, and they didn’t want to hear it. I said, why don’t you want to be better? It cost to be better. It’s too hard to be better. We need more numbers. Be better and you’ll get the numbers.
((DS )) Why is it so difficult to see?
- VW: But it’s not so easy to stay good.
((DS )) Where do you think the disconnect is? Do you think it’s a disconnect between people who don’t know their product that they have on the air, like you have executives who really don’t follow it and it is what it is and stick with it?
- VW: Money. I think that there’s an arrogance. It’s little lady housewives in their slippers and their wrappers and curlers. They still see it that way.
((DS )) It’s the teenagers who come home from school
- VW: And consequently. it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s what you’ve turned it into. And with Passions, you’ve turned it into mindless teeny-bopper fare. And even the teeny-boppers who are mindless say, ‘You know what, this is stupid.’ And turned it off so it didn’t last. And so I kept saying to them over the years, ‘This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You keep talking down and down and down and making it blander and stupider and then you keep wondering where your audience is going. They’re leaving in droves because it’s not very good. Why don’t you go back to the old model?” Well you don’t understand. It’s changed. With my show it was always NBC wanted to do one thing and P&G wanted to do another. Everything NBC wanted to do with our show that they were successful at doing killed it. Killed it again and again until it was dead.
Her relationship today to the character Rachel Cory
((DS )) Do you still get mobbed on the streets when you walk?
- VW: No, but I still get recognized.
((DS )) How does that feel? Is it strange for you, because you probably were accustomed to that for so long?
- VW: No, it’s very nice to get my anonymity back again. I am made anxious by being recognized now. Makes me anxious. It’s really nice to just go back to being a person.
((DS )) To just walk into Saks and shop and not have it.
- VW: I ran away from a lady just now on the street who, because you were on her favorite story, thinks it’s her right to accost you on the street, slam you against the building and ask you questions. I’ve gotten really good at dodging and I just keep going. But it makes me nervous because in those days I used to have a driver who was also a body guard. I don’t have that now. So I get a little nervous. It doesn’t happen very much.
((DS )) Is it annoying to talk about Rachel Cory still?
- VW: No, no. It’s so sweet how loyal and faithful they were. You’re always grateful that it meant that much to people. That was my work and you know I never imagined I would feel about a job. It was no fun. The first ten years were wonderful fun and the next twenty were a real slog because of this battle between the two producing entities. It made it very unpleasant for someone like me who was trying to keep the ship afloat. It was just politically very wearing. But what I never imagined I would feel is the affection for the fans that were so loyal through a lot of crappy writing and terrible treatment that they got at the hands of NBC.
((DS )) Were there certain writers who you just had it out with and you were like, ‘This is just not going to go?’
- VW: Oh yeah, plenty. Plenty.
((DS )) Is there any that stand out that you‘d want to name?
- VW: No, and I don’t remember the names of any of them.
((DS )) They were that bad? You remember the good ones, but not the bad ones?
- VW: Yeah, that’s all. I was lucky I had a good part. I had a part where I could allow her to develop and become a lot of different things instead of what Lucci’s had to do which is to keep her character the same way. I could develop and grow as a person. She started out a young manipulative bitch and she wound up being quite a wise ….
((DS )) Matriarch.
- VW: With edges. With some serious edges. And that enabled me to become a role model. I was able, through her, to talk to all those ladies about what I thought women should be like.
((DS )) What would be one story line that really stands out to you that you were like, “why didn’t we explore this more? This was an important issue.”
- VW: You know, it was all such a blur. At the time I could have told you, but it’s been ten years now.
Wyndham on a higher power and the creative process
((DS )) Do you believe in a higher power?
- VW: Yes, definitely.
((DS )) What is that higher power?
- VW: I don’t know. But I just know that you can see it at work with the animals. I’m a big animal person. Yeah, I do believe in a higher power. And I believe that whatever it is that the universe is good, basically, and that there is order and a principle to things and that when we align ourselves with principle, we do better.
((DS )) Do you go to church?
- VW: I don’t, no.
((DS )) Do you pray?
- VW: Yes.
((DS )) Daily?
- VW: Yeah, moment to moment I think. It’s not doctrinal. It’s not based on some doctrine.
((DS )) It’s when you feel moved?
- VW: Well, it’s a definite dialog with whatever is higher. I always feel like if you listen hard, real quietly, you’ll instinctively know which way to go and I’ve used that a lot in my life. You can rely on your instincts and your deepest feelings. But most of us don’t listen. We let other things get in the way of listening. But yes I do believe that and I did that with Rachel. I mean she had a lot of miraculous moments which were as much driven by the actor who was playing her as the writers. I think I often did more in that direction than the writers would have liked me to. But I thought it was important.
((DS )) Why do you think it’s difficult for people to pull instinct out from inside themselves and actually use it? As an actor, as an artist on any level, you have to? It’s almost like this little well inside yourself that when you get those little goose bumps and say, ’Oh, this is good.’
- VW: Right. Go with it.
((DS )) You have to go with it. But there’s a lot of people who, even if they have that feeling they talk themselves down from it. “Oh, this is actually crap. Oh, this is bad. Oh, this is stupid.”
- VW: Or this person won’t be the person I think they’re going to be and then I think that’s when you have to say , “Wait a second. This is a good idea.”
((DS )) How do you hold on to that feeling without talking yourself down from it?
- VW: Well, it’s really tough. It really is tough and you have to argue with yourself all the time and we have all these selves inside ourselves I’m just going to explore this. I’m going to go as long as I can. I also think we hold ourselves to a path because we thought that was the way to go. I don’t know any better than you do how to get through life. I mean, it’s a struggle. You work on it daily, but I do know that when we’re balanced -- you know people make much of balance -- but it’s true because I finally got to a point in my life where I’ve allowed myself to scale down, to give myself plenty of time to sleep, to eat normally, to have my creative time, have all the things that feed me. And I’m very lucky. I don’t think I would have survived very much longer living the way I was living with Another World. It had become quite an unwieldy thing for me.
((DS )) In what way?
- VW: Well it was just the politics of it and the effort …
((DS )) It took the art out of it?
- VW: Yeah. And also they were changing writers and producers on us almost weekly, and so you were always breaking in somebody new and they would rely on me heavily for that because at least I’d know how the show was run and how you did things.
After AW: Wyndham lost in California
((DS )) It must get tiresome to constantly need to educate a new person every time, especially if they didn‘t get it and you’re like, ‘No, that’s not what I was saying. This was what I was saying. You misunderstood.’
- VW: I’m telling you, it’s beyond … And also I was aware that a lot of people that were higher than them, who weren’t on the day to day, were working against the whole show. And it’s hard not to make that feel personal. After awhile you feel like you’re walking around with a target on your back. And so it was just over. I was done. I was done. But I gave it my last, best writing effort to give them a new idea, and it didn’t work either and so it was like, fine. Done now. Get out of here. And I have to do something different. So I took myself off to California, which my business people very much wanted me to do and I thought was just a crock and sort of a stupid idea.
((DS )) The kids were grown up and you didn’t have to be back here anymore so you tried California?
- VW: I tried it to be a good sport.
((DS )) But don’t you feel better for having done it and knowing as opposed to always wondering?
- VW: No. Because I wasn’t always wondering. I know this business. I’ve been in it since I was five. You don’t have to tell me about this business. I’m real clear on it. I’m over the hill for Hollywood folks. I didn’t need to go out there and have that drummed into me, but I did it because I was confused and exhausted. I didn’t know what else to do. And I had to give up my home, because I couldn’t afford it anymore. I was pretty much a lost soul and it was really really hard and it was my wilderness experience that everybody has.
Wyndham discovers painting
((DS )) How did you get out of that wilderness?
- VW: Well it was wonderful. I discovered this wonderful painter.
((DS )) That was seven years? Seven years in Tibet?
- VW: I know. How weird is that. There are cosmic things. So I discovered this wonderful artist who is out there, who is teaching at UCLA.
((DS )) What’s his name?
- VW: Joe Bloustein.
((DS )) How did you meet him?
- VW: Well I went to UCLA. Christian came by because he had just finished a film. He came back into town because he lives out there. He took one look at me and went, ‘Aye yi yi Mom. Mom’s being a good sport, but she’s a little frazzled. She’s a little confused and perplexed.’ So he very sweetly took me for a drive to show me. It’s daunting, L.A. You get Manhattan. It’s on a grid.
((DS )) L.A. is a mess, and you always get stuck in traffic.
- VW: And I’m a country mouse. There was cement everywhere and I was living in a high-rise apartment sublet. I needed to know where parks were and stuff like that. I had been so busy going on business stuff. So Christian accurately accessed the situation, took me for a drive, and on the way we passed UCLA and I realized it was right around the corner from my apartment. And he said, ’If I were you Mom, I’d go over to UCLA and see if you couldn’t get back into your artwork.’ And I thought, what a wise suggestion from my young man. So I did. And I took a couple courses and it wasn’t that interesting. It was sort of like being at school and it was so distracting. Then during a break one day I wandered down the hall and there was this incredible painting class and all the students were doing the most extraordinary work. And all the work was different.
((DS )) So the class that you were in was not interesting, but you went to another class?
- VW: I wandered down to see and everybody’s work was so individual and it was all so amazing and I got really excited instantly. The feeling.
((DS )) The gooseflesh.
- VW: Yeah. I got all excited and there was this little old man going around and he was the teacher. And he came over and he said, ‘May I help you?’ And then he recognized me, and he said, ‘You’re that actor.’ And I asked him to be quiet because I was trying to just be this artist person. And he was like, ‘Come in, come in, sit in on my class. Would you like to audit it?’ So I did and that started a wonderful relationship and he taught me how to paint. So it was just incredible. He took me on. I had never painted before because I’m a sculptor. So two-dimensional was really hard. I went on working with this guy. During the whole of four years that I worked with him, he had me work in his regular classes and then took me into his professional classes and I finally wound up working up non-stop with his professional group and his at-home group and he just made the whole experience of L.A. so worthwhile. It was, you know, follow those feelings. All of a sudden I realized why I was out there. Wow, I was out there to meet this guy.
((DS )) What did it end up doing for you?
- VW: When I was a young woman I read a biography of Louise Nevelson. Do you know who she is? She’s a sculptor, artist from the New York school sort of from around the time the abstract expressionists were here in New York in the 50s and 60s. She started out as an actor on Broadway and did what I did. She starred on Broadway, then she did off-Broadway, then she got married, then she became an artist. What that did to me was that told me that life is long and you can do a lot of things in one life. You don’t have to hold yourself to just one career. I realized that life was long and you could have more than one career. So I always figured that I was working on my sculpture all those years on the show and off the show and that would be my follow-up career. As an actor, I was aware that my shelf life wouldn’t be over 50. It wasn’t at 50, but it was shortly thereafter. And so going out there and meeting Joe and working at UCLA …
((DS )) What did you do with that experience? You came back to the east coast?
- VW: No. I did nothing. You have to wait to be called for auditions out there. So it’s a waiting game. They don’t want you to go anywhere because they want you right there. You go crazy because you‘re just hanging around for the phone to ring.
((DS )) And there’s nothing you can do about it?
- VW: No. So I just started painting. I was in a sublet. I got tarps and I laid them down over all of her furniture and the rugs and everything and I started painting on the walls. When Charles came out … he had been working or something or had been in England or something …
((DS )) Charles Keating?
- VW: Yeah. He came out to do pilot season. Big migration to do pilot season. He came out. When he walked in he saw every wall was covered with paintings. And I paint big. I paint wall-size. And he went, ‘On my God. You’re really good.’ And I was like, Great. It was like, Oh, good. I mean I wasn’t looking at it to see if it was good. I just had to do something. I had to paint. I was a country mouse confined in a city in an apartment with no animals, no family, no nothing. It was like, I have to paint. So I did. And he pulled amazing things out of me.
((DS )) And that pulled you out of this funk?
- VW: It got me through the seven years out there.
((DS )) When did you decide to leave and come back?
- VW: When I had gotten over the panic. It took me awhile to get over the panic. A long time.
((DS )) What was that panic?
- VW: Who am I?
((DS )) I’m not getting calls.
- VW: But also, a lot of endings. I wasn’t a mother anymore. I wasn’t an actor anymore. I wasn’t Rachel anymore.
((DS )) Was that hard being divorced from that character?
- VW: Yeah, you bet. Like anybody who has been unemployed, it’s really hard to be a non-entity in this country where everything is about being successful. And I didn’t know who I was. What do I do for an encore. But I knew I could paint. I knew I could do art. So that’s what I did. And I have a whole one-woman show from that period, that I’m just waiting for the right gallery to put up. I haven’t worked too hard at finding the gallery because I’m in no hurry and I just keep working. So that gave me the confidence that, yes, you really are an artist. And this is good stuff. I had enough vindication. I had enough people coming in to see my work out in L.A. Because you can’t be in one place for a while. I had all the artists that were working with Joe who were exceedingly good.
((DS )) How is the inspiration for the art different from the inspiration you would draw for characters?
- VW: Well totally different. It has to come totally from you. Just like you’re a writer. It’s one thing when you interview people, because they give you what to write as an interviewer. But for a writer-writer, to do your own stuff, your own novel or your own play or something, you have to pull it out of your own ass.
((DS )) Totally different worlds.
- VW: Same thing as for painting and for sculpture. You have to find what it is you want to say.
((DS )) What is it that you’re saying now in your art?
- VW: I can’t put it into words. And you’re a little superstitious so you’re not going to do that. I’m painting. I’m not not painting. I’m painting. So that’s good. But what brought me back was the realization that, okay, I have enough confidence that I’ve started my third career. Now I need a home. This little apartment … I need more room for my painting. I need my own studio. I need bigger digs. It was too expensive to rent them out there. I could paint under Joe’s auspices at the very studios that he used, but it wasn’t satisfying. I mean I painted 24/7. I painted right around the clock. Hardly slept. Just kept painting. And I needed more room. I painted over everything. I gotta find another farm. And it’s got to have a lot of outbuildings so I can make one of the outbuildings into a studio. So it took me, oh, about three more years to find the farm and to sell some other real estate so I could afford to buy it. I found it and then it’s taken me the three years that I’ve been back here to renovate it. It’s a hundred-year-old farm and so it needed a lot of work. I renovated it and made it my studio. It’s in Connecticut. Then while I was doing that I went, okay, now I need to have my animals around me because that’s what feeds me also. So I got a horse and a couple more dogs and now I’m happy.
Wyndham on the state of the world
((DS )) If you could choose the way you die, how would you choose?
- VW: Peacefully, in my sleep. Peacefully. And Huey Marlowe, who played Jim Matthews in our show, he died that way. Good death. Peacefully, in my sleep, on my farm, after a wonderful day.
((DS )) And if there is a God, and you went up there, what do you think God would say to you?
- VW: I don’t believe in that kind of stuff.
((DS )) But say it’s true.
- VW: Okay, say it’s true. What would I like God to say to me? You did good.
((DS )) And do you think He would? Or she?
- VW: Yeah. Yeah. I tried my best. That’s all you can do.
((DS )) It’s true. Has the Iraq war affected you?
- VW: Awfully.
((DS )) How so?
- VW: Because I’ve had the time to follow it. Just instantly makes me unhappy. Just not good. It breaks my heart for America. We don’t stand for this. We stand for better things than this. Our country has stood for much better things.
((DS )) Do you think the country has changed?
- VW: No. I think. We’re going to see. I’m hoping after the next election that there is a serious attempt on everybody’s part to get us back to who we are. I don’t think we’re the big bully on the street. I don’t think any American really wants to be the bully. We want to be the good guys. We really do believe that we are heroes. And we want to be heroes. Our best was when we marched into those concentration camps and got those people out . You know, that Ken Burns show was unbelievable. That’s who we are.
((DS )) I got into an argument when I was in law school. My professor came out against this really famous opinion which was almost what our entire notions of free speech are called California v. Whitney. It was written by this very famous justice about a hundred years ago named Brandeis.
- VW: Right. Brandeis was one of the great justices.
((DS )) Yeah. And he said in my class and I—something that law students don’t do; I didn’t fit in very well there—I took him on in the middle of 120 students and said, “I can’t believe you would say that he would not write that opinion today.” And he said, ‘Everything’s changed. It is thinking like yours that is why we discuss torture.”
- VW: What did he say?
((DS )) Oh he said that we have religious extremism now. We can’t tell who are our enemies. We have all these new things. And I said, ‘All of these things have existed in the past just because they are wrapped up in a different package or it’s a new mixture of ingredients doesn’t change them. In Vietnam we had people who were disguised as regular Vietnamese, driving our jeeps and blowing up our bases. That’s not anything different than what we have now. I said we had the first World Trade Center attack where that happened. That’s not a reason to all of a sudden start questioning our free speech rights just because it’s dressed up in a different package.
- VW: No. It’s been there since the Revolutionary War and before.
((DS )) World War I, IRA. That was Protestant versus Catholic regligious extremism. The UK had that. Just because we as Americans haven’t seen a certain kind of thing before doesn’t mean it’s new.
- VW: The witch trials. That was a big free speech thing if we had had free speech then. We didn’t have a country then.
((DS )) It’s amazing that we debate these things now.