One Life, Lived | Bleader

Monday, April 18, 2011

One Life, Lived

Posted By on 04.18.11 at 08:30 AM

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aka Luther Jackson
  • aka Luther Jackson
There are certain things you learn when not in school. Home sick in bed when very young, my mind wandering feverishly, I happened on the curious fact that the soap brands that advertised so heavily in the daytime could be found within much longer words suggesting pleasure and excitement. For instance, Fab was a syllable of fabulous, Lux of luxurious, and Vel of marvelous. I wondered if I was the first to notice this coincidence.

Tide and Oxydol were what today we'd call the outliers. As for Dreft, I'm still working on it.

My mother was a fan of the soaps, her children not as much. But this changed in 1980. My brother Peter moved to New York to seek his fortune as an actor, and before you know it he was hired by One Life to Live. As there was already a Peter Miner in the biz (in fact, he was one of the directors of OLTL), my brother dusted off his middle name and became Peter Matthey. His assignment was to play a scuzzball named Luther Jackson. Fresh out of prison, Luther showed up in Llanville, Pennsylvania to make life miserable for his ex-wife, Becky Lee, a sweet young thing who'd moved on without him and aspired to fame as a singer.

The day Peter made his first appearance on OLTL, I dragged the Reader's movie critic, Dave Kehr, to the (long-gone) greasy spoon at the end of the block, and we sat there and waited for him. Naturally he did not show up until the end of the hour, when the portrait of evil he was hired to provide was sprung on OLTL's huge national audience as a shocking development. I hoped Kehr had managed to amuse himself in the meantime by looking for traces of auteurism — if not in the show itself then perhaps in the soap commercials.

I once visited Peter at the OLTL studio in New York. The show was taped in a huge space whose perimeter was lined by permanent sets. The cameras moved from set to set. Everyone meant business. There were no tantrums. A lot of people who knew what they were doing created an hour of dramatic television as I watched, impressed. They were not so different from a newsroom putting out a daily newspaper.

Last week ABC announced that One Life to Life, launched in 1968, will leave the air next January. Another of the network's daytime mainstays, All My Children, will disappear in September. TV is changing and the soaps are disappearing. I wrote my brother and asked him to reminisce.

I worked on One Life to Live for only about 8 or 9 months during 1980-81. At the time, One Life to Live was the number one daytime show in the country with two other ABC soaps right behind it, General Hospital and All My Children. Daytime TV paid for the evening fare. Soaps were hugely popular. When, in my second week of work on the show, it suddenly occurred to me how many millions of loyal fans were watching my acting, I panicked. I knew that I was going to be doing a scene with Robert Woods, who played Bo Buchanan, one of the show's most popular characters. I also knew that just four weeks earlier (two weeks before my first audition for the casting director of One Life to Live), I was in St. Louis visiting Mom.

At the time, I was an unemployed actor wondering what and when the next job might be. Mom called me in from the kitchen to watch an actor on TV, whom she admired. She was watching her favorite soap. The actor was Robert Woods. Mom wanted to know what I thought of his work. I had never seen or heard of Robert Woods. I'm sure that I'd never watched an episode of One Life to Live. I watched the scene until a commercial break and then agreed that the actor was good, at ease in his role and appealing. Now, four very surreal weeks later, I'm getting ready to tape a scene with this actor. I was never as nervous as I was that day. I was convinced that I did not belong on the show, knew nothing about acting, had defrauded the producer into signing me, and now the world was going to discover my ruse during my scene with Bob Woods. I was a wreck during the final dress rehearsal; my hands were shaking while I was supposed to be casually nursing a drink, while confidently bantering with Bo Buchanan.

I told the director that I wasn't feeling well and preferred to sit during the scene. What I really wanted was a coffee table nearby for me to put my drink on. The taping came and went, and I was frankly surprised that the director never stopped the scene, sure that he had to be aghast at my dreadful acting. I sweated out the next week waiting for the episode to be aired. We usually taped a week to two weeks ahead of each episode's air date. I didn't have my own TV then, so I had to find a TV elsewhere that I could turn to One Life to Live.

On the fateful day, I was in front of a bank of TV's at Macy's on 34th Street. I was still a wreck. I was sure that the shoppers around me absolutely knew that I was not there to buy a TV. Rather, I was a hack actor ready to accept my much deserved public humiliation right after the commercial break. And then the scene came... and went, and so did my anguish. I wasn't obviously awful. I wasn't good, but I wasn't awful.

Maybe I did belong on the show.

Working on One Life to Live was never a 9 to 5 acting job for me. It was always surreal and
great fun. There is nothing 9 to 5 about walking out of makeup and bumping into Sammy Davis, Jr., a big fan of the show, who tells me, "Man, I really like what you're doing with your character," and then dashes off to visit with his pal Phil Carey [Asa Buchanan], leaving me happily dumbfounded and wondering, "What is it that I'm doing with Luther that impressed Sammy Davis, Jr.?" Surreal! One of those "Ain't life something!" moments that happened a lot to me during the short time I worked on One Life to Life.

Because I always thought of the job as a bizarre and wonderful gift that sort of fell into my lap, I never really counted on it, or its very welcome money. Although I worked with actors who had been on the show for years, I never thought I'd be one of them. So, I wasn't too surprised to learn that Luther was going to be written out of the show, but "with a bang!" Indeed! In the last two weeks of my job, Luther crashed a wedding, got drunk, shot one of the guests, was himself shot by a security guard, broke into Judith Light's character's apartment, and at one point was holding a gun on Judith Light, Robert Woods, and Gerry Anthony, who collectively played three of the most beloved characters on the show. Someone has to stop that crazy hillbilly before he kills Karen, or Bo, or Marco! And, once again, I'm thinking to myself, "Ain't life something!"

It surely was.

Peter did more acting in New York, but for the past many years he's taught English and drama at Eleanor Roosevelt middle school in Washington Heights. His field trips are often to the theater.

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