Soap Opera's 25 Most Intriguing People:
Claire Labine: Creator/Head Writer
Soap Opera Weekly, June 27, 2000
by Travis Kinsley
Say Claire Labine's name, and some of soap opera's most memorable, resonant characters and stories come to mind. Stone's battle with AIDS, Maxie's heart transplant and Monica's breast cancer on General Hospital. Ryan's Hope, in its entirety. It's no coincidence that so many of the stories and characters cited as the best in soap opera are Labine's creations. Labine added another soap to her illustrious résumé June 5 when she was named the new head writer of Guiding Light.
What makes Labine not only talented but intriguing is her ability to create a consistently rich, engaging, identifiable product while also supporting a full personal life that has included a 42-year marriage and three children, two of whom (Matt Labine and Eleanor Labine) have followed in her footsteps.
How did you get your start?
Gilbert Parker, my agent when I was starting out, was so gracious to me. I sent him stuff, and he would call about every six week to see how I was, to see how the babies were. He called one morning and he said, "Claire, have you ever heard of a show called Captain Kangaroo?" And I died laughing, and said, "We just turned it off." And he said, "Would you be interested in writing for it?" And I said to him, "Gilbert, do you mean it's written?" thinking that the bunny and the captain and everybody just made all of that stuff up as they were going along. I was really into it. I had a writing audition and I got a job. And that was that.
It was my first job in television, and it was one of the things I most enjoyed. There was something about that place. It was Bob Keeshan (who played the captain). He had a vision of what he wanted a children's show to be. He was wonderfully demented, and he selected around him a group of very talented people. And among them was a puppeteer whose name was Cosmo Allegretti. He was Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit and Dancing Bear and anything that Mr. Green Jeans and the captain weren't. He did everything else. And then there was (Hugh) "Lumpy" Brannum, who played Mr. Green Jeans. He was one of the most deliciously wicked people I've ever met in my life.
The Ping-Pong ball drops were the hardest, because Mr. Moose had to trick the captain into inviting the Ping-Pong balls in, but he couldn't lie, and the bunny couldn't lie when he was doing a carrot trick. And Cosmo Allegretti used to say Mr. Moose had a fine Italian mind. Indeed he did. That moose could plot like nobody's business, and if you think that wasn't helpful in terms of soap opera...
What kind of impact did your upbringing have on your career path?
I'm an only child. I had a lot of friends, but I also had a rather insular childhood. I had an Irish grandmother who told me stories and taught me a lot about Irish history, in which she was passionately interested. I had a terrific relationship with my mother, and I was very close to my father. Part of me always desperately wanted to be part of a big family. My grandmother had been, and she had wonderful stories of that. I had many, many cousins, and we used to have family reunions, and I loved to go to those. So part of my interest in family stuff is rooted there.
I have also particularly loved writing the scenes for the maternal characters in a show. I was shocking about Maeve (on Ryan's Hope). I would take her great scripts for myself. If there were scenes that I particularly wanted to write, I would say to whatever writer was involved, "Listen, you only have to do three acts today, because I'm takin' the Maeve stuff." And writing for Helen (Gallagher) was...that was one of the greatest joys. Talk about a satisfaction.
What do you consider your greatest success?
Ryan's Hope, and my contributions to that. It wasn't just me, by a long shot. Paul (Avila Mayer, RH's co-creator), and I really did that together, and we had Mary Ryan Munisteri and Jeffrey Lane and Nancy Ford and Judy Pinsker and some wonderful, wonderful writers who came along and helped us.
And then I loved so much of what we did on General Hospital. I loved the Lois and Ned stuff. I loved Mary Mae Ward. I loved what Leslie (Charleson, Monica) and Stuart (Damon, Alan) did with the breast cancer story. And the way that Robin and Stone grew into and played the AIDS story totally thrilled me. And the heart transplant story was also important. Everybody got it. The actors got it and the directors got it, and everybody knew that it was valuable. (As a result of the storyline, thousands of viewers were inspired to become registered organ donors.) And that was really great. Quote that fact to anyone who says soaps don't have power.
What do you consider your biggest career failure?
The mishandling of the One Life to Live situation. I don't want to say more than that. I take full responsibility for mishandling it. (Claire and her son, Matt, wrote OLTL from December 1996 to February 1998.)
What motivates you?
When the work is fun, it is absolutely more fun than anything. It's play in the most creative way. You get to have people play out either your fantasies or things that you would just really love to see. You have such incredibly gifted people interpreting it. And you get to see it right away. If it gets to be about money you're in trouble, 'cause then they've got you. And then you get scared about saying, "Alright, that's not the way I want to do it, but if you say so, OK." Then, forget about it. That's the beginning of the end.
Was there a fork in the road that changed things for you?
I was so happy being a dialogue writer on Where the Heart Is. The first head writers for whom I worked were Chuck and Pat Dizenzo, whom I adored, and from whom I learned an enormous amount about good outlines. They quit, because it had been so much work, and [the higher ups] asked if I wanted to be head writer, and I'd been doing this for six months. And I said, "Oh, my God, no, it's too much work. But I'll write however many scripts you want while you find somebody."
So they had a new head writer come in, and that was not mutually satisfactory, and she was let go in six months, and they asked me again. Except at this point, they had hired Paul Mayer as a dialogue writer, and Paul and I became phone friends because he alone, of all the dialogue writers who had come and gone while I was on the show, was the only one who called me up and said, "Can we talk about these characters?" And I was thrilled that there was somebody as interested in it as I was, and we both invested in it so much.
And when they asked me, "Do you want to do it?" I said, "No, but I would like to do it with Paul, and I think if there are two of us, it may be physically possible." I had small children, he had small children, and it really worked. We worked here in Brooklyn, and we had so much fun on that show. And it was canceled in order for Fred Silverman to put on this upstart show called The Young and the Restless. I adore Bill Bell, but it was a long time before I forgave him for that. Or Fred.
How have you combined your personal and professional lives?
One lopped over into the other so much. The kids became really interested in what was going on. Paul came here [to my house in Brooklyn] to work on Ryan's Hope. I said, "I've got to be home. I've got to be there when they come home from school. That's what I want to do." And I would get them off in the morning, and Paul would get here about 8:30, and we would work till 12 o'clock, then we'd go upstairs and watch the air show with my mother. Clem (Labine's husband), at that point, had his magazine, the Old-House Journal, in the back room downstairs, so he was putting out a magazine in the back, and we were doing Ryan's Hope in front. And the children were just all mixed up in this. Clem and his editor frequently came upstairs to watch during the day. Mary would come down the block to watch with us. The dog would come. It was so much fun.
And then we'd all react to the show, and we'd listen to what they said. It was our own focus group. We'd finish lunch, and we'd go downstairs and Paul and I would work until the kids came home, and I'd take 45 minutes and find out what had happened, do milk and cookies and get 'em started on their homework, and go back downstairs.
What has been the biggest stumbling block in your career?
Interference on the part of people who were not writers and thought they were. No names. They all know who they are.
Is success as rewarding as you thought it would be?
The doing of the work when I was absolutely invested in it was more satisfaction that I could ever express. I know the impact of this form on the audience, and I really love the audience. I do. My satisfaction is in being able to please the audience. In finding things that move them or make them laugh or turn them on. Don't get me wrong: I never met an award I didn't love. But as profoundly satisfying as that is, the big kick is knowing that you've entertained someone in the fullest sense of that word.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I don't know what they think about the glamorous world of show business, but I think they would be really surprised to know that I ride the subway, and that I'm standing here in the kitchen right now in my bare feet making soup from stock that I made myself. And that I have a pile of papers a mile high on my desk that I've been trying to get off for I don't know how long. It really isn't glamorous, nor do I think writers in this form should aspire to being glamorous. I really think they need to be in touch with reality.
Who was your mentor?
Two people. Ted Apstein, my playwriting professor at Columbia University, whose approach to drama was grounded in the theater, and who understood character and understood conflict and could communicate what that's about.
In terms of the form, I was lucky to be able to work for a director/producer named Tom Donovan at CBS. Tom was so patient. Paul and I would go off on a tangent, and Tom would say, "Look. This is entertaining the two of you, but what Mrs. Murphy really wants to know is where Kate is going to be by the end of this week, and with whom she's going to be, and what she's feeling."
Whom do you find intriguing?
Tony Geary (Luke), who is one of the most wonderful actors in any form on the face of the earth. He's so brilliant. That has to go under the other great satisfactions: getting to write for Tony. He was an amazement. Agnes Nixon and her incredible ability to have had more hours of entertainment on the air simultaneously and consecutively than any other human being. Her storytelling skills and political skills are extraordinary. Erika Slezak (Viki, OLTL) I think is just a wonderfully interesting woman who leads a very full and well-rounded life. She can distill all the things that she has felt and known and bring it to the screen. Mickey Dwyer-Dobbin (executive in charge of production, Procter & Gamble Productions). Just how she has maintained her sanity and her focus on what it's really about amazes me. She's had some of the toughest jobs in the world, and has survived them with her good humor intact.
What do you think people find intriguing about you?
Well, I'm so knocked out at being considered intriguing that I haven't really examined that. Damned if I know.
Is there anything about your career that you'd do differently?
I wish that I had had the good sense after we sold Ryan's Hope, after maybe the sixth year of the show, to say to Jackie Smith (president of ABC Daytime at the time), "I need to go away for a while. I need to go away, and Paul and I need to not be working together for a year. And then I want to come back. But I really need to get refueled." It didn't occur to me. It would have been good for the show. And it would have been good for Paul and for me as writers.
Are there goals you haven't accomplished yet?
I want to write a play, or some plays. I would really like to get my house cleaned up from bottom to top. We finished it about 18 years ago, and by George, it all has to be done again.
What story that you've written was most rewarding?
One of the most delicious things that we most enjoyed was the Ned and Lois love story on General Hospital. For us, that made up for having to deal with the sadness in the other stories. They were so much fun, and Wally (Kurth) and Rena (Sofer) were so delightful.
And writing Mary Mae Ward, getting to know her. I loved that character, and she was one where you would sit down and Mary Mae was going to be in a scene, and then Mary Mae would tell you what she was doing in the scene, and you didn't have very much to do with it. You just took it down. Maeve used to do that all the time.
Was there ever a time that you considered doing something totally different?
After Ryan's Hope was canceled. I did movies-of-the-week, and decided I didn't like that as much as serial. I'm not ready to abandon traditional media for the Internet, though I think we've got to give that some attention.
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