Claire Labine on SoapNet's
Soap Opera Digest Online, January 2000
by Mara Levinsky
Claire Labine, the celebrated co-creator/head writer/executive producer of Ryan's Hope (1975-1989), has a confession to make. "I am the world's worst pack rat," she sighs. "Everything that ever came into this house is still in it."
Labine's hoarding habit has resulted in far more than a cluttered closet: her collection of script outlines and payroll stubs is enabling ABC to resurrect RH for SoapNet, its brand-new, 24-hour cable soap channel, which hits the air on Monday, January 24. Labine recently dragged herself up from the basement to talk with Soap Opera Digest Online about the second coming of Ryan's Hope.
Digest Online: So this must be a pretty exciting time for you!
Claire Labine: I'm very excited about all this. I think it is so much fun. But there's an incredible amount of detail involved in the whole thing. I said to Paul [Avila Mayer, Ryan's Hope co-creator] the other day, "I have this meteoric career arc that goes from script writer to head writer to executive producer/head writer to head writer to the mail room!" (Laughs) I am the mailroom for Labine/Mayer Outline and Tape Excavating Service! There's so much material to sift through. It really has been wild looking at it, all the old outlines with hand-written notes on them. It's sort of like digging around in an ancient civilization.
Digest Online: SoapNet has been in the works for some time, but what has been the timeline of your involvement?
Labine: [Adding Ryan's Hope to the SoapNet lineup] was in the works throughout the summer but we didn't yet have the deal done. By the end of September [it was time to begin collecting tapes] from the storage library in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
For the first five years of the show, when Paul and I were producing it, ABC was supplying us with ¾-inch copies, at our request. We had learned about three years into it that the tapes that they were using had been used before and were not in good shape to begin with. So at that point we asked them to switch over to high-grade material, which they did, and things got better. But there were a number of episodes that were deemed un-playable, something like 20 in the first two years.
We had a library of tapes [in an obsolete playback format] from the first 280 episodes that had been broadcast in Ireland, and we asked the Irish to send them back, which they had done. So we went out to Fort Lee, and there they were! They had never been played. Then the big crisis with these back-ups, with [answering] the question 'Did we have material to replace the stuff that had disintegrated?', was finding a machine that plays them! We looked all over the United States [to no avail]. I called a dear friend who had worked with this format in Ireland and sure enough, they had an operational machine that they were going to take down in January because there had been no call for it [in such a long time]! He copied four tapes for us onto Digi-Beta [a digital format] and sent them back to us and there was absolutely no loss of quality. They really looked pretty good!
What was so fascinating in terms of the changes in technology was that we sent over this box of tapes to Ireland that weighed over 55 pounds, and back to me came a FedEx pack with these four little Digi-Beta cassettes in it that weighed, oh, about a pound. Who knows what the next level of technology will be? But everyone seems to agree that the best way to preserve the material right now is on the Digi-Beta cassettes. So now we have a stable library of Ryan's Hope. We're missing a few episodes, but what the heck? Not everybody watches five days a week anyway! (Laughs) We'll put the scripts up of the missing shows at SoapNet.com. So if anybody really cares they can go and read them.
Digest Online: When you first got the call, were you confident you'd be able to pull together everything that was needed? After all, it's been over a decade since the show's cancellation.
Labine: I was not sure of what we had [kept] in terms of payroll records, the episode summaries... But it did all seem to be here, one way or the other! And more photographs than we realized we had: I had the negatives in the bottom of a file drawer. We had had some foreign [broadcast] activity over the years, so we were sort of in touch with where it all was, and there would be sporadic attempts to pull things together to send off to people. It's still going on, and it will go on until they have everything in hand. But we've got a rhythm going now and kind of know what to do. I spent most of yesterday, from 8:30 in the morning till a quarter past 9 at night, doing nothing but Ryan's Hope in one way or another.
Digest Online: How surreal must that be -- to work full-time on a show you thought you said good-bye to ten years ago!
Labine: (Laughs) It's very [surreal]! Paul and I were out at Fort Lee last Wednesday, and we asked, just out of curiosity, to take a look at some of the Digi-Betas that had come back [from Ireland]. Well, we only intended to look at a little bit of each one, and we were about a minute and a half into the first tape when Paul looked over at me and said, 'I've got shivers down my spine.' I said, 'I do too. I do too.' It was so extraordinary and wonderful that they're all there -- and so young! (Laughs)
It's funny seeing things and reacting to them exactly the same way you did 25 years ago. We looked at a show where Mary is working in Frank's campaign office, and clearly the script was short. I have to say, I wrote the script, so it was my fault. But the director chose to pad at the top of the show and what we see is Katie [Mulgrew] as Mary in the office typing away and trying to think and trying to get the story together, and the scene begins when Fenelli comes in the door with coffee for her. And I was sitting there screaming! I mean, two days ago I had the same reaction that I had 25 years ago! 'Why in the hell didn't the director find someplace else to pad? Why are we doing this at the top of the show? It's dead air!' It was as if I could go down to the control room and give them a piece of my mind! It was just a riot. I hope I'm not going to go through that every single episode! I did get myself together and say, 'Just chill. Just watch Katie. She looks adorable. Watch her. Enjoy it.'
Digest Online: When the show went off the air in 1989, could you possibly have conceived that something like this was ten years down the pipeline?
Labine: No. No, I thought [the cancellation] was really it. I kept hoping that there might be some kind of cable situation, or someone might be interested in it, someday, but I couldn't have conceived of the form. And the foreign market for American-made soaps has tapered off a lot because they've figured out how to do it for themselves, and wonderful that they
have! So I really certainly did not expect to get to see the whole thing all over again. Of course, we don't have cable so we're in the process of getting that put in quickly! I think I can speak for Paul on this one too: we hoped, but we couldn't foresee in what format it could happen.
Digest Online: There's been talk on and off over the last few years about launching a soap channel. Were you ever involved in those discussions?
Labine: Whenever they talked about it, I would call around and say, 'What do you think about this? Is this viable?' And I would hear, 'Not yet. It's premature.' That kind of thing. And I have long, long, long since learned never, ever to count a chicken until it's hatched and in your hand. That's the one thing predictable about the business: it's total unpredictability.
Digest Online: It has to be gratifying to know that the fan fervor for Ryan's Hope makes it one of the big selling points of this cable venture.
Labine: I am so delighted! It has given both Paul and me so much pleasure that that has been the reaction. We were sort of the red-haired stepchild of ABC for a long time, and there were the bigger shows and the more glamorous shows and the more beloved shows, and we were sort of the little engine that was trucking around there, doing the best we could. The critics liked us and it won lots of awards, but we never got much in-house praise. And we were always so busy doing it that there was really no way... We hoped that the audience was enjoying it as much as we were enjoying doing it, and we did have some sense that there was a core of really dear people who were quite fond of it. But the intensity of the response has both surprised and pleased us more than I can say. I think we are both just charmed by the prospect that it could have a whole new audience, a whole new generation of people who may find something in it to enjoy.
Digest Online: I agree that some ABC shows were bigger and more glamorous, but I don't believe they were more beloved.
Labine: Well, that cast was astonishing. We were so blessed. Shirley Rich was our casting director, and my agent, Gilbert Parker, has always primarily been a theater agent. He suggested Shirley, who had been [legendary Broadway producer] Hal Prince's casting director, among others'. He said, 'You really should talk to Shirley,' and we talked to Shirley and fell in awe and love immediately! She knew exactly what we were talking about, and the people that she brought in were so gifted and trained and serious. Most of them, almost all of them, had either serious training in the theater, if they were young, or if they were among the more experienced cast members, they had really solidly illustrious theater careers. They were all actors. They weren't cast for beauty. The Ryans were cast to look like a family.
Digest Online: What are your memories of putting together that original group?
Labine: Well, we knew that Helen [Gallagher] was going to be Maeve and we knew at immediate first look that Kate was going to be Mary Ryan, and then it became really easy to cast Malcolm [Groome] as Kate's brother [Pat] and it became very easy to cast Michael Hawkins as Frank, who actually was supposed to die during the first six weeks [of the show]. It was like that. (Laughs) It just all fell into place.
Digest Online: Throughout this process you must be awash not just in memories of the stories themselves, but of the process of getting the show on the air, the collaboration with Paul and so forth.
Labine: Oh yes. Paul and I really did not think, all the way through the development of the show, that [ABC] was going to buy it, much less put it on the air, much less let us produce it! That was just stunning. I mean, we hadn't even thought that far ahead.
Digest Online: Perhaps that gave you a strange sense of freedom.
Labine: Oh yes, it did. Totally! I mean, we just did what we wanted to do, and we had so much fun doing it! Then when they went for it, we were in such shock and there was so much to do so quickly because we had an out in our CBS contract [Editor's Note: at the time Ryan's Hope was ordered by ABC, Labine and Avila Mayer were head writers of the CBS soap Love of Live] to go to ABC if they picked up Ryan's Hope, but it didn't specify the date. CBS made us stay to the end of the cycle, so were writing Love of Life while we were getting Ryan's Hope on the air! That was just bizarre. We never slept! It was three months of breathtaking stuff, just going on and on and on. That was only funny because Love of Life's ratings kept going up! Which was only encouraging ABC, which was really great. It was just a big creative burst there and we truly did have just a marvelous time.
Digest Online: You mentioned that during the show's first run, you had a peripheral awareness of the show's core of devotees. But this time around, the Internet exists as a means for fans to make their views public. Are you prepared for the onslaught of feedback that will be available?
Labine: You know, I always get into big trouble with this. I have a rep of having said that I don't care about the audience. This isn't true; this is so untrue. What I used to try to communicate was, I can't respond to the audience because what the audience doesn't understand is that for every 50 letters you get that say, 'What are you doing? Are you out of your mind? Jill belongs with Frank, why are you even considering this story with Seneca?', you get 50 letters saying, 'Oh my word, of course Jill belongs with Seneca! Frank is so self-serving, he is such a bastard! Get her away from him!' And when you're faced with that, it isn't helpful [to let fan opinion dictate story]. What you have to write is what entertains you. A writer has to write the story that's in them, and it can't be dictated by a network, by a producer, by the audience. The audience is free to reject it, but they can't tell you what it is you're going to write. And people don't understand this, and they get really upset when I say it, but it's the truth! You can't tell a painter what to paint.
In this case, it's different because obviously we're not still writing it. It's done. And to me, it means what it means. God knows what we did wasn't always right. We took many false paths and many bad turns and we made mistakes, obviously, all the way through it. But I know why they all happened and I think I remember quite clearly the context in which decisions were made or things were done, sometimes out of necessity, out of casting problems or health problems or just general availability problems. It would hurt my feelings to read highly negative things about it, so I think I probably will just stay in my state of ignorant bliss and just enjoy it myself as [a member of] the audience. It really would upset me quite a great deal to discover that people hate it this time around! If it appears safe -- I mean, if it appears really safe -- I might tiptoe onto the Net to see what's going on. But not if it's not safe!
Digest Online: What would you tell me, a Ryan's Hope neophyte, to pay particular attention to in the first few episodes? What stories engaged you right from the show's beginning?
Labine: The relationship between Mary Ryan and Jack Fenelli... The personality of Delia and who she is within that family, and how her mind works and what she wants... Later, as it moves along, there's some really interesting stuff that unfortunately we had to truncate because Diana van der Vlis, who was playing Nell, was commuting from Boston and had asthma and she was being such a trooper but it was absolutely wearing her out and she said, 'You know what? I can't do this as long as I thought I was going to be able to.' So we had to condense the story. But that starts out, I think, in a rather interesting way. And Pat and Faith, who remain a long arc through the show, are right there at the top.
I love the first episode. I am so fond of it. I've seen it now probably a million times, but I really do love it. With the exception of one moment, where someone inserted a line for Helen, which is, 'Or me name ain't Maeve Ryan,' which damn near killed me. Every time I hear it, it damn near kills me! If I'm watching it with people, I cough loudly so they can't hear what she said. The person who inserted the line -- Helen didn't, of course -- said, 'Oh, I was just trying to make it sound more Irish!' And I said, 'I have never heard an American Irish person say that, and it's just plain Vaudeville stage Irish, and don't ever do that ever again or you're dead!' And actually, he was dead in terms of the production. (Laughs)
Digest Online: Have you been in touch with any actors from the show, and if so, how have they reacted to SoapNet?
Labine: They are so delighted, so tickled. Nancy Addison (ex-Jillian) was so charmed. Katie was just beside herself with delight, and Ron Hale (ex-Roger) and Helen and Ilene and Michael Levin (ex-Jack) and Diana and Karen Morris Gowdy, who was just a wonderful Faith... I haven't spoken to Danny Hugh-Kelly (ex-Frank) or Marg Helgenberger (ex-Siobhan), but I suspect they'll be pleased. I know they had a good time on the show. Danny was such a wild man in those days and so cute. It will be so much fun to see him again!
Digest Online: You not only have been one of the key creative figures in this industry but also one of the most vocal champions of it. Do you look upon the existence of this channel as a vote of confidence in its future?
Labine: I think this was a really great idea and I think we are going to see in the next decade new ways of delivering product, without a doubt. And I think this is a very healthy preparatory step. Who knows, if DVD becomes the norm, the expenses involved there would be staggering for a soap! That requirement would not be essential on cable, I would think, or on the Net. I think we all have to be prepared to open our minds to new ways of doing it and I think it was very farsighted of Disney to put this together now. But I do think it is going to stimulate a lot of interest, which I think will be great for cable! I really do. I think it'll be swell. I mean, the idea of being able to see your daytime soap without having to do the taping nonsense -- I mean, why the hell didn't they think of this before?
Back to Ryan's Bar Online