On August 17, 1977, Leslie Charleson drove onto the GH lot for the first time to take over the role of Monica from her original portrayer, Patsy Rahn, who had debuted the year before. Charleson was a hit as she navigated Monica through her turbulent marriages to Alan, dealt with her fractious in-laws, worked as a doctor (and later, chief of staff, then chairman of the board, at G.H.), bore and adopted and grieved children, battled breast cancer and more. Charleson reflects on her Monica journey as she marks her 45th anniversary in Port Charles.
Soap Opera Digest: What stands out to you about your first day?
Leslie Charleson: I started the show the day Elvis Presley died, and being such a huge fan, I of course was very upset driving to the studios, and then getting there I was told that they hoped I had brought my own wardrobe and makeup because there was a strike going on — and that was before I even got in the building. Then I got in the building and I realized that no one really liked me, because the girl playing Monica before me was very rudely fired. To top it all off, the reason I accepted the show was because a producer on the show, Tom Donovan, who was also a producer on LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING [where Charleson played Iris from 1967-70], asked me to do it and then I find out that he is leaving! So, all in all, it was not a good day. Definitely special.
Digest: In your first few years on the show, it went from being in danger of cancellation to this huge pop culture phenomenon. What stands out to you about that era?
Charleson: The first thing, of course, is the Luke and Laura storyline, but it was followed close by Alan and Monica, and of course having Gloria Monty on board [as executive producer] changed everything.
Digest: You had worked with Gloria before she took over at GH. What was your relationship with her like?
Charleson: At least I knew what I was getting into. She had a reputation from New York of being cutthroat. The fact was, she didn’t suffer fools lightly and if you got on her good side it could be a wonderful time.
Digest: What are your favorite memories of working with Stuart Damon (ex-Alan), your longtime leading man, who passed away last year?
Charleson: That’s so tough because there were so many good times. I guess I would have to say when we worked with David Lewis [ex-Edward] and Anna Lee [ex-Lila] and it was like The Little Foxes. The cat and mouse games that Alan and Monica played with and against each other were a lot of fun for us. We had a hard time not busting out laughing sometimes. Stuart and I were so good at playing off of each other, too. Of course working with him on the breast cancer storyline, there was so much trust there all the time. With him opposite me, I felt like I could do anything. And personally, we were great friends. We were also brutally honest with each other and boy, could he make me laugh! He also could make me believe just about anything! He loved getting the better of me. Most of all I miss his hugs. He gave the best hugs.
Digest: Why do you think the Alan/Monica relationship was such a hit with fans?
Charleson: Honestly, I think it’s because they had been through so much. And no matter what they’d gone through, they always found their way back to each other. They were each other’s one great love.
Digest: Do you have a favorite Monica storyline?
Charleson: I’d have to say the breast cancer storyline. It was well-written and it was honest. We took our time with it and it had a profound effect on the audience. I had so many people come up to me or write me about how it affected them or made a difference in their life, or the life of their loved one. When you accomplish that as an actor, it’s priceless.
Digest: That story was so highly regarded. What stands out to you about the months you spent filming it?
Charleson: The fact that the story was handled by women. We had a woman head producer [Wendy Riche] and woman head writer [Claire Labine] and cancer had touched each of our lives in some way. We all tried to be as honest and forthright as we possibly could because unlike other stories, we weren’t freezing the city, this was real life, and it was important to get it right. I think including Alan and Monica’s journey said a lot.
Digest: Which affair of Monica’s was the most fun for you to play — Rick, Sean, Ned, Pierce Dorman?
Charleson: Dorman. Only because it wasn’t your typical affair, especially when Monica tried to kill him.
Digest: Do you ever get tired of saying, “It’s my house, Alan gave it to me?”
Charleson: Absolutely, yes! We all did what we could to get it taken out of the script. Sometimes we were successful, but most of the time we had to grin and say it.
Digest: The Monica/Tracy relationship is a favorite among fans. Tell me about your relationship off camera with Jane Elliot and your working relationship with her.
Charleson: Jane and I have known each other for over 50 years, maybe even longer. We both did the same soap in New York, but not at the same time. We got to be friends there and obviously it carried over to L.A. Working together, it kept us both on our toes. We would both try to work out bits that would make one or the other feel foolish, but that was because we wanted the scenes to work.
Digest: Monica has had to bury many children. What is your take on the show killing off Dawn, Emily, Jason and A.J. — sometimes more than once!
Charleson: It starts to get a little silly but then after all, it’s daytime and we can do anything! Personally, I don’t like it when they suspend disbelief like that, but what can you do? The show must go on! And who knows … just because they killed them off doesn’t mean they’re really dead, does it? LOL!
Digest: Of all your scene partners over these 45 years, who made you laugh the most during shooting or during rehearsal?
Charleson: Stuart, of course. He had this wonderful sense of humor and imagination. I have to say that Stuart was the funniest and the most irritating, but that’s what it is like being married. As his wife would say, I was his daytime wife and she was his nighttime wife.
Digest: What does it mean to you to be marking 45 years as Monica? It’s a pretty amazing milestone!
Charleson: Whenever I’m reminded about 45 years, I think they are talking about someone else, because I honestly don’t know where it has gone. I only signed on for three [years initially], but I guess it’s attributed to Monica and having fun playing her. I could never do the grueling schedule that they have if I didn’t love what I do. So there you go. Thanks, Monica!
Digest: What do you consider to be the best or most enjoyable thing about playing Monica?
Charleson: Her versatility. There really wasn’t any situation that you couldn’t put her into, which made it fun to look forward to.
Digest: I hope you know how adored you are by GH viewers and how much affection they have for the character you’ve created. What would you like to say to the fans on this momentous occasion?
Charleson: Thank you so much for sticking by me and Monica for all these years. Without you guys, Monica would not be around and I don’t know what I would be doing. Playing Monica has afforded me the opportunity to travel and to meet people, some of whom are friends today. I’ve been very lucky!