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#TBT Alec Baldwin

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In his own words, Alec Baldwin remembers his days on a soap and how it shaped his life and career.

Alec Baldwin has been a favorite with the readers and editors of this magazine for a long time. The reason is simple — he is enormously talented.

On THE DOCTORS, Alec was the last actor to play Billy Aldrich, a confused and diabolical character. With his whisper of a voice and subtle sensuality, Alex transformed the character into a fascinating snake.

THE DOCTORS was cancelled in December of 1982. No sooner was the set torn down, than Alec was out in Los Angeles shooting a new series he would star in called CUTTER TO HOUSTON. While other, more established members of THE DOCTORS floundered in their careers, Alex was always working because, he believes, he was willing to go where the work was.

In the 1984-85 season, Alec turned in a stunning performance as Joshua Rush on KNOTS LANDING, earning him a Soap Opera Award as Outstanding Newcomer — Prime Time. When that role ended in a shattering suicide earlier this season, Baldwin had already lined up a starring role in the NBC movie DRESS GRAY.

But Alec has not forgotten his roots. In fact, he is proud of his days on THE DOCTORS. In the following story he tells in his own words what the rewards and frustrations were working on a daytime soap.
—      M.B.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a young woman whom I had attended acting classes with several years ago. While riding the subway with her in New York, she told me that she had given up acting because she could not make an adequate living at it. I asked her the whereabouts and doings of others we had gone to class with, specifically one young actor who was considered exceptionally talented by everyone at our school and she told me that he had not had much luck in his career. I said, “Well, perhaps he should go to California. There’s a lot of work in L.A. Or, maybe do a soap here in New York.” She looked as if I had suggested cannibalism as a dietary alternative. She laughed, threw her head back, and with just the right emphasis said, “Oh, no. He would never do something like that.” She gave another small chuckle then got off the train.

People who belittle soaps are as old as soaps themselves, I suppose. And those people who put them down need not be the type of actor who would never be asked to do one. In fact, some successful people on soaps think little of them. My first professional job as an actor was on a daytime soap opera. For much of the time I was on THE DOCTORS, I shared a good deal of that young woman’s contempt for daytime TV as a “real” acting job. But my perception of doing a soap has changed a great deal with time.

Soaps are not prime television series with huge budgets and week-long schedules. The dramatic content and production values of a soap suffer as a result of constraints of time and money. (I used to curse soap opera writers but now I light candles for them, for who could write dramatically interesting and viable material on a daily basis?) Therefore, soaps are viewed as “less than,” relative to other genres of entertainment. As such, soap opera has created sort of an industry of its own; its own celebrities, awards, and magazines; a mini-version of Hollywood publicity and glamour to be pursued by daytime’s on and off camera professionals.

When I began THE DOCTORS, the show was the lowest rated of them all. Magazines did not flock to my home to photograph me, nor ask my opinion about “the industry” or anything else. Quickly I learned that THE DOCTORS would not make me famous, not even soap opera famous. Magazines such as Soap Opera Digest rarely covered the affairs of our show. I soon grew despondent because the show was also poorly written and miserably produced. Therefore, not only would I not become famous, I did not have an unrestrainable desire to perform the material each day. The only saving grace was the family atmosphere among the cast, forged by adversity, no doubt. Most days, I felt that we were doing what my TV father, David O’Brien, called “off-off Television.”

Today, I am aware that, on the simplest level, a soap is an excellent source of training for young actors. There are few situations in which an actor would be asked to work harder than one does on a soap. The experience is an intensely practical one, as far as the profession goes. And all of what can be learned is done outside the overwhelming limelight of other mediums, such as films.

Previously, I had done my best acting either manipulating people or in acting class. A soap is a situation where young actors can attempt to do credible work when and as it is expected of them. Time is the factor overriding everything in most professional jobs. Many times the collective sentiment on the set is, “Let’s get it down and go home.”

Although soaps do not always challenge the interpretive skills of actors, the experience is enjoyable in other ways. The “live” element of doing a soap can make the work alternately exciting and demanding. Since movie cameras are replaced by video tape cameras, soaps are usually performed and taped as if they were live, like a play, and technically, they avoid stopping whenever possible. Even with this pressure, some actors prefer continuous action to the plodding shot-by-shot requirements of film cameras.

Doing a soap also gives young actors the opportunity to try things with new material each day. Every day brings a new script. You try your best, the show is history, and you learn to conserve your energy at work and outside of it. (There were few worse feelings for me than being given a truly good scene to play and not being up to doing a good job that day.)

You can learn about dealing with other actors (their egos and yours), directors (helpful ones, the ones who give notes that have to be surgically removed), the crew (they’ve heard all your jokes already) and on a more dubious level, the producers. Some actors learn what it’s like to earn a lot of money and therefore learn a lot about themselves. (Young soap actors and actresses do spend their money on a variety of interesting things, from idle managers and publicists to vacations and clothes, to the ever popular alkali derivative of an abundant Amazonian plant leaf.) Hopefully, money accrued while on a soap will mean the freedom to move on and diversify a career. However, too often actors leave soaps only to return because they’re broke and hooked on the money. Also, young actors in soaps learn to deal with the public and its attention span; learn what about them is real or clever public relations.

One of the biggest decisions about doing a soap is when to leave, and maybe a young actor is better off if that decision is made for him. The regular routine and money are a sedative that can sap one’s eagerness to diversify. And while not all success in daytime transfers to other mediums, doing a soap should give valuable experience to anyone with real talent. Besides, a soap is a paying job and most actors don’t mind a few of those now and then.