This interview originally appeared in the December 30, 1997 issue of Soap Opera Digest.
It has been 20 years since Barbara Jean Spencer arrived in Port Charles donned a student nurse’s uniform and went to work at General Hospital. Initially a disarming amalgam of guile and guts, she has evolved into one of the most durable, flesh-and-blood characters on daytime. Given the number of producers and head writers who have turnstiled through GH in two decades, the credit for this must surely go to the vivacious Jacklyn Zeman, who has played her since day one.
Zeman never intended to be an actor. It never occurred to her. “I didn’t know anyone who was one,” she says. “When I grew up, women were still pretty subservient to men, and the whole idea was if you married well you wouldn’t have to work. I did grow up dancing, and my mother used to say, ‘Oh, well, you’ll do a couple of Broadway shows, then you’ll get married and have a baby.’” A dance scholarship got Zeman to New York University, where she briefly majored in pre-med. “I got jobs dancing, earning a living wherever I could. I worked in the garment center as a house model and was a Playboy bunny for a while.”
It was lunchtime reverie, however, across the street from yet another job, that set her on her ultimate course. “I was managing an Elaine Powers Figure Salon,” she remembers, “and I was sitting at Bagel Nosh thinking: You know, I want to be on a soap opera. I had always loved them. I used to come home from school and watch soaps with my mother when I was a little girl. In those days they were 15 minutes. Since I didn’t know anybody in the business, I thought you only worked 15 minutes, while it was shooting! What did I know?”
Zeman laughs raucously at herself, talking much faster in person than she would dare on camera. Still, she enunciates meticulously, and her sparkling brown eyes are wide with optimism. Less subdued than Bobbie, she seems to be on a perpetual, life-induced high.
“I have that kind of personality,” she says, “which is why I ‘ve been able to stay on a soap all these years, why I love it so much and probably why I’m so good at it. It agrees with my temperament. I like to go, go, go. I have a very high energy level, and I’m very positive. I like to be happy, and I like to be busy. I come in and do my job, then I like to be done and move on to something else. Fooling around in the movies would drive me crazy – having to sit around in a trailer, waiting for the lights so you’ve got cheekbones! I did a few, and I was so bored, I can’t tell you!”
Cheekbones the lady’s got. They were less evident, however, on her first soap engagement, for which she gained 20 pounds. She played a drug addict, Lana McClain, on One Life to Live (1976-’77); Lana was to be the complicating figure in a triangle involving Jameson Parker (Brad Vernon), later of Simon & Simon fame.
“Lana was depressed, drinking and taking drugs,” Zeman says, “so I wanted her to look puffy, plump and not so young.” Though the role was originally slated to be short-term, audience response was so positive that it ended up lasting 2 ½ years. “I didn’t know a whole lot about acting, and I didn’t know anybody who could give me advice, but I knew I couldn’t spend the rest of my life playing a downer like Lana.”
At the end of her contract, she was summoned to the inner sanctum and asked if she wanted to go to California and be on GH. “I said, ‘As what?’” says Zeman, laughing. “I thought maybe I had heard wrong. It was too easy. ‘I don’t have to audition? I don’t have to test?’ They said, ‘We’ve tested a lot of girls, but you can do this part. If you want to job, it’s yours.’” At 24 she packed up and went to California, returning on the red-eye each weekend to see her dying father, who was hospitalized with leukemia. She could hardly have known she was about to assume an alter ego that would become nearly as real to her as her own identity.
“My background isn’t anything like Bobbie’s, but I feel very protective of her,” Zeman says. “I feel like her big sister, and sometimes, as Bobbie, I also try to look at myself. It’s almost as if I’ve had three lives. I have my life at home with my husband and my kids. That’s my real life. Then my emotional life is Bobbie, [because] we have mutual memories. Everything Bobbie’s been through I’ve lived through emotionally because I had to play it. Then there’s my TV family, 20 years of co-workers. I really care about them, because 20 years isn’t like working with somebody for three months. And Tony (Geary; Luke) – I don’t have a real brother, so some of that is maybe transference for the real brother I never had. But people who have known you for 20 years are truly family. I spend as much time with them as I do at home. It’s as real as you can get.”
Actors are expected to bring much of themselves to their roles; it’s less understood that the role may bring much to them. Before Zeman’s two daughters were born, Bobbie was mother to a little girl called B.J., who died when she was 7, after the actress had also embarked on motherhood. “The B.J. storyline is still hard for me to think about,” says Zeman. “In essence, I did [lose a child], because Bobbie did grieve. I also lost the little girl who played her (Brighton Herford). I had been with her every day, from the time she was 6 months old until she was almost 8, then suddenly she was gone. I had her before I had my own children. I learned from her what a 3-year-old does and what a 4-year-old does. She made me the first pictures I stuck on my refrigerator and my mirror. I learned from her that it’s at 3 that they begin to separate fantasy from reality. Up to that point she had called me Bobbie or Mommy. When she was 3, one day she said, ‘What’s your other name?’ and I said, ‘Jackie.’ Because of her, I knew what to expect when I had my own children.”
Ironically, Zeman had scarcely thought any more seriously about having children than she had about being an actress. “I wasn’t one of those women who said, ‘I have to have children to justify who I am,’” she says. “I felt that, yes, you got married and you had babies. I assumed I would, but I didn’t have that burning desire to become a mother. Now I don’t know where I’d be without them; I’m so wrapped up in them and being a mom. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Although Zeman’s background (middle-class, a dog and a pool) was more stable than Bobbie’s, Zeman had her wild days. “I had a motorcycle and went skydiving and jumped out of planes,” she says with a giggle, as if it had all happened to someone else. “I didn’t have a care in the world. I have no regrets, but I wouldn’t do now some of the things I did then, just because I want to be around next year.” She had also had two brief marriages, and wasn’t looking to get married again when she was introduced to entrepreneur Glenn Gorden. “I had my life,” says Zeman, “my house, my dogs, and I was traveling a lot. But we clicked. At the time he was 35 and I was 34, and I said to him, ‘You’re still under the wire, but once a man hits 40 he’s either not going to get married or he’s gay. So what’s the story with you?’” Three months later they were married.
Zeman had her first child at 38 and her second at 40, numbers that were once anathema to the medical profession and general population alike. “A lot of people are having babies in their 40s,” she acknowledges, enthusiastically, “and I’ll tell you, if I had started a couple of years earlier, I probably would have had another one. But why push the envelope? I’m so glad I had them later in life, because never once have I felt I missed anything.” In one of those lovely quirks Mother Nature provides, 5-year-old Lacey Rose is her mother’s clone, while 7-year-old Cassidy Zee is her father’s. “Personality-wise, though,” says their mother, “Cassidy is me, ditto me, and Lacey is him. I had the life I want for my children; now it’s the future that’s important to me. One of the reasons we moved to Malibu three years ago was because you never know what life will bring. Hopefully, you’ll live a long, healthy life, but you don’t know. My father died at 53, Glenn’s at 47. There are no guarantees. We always wanted to live by the ocean, so we said, ‘You know what? Who says we have to be retired or working less? Let’s go.’”
As Bobbie Spencer and Jackie Zeman have grown up together, the line has smudged where one begins and the other ends. During a recent appearance on The View, Zeman was asked whether she could see herself playing Bobbie in another 20 years. “Yes,” she said quickly, “if people aren’t sick of me. I love my job.”
And where would she like to see Bobbie go? “In Bobbie’s relationships with men she’s always been the victim,” Zeman says. “She’s never chosen wisely, and she usually got chosen, sometimes by men who weren’t worthy of her. She didn’t start out with a whole lot, but she’s done a lot with what she’s been given. Bobbie’s real smart. She didn’t even have a mother or a father; she came from no money and she put herself through nursing school and college. Now she’s the head surgical nurse. Nothing has ever been given to this woman; she’s earned everything she has. Bobbie’s a working girl and more of a giver than a taker. She’s never looked at a man in terms of what she’s going to get from him. In the divorces she didn’t ask for anything, and that’s because of having been a hooker. She doesn’t ever want to feel she’s been bought and paid for.”
“But everything we do prepares us to go to a higher place, spiritually, and in every relationship we learn something,” she adds. “You don’t settle for less and less as you move on. It’s time she picked a man with the same kind of inner strength she has. It’s time for Bobbie to be truly in love with a guy who’s really an equal.”
In other words, it’s time for Bobbie to have what Jackie’s got. It doesn’t get much better than that.