This interview was originally published in the March 1, 1981 issue of Soap Opera Digest.
Hair flying, rebel flag of a T-shirt spread across her chest, blue jeaned and sneakered, a blonde tomboy came running down the hall, carrying a plastic-wrapped bag full of clothes. I was standing in Leslie Charleson’s dressing room on the GENERAL HOSPIATL set.
This hell-raiser from the cleaners looked like she was on her way to asoftball game and just dumping off an errand. She threw the clothes — hangers and all — on the sofa. The kid was obviously in a rush, but did she have to be so rude?
When the “kid” opened her mouth and asked in a gorgeously deep, breathy intonation of a wonderfully trained theatrical actress, “Damn, am I late?” Oh ho! So this was Leslie. Introductions were made, coffee and ashtrays served.
The dark glasses came off as Leslie made herself comfortable. Wide hazel-green eyes stared at me full of guilt as she took out her cigarettes and began to light up. I asked for one and she was delighted. “Oh, for joy!” Leslie exclaims, happy that no moral judgment would be passed on the health hazard about to be committed. Taking a second look at Leslie, I noticed that although has appeared wiry and well-coordinated, she was fine-boned and delicate. I decided the main difference between her and Monica Quartermaine, physically, was the hair. Leslie wore hers straight with bangs. She is also far prettier and younger-looking than her character. Big laugh from Leslie. “I hear that all the time. I do television to humble myself,” she grinned. “It’s difficult to be perfect in this medium. Seriously, the distortions caused by the cameras make everyone look taller or heavier or whatever.”
Our conversation immediately began to focus on Monica Quartermaine, a fabulous villainess who is beginning to let loose. Which means she has a lot more wit. And style.
“I am absolutely delighted with the developments,” Leslie says, referring to her character. I’m so glad they let Monica get a little flair. I was getting very tired of weenie rolls (referring to her hairstyle) and the buns, I looked like I should have played Alan’s mother.” Leslie admits that once Jane Elliott (Tracy) left the show, GH writers and producers were looking for a character to replace her panache and sophistication with. Leslie was elected. “A big laugh went out at the studio. I’m the kid with the baseball cap. I have a tendency to wear things backwards!”
Although Leslie Charleson has been playing scheming, enigmatic Monica Quartermaine for over five years now, she did her share of nighttime television and films (“Day of the Dolphin”) after her long-term role as Iris Garrison on the now defunct CBS soap, LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING. “I thought I was graduating by leaving a soap and doing nighttime. I wasn’t,” Leslie says tersely. “The scripts certainly weren’t any better. The roles were no better.”
Once in California, she discovered that nighttime shows consistently typecast her as “Goody two-shoes” because of her blonde, All-American look. “I wanted to be mean and play the bad girl, even if I had to dye my hair!”
That opportunity came when she signed on for two-and-a-half years as Monica Quartermaine. “I only agreed to do it because the producer, at the time, was Tom Donovan, who had produced LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING. Tom did that show, basically, what Gloria Monty (GH’s Executive Producer) has done for ours now. They are both unbelievably energetic to the point where it affects their health. Both of them ended up in the hospital. Tom was my mentor,” Leslie explains. “He guided me through an odd time. I did 47 shows in a row on LIAMST. Five days a week. Live TV. We had this communication with is very similar to the one I have with Gloria,” she says with feeling. Little dialogue is necessary for them to understand one another.
When Leslie started on GENERAL HOSPITAL, the soap was given three weeks before it would be cancelled. “Tom left right after I began on the show. Gloria came in and revamped, rescheduled, redid everything I was saying hello and good-bye to people in the same breath. It was very difficult,” she recalls. “I walked into something that I would never want to do again — replacing Patsy Rahn, who played Monica before me and was rudely let go. It was done in a very tactless way.” Apparently, Rahn was told not to bother getting fitted for her costume because she wouldn’t be coming back after vacation.
Charleson was also met with a fair degree of coldness from castmates who were upset by Rahn’s dismissal. “Actors are very loyal to their co-workers,” she says reasonably, understanding their reaction. There was even a benefit to all this mayhem. With no one really helping her, Leslie had to draw from within herself to sharpen and tone her character.
“I like Monica!” Leslie says emphatically. “She’s interesting, dedicated in all areas. Her dedication in her social life can be a bit over the top, but it’s true. When she loves, it’s passionately. She puts her effort into it, sometimes at the expense of others,” Leslie concedes. “She handles being a surgeon better than her social life.” Still, Charleson insists Monica has grown. “I’m delighted with the progress she’s made, her sense of humor. As an actress I enjoy Monica because she can wear any hat, go any place, do any thing. When you’re all good, you’re boring.” She pauses. “And nobody is just ‘good’ unless she’s a saint.”
Perhaps Leslie also enjoys her character so much because Monica has all the snappy comebacks that Leslie never had. “I’m not as feisty as she is,” Leslie admits. “She’s a lot nastier than I am. But she’s probably a lot more honest, too. I sort of grew up placating people. I had a very strong mother. I learned how to pacify her and then when to approach her when I wanted something. I learned how to keep quiet so as not to arouse her anger. Anybody’s anger. Monica doesn’t care. She’ll just plunge in under full sail, and say what she has to. That’s what I respect in her, and that’s what makes her fun.”
As for her character’s future… “Oh, I don’t know,” Leslie says airily, staring at the ceiling, smiling. “She could have an affair with Noah Drake (Rick Springfield), that wouldn’t bother me.” A grin. A shrug. “Or she could go live on the Star (the boat nightclub where the characters of Luke and Scorpio live)…” her voice trails of with other possibilities.
Leslie’s fun at GENERAL HOSPITAL is not limited to her character. Indeed, she has a lot of that with her co-star Stuart Damon (Alan Quartermaine). How do you feel about him? I ask. “Lots of things. Mostly bruises. He’s awfully large.” Umm, interesting, tell me more. “I love him dearly. We’re very good friends. We have a wonderful time together. I’m also very close with his wife. Stuart refers to me as his daytime wife, Deidre is his nighttime wife. She and I go out to dinner and plays. I’m also close to his daughter and his son, Christopher.”
Though Leslie Charleson came on GENERAL HOSPITAL when the show was critically ill, for the pas few years it has been the No. 1. Soap. At the time of this interview, the show had given up its choice spot to ALL MY CHILDREN. I wondered how Leslie felt about it.
“Well, it had to slow down,” she says thoughtfully. “GH did something remarkable. We put soaps on the map. We gave them dignity and respect and recognition that they had so long deserved. We were a phenomenon, and I feel so terribly proud and pleased to have been involved. But anything like that has to run down, burn out. The other shows have come up to match us and I think that’s wonderful, too.” she points out. “We’re all striving for excellence. We have a good show, it always will be. The fact that there are others coming up, well, I think they all deserve praise.”
Do you think the change of writers has hurt the show? I asked. Leslie lit another cigarette and settled back in a big chair. “You can’t make a switch immediately. You have to follow through with something. So it’s nothing against the writers. It is really about storyline and seeing it through to its finish.” Leslie talked about the James Bond themes her show had pursued in the past — The Ice Princess story, the Sword of Malkuth plot, and now the oil scam. “Perhaps there was an overkill in that sort of story,” I suggest. Leslie politely said she wouldn’t know about that. Silence. Pause. Would I like more coffee or a cookie?
Leslie Charleson does have a life outside the studio. She lives in a condo, smack dab in the middle of Hollywood, only five minutes from the studio. “I allow about thirty seconds to get here, hoping there are survivors along the way,” she quips. “I will probably live there as long as I’m on the show. It’s so convenient, I can go home for lunch. Stuart Damon bought his home and I bought my condo the same day. We figured between Act five and six of GH that day, we dropped over $250,000!”
Leslie and I munch on cookies for a while, and in between she tells me how she’s managed to stay thin for the last year or so. “I was roller-skating with Tony Geary (Luke Spencer) in our rehearsal hall downstairs one day. There I was, skating along, and as Susan Brown (Gail Baldwin) walked by, I waved to her. That’s when I fell and broke my wrist, a year ago, last November. “When you have only one hand to work with, you stop doing so much. I mean, how can you smoke, hold a glass, and eat a Big Mac at the same time with one hand? I had to give up something and I wasn’t about to give up smoking! I grew up with asthma,” Charleson continues, lighting another cigarette. “But I found it a very boring disease and decided I didn’t want it so I got rid of it.” At the moment, Leslie is very involved with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, another respiratory ailment for which there is no cure. Leslie is the celebrity chairperson for fundraising Monopoly tournaments.
“So how come such a lovely warm-hearted woman like you is still not married?” I ask suddenly. Leslie laughed and began describing the problems of a social life mixing with her professional hectic pace. For a while she went with an actor and then there were two crazy itineraries to deal with. Her current boyfriend is a journeyman (another form of stagehand). His schedule is usually different from hers, but somehow they do find time for each other.
“He’s been on tour with the Royal Ballet. Then he was working at the Ahmanson Theatre. He would start work at 7 p.m. when I might be coming home. We have passed in the elevator,” she deadpans. The seriously, “It is very difficult in this business to have social life. When a man asks you out and wants to know what time you’ll be through with work, you say you don’t know. ‘What do you mean, you don’t know?’ he asks. Well, let’s put it this way. We start shooting at four o’clock in the afternoon. With an educated guess, I would say that if everything goes well, t could be done around 7:30. Or I could be done a 10:30. That kind of puts a damper on things. Such as dinner. Lots of things can happen and they usually do just when you’ve mad the most wonderful plans.
Time off to Leslie means going out to dinner, a show, driving down to the beach. “There’s not much time for a social life, you have to grab it when you can. I’m basically lazy and it’s easy to be lazy in California.”
It would figure that Leslie Charleson would enjoy all the water sports. After all, she’s a Pisces. A true blue one, who likes music, is romantic, moody. “I cry very easily. I’m a good pouter, too. And on a full moon, I grow fur. Certain times of the month, I’m probably a latent mass murderer!”
On that note, Leslie Charleson was given a five-minute notice for a scene. One last question. What kidn of parts attract you? “I remember I would absolutely have given my right arm to have played Julie Christie’s role in Darling. That and Peter Pan. Either part is an actress’ dream. I’m not looking to do Medea or Lady Macbeth. Just to work. I’d like to do something that I can honestly say, ‘Hey, I’m proud of that work.”
GENERAL HOSPITAL is certainly proud of you, Leslie.