This interview originally appeared in the January 2, 2001 issue of Soap Opera Digest.
Were it not for a fateful decision made one afternoon in the late ’60s, Leslie Charleson’s (Monica, GH) life could easily have taken a turn toward Graceland instead of the Q mansion. It came when the actress — then LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING’s Iris — was offered the opportunity of her Elvis-lovin’ lifetime.
“I had been flown out [to do a guest spot] on THE WILD, WILD WEST with Bob Conrad,” recalls Charleson. “And I happened to know that [actor/stuntman] Red West as a good friend of Bob’s and also one of Elvis’s sidekicks. So, I sort of sealed myself to Red West’s hips while we were shooting [laughs] in hopes of meeting Elvis. Well, finally on a Friday, Red said, ‘All right, if you follow me over to Paramount [where Presley was filming Charro!], I’ll introduce you to Elvis.’ ”
Sweeter — and scarier — words could not have been spoken to Charleson. Grins the actress, “The whole time I’m driving over there, I’m saying to myself, ‘I’m all grown up, I’m fine. I’m going to meet Elvis, and I’m fine. I’m not the idiot I was when I was the president of seven [Elvis] fan clubs. I’m fine.’ When we got on the stage, Red asked me if I wanted anything, and I said some coffee. So, Red went and got me coffee, and then Elvis came over and he was wearing a white jumpsuit.”
Though Charleson had undoubtedly gone over such a moment in her mind a million times, things didn’t exactly go as she’d hoped. “Red said, ‘El, I’d like you to meet a little girl who’s working with Bobby Conrad. This is Leslie.’ So, I thrust out my hand very eagerly — but that was the hand in which I was holding my hot coffee. It went all over his white suit!”
Unable to find a convenient hole to fall into, Charleson tried to make the best of the situation … and failed miserably. “The only thing I could think of to say was, ‘When you were in the Army, you were U.S. Private 53310761,’ laughs Charleson. “It was horrible! Elvis looked at Red like, ‘What did you bring to me?’ I wanted to die. But Elvis was very gracious. I think he was a little surprised about the serial number thing [laughs], but he let me hang around while he changed.”
Thankfully, the afternoon improved from there. “I actually got to sit in his dressing room and he did sing ‘Love Me Tender,’ swoons Charleson. “I couldn’t believe I was sitting there. Afterward, they were all going to Las Vegas, and he invited me to go, too.”
Though she could barely believe the words were coming out of her mouth, Charleson declined Presley’s offer. “I said, ‘No, I can’t,’ ” she sighs. And another part of me thought, ‘Are you crazy? What did you just say?’ But I didn’t go. I followed his entourage out and drove home, crying the whole way.”
So what possessed Charleson to just say no? “He was so important in my life growing up that I was too scared that the fantasy of him would be diminished,” she shares. “I had to keep him where I wanted him. So, I chickened out. But I’m glad I did. I still had him where I wanted him, and I still had the rest of the afternoon.”
Ironically enough, it was just around the time that Presley checked out in 1977 that Charleson checked in as GH’s Dr. Monica Quartermaine. Despite her new career, she shrugs, “Elvis had just died; it was not the best of times.”
And things got worse before they got better. “Not only was there a strike going onm but the actress who played Monica before me had been rather rudely fired, as I understand it, and Tom Donovan — who I had worked with on LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING and who was then the producer [of GH] and the only reason I agreed to come back to soaps — quit. He left me all alone … with Monica. All he said was, ‘Make it your own.’ ”
Which, needless to say, Charleson did, with a little help from the introduction of a family called Quartermaine. “I don’t know what Monica would have done had she not wandered into this wonderful family,” smiles the actress. “But one of the reasons this character intrigued me was that Monica could have gone anywhere. As scary as it was, she wasn’t pigeonholed, and that’s what I always liked about her. She’s a character you can put in many situations.”
As proven amply during Charleson’s 23-year tenure with the show, which has found Monica in nearly every soap scenario from cheating wife to cancer patient. And now … premenopausal mommy-to-be? “You know, I don’t know what’s going to happen with that storyline,” she chuckles about Monica’s on-again, off-again pursuit of a later-in-life pregnancy. “At first, I was so surprised by the suggestion of it. But then, I can’t tell you how many people were for it. I was really thinking, ‘Oh, they won’t buy it,’ but the fans seem to think it’s a good idea. I hope it’s something [the incoming writing team] will continue.”
Should this pregnant pause continue, Charleson says she’s raring to move on to another equally challenging storyline. “It certainly is nice to have something to seek your teeth into,” she related. “You act better when you’re focused on something. There’s nothing worse than feeling that you just got away with stuff you know you can do blindfolded. As much as you try to keep it professional, you know there are times you’re goofing off. As Stuart [Damon, Alan] and I have said many times, ‘If you give us nothing to do, we’re terrible.’ It’s like we’re in daycare and we need time-outs [laughs].”
That said, Charleson admits that despite her many years on the show, she’d consider leaving Monica behind someday, should storyline disappear. “Just to be a fixture and come in occasionally … that’s not fulfilling. I’d go teach horseback riding or something.
“That’s why I’m so interested in having things happen [storyline-wise],” continues the actress. “But I’m very encouraged, and I really do love this job. Look at it this way — what better job can you do than get up in the morning, roll out of bed, throw something on and then have someone take care of how you look and how you dress and what you say? How much more grateful could you possibly be? Not bad, not bad at all.”
Just The Facts
Birthday: February 22
Sports Center: Charleson’s hobbies include horseback riding, skiing and scuba diving.
Guest Book: Before she came to GH, Charleson appeared on numerous prime-time hits, including THE ROCKFORD FILES, HAPPY DAYS, EMERGENCY! AND ADAM-12.
It’s Got Her Vote: “I love THE WEST WING. It is so smart and bright.”
Turtle Love: “I have a desert tortoise that wandered into my back yard about two months ago. I’m a nitwit about her because she’s so beautiful.”
A Moment Of Silence
As Charleson is the first to admit, taping those zinger-filled Q scenes can be a length proposition. “There have been many times we’ve been backstage and taken bets. ‘How many takes? I say 14. You want 12?’ ” she laughs. “We all do that when we know it’s never going to be done in one shot. But we had one scene recently with reporters and Ned and Alexis, and all of the Quartermaines that we pulled off in one take. And that hasn’t been done since I’ve been on this show! When they said, ‘Cut,’ we all stood there because we couldn’t speak [laughs]. The control booth didn’t even know quite what to do. It was like ‘… We’re moving on!’ And we’re thinking, ‘Moving on? We don’t move on. We’ve never done this!’ “