This interview originally appeared in the April 2, 1987 issue of Soap Opera Digest
On SANTA BARBARA, she’s the very pregnant and very unwed Julia Wainright … but Nancy Grahn’s real-life saga is nothing to sneeze at, either.
“Now, this might taste a little unusual,” Nancy Grahn warns as she pours — or better yet, ladles — some morning java. One sip tells you. “I guess it is maybe even more muddy than usual. My family is constantly giving me grief about it. It’s pretty bad, huh?” Well, you could probably use it to mortar bricks but, somehow, Grahn gets away with it. Maybe it has something to do with her terminal case of perseverance.
A former Skokie, Illinois cheerleader (try as she might, Nancy regularly launched into her “Dee-fense! Dee-fense!” chant when her team had the ball) and Homecoming Queen (when D-day drew near and she didn’t have a date, she wound up doing the asking), the star reclines on the rug of her plush San Fernando Valley condo (only Grahn can successfully mix lucite, antiques and a phony fireplace) and reflects on a life that is not unlike a roller coaster. You know, the kind with wacky highs, plummeting lows, hairpin turns and a touch of trauma. “There is never a dull moment,” she admits. “But as long as it’s productive rather than chaotic, I like that. It makes me feel alive.”
To begin with, Grahn doesn’t just act. She’s worked tirelessly in a Los Angeles therapy clinic for three to six year old incest victims. “I used to go home and cry when I first started,” says the actress who, via storytelling, painting, puppet shows and other non-direct means, gets the troubled children to express their bottled up emotions. “Soon, though, you build up some sort of defense which doesn’t get in the way of your help but also doesn’t break your heart all the time.”
She’s devoted, too, to a cause that hits closer to home. Grahn’s father is a recovering alcoholic and the performer has frequently gone public with her experiences. “I’m not trying to air my dirty laundry,” she insists. “I believe in vocalizing it because you don’t really hear that much about the families of alcoholics. If someone is an alcoholic, everyone in the family has the disease.”
Three years ago, she temporarily left behind a healthy TV career in Los Angeles and headed back to Illinois to begin her own recovery therapy. “Nobody would ever have known there was something wrong with me,” she recalls. “I just did not feel good and I decided it was time to take care of myself.” Her father, Bob, had entered a care unit two years previously and was well on his way to recovery. Now it was Nancy’s turn to get the wounds healed.
The middle of three sisters, Grahn remembers, “I was the protector child. To me, my parents couldn’t do anything wrong. I would pour coffee down my father’s throat when he mixed something or other and was about to go unconscious. When he was drinking and took the (car) keys, I’d follow him and pull him out of bars. Instead of going out with my friends, I would stay home because I didn’t want him to be alone. My sisters were able to get angry, but I couldn’t, although I desperately wanted to be a child and not have to parent my own parent. The therapy finally allowed me to get angry, even though it was very painful to get angry at someone you love so much.” Through it all, dad and daughter remained the best of friend and, today, Bob lectures as an alcoholism counselor. Despite the heartache, Nancy remarks, “I don’t mind having gone through any of this. If your life is peachy keen, what do you learn?”
Back in Hollywood and ready to conquer the world, Grahn fell madly for actor Sam Behrens — a.k.a. GENERAL HOSPITAL’s Jake Meyer — so madly, in fact, that she let the licensed pilot take her above the clouds on their very first date without asking how long he’d been flying. She later discovered, to her horror, it had been a mere two weeks. On subsequent dates, Behrens even convinced her to get in the driver’s seat but Grahn chokes, “Nothing makes me hyperventilate more than something technical. I was always worried that, if Sam ate some bad fish before flying, I’d go down with the pilot.” The daredevil actor couldn’t, however, con her into skydiving. “I thought about it, I really did,” she claims. “But then I decided, that much of a nut I wasn’t.” A couple of GH co-stars, Jacklyn Zeman (Bobbie) and Sherilyn Wolter (ex-Celia) did take Behrens up on the offer, causing Grahn to grumble, “Well, what can I say? They are just pretty, thin girls who look great in jumpsuits as they leap out of planes. They weren’t afraid! They were confident they would live! I’d give anything to have a bio that said I did that kind of thing.”
Though they were lovebirds for the better part of two years, Nancy recently bid Behrens a permanent adieu — and she’s pretty blunt about why. “When you want something to work out, there’s a tremendous denial,” she says. “We both had the same life-style, we both made a lot of money, we had a tremendous amount of fun together, he was good looking and available — but I manufactured some qualities that weren’t really there and denied some that were. I knew from the beginning that I was dealing with a man who wasn’t able to honor our commitment. He has had two marriages and is terrified of having another one. But then there’s that nurturing part of a woman. No matter what, she’ll try to make it right. The fact is, though, it’s like dealing with an alcoholic. You can’t change him. You can wish, you can hope — but I could not make Sam into what I wanted him to be. So what was I doing hanging around with a man who doesn’t want to have children, when that’s very much a part of my future? All of a sudden, the rose-colored glasses came off. I know what I want and I guess I have to be courageous enough to wait for it. It wasn’t anything I was unprepared for, but the wind does get knocked out of you. You find yourself picking up Women Who Love Too Much and reading it again.”
Just as she has after previous bust-ups (once, when a boyfriend left her, she organized an all-girl band), Grahn has coddled herself by getting super creative. She and an actress pal are co-writing a two-character play and work out the kinks by performing the latest scene in an acting class. Nancy’s also penning a kiddie play using old-time nursery rhymes to illuminate contemporary problems. (Mary Had A Little Lamb, for example, is now about a tyke fighting jealousy when mom and dad bring home a new baby.) The actress intends to corral such soap stars as GH’s Jack Wagner (Frisco) and Finola Hughes (Anna) to star, and will donate all proceeds to her incest therapy clinic. Word is, she’s a very, very good writer.
Grahn is also rather good at getting hysterical. A frequent guest on episodic cops and robbers shows (“I’m always the killer,” she reveals smugly), Nancy tried her hand at jet skiing while in Hawaii to film the now-defunct actioner, HAWAIIAN HEAT. Her trip to paradise nearly turned to tragedy when the actress looked down into the water to see what was unmistakably a shark fin. “I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t fall! Don’t fall!’” she remembers. “And, sure enough, I did. I remember I started splashing wildly and screamed, ‘SHARK! SHARK!’” Within seconds, lifeguards on motor boats answered her call. They circled and circled the shark, hoping to scare it away from the frantic and frenzied Grahn. But they needn’t have bothered. To the star’s extreme embarrassment, the “killer” turned out to be just a gray paper bag.
This episode, however, pales in comparison to the notorious cockroach incident. Back in Hawaii to shoot MAGNUM, P.I., Nancy and her baby sister, Wendy, discovered a creepy crawler the size of Minneapolis casually inhabiting their hotel closet. “And it FLEW!!!” she shrieks, still shaking from the utter hell of it all. “I got my high heel and tried to kill it. All it did was laugh at me.” After a few blood curdling screams and several minutes standing atop the toilet, the sibs decided to let their fingers do the walking. Grimaces Grahn, “We took as many phone books as we could find and smashed the thing. Then, to make sure it wouldn’t laugh at us again, we both jumped on top. It ruined my evening. I had two martinis and I don’t even drink. I couldn’t sleep. We kept the lights on all night. That thing looked like a Volkswagen!” The next morning, a bright and chipper Tom Selleck graciously asked the bleary-eyed actress, “So, was your first night in Hawaii a pleasant one?” To this day, he still doesn’t know what caused her into a heap of uncontrollable tears.
By comparison, life on SANTA BARBARA is far more serene. Her second soap (she played the naughty Beverly Wilkes for a year on ONE LIFE TO LIVE) has given her the golden opportunity to play scenes with grande dame Judith Anderson (Minx), although Grahn nearly blew it with first impressions. She recalls, “The first time I met her, she was having her makeup done. I walked into the room whistling and she snapped, ‘Who’s whistling? WHO’S WHISTLING?’ I meekly said, ‘Uhhh … I am,” and she snapped, ‘Don’t you know that’s bad luck? Go outside, spin around three times and spit!’” Once the spell was broken, the two hit it off like cheese and crackers.
Nancy was also thick-as-thieves with former TV sister Louise Sorel (Augusta). “I miss her terribly,” she laughs. “We were the show’s two Jewish American Princesses. Nothing was ever good enough. We were always griping: ‘I don’t like my dressing room! I can’t believe they expect me to play this scene! Do I have to wear this?!” Sorel even nicknamed her Nancy Groan. Despite the beefing, the actress admits, “I’m delighted to be here.” She doesn’t even seem to mind that she’s practically a dead ringer (or vice versa) for co-star Kristen Meadows (Victoria), noting, “As a matter of fact, we were both on ONE LIFE TO LIVE together. Judith Light (ex-Karen) used to call us the Bobbsey Twins.”
Her story line — with an upcoming bouncing baby and no husband in sight — jibes with her own biological clock. “I can’t see going through life without childbirth,” she states. “I’m not ready to do it now, but having a baby is just too neat of a thing to not experience.” The plot has triggered a slew of fan letters, many from viewers contemplating their own single parenthood options. Some are as young as 15 and 14 years old. Worries Nancy, “It’s hard not to feel responsible about that — basically, I’m giving the message that it’s an okay thing to do.”
If she had her druthers, though, she’d prefer to enter motherhood with a ring on her finger. With no immediate prospects in sight, the actress wistfully notes, “Actually, I really thought I’d be married by now. I have a deep fear of never finding the right person.” Grahn delightedly offers more of her Mississippi Mud coffee without realizing that she’s actually got an even bigger problem on her hands. She may ultimately marry the man of her dreams — but will he ever ask for a second cup?