#TBT - Stephen Nichols

This interview was originally published in the February 23, 1988 issue of Soap Opera Digest. 

Stephen Nichols comes straight to the interview from a day on the set of DAYS OF OUR LIVES. At Le Dome in Hollywood, most of the diners are dressed in keeping with the string of Rolls Royces parked in the lot. That is to say, elegantly. Not long after Dyan Cannon leaves in a high-fashion miniskirt and thigh-high black boots, Nichols strides in wearing well-worn stovepipe blue jeans and a string tie. It’s Patch himself, minus the trademark eye patch and black leather jacket. Nichols drops into a chair and the interview quickly turns into a quiet conversation.

“I have my script with my — it’s my friend, my constant companion,” he says without embarrassment. “If I just look at it during the day, it sort of soaks in.”

The script doesn’t appear to be an actor’s prop intended to show how serious he is about acting. Like Patch, Nichols seems to be an upfront guy; what you see is what you get. But with Nichols, there’s a mild side. It’s Steve Johnson minus the sandpaper quality.

Perhaps the key to Stephen Nichols is out in the parking lot, amid the Rolls Royces. Nichols has arrived in the family station wagon, a Ford Taurus. Not exactly a hell-for-leather driving machine. Or one that will turn heads at Le Dome. But it does the job for a father who enjoys making up songs to sing to his children.

Actually, the Patch role was an ideal assignment for this intense and ambitious young actor. Given a minor part as a street rebel, Nichols fleshed him out. He worked in a sense of humor and a unique vocabulary that soon made Patch a sympathetic anti-hero — a far cry from the run-of-the-mill sleazeball he had originally been handed. Soon it was apparent that Nichols had created a character worthy of the devotion of the show’s rabidly romantic fans. As a result of their response, the part grew.

“DAYS OF OUR LIVES is that way,” he explains. “They follow the actor’s lead. They bring in a person for a small part, and if that person is creating something that really stands out, they go with it.”

Assessing the situation, Nichols decides that he was able to see, and take advantage of, a flaw in the original conception of Patch: his language. “Because my character is a little specialized — he’s kind of a street person — not everyone knows how to write that kind of dialogue,” he says. “They tend to write them all the same, which is like forties gangster-type dialogue.” But the Patch personality wasn’t cardboard to Nichols, it was quite familiar. So instead of playing a stereotype, he pushed for a more contemporary, street-wise twist. “I just have a feel for this kind of person, I guess,” he says, adding that he based Patch on real-life acquaintances. “I really used people I knew as a kid. When they grew up, this is the kind of guy they’d be. And I use a lot of my own life experiences.”

Certainly, there are parallels. Born in Cincinnati, his early life was disrupted when his father abandoned the family. Eventually his mother remarried and the family moved to nearby Dayton. His interest in acting goes back to the musical variety shows he watched on television as a kid but, at home, academics were stressed over more creative pursuits. “My mother wanted me to be a Trotwood, Ohio police officer,” he says, laughing. “When I was a kid, I had all those creating feelings — art, singing in the chorus — but because I didn’t get that encouragement at home, they were like dreams to me.”

A year after high school he moved to Los Angeles, passing up an art scholarship to Ohio State University because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to go to college. One reason for his choosing L.A. was what he refers to as “the old monk story that everybody knows.” That is, he joined the Self Realization Fellowship Center with the intention of becoming a monk. “I wouldn’t even call it a religious thing,” he reflects. “It was for me to find out what I was supposed to do in this life — it was what I have to call a spiritual search.” During his most intense three-year affiliation with the center, Nichols worked as a cook for the organization. Today, he still has spiritual ties with the group (his children attend Sunday school there), although as he puts it, he “lives in the outside world.”

Realizing that becoming a monk didn’t suit him, he began to study acting at the Los Angeles City College Theater Academy. “I had a real desire to make something of myself. My feelings about myself, growing up, were very confused. When I found there was something I could do, and I could do well, I was very excited about that,” he recalls.

After City College, he acted on the stage, performing in such plays as Delirious, The Cage, Death of a Salesman, and Pieces of Time. His first movie was Choices, with Demi Moore, and he made five more movies before he became a regular on DAYS. On television, he did guest appearances on DALLAS, CRAZY LIKE A FOX and T.J. HOOKER. “I was on the very first episode of DYNASTY because my ex-in-laws wrote and created that show,” he says in passing.

Publicity bios rarely mention an actor’s age, particular if the actor is playing someone younger than himself, and Patch is assumed to be about twenty-eight. Nichol’s bio is no exception, but when asked, he promptly says that he’s thirty-six. “I don’t care, I don’t want to lie about anything,” he says. “I don’t think that’s going to hurt me. These producers, and people who want the guy twenty-eight, look at me and say, ‘He look twenty-eight. What’s the problem?’ I don’t have any problem with it, really. I don’t feel old. I feel like the thirties have been the best years of my life, so far.” And, in fact, across a table and separated by a couple bottles of Perrier, he does look twenty-eight.

We spend a lot of time talking about acting. “The spiritual side I’ve pursued has always helped me in my work. I really believe in practice. My grandfather always told me practice makes perfect. It’s a silly cliché, but I tell my kids that,” he says with a laugh. His attitude seems to work. He receives a thousand fan letters a week, more than anybody else on the show, according to a Columbia publicist.

His family is a nest of acting talent, and Nichols is very proud of that. His wife, Lisa, to whom Nicholas has been married to for three year, is a “fledgling actress” who appeared on DAYS and is currently doing plays in Los Angeles. His children, ten-year-old Vanessa and seven-year-old Aaron, are also actors. “The producers [of DAYS] wanted Aaron because he looked so much like me,” Nichols says, and the boy plays Patch as a child in the flashback scenes.

“Aaron’s very bright and he understands everything intellectually,” Nichols says. “Emotionally, he’s never experienced anything that this kid, the young Steve Johnson, experienced,” Steve says, referring to the child-abuse storyline which showcased his son. So Nichols give Aaron pointers on performing. “Kids want to make their face do something — look sad, for example,” he explains. “I tell him to try to imagine his own life that way, and then let his heart control what his face does. Let his heart do the work.”

Concerned about Vanessa being overlooked if Aaron got an acting role, Nichols told the producers, “ ‘Aaron will do it if you’ll give my daughter a small part, because I don’t want her to be left out.’ So she got a nice little part and works every now and then.” Vanessa has made several appearances as Kelly, an abused child, and Nichols feels she “has a deep dramatic instinct.”

“I’m very proud of the work they’ve both done on the show,” he says, but it’s clear he doesn’t want it going to their heads. Nichols notes that Aaron recently used some of his money he has earned from the show to buy himself a computer. “If we had let him he would have bought one of those electric-powered cars that you see at F.A.O. Schwarz,” Nichols says. “We said it wasn’t practical because he’d grow out of it and he couldn’t drive it when he was eighteen.”

After two and a half years on DAYS, Steve is now starting to put out feelers for stage and movie roles. “Creating opportunities for myself,” he calls it, b believing that that attracting attention can’t be done over night. “People in the industry don’t take daytime actors too seriously. I don’t have any illusions about that,” he says.

As he finishes a cappuccino, Nichols adds, “Some people believe acting classes make you a good actor, or you find that magic when you finally become a good actor, but I think it’s a lifelong process. You’ve got this creative energy and you keep trying to develop it your whole lifetime.” He’s also intrigued by Patch’s development. “The physicality of the character — that’s one advantage of being an ongoing character — you turn the switch and the guy is on,” he explains. “There’s a way he walks and talks that’s different from me.”

But on appearance tours, fans enjoy seeing “Patch” live and in person. One request he always gets from fans is to call them Sweetness, the endearment Patch uses for Kayla Brady. Sweetness is a nickname he originally gave his daughter. “I can motivate a lot of love behind that word, so that’s why I like it for Kayla,” he explains.

And his relationship with Mary Beth Evans, the actress who plays Kayla, is a warm and enjoyable one. “Sometimes we’re a little too friendly even when we’re in scenes that are not so friendly. When there’s a lot more tension happening, we have to watch ourselves on that, and get stuff created before we go on the set. Sometimes I’ll tell her I have to be alone for a while — or she’ll do the same thing — we have to get our own individual things together.”

Evans agrees. “There’s love there, and I think it shows. It seems kind of corny to say, but we connect,” she says. “I think that after my maternity leave, you could see it in our eyes.”

Evan’s recent pregnancy itself provided some backstage moments of fun as they filmed around her growing stomach. “In the cabin scene, I was supposed to be naked,” she recalls. “Normally, I would wear a body stocking, a sort of nude swimsuit, but being pregnant, my body stocking was more like a muumuu. Stephen was to walk in and stare at me as if I looked sexy, but instead I looked like Omar the Tentmaker,” she laughs, adding that Steve managed to keep a straight face. Good thing. Before Mary Beth had her baby, she and Nichols pre-taped ten shows and had to do one hundred pages of dialogue in one day, most of it heavy emotion. And suddenly sounding like Patch, Nichols says seriously, ‘That’s kamikaze acting. Doing a soap, you do kamikaze acting.” But Nichols has no plans to self-destruct or burn-out. He intends to live a full and healthy life — with or without career pressures. Like Patch, he knows what’s important.