To be honest, I was going to write about something else this week — the family’s recent adventures in the Great West, most probably. But then I found something that made my eyeballs pop and sent me on a long jaunt down memory lane, and I knew I had to write about it. What did I find? Only this gem.
In short, it’s an article about one Jordan Clarke, who spent nearly three decades portraying wealthy galoot Billy Lewis on the long-running soap opera Guiding Light. Today, it seems, Mr. Clarke moonlights as a handyman in New York.
“But Kate,” I hear you cry. “Soap operas? Srsly?”
Yes. Soap operas. Srsly.
You must understand, soaps were absolutely forbidden to me until I was around 16. They were, my parents opined, inappropriate for children. Interestingly, this prohibition did not extend to my younger sisters; I have a vivid memory of Youngest Sister, aged approximately eight, piping up at dinner one night: “Mom, what’s a ‘vasectomy’? Because Victor had one, but it didn’t take.” Of course, as Oldest Sister, I was blamed for Youngest Sister’s stunningly harsh and abrupt exposure to the world of Adult Matters. The plight of the oldest child…but I digress. The point is, when I finally discovered daytime dramas, I fell hard and I fell fast, and the soap for which I fell was Guiding Light.
This would have been 1984-ish, and Billy Lewis was the son of an Oklahoma oil man, H.B. (Harlan something, as portrayed by Larry Gates). His deceased mother was Miss Lily or Lillian (one of those…it’s been, let us say, a couple of years). Billy may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer — he tended to wander around with his mouth hanging open, when he wasn’t busy charming the ladies — but he was true-blue, and devoted to his family, about whom more anon. He was partnered (engaged, then married) with blue-blooded Vanessa Chamberlain (Maeve Kinkead), whose ice-blue eyes and aristocratic bearing presented an interesting study in opposites with respect to the louder, more emotional, earthier Billy.
Billy’s ex-wife was salt-of-the-earth Reva Shayne (Kim Zimmer). The Lewis family’s maid’s daughter, Reva had grown up with Billy, his sister Trish, and his brother Josh, and she was wildly in love with Josh (Robert Newman). Due to complex set of circumstances, Josh and Reva were unable to wed, so she married elderly patriarch H.B. instead. Yeah, that ended up being a FABULOUS idea. Josh also ended up paralyzed and in a wheelchair for some reason during that era, and took his angst out on his stepmother. This culminated in one of the most iconic scenes in soap history, in which the frustrated, outraged Reva stripped down, leaped into a nearby fountain, and baptized herself “the Slut of Springfield.” Here’s the Slut in all her glory:
Josh and Reva would go on to marry (twice, at least!) and have a couple of kids. Today they’re remembered as one of the great Super Couples of the 80s. But wait…there’s more.
Billy also had a daughter, whose mother’s identity escapes me for the moment. Her name was Mindy (Krista Tesreau), and she was basically every perfect wealthy blonde mean-girl cheerleader you ever met. At sixteen, I loathed Mindy.
Ms. Thang up there had a thang for wealthy, preppy Phillip Spaulding (Grant Aleksander). Too bad he was in love with sweet and virginal Beth Raines (Judi Evans), who hailed from the Wrong Side of the Tracks. Although I objectively despised Phillip, because he despised pretty much everybody (seriously, no one in the world ever did hauteur quite like Grant Aleksander) except Beth, Beth wanted him and I loved Beth so I wanted him for her. He even stood up for her when she was violently assaulted by her evil stepfather, Bradley (James Rebhorn [!!!]).
Then in a moment of weakness, Phillip and Mindy slept together in a stable, which first of all, ouch, and second of all resulted in her pregnancy, and at that point I pretty much hated the two of them with a fervor that would have terrified anyone unfamiliar with the whims and passions of a shy and lonely sixteen-year-old girl. Fortunately, Lujack (Vincent Irizarry, and I know), warlord of local gang the Galahads (I know, all right?), was on hand to pick up the pieces, and he was way more appealing than f*cking Phillip:
Another memory: I went out of town with the debate team (shut up) for a meet, and we got to the hotel and I immediately clicked on the television to catch the end of my soap (which I hardly ever got to watch because my family did not yet own a VCR and, hey, school). Beth and Lujack were MAKING OUT!!! AND THEN PHILLIP STORMED IN!!!!! “Be sure to join us next week for Guiding Light.” Cue music…It was all I could think about, all weekend long.
But my truest, deepest affection was reserved for the hero of my heart, Tony Reardon (Gregory Beecroft). Blue-collar Tony was fierce yet vulnerable, loud yet soft-hearted, a fair-to-middling actor yet so, so hawt:
Tony’s love interest was Annabelle (Harley Kozak), who was his equal in every respect — intellect, ferocity, and even volume. They had adventures involving crazy fathers, ghosts, exploding music boxes, and even Tony’s near-fatal illness (he was saved when his brother, a doctor, returned in the nick of time to perform a delicate, life-saving operation). When they left the show to “travel around the world,” I was heartbroken.
Eventually I drifted away from the show; I kept up with it, but didn’t watch as obsessively as I had at sixteen. Old/new characters came in and/or returned; I came to the show late enough that I didn’t know to be excited at the return of Alan, or Roger and Holly — although I always thought, and still think, that Maureen Garrett (Holly) was the most beautiful woman on television.
I ‘shipped, as the kids say, Harley and Mallett in the early 90s, and watched in kind of a desultory fashion until around the early aughts. But I left my heart behind me in the 80s.
What’s interesting, looking back, is how in-the-moment the soaps were (and, I assume, still are). Tony and Annabelle, who met, fell in love, married, and left town together — presumably still living happily, in that imaginary sphere where they exist — were the exception. Beth and Lujack captured the hearts of many a teenage girl and were a solid couple, until they weren’t. (Beth ultimately married Phillip at least once.) Josh and Reva had a passionate following until one of the actors left and they were pulled apart. Other couples — whose fan bases cheered for them, read about them obsessively, laughed and cried with and for them, and videotaped, in those pre-DVR-days, key moments, including that magical moment when they became “At long last….lovers!!!” (cf. Soap Opera Digest), and weddings — were cruelly separated when an actor got burned out and left, or got a better offer from another soap or a movie, or when a new executive producer and/or a fresh stable of writers came in and decided to change the direction of the show.
Live in the now, the soaps seemed to say, because you never know when a new head writer is going to arbitrarily put you with the guy who was your family’s worst enemy, or make you do something so completely out of character your head will explode, or even kill you off.
Nothing is guaranteed, in soaps or in life. That’s the lesson Guiding Light tried to teach me in 1984, when I was still too young to understand. I railed at the disappearance of Tony and Annabelle, which had precisely as much effect as my yelling at the sky on a rainy day, or raging at the death of a loved one. Nothing is permanent, and nothing is promised. All you can do is enjoy today, when Reva is embracing Josh and calling him “Bud,” and hope for — in the words of Phillip, Beth, et al. — blue skies and palomino ponies tomorrow.
Robert Newman and Kim ZImmer (Josh and Reva) continue to act, and at this writing are appearing together in a revival of Gypsy in Pittsburgh. Larry Gates (H.B.) died at a distinguished age in 1986. Maeve Kinkead (Vanessa) is married to Meryl Streep’s brother and undoubtedly continues to kick ass, wherever she is. Krista Tesreau (that bitch Mindy) does infomercials. Judi Evans (now Luciano, a.k.a. Beth) continues to act and is probably as well known for her role as Adrienne Kiriakis in Days of Our Lives as she is for Beth. Grant Aleksander (Phillip) is, if gossips on the Interwebz are to be believed (and why not??), semi-retired and living happily with his wife, an attorney, in New Jersey. Vincent Irizarry (Lujack) is still acting, mostly on the few remaining daytime soaps. Maureen Garrett (Holly) divides her energy between acting, agroforestry, and spending time with her wife and children. Harley Jane Kozak (Annabelle) has retired from the screen and turned to the pen; I’m not familiar with her work, but you can check it out here. Gregory Beecroft is — last anyone knew — running some sort of home construction company in Texas.
And, of course, there’s Jordan Clarke. If you’re reading this, Mr. Clarke, I have a bathroom that needs retiling. (Regular readers will grok that this is not a euphemism. Our Blue Bathroom in particular has seen better days.)
And they all lived happily ever after…for now, anyway.