Get out the tissues. It’s time to say goodbye to manipulative matriarch Stephanie Douglas Forrester, as actress Susan Flannery makes her final appearance on Monday’s episode of the popular CBS soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
That’s right. No more Stephanie calling daughter-in-law Brooke “the slut from the Valley,” pushing fashion rival Jackie off the balcony or kneeing husband Eric in the groin after firing him from the company he co-founded. B&B just won’t be the same without the strong-willed “Queen Stephanie,” whom executive producer and head writer Bradley Bell calls “impossible and completely adorable at the same time.”
When 73-year-old Susan Flannery told Bell she wanted to leave the show – she’s forbidden Bell to use the word “retirement” – he wanted “to do justice to her character and to her as an actor,” he told me. “I wanted to create some kind of grand farewell but then…I sat looking at my computer and wondered, what do I do now?”
Flannery had been one of the “core four,” the original cast members on the half-hour soap that premiered in March 1987, featuring the story of the Forrester family, their Los Angeles-based fashion business and all their romantic entanglements. The show was created by William J. and Lee Philip Bell, Bradley’s parents, whose first daytime drama had been “The Young and the Restless.” B&B is generally ranked as the second-most popular daytime soap in the United States, and the most popular daily daytime drama in the world.
Bradley Bell has managed to give the Emmy Award-winning Flannery the emotion-packed send-off she deserves. Stephanie’s lung cancer (the character is a non-smoker), first diagnosed and treated two years ago, has recurred. (That storyline was inspired by Flannery’s real-life bout with colon cancer.) Forrester is dying. And she’s doing it her way, by planning the party to end all parties at the Forrester mansion, giving her the opportunity to let those close to her know what they’ve meant, with flashbacks reminding us of some of our favorite memories.
I asked Bell about his favorites. One was Stephanie’s discovery that her nemesis, Brooke, who’d been married to both Stephanie’s husband Eric and son Ridge, had also hooked up with the matriarch’s younger son, Thorne: “Stephanie had Brooke in a stranglehold and called her nearly every name in the book.”
Another favorite of his — and mine, too — was episode number 5000, which aired in 2007. The “core four” were snowed in at the family’s cabin at Big Bear. Brooke gave Stephanie a kiss goodnight — “an inside wink to the audience,” Bell said, and later Eric and Stephanie had a pillow fight that led to romance (with Brooke and Ridge on a ladder spying on his parents).
It was the relationship between Eric and Stephanie, which survived his marriages to Brooke, Donna (Brooke’s sister) and psychopath Sheila Carter, that showed audiences what “may be closer to the truth” when it comes to marriage, Bell said. “These guys are duking it out but they love each other.”
Just last March, Phyllis Diller, in one of her last acting appearances, guest-starred as Gladys, the gardener/minister who performed the marriage ceremony that reunited Eric and Stephanie. (I loved it when “Gladys” said she was really an actress, but there just weren’t many good roles for women over 90.)
Diller’s not the only celebrity who has visited the show. Betty White played Stephanie’s mother in a story that focused on “dying with dignity,” Bell said. Those episodes, along with programs that focused on homelessness, have been some of the most powerful of the Emmy Award-winning series, leading Bell to describe it as “a mixture of ‘Dynasty’ and ’60 Minutes.’ “
It was Stephanie’s amnesia in 1990 that left her homeless and got me hooked on the show. Twenty years later, she revisited Skid Row in episodes that featured real homeless people telling their stories.
During the party held to celebrate Stephanie’s life, Bell’s favorite scene with John McCook, the actor who portrays Eric, occurred as he sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” to his on-screen wife. In a nod to Susan Flannery’s Irish heritage, Bell gave the party an Irish motif as Eric surprises Stephanie with Irish dancers.
Fans seem to approve of the way Stephanie is leaving. “B&B’s farewell to this daytime icon and her character is hitting the high points and showcasing Susan’s talents to the hilt in a highly emotional story,” Scott Novick, founder of The World of the Bold and the Beautiful, one of the longest-running and most popular B&B fan sites, told me.
But humor has been a big part of B&B, too. The scenes that Flannery shared with the late Darlene Conley, who played the design-stealing Sally Spectra, were some of the funniest on daytime. When Flannery told Bell she wanted to quit wearing her blonde wig, he came up with a scene that had a drunken “Sally Scissorshands” giving Stephanie, just as drunk, a haircut. That’s one of Flannery’s favorite scenes she introduces on the show’s official Web site.
Flannery, a veteran actress who played Dr. Laura Spencer Horton on “Days of Our Lives” and Leslie Stewart on “Dallas,” “throws herself into a scene with a focused intensity that becomes a show unto itself,” Kansas City Star theatre critic Robert Trussell (and husband of She the People contributor Donna Trussell) wrote. “When she tongue-lashes an adversary or reiterates her hatred of Brooke, I remember why I tune in.”
I’ll be tuning in Monday, of course, tissues at the ready, to watch the exit of a kinder, gentler Stephanie, who’s made her peace with Brooke, so much so that they’re together at the end of Stephanie’s life. It would have been unthinkable years ago.
But as Bell told me, “Sometimes people you think are your worst enemies can be your closest friends in the end. If you just reach across the aisle, you can make wonderful things happen.”
If Stephanie and Brooke can learn to get along, maybe there’s hope for Congress.