Soap opera matriarchs used to seem eternal, but the senior women of daytime television are disappearing. On Wednesday, Jeanne Cooper, the 84-year-old pillar of the CBS soap opera “The Young and the Restless” died of an illness she fought to the end.
Cooper’s time playing Katherine Chancellor on Y&R spanned almost 40 years, and she never retired; the episode that aired May 3 was her final appearance
Of course fans are resisting a recast, and they have a point; how do you recast the face of the show? A face that, by the way, was lifted right on camera, in ’84, when the actress allowed her cosmetic surgery to be written into the show and televised.
A true soap matriarch, Cooper battled alcoholism both on and off screen, and reportedly had an affair with the actor who played her son. Her real son, the actor Corbin Bernsen, wrote admiringly that his mother had been “a blaze her entire life.”
And I certainly sympathize with heartbroken fans, since for two decades I’ve watched Y&R’s sister show, “The Bold and the Beautiful.” Same network, same co-creators Bill and Lee Bell, and a history of shared writers, actors and overlapping plot lines.
A few months ago, “Bold and Beautiful” viewers lost the legendary Susan Flannery when she decided to retire.
But it was another actress, Darlene Conley, who died in 2007, who’d drawn me into the show. I did not watch soaps at the time, but caught a glimpse of her Sally Spectra character one day while changing channels. Beverly Hills matriarch Stephanie Forrester, played by Flannery, battled both Sally, the fashion upstart who stole Forrester designs, and Brooke Logan, the “slut from the valley” who stole Forrester men.
Sally’s clumsy attempts to climb the Beverly Hills social ladder were so entertaining that I had to jettison my prejudice against shows that were shunned in my childhood home. Conley’s outsized talent for slapstick and campy humor won me over.
Even with humor, soaps are hard on the brain. The writing is often ludicrous. Story lines are recycled endlessly. Individuals act out of character, with no explanation. You’ll see felonies committed, with no consequences whatsoever, or severe consequences for the most trivial offense.
Ain’t much time for rewrites in soap land. But you do have a different kind of star, and a celebration of a different kind of woman than you find in movies.
Flannery’s character would attempt cold-blooded murder, and then a week or two later, everyone was playing nice and calling her the moral center of the family. Somehow, Flannery could sell these absurdities.
“All My Children,” which was cancelled by ABC last year but is back online now, has returned from the dead without its biggest star, Susan Lucci, who played Erica Kane for 41 years. Right up until her last scene, the vixen of Pine Valley, a grandmother several times over, was still looking for something she couldn’t quite put her finger on, even after eight marriages, three children — one of whom she thought she’d aborted — and successful careers in modeling, acting, magazine publishing and running a cosmetics empire.
Erika Slezak, who is back as the matriarch of Llanview, Pa., in the new online version of “One Life to Live,” is known as “Saint Viki” to her rival and sometime best friend Dorian Lord, played by Robin Strasser. Viki is a newspaper publisher, former Llanview mayor and the conscience of her town, too — except when one of her alternate personalities gets out, or she runs off to Texas to clear her head with a stint as a waitress in a diner. Since her show came back, she’s realized that her newspaper, “The Banner,” is in trouble, and to boost circulation has brought down Sen. Dorian Lord, appointed to office after a vacancy caused by a sexting scandal, with a quote taken out of context.
The character Jeanne Cooper played had an even longer running love-hate relationship, with Jill Foster Abbott, played by Jess Walton — who was supportive when Cooper’s character Katherine had breast cancer, and at one point believed she was Katherine’s daughter.
More than anything, these characters were survivors, and Cooper’s son said his mother was just as strong in life, and even in death.
“Mom passed this morning,” Bernsen posted. “She was in peace and without fear.”