Michael Malone

Michael Malone Is Bay City ready for Michael Malone? The acclaimed best-selling novelist turned soap scribe -- who won an Emmy for his startling, controversial and crowd-pleasing revamp of One Life to Live -- has been hired by Procter & Gamble to work similar wonders on Another World. Here's a preview of things to come.

Your identity with One Life to Live was so strong that it's extremely weird to think about you writing any other soap.

Well, it's weird to me, too. This is really like jumping on a train that's been going 100 miles an hour for 30 years. I'm frantically reading backstory and watching tapes and looking at family trees. It's a huge amount to assimilate.

There are some obvious differences between these two shows. First of all, on AW you don't have anywhere near the amount of core veteran characters you did on OLTL. Basically it's just Rachel, whereas on OLTL you had that whole Viki/Dorian dynamic to work with and, of course, all the Buchanan boys.

One of the things that drew me to AW [is] the very strong family possibilities. You still have the Corys and the Hudsons and the Frames. Even though some of the history has gone away, it can still be brought back into focus. It's just a matter of taking the camera lens and turning it a different way. On OLTL, Viki and Dorian were certainly pivots around whom I could cluster a lot of new story, but looking back, probably 75 percent of the people now on the show are people I brought in -- Todd, Marty, Blair, Nora, Hank, R.J., all the Angel Square people. On AW, there's a new generation that's very strong -- Amanda and Matt and Vicky. Jensen Buchanan alone is a gold mine!

We hear so much about the need to appeal to new, young viewers -- all that demo crap -- but isn't this hard when you're also trying to reclaim former viewers? The latter group will care about AW's history, but new people won't. They'd have no real appreciation for the interfamilial connections, the past secrets, the subtext that us old-timers would get off on. This must be tricky, to serve up a show that attracts everybody.

My first goal is to bring back people who've previously watched the show. Once you can shore that up, then you can go out and snare those new viewers -- but that's hard. As Sunset Beach shows, it's very hard. You have to have the balance. Young people don't just want to watch young people, they want family relationships, multigenerational stories, young people who are in conflict with their parents. On the other hand, you have to consistently bring in fresh blood. One of the dangers of soap operas and their continuing storytelling is that they can start to turn in on themselves so that pretty soon, any one character has murdered 10 people or married 15. They say there are only two stories, really -- a stranger comes to town and somebody leaves home. You have to bring that stranger to town to generate that "Oh, my God, what's gonna happen next?" kind of energy. That is the heart of storytelling.

Some head writers join a troubled soap and choose to jump-start it with an influx of new characters and stories, like you did on OLTL. Others, like Claire Labine -- who now has your old gig -- take a much more gradual approach, trying to fix the problems and characters at hand before bringing in the new stuff.

That certainly was true of me at OLTL. My first day of work, I had Luna drop out of the sky -- literally. I also immediately brought in Blair. My strategy at AW will be different. At first, I'll be working with what's here -- and then bring that stranger to town.

Do you watch OLTL anymore? Can you stand to?

I haven't watched. But I have to tell you, I am so happy that Claire is in Llanview. I feel that she will cherish and treasure those characters and give them room to breathe. The ones that seem to be gasping for breath, she will give them oxygen.

You tackled many tricky topics on OLTL -- gang rape, gay teens, S&M sex, goddess worship, patricide. Will AW be as wild?

When you take the risk to do what seems controversial, you engage viewers. This is, after all, soap opera. And it should be like opera -- big, bold and full of desires pitched at a passionate level where there is great loss and gain. My hope is to take a great big spoon and stir up Bay City.

Word is, NBC is pressuring AW to be more outrageous, like Days of Our Lives.

When they asked Elvis, "Who do you sing like?" he said, "I don't sing like nobody but me." Well, I don't write like nobody but me. To try to copy Days would be folly. Besides, when the network says, "Be more like Days," what they really mean is, "Get those ratings up!" But I think there is a lesson to be learned from Days' success. It's not its cartoonlike quality. It's that Days is a world consistent within itself. That world is large and compelling and absolutely consistent -- and when you step into that world, it's like stepping into a fairy tale. You believe a fairy tale because it is consistent. Days is Jim Reilly's fantasy. It is Jim Reilly's opera. Now, I certainly do operatic things, too -- to me, Megan's death [on OLTL] was an opera. But that's very different from Days. I hope, on AW, that you're gonna see another kind of largeness. You'll see stories in which characters are laughing a lot more and crying a lot more. And desiring a lot more. Carl and Rachel, Felicia, Grant -- these are very big characters. But we'll still have very high romance with Jake and Vicky and Bobby. And an absolutely believable, very real marriage with Paulina and Joe, and people like Sophia and Matt who are very appealing, engaging youngsters struggling with all those yearnings and hurts that young people feel. It's all about balance. The only thing that worries me about working in this field -- as opposed to writing novels -- is that [the Powers That Be] get scared. They'll say, "We can't make such and such a character that bad," or "We can't make this character see the ghost." The only way to engage the audience is to be fearless -- to let someone be that bad, to let them see that ghost, to let them be possessed. That's the sort of boldness Days has.

OK, let's get specific. This show has a big problem with Bobby and Vicky. This couple is not working. It seems like chemistry being forced by the higher-ups -- be they at NBC or P&G. It's like they're saying, "We are putting these two fabulous, popular, gorgeous stars together and, dammit, we are gonna make the audience like it!" The magic just isn't there. Why is this pair being shoved down our throats when the sparks are really between Vicky and Jake?

That's my first challenge -- to make Bobby and Vicky work. Now, keep in mind, I just started March 17 -- my stuff isn't going to show up on-air till the middle of May. But Bobby and Vicky have been treading water. Soon they're going to start splashing and swimming for various shores.

But there ain't no chemistry!

Well, we don't know that if there ain't no story!

You really can fix this with plot?

Yes, but it won't be a lovey-dovey chemistry -- it'll be the dangerous kind.

Will Jake still be in the romantic equation?

One would never, ever throw away best friends when they're a man and a woman -- this is another gold mine.

So you will not be pursuing a Vicky/Jake romance? The crowd's screaming for this.

Well, that's good, isn't it?

Well, not if you don't deliver it!

You can safely say that Bobby, Vicky and Jake will be intimately engaged in a very dramatic way.

OK, I give up. Well, what about Paulina and Joe? It's no secret Judi Evans Luciano has had trouble losing weight after giving birth.

We're turning this into a great story for Judi. This is a deeply emotional issue for a lot of people in this country. We want to explore it very honestly.

That could be really tremendous. She's really game for this?

She seems to be.

Do you know her earlier work on the show, like when she was really cookin' with Eplin? Nothing was hotter.

Yes. That's why I'm hoping we can do this story in such a way that we can really see again what this actress can do. She's quite capable.

The weight thing has been mentioned onscreen already -- but we're talking a real story, right? Or is it some minor, B-plot type of thing?

A real story. I also want to see the Carlinos more in that working world where everything doesn't come easily. We'll also see that with the Burrells -- Etta Mae and her daughter, Toni. I'd like to bring in more of that family.

I'm told that, somewhere down the line, there will be a romantic triangle with Toni, Josie and Gary.

I hadn't thought about that. It seems like an interesting idea. I wouldn't count on it. But you can expect that problems will strike Josie and Gary. Usually when people get into the relationship or the marriage, that's when the novel or the movie ends -- they live happily ever after. But in daytime, they have to walk out of the church and get hit by a car.

Josie and Gary are, according to P&G, the No. 1 mail-getters on AW. That's so fascinating, in that they are hardly mainstream -- it's a very volcanic, highly charged, highly sexed relationship.

I see in Josie and Gary a lot of struggle, torment, ambitions and frustrations that aren't being played. I want to give them real problems.

Will you please give Linda Dano something important to do?

I certainly will. I've got a very extravagant fantasy for her. [Note: John Aprea who, as Lucas, was Dano's most successful AW love interest, will return to the show Thurs., May 1. He will play Greek shipping tycoon Achilles Nikos.]

Fans on the Internet are screaming for the return of Carmen Duncan as Iris.

I have no plans for that, but I absolutely want to bring back [some of] the McKinnons. With a real tent-pole character like Jake, we need to have a family around him. I also want more [economic] balance on AW, more minorities, more people struggling. I want to bring in more young people and put them in a reality that makes young viewers say, "Hey, I live in that world!" -- the way we did by bringing the college campus, and Todd and Marty, to Llanview.

I can really see you having a field day writing for the Marley character, but word is, Jensen doesn't want to play her.

I haven't had any thoughts about that.

You sure? It's right up your alley.

I have learned you never say never. I'm never, ever again saying that I'm not going to do something. Or that so-and-so is never coming back from the dead. Because, inevitably, it happens.

Your thoughts on Mark Pinter?

I think that he is wonderful in the torment that underlies his villainy. His passion and obsessiveness is very dramatic and I want to do more with that.

Anna Stuart?

We are going to see her in all her former, unpredictable glory and there may be a new man in her life.

Moving to the past, can we talk about Linda Gottlieb? Much has been said about your controversial -- reportedly often fiery -- partnership on OLTL. The show was at its best when you two were together, a splendid example of exec producer/head writer synchronicity no matter what the hell was going on backstage.

Out of the antagonism between me and Linda often came wonderful things. I admire her brains and her courage and her great esteem for the talent of the writer. She knows when to back off and say, "OK, do it your way."

And obviously you wanted to work with her again -- witness 13 Bourbon Street [the Fox soap created last year by Gottlieb, Malone and Josh Griffith]. First it was supposed to be a late-night show, then it was prime time, then Fox stopped talking about it altogether. What the heck happened?

What Bourbon Street was supposed to be and what it turned out to be were two different things. To me, the thrill of the show was that we were going to take the form that I love, which is the five-times-a-week storytelling of daytime, and do it at 11 o'clock at night. And because it was on Fox, we were going to be freer to take risks, experiment, push the envelope in ways the traditions of daytime don't allow. And we were going to have the enormous thrill of starting from page one. And it was going to be set in New Orleans, which, as a Southerner, was very appealing to me. Fox's commitment to the show by then-president John Matoian was marvelous. We proceeded ahead but then the regime changed. A new president came in with a whole new administration that didn't feel Fox was ready to take on that late-night slot.

So they decided to take it prime time?

Right. I was very concerned and disappointed. You can't take a show conceived to run five nights a week and turn it to a once a week show. In the first place, there are too many characters, and the stories are too interlaced to shrink it that way. We had way more secrets and connections between characters than a weekly show could hold. We had to get rid of several characters, we had to collapse several -- and when you start to do that, you start to lose story. And you get more cautious -- I mean, this soap had voodoo and ghosts in it. New Orleans always felt to me to be a perfect place for a soap opera -- very steamy, full of secrets and tangled pasts. Anyway, prime time doesn't interest me because, frankly, it's mostly formulaic. It suffers from tremendous network interference, and it's ultimately boring. And so, what happened was Bourbon Street kept changing and changing and becoming less and less like itself and then finally everybody just agreed it wasn't working.

Did you ever actually shoot anything?

Oh, yeah! The pilot. It's beautiful. Would you like to see it?

You bet! So the whole thing was cast?

Absolutely -- and all the sets built.

Good God.

Everything was in place. An entire staff -- and you know the kind of staff you need to do a five times a week show! We had Lonette McKee and John Beck as the leads, and a lot of really good young people you wouldn't know. After it died, I had some interest from prime time -- but as I said, that bores me. And movies are all about taking lunch.

So now you're back! It was always so exciting to see how you embraced this form.

Thank you for saying that.

Do you ever wish you had been around in the golden era of soaps? You know, when everything was just sort of starting, when vision was everything and As the World Turns could draw a 52 share of the audience.

Yes, I do. Absolutely. Today, there are so many frustrations brought on by panic over the loss of audience. I hear a great deal of contempt for this form from people who know nothing about it, who have no idea of the talent that's required. Musical comedy and daytime are the two great original forms. They're also about the last American machines that work. I have a great faith in the daytime viewers. They have incredible guts and patience and, if you are honest with them, they will go with you to far places. This notion that soap operas are all about hot tubs is ridiculous. Soap opera is about desires -- of all sorts. And so is War and Peace.