How this soap fan checked into ‘General Hospital’
by Charles Shaughnessy
“Basically, what they’re saying is that you’re just not really good-looking enough!”
Surprisingly, and no one was more surprised than me, my over-riding emotion at this moment was not one of crushing self-doubt and despair, nor one of humiliation and embarrassment. I found myself instantly suffused with a sense of righteous indignation and disbelief! Seriously?! For a guest role on an American soap opera?
About a year before that momentous phone call, I had arrived in Los Angeles, feeling a little like a mail-order-bride. I had not seen the woman I was to marry for about five months. In fact, when we saw each other at LAX when I got off the plane that had brought me to my new destiny, I had grown a full goatee and Susan had lost about 15 pounds: we literally didn’t recognize each other! To compound the romantically-challenged nature of our meeting, my proposal of marriage had been delivered not on bended knee overlooking a magnificent view of the Pacific or in a cozy corner of some ruinously expensive restaurant, but by phone on a cold, rainy London night from Liverpool Street Train Station a whole three months previously.
Susan and I had met at drama school in London where she had been a “foreign student” on the three-year acting course. I was one year her senior and had been instantly struck by this elegant, exotic, ballerina from Studio City, California. For the first few weeks of school I was her sole, albeit secret, admirer through that murky glass window. By the time I finished at The Central School of Speech and Drama, Susan and I were “an item.”
Despite being offered a job in England, Susan decided she needed to go home and try her luck back in the more familiar waters of Hollywood. For over a year we managed to juggle a long-distance relationship. Hence that rainy night phone call and the decision to start my life over in a new country.
Without an American Equity card or an agent, I was restricted to the frustrating and wildly inconsistent world of Equity Waiver Theater and showcases. I was not one of those Brits who was giving Hollywood a “whirl,” hoping to connect with a pilot or movie while keeping an open-ended return ticket in his back pocket. Susan and I were settling into a life of frugal domestic bliss, renting a small but adorable one bedroom on Los Feliz Boulevard and driving to a plethora of temporary and wildly varied jobs that paid the rent.
I sold “adult videos” on the telephone to seedy motels and X-Rated stores and spent one day as a private detective that was cut short when an interviewee turned scarily “odd” and started throwing a knife into the wooden floor beside him! Finally I landed a relatively safe and secure job mailing out fabric samples around the country from a showroom on Beverly and Robertson. A perk of this job, that later had an amusing if ironic pay-off, was that I took my lunch break each day in the TV lounge. I quickly became entranced, then hooked on the magnetic and surreal phenomenon of the American soap opera: specifically General Hospital.
Both Susan and I continued to spend our evenings acting in small theaters and eventually I managed to parlay one of these to a gig in a slightly bigger, more prestigious show, and finally a role in the U.S. premiere of a new Howard Brenton play called The Genius at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. By the time the final curtain came down, I had accumulated a life-long fascination with sub-atomic and particle physics, the support and encouragement of a wonderful casting director, Amy Lieberman, and, most importantly, representation by a legitimate agency.
A few submissions later and I was walking out of what I thought was a pretty darn good audition for a recurring guest role on General Hospital. I was thrilled at the prospect of playing Holly Scorpio’s charmingly nefarious cousin who used his vacation from the UK to fleece some of the richer more vulnerable doyennes of Port Charles. Of course I was intimately acquainted with the turbulent yet dynamically romantic Scorpios as well as all the other colorful denizens of my favorite soap.
It was in this excited and confident mood that I picked up the phone to talk to my agent the next day. The actual words were: “Not quite the ‘look’ they have in mind. Loved your reading, but they are ‘going a different way.’”
“Look?” “Different way?” This was gobbledygook to me. After cornering my agent into a more intelligible translation, I got my answer.
To this day, I am prouder of my reaction, and consequent “action” to this dismissive and potentially ego-crushing rejection than just about anything else I have ever done in my career.
I asked for the casting director’s number and called him. Marvin Paige was a legendary casting director in Daytime TV. He was also fair, patient, kind and about to become instrumental in giving my career the “blast off” it needed.
After confirming that indeed Gloria Monty (General Hospital’s equally legendary executive producer) had liked my read, he asked if there was anything I could do with the way I looked over the weekend. Twenty-four hour plastic surgery was out of the question, so I demurred, offering only that I could maybe get a tan at the beach, cut my hair and make a more “fashion forward” wardrobe choice. Marvin said, “Do what you can and come back 9:30 Monday morning.”
So, this pasty-faced, greasy haired, skinny London kid turned himself into a tanned, buff, devilishly handsome Californian Adonis overnight. Well, not exactly. But I did lie out on Temescal Beach for about six hours, careful to apply just the right mixture of SPF and tanning lotion to conjure up a deep bronze, rather than lobster-red, skin tone. I spent half a month’s rent on a Beverly Hills haircut and borrowed a pair of pants and jacket from one of my more “edgily” fashionable friends.
On Monday morning I got up early and did as many push-ups and sit-ups as I could before I passed out. I drove to the studio as fast as I dared and presented myself to Marvin. He looked me up and down and said, “I guess that’ll have to do.” Not a ringing endorsement of my metamorphosis, but there was no turning back now.
He explained that he could not “bring me in” to Gloria again as she had already said “no” but there was another way. We literally hid in his office with the door cracked until he spotted Gloria coming down the hallway. Pretending that we were in deep conversation he pushed me out of his office ahead of him.
“Well, thanks for dropping by Charles, let me know if… Oh, Gloria, good morning… ah… you remember Charles, don’t you? You saw him yesterday… you don’t need to see him again, do you?”
This was it. Time, my breath, my heart, everything seemed to skid to a halt. Gloria looked at me like a predator might size up its prey. “Well, I suppose, as he’s already here, why not? Bring him by my office in ten.”
The rest, as they say…
I played “Cousin Alistair” opposite Emma Samms and Tristan Rogers for a week on GH, amazed that I was actually working on the show that I had watched every day and playing scenes with this “super-couple” whose complicated and drama-filled lives I had been following, breathlessly, only weeks before! Now, you have to understand, we actors are really just ordinary folk (hard to believe at times, I know, but true!) and, just like other ordinary folk, I had not simply “watched” GH all those months at work, I had “lived” it.
I was a fan and every fan dreams of meeting the characters from their particular “story” because we have come to “know” them like intimate friends. So, suddenly here I was, stepping through the looking glass into Port Charles and “living” in Robert and Holly Scorpio’s house! I honestly had to work hard at reminding myself that this was an acting job and that “Holly” was actually Emma and that “Robert” was actually Tristan. Of course, by the time we had met and run through the lines, the veil had been lifted and I thoroughly enjoyed working with these two very talented and fun actors, but it was pretty surreal to begin with.
As it happened, one of the main directors of GH had recently left to become the producer on Days of Our Lives. She and Emma had remained close friends. People talk and a small role was coming up on Days that had potential to grow. I got to read for it, and in the wondrous way that Hollywood can work sometimes, I soon began a very happy eight year run on that soap. Thank you Emma, thank you Shelly Curtis and thank you Marvin Paige!
Whenever I get discouraged in this whacky, frustrating and fickle business, I think of that phone conversation with my agent and remind myself that rejection need not always be the end of the conversation; sometimes it is just an opportunity and a challenge to change their minds.