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Their Fantasies Become Reality...
At Least Most of the Time!
By John Genovese
Originally Published in Afternoon TV
(April 1982)

This interview took place in Claire Labine's elegant brownstone where she and co-creator (and co-writer) Paul Mayer talked animatedly and delightfully about the past, present, and future of Ryan's Hope.

The recipients of countless Emmys and Writers' Guild Awards, Claire Labine and Paul Avila Mayer have remained "hot properties" due to the popularity of Ryan's Hope, the soap they conceived, developed, and have been writing since 1975. Now that Ryan's is no longer officially theirs (ABC now owns it), and the show is stable at age 6 ½, we decided to look in on Claire and Paul again at Claire's stately Brooklyn brownstone.

Claire and Paul's lifestyles are amazingly parallel. Both are of Irish descent, and both are happily married with three children. Claire's other half is Clem Labine, who purchased their brownstone in 1967 and has flourished by refurbishing other such Brooklyn sites which had previously neared decay. They are the parents of Matthew (a Yale graduate), Eleanor (graduating Yale) and John (attending Putney School in Vermont). Paul is married to actress Sasha von Scherler and lives in Manhattan, their offspring being Rachel (at Benoit University), Ruth (attending Cornell), and Daisy (in high school).

We asked if Claire and Paul labor together in Claire's quarters. "We work here," Paul confirmed, then added, "we work on the telephone, we work in the car . . . we work all the time." When together, they shoot various lines of dialogue at one another as they have done for close to ten years, although Claire remarked that "some of them are more pungent than they used to be."

They met as subwriters on Where the Heart Is, a short-lived CBS serial of the early 1970's, which featured James Mitchell (Palmer Cortlandt, All My Children) as Julian Hathaway, a reserved professor who was constantly in search of his lost youth, and Louise Shaffer (Rae Woodard, Ryan's Hope) as his younger sister Allison, who was spicy and full of audacity. The sophisticated, often funny storylines involved an ambitious doctor who saw his wife behind his pregnant mistress's back, an estranged wife who returned from the loony bin and sacked out in hubby's spare room while he shared his bed with his fiancee, and a guy who impregnated his daughter-in-law while his son and second wife had the hots for each other. this flippant, satirical tone was balanced by multi-faceted characterizations accented in long, descriptive monologues, and this balance put Claire and Paul on the map despite the cancellation of Heart.

When they learned of Heart's imminent death, Claire and Paul agreed to move over to Love of Life, another CBS-owned serial which Claire had watched and loved during the sixties. At the same time, however, "ABC asked us if we'd like to develop a soap called City Hospital," Claire explained. "I said, 'Not very much, thank you. Let us go away and think about it.' We came back and said, 'Would you be interested in a soap about an American-Irish family that owns a bar across the street from a hospital?" Since they had briefly written a sequence set in an Irish bar called The Red Hand on Where the Heart Is, that motif was fresh in Claire and Paul's minds.

"They more or less agreed to have us develop that," Paul went on. "They wanted us to call it..." Here he donned a 1950's announcer's voice. "A Rage to Love!" After fighting hard, Claire and Paul were permitted to use their title, Ryan's Hope.

Claire and Paul are accustomed to fighting for what they believe in, which at times means controversial stories. The day after they signed the ABC development deal, Claire and Paul effected their Love of Life contract and turned what had been an anemic old warhorse into a sparkling, briskly-paced serial. They were responsible for resurrecting heroine Vanessa's (Audrey Peters) sister Meg (Tudi Wiggins), and brought in then-inexperienced Christopher Reeve (now known as Superman) as Meg's son Ben, who was - of all things - a bigamist.

"CBS resisted that story," Claire said.

"It got to the point where we told them, 'either do the story or fire us,'" Paul explained.

"When they finally let us do it," Claire said, "it was all they played up for about three years after we left!"

During Claire and Paul's stint on Love of Life, ABC agreed to pick up Ryan's Hope, causing Claire and Paul to labor long and hard on both projects at once. Their last week on Love of Life copped a walloping 39 percent ratings share (what General Hospital has now), a number Love of Life probably never saw again (It was cancelled in 1980). They then plunged headlong into Ryan's, even though they were convinced it was just a temporary moment of glory.

"We had thought for sure that this was never going on the air, but we were having a wonderful time working on it. Then when they put it on the air, we were so stunned and so excited," Claire related. "And we said, 'well, we'd better enjoy it, because it's not going to be on the air that long!'"

They credit Michael Brockman of ABC for giving them free rein with their creation, and Claire and Paul took full advantage of that freedom. "We were then, as always, very opinionated," Paul said. "We made a resolution that if we were to go off the air, it would go off because the people didn't like what we did, rather than what somebody else told us to do. It was a great period because we were able to cast eighteen people without the network saying any more than, 'we're glad you have your cast.' It was our fantasy and our sandpile, and we were able to invest totally in it."

Ryan's Hope first aired on July 7, 1975. At that time, Claire and Paul were doing vigorous rewrites in order to keep Frank Ryan, who was originally scheduled to die during the first month.

Claire and Paul loudly bemoan the loss of Daniel Hugh-Kelly, who was the "quitessential Frank Ryan." Show mainstay Earl Hindman (Bob Reid) stays on!

"We wanted to start the show with the death of the oldest sibling," Paul said. "The network said that we had to show why Frank was so important. So we had everybody thinking back to their idealized memories of Frank, like when he named his first-born after his father. Then the network said, 'you can't kill Frank Ryan. He's so wonderful!'"

Another "flashback" to Frank was born out of scenic designer Sy Tomashoff's realistic, pain-staking sets. "Sy is a genius," Claire affirmed, "and the world doesn't understand that. We've always been especially fond of the Ryan's kitchen."

"The day we first walked on that set," Paul explained, "we saw that Sy had put grease all along the top, plus some wonderful red flowered linoleum."

"So we laid out a show built around the linoleum!" Claire enthused. "It had three scenes for Maeve when Frank was dying. It was the day Frank had gotten in to law school and got drunk on his way home. He came in singing with his arms draped around this great roll of linoleum, which he presented to Maeve who realized he was drunk out of his mind. After she had the flashback, she then went over and played a scene by his bedside that was not to be believed. It was so good that Helen Gallagher submitted those scenes for her Emmy." Helen won that Emmy, and Claire insists that "it was all because of Sy's linoleum!"

Paul said that Sy was the perfect designer for Ryan's Hope because "we wanted to do rooms that were rich in character, and that no one could mistake for any other show. We had written one soap where we had four married couples in four living rooms, and you could almost put any couple in any living room because there was no character to any of the rooms."

Claire said that the RH studio is so small that "it's impossible to design for. the producer recently put a floor plan of our studio inside the floor plan of General Hospital's, and it occupied only one fifth the space! We roared!"

Ryan's grew very popular in a relatively short time, due to several people - among them, the irreplaceable Kate Mulgrew as spunky Mary Ryan. As luck would have it, Kate (who is still Claire and Paul's good friend and has a startling resemblance to Claire) left for bigger horizons. Again, Claire and Paul's dream of a powerful Ryan family death was not to be.

"We begged ABC - we implored them - to let us kill Mary before Katie left!" Claire said. "That would have been the void in Maeve's life, and it would have left that family with a sense of loss forever. But ABC was scared and wouldn't let us do it." Instead came such a parade of replacement actresses that by the time the character finally expired, the audience couldn't feel the loss as strongly as they would have with Ms. Mulgrew.

The character which Claire and Paul consider "one of the great delights of life" is scatter-brained, dumb-like-a-fox Delia. "We thought it was going to be impossible to replace Ilene Kristen (the original Delia) but Randall (Edwards) is so wonderful. Delia could put Little John in an oven and one part of the audience would say, 'poor Delia, she just had to cook Little John.' The other faction would say, 'that bitch! She cooked her baby!'" Claire loves characters with a variety of conflicting, and often unsympathetic traits, reminding us that "Jack treated Mary horribly. And Seneca, when he came on, was a real son of a bitch!"

Speaking of Delia, we brought up the most controversial and panned story of Claire and Paul's careers - Delia's "King Kongish" encounter with Prince Albert, a gorilla. Why "monkey" with an otherwise reality-based show?

Claire and Paul

Claire was vehement at this question. "I make no apologies for that story at all. We thought it would be fun. It was not a story about a gorilla. It was a story about alienation, about Delia's alienation from everyone, and finding a link with this beast. We were thinking of Cocteau's 'Beauty and the Beast.'"

Paul seemed less enthusiastic. "Somehow we didn't write it right," he said.

"We could have," Claire said, "but once we got into it, they couldn't do it. They cast someone who was physiologically not built like a gorilla. He had six-feet-long legs!"

"There was a lot of static from the network," Paul recalled.

"But the static was because of what they went through to produce it," Claire reminded. "Randall was wonderful about it, but the rest of the cast hated it because they had to hang around until 10:00 every night. Finally we just threw up our hands and said, 'we're sorry we did this to you.' It was an experiment that was not totally a success."

Both insist that they "love, esteem, and revere actors." Claire explained that "good actors are the most wonderful things on the face of the earth to a writer. It wounds us terribly when the wrong person is in the part, or when the wrong person is in the company. We find that really good actors, when treated well, are also the most wonderful people to work with. Temperament comes out of someone who is either unhappy for a specific reason, in which case you have to find out why, or else they're not a very good actor and not a very good person."

Paul stressed in regard to actors that "if we don't make the commitment, we can't expect them to make the commitment."

Claire and Paul's situation on Ryan's Hope is different from what it was at the show's inception. Back then, they were not only head writers - they were the owners and executive producers. As of November 3, 1980, however, ABC purchased the show from Claire and Paul, who now have to compromise with the network in all areas of the show.

"It's like World War I," Paul said. "One army pushes forward, the other army retreats. If we can hold the ground we've got, we've got a nifty story for about the next year." This is the new Jane Ryan (Maureen Garrett) plot, which has its creators in ecstasy. Claire explained the nature of the story.

"It's going to be one of the best stories we've ever done in terms of involving everybody. It's an adventure story balanced with a romantic comedy, which is what we do best. We're more enthusiastic about the show than we have been in probably three years." They also revealed that the Seneca-Barbara Wilde story, which is a "soap within a soap" a la the film, The French Lieutenant's Woman, is a set-up for the Jane story. They added that even though they see this storyline as viable for a year, they never project storylines for any more than three months at a stretch because of changes which are constantly dictated by the network.

Kim (Kelli Maroney) and Michael (Michael Corbett) were written out "because they didn't feed our fantasies anymore," according to both Claire and Paul.

We then asked why the popular Michael Corbett and Kelli Maroney were written out as Michael and Kim.

"Michael and Kim were not feeding our fantasies," Claire explained. "We didn't know what to do with them. And if we were going to write them ,we couldn't write something we really wanted to write which had us giggling with delight, and that's this new story.

But surely, if Ryan's were to go to a full hour, Claire and Paul would not have to make such sacrifices. Wouldn't the longer form be better suited to them?

"Never," Claire said. "We have an agreement to do it, but I have said all along that I can't do it. I can't write a half hour! At one point in time the network got me in a weak moment and I said yes." But the show can only expand "if we had a studio around. But there isn't, and it would take a year to build one. We have two years left in our contract, and I haven't heard a murmur about an hour yet. So I think we're safe. I think an hour would ruin our show as we know it. We can't write more than three stories at a time, and we like it best when it's two and a half."

In listening to Claire and Paul's look back on six years of Ryan's Hope and trading Irish folk stories in Claire's dining room, which has a striking combination of their own Coleridge brownstone set and a Life with Father backdrop, we concluded that Claire and Paul have brought much of themselves and their own colorful backgrounds to their show, which is one of the most unique of television products.

"It's a combination of your real life and your fantasy life," Paul agreed in regard to a writer's special relationship with a daytime serial.

Claire summed it up by saying that the Ryans are an embodiment of her and Paul's joint fantasy - a big, sprawling, caring family. "There's such a satisfaction in writing that family. I had been an only child, and Paul had a half-sister, and both of us had always wanted brothers and sisters we could depend upon." To Claire, family unity has been "the single most successful emotional thread through the show, with Maeve's concentration on the children and Johnny's solidarity. And I don't care what we're writing - whether its gorillas or Mafia or anything else. I think that is the basic reason why people watch Ryan's Hope.

Well, partly. The other two reasons are Claire Labine and Paul Avila Mayer. And they have enough awards - not to mention viewers - to prove it.

1982 Afternoon TV

Courtsey of Wanda

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