Days of our Lives

Harding Lemay: The Education of A Writer Into A Soap Opera Legend

Harding Lemay The Education of a Writer Into A Soap Opera LegendHarding Lemay The Education of a Writer Into A Soap Opera Legend

Harding Lemay is regarded as one of soap opera’s greatest writers, and his work on Another World in the 1970s is arguably some of daytime’s finest. Prior to his death in 2018, Lemay reminisced about his time at the soap, specifically how he learned to write in a medium that was new to him.

Harding Lemay — A Soap Opera Legend

Procter and Gamble took a risk when the company hired a novice to daytime television, Harding “Pete” Lemay, to be the headwriter of Another World. Despite having been an author and playwright with minimal television experience, he had a unique understanding of both familial relationships and emotionally-charged drama which were required for soaps.

He recalled, “I’m very lucky because I’m one of 13 children and I grew up wondering, ‘Why did my brother do that? Why did my sister do that?’ That’s probably why I became a writer. If you can find out why, you can tell the story.”

Lemay’s own sense of storytelling was tested from the start, however. “I had never watched soap operas. I had never even seen one before they asked me to watch. So when they asked me to watch, I didn’t have the slightest idea what soap operas were about. I watched Another World for a month, but I also watched five other shows because I figured I’d better figure out what this was all about. I can’t tell you how appalled I was. My wife would sit and watch me screaming, ‘What are they doing? What is this nonsense?'”

When preparing to take over the reins of the show, Harding spent some time under the tutelage of Irna Phillips, learning the processes of headwriting and how to structure a soap opera.

“They had hired Irna Phillips to coach me. She was the great queen of soap operas. She created Another World and As The World Turns and she was tutoring me. I flew to Chicago every other week. She would go over my stuff and say how terrible it was.”

Lemay felt that “Irna’s characters were either saints or sinners. They were not in-between or with an edge, and I figured that was kind of boring. So I took her saint, John Randolph, and gave him some other shades. He was very boring as a lawyer and his wife, Pat, was busy with two toddlers in the house. And he was never there to help; he would never help to better them.

“I put a wedge in their marriage because she was always nagging him and he was getting more and more upset. So he finally had an affair with his secretary who had been after him for a while. It had just gotten more and more unpleasant to go home. And Pat had good reasons for her problems, too. I tried to put some reasonable reason why a man would do that. Irna called [Procter and Gamble] and said I had just killed the show. Well, the ratings went up two points. That story went on in ambiguity pretty much for six years.”

Learning From A Legend

Despite storyline disagreements, Harding Lemay’s experience with Irna Phillips proved beneficial. “Irna taught me a lot about how to write soaps. She knew that I was a playwright. She gave me a very valuable lesson. She said, ‘Always think of it as if you’re writing three plays. When you get to the final act, the third act of the first one, you’re already in the middle of the second act of the next one and you’re beginning the first act of the third one.’ It was a very solid image for me to carry over. She always used to refer to it as something boiling on the back burner, bubbling up, coming up.

“She also taught me about structure, tags, and how to carry over from scene to scene. Irna didn’t teach me dialogue. She was terrible at writing dialogue – there are very few people who have all the aspects of being a headwriter – but I was a playwright for many years, so I knew dialogue.

“If I didn’t know anything else, I knew how to make people talk like human beings in certain situations. She did teach me structure for soaps, how to delay stuff, what she used to call bleed. Take a situation and bleed it. Explore all the aspects of it before you resolve it. They don’t do that anymore.”

Soon, he was comfortable enough to grab hold of the reins, infusing his own style and characters into the show. “Three months into my relationship with Irna – and it had nothing to do with her – I decided that I had to find out if I could do it on my own. I didn’t want to spend six months and then find out I wasn’t any good at it. We had had a big fight over something – we had fights all the time – but it was the perfect time to say, ‘Let me try it on my own.’ By then I knew what I was doing.”

Harding Lemay also received some guidance from another legendary writer, The Edge of Night’s Henry Slesar. “What Henry taught me was all practical stuff. He taught me how to organize the space in front of my typewriter so that I could know where each character was moving and which ones should follow. I could just pin up these little colored cards for the stories. He had this wonderful studio/study which was full of electronic gear. Back in those days that was pretty rare. He taught me how to organize the boards and it saved me so much time.”

Lemay learned from his actors, as well. “Connie Ford [Ada] was marvelous. Ada was a woman who didn’t find it easy to talk. She was a non-verbal woman, basically, and I came in as a playwright writing fairly long speeches. Connie cut them to ribbons and it took me about three weeks to realize that she was right. She taught me more than any of the others to write to the actor, to watch that actor.”

Lemay’s bosses weren’t always pleased with that particular lesson learned, however.  “Procter and Gamble always used to argue with me and I never listened to them about this, but I would have a character on for a long time before I really developed the character. I wanted to watch the actor. I wanted to see if he was good at the light stuff or heavy stuff and I would take four or five weeks before I would really move him into a story.

“I always watched with the script and I always made notes about the acting. Virginia Dwyer who played Mary Matthews, the matriarch, never knew her lines. She paraphrased her lines. That means that 15 words would become 50. So I wrote her off by giving her a heart attack. I got a note from Hugh Marlowe who played her husband saying, ‘God bless you.’ And then there was Beverlee McKinsey, who memorized everything, the semicolon, everything. You could write marvelous stuff for Beverlee because you knew she would memorize it. And play it. Play it to the hilt!

“We had Beverlee McKinsey who was a perfect actress, Douglass Watson who was a perfect actor, Susan Sullivan who was a very truthful actress, Irene Daily, etc. I learned a lot from actors.” And his actors were able to take Lemay’s writing to new levels. By the time Harding Lemay was firmly ensconced in Another World, the show was able to boast the finest writing and acting in daytime television.

For a deeper look at Harding Lemay’s tenure at Another World, check out his memoir, Eight Years In Another World (1981).

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