The best soap opera storylines contain moments that fans remember forever. When One Life to Live killed off villain Marco Dane (Gerald Anthony) in 1978, that storyline would produce, arguably, the greatest moment that soap opera fans ever saw.
One Life to Live – Karen Wolek on the Stand
Victoria Lord Riley (Erika Slezak) was accused of murdering Marco Dane and when she found herself on trial, things were looking grim. That’s when her friend, Karen Wolek (Judith Light), took the stand to try to prove that Viki wasn’t guilty.
Karen knew a lot about Marco and had a pretty good idea who the real murderer was. But on March 7, 1979, it was Karen who was seemingly on trial for her less than honorable life.
More than 18 months of storyline – of clandestine trysts, tragic death, and angry confrontations – culminated in one sequence that would reverberate out into months of additional story. Karen Wolek, under intense scrutiny by District Attorney Herb Callison (Anthony Call), was forced to admit her life as a prostitute.
Driven by the intricate plotting of head writer Gordon Russell but powered by the heartbreaking performance of actress Judith Light, Karen Wolek’s testimony on Viki’s behalf was perhaps the single most powerful moment in soap opera history.
“We didn’t know it was going to turn out the way it did,” admitted late stage manager Ray Hoesten, who was on set the day they taped the scenes. “It was very noisy blocking and taping the dress rehearsal and people were kidding around. Then we were ready to roll tape and she took over. She started with the tears, then she started to shake, and everything just stopped. Everybody’s eyes were riveted on Judith Light. You could’ve heard a pin drop.”
At the defense table, Slezak’s Viki served as the audience’s surrogate, waiting in anticipation and dread knowing what was about to happen but helpless to stop it.
“I knew what she was about to reveal and Viki knew what she was about to reveal and was desperate for her not to have to say it,” remembered Slezak to this writer. “And I just remember the incredible connection that Judy and I made at several points. She looked at me a couple of times and I was pleading with her silently with my eyes going, ‘No, no. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.’ And she looked back at me, ‘I have to. I have to.'”
“Karen knew she could never be strong enough to stand up for herself,” Light recalled, “but she knew that she had to be strong enough to stand up for Viki.”
The audience’s and the actress’s shared memories of the events that had led to this dramatic climax enhanced the reality of the moment.
“As an actor, you look forward to the times when the performance comes through rather than you doing too much or getting your own personality in the way. That’s what happened that day,” explained Light.
“The things I was talking about [as Karen], I had actually done. I remembered the scenes, the experiences, this john and that john, and this person and that person. They were experiences that I already had in my body at a cellular level. There wasn’t anything that I was going off of that was made up. I had experienced those scenes.”
“It was such a moving scene, one of the cameramen started to cry” Hoesten remembered. “We were afraid his camera would go out of focus because he had the shot of Judith Light.”
The rest of the One Life to Live crew was also affected. “When you finish a scene and the crew likes it, they’ll applaud,” Hoesten explained. “That scene finished and everyone sat stock still. The crew, the camera guys, the courtroom, everyone sat there dead still. There was nothing to be said, nothing to be done.”
Emotionally drained, Light passed out in the witness box. “She went limp in the box and slumped down in the chair,” Hoesten recalled. “I was the first one to get to her and I think Tony Call, who played Herb Callison, jumped in and the two of us carried her out of the witness box and into the library. She was out for about 15 or 20 seconds. She was just out.”
Slezak summed it up best: “Judy is a wonderful actress, who to the credit of daytime was given a vehicle to display those extraordinary talents of hers. She was never better than that day. It was not overdone. It was not underdone. It was brilliantly worked out. The momentum built and built and built to a total peak. It was wonderful.”