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Richard Grayson

Seven Men Who Made Me Happy

Michael Argyle, a psychologist at Oxford University, has found some common threads [to happiness]. Money, he says, makes little difference to happiness, except for people who are very poor. People on the job are happiest when they have good relationships with co-workers and when part of their day is spent "wasting time, fooling around, and sharing gossip and jokes," he said. And for some reason, watching soap operas on television makes people happy ("I think they've got imaginary friends there," he said.)

– "Looking for Happiness? It May Be Very Near; When the Heart Sings, Part of the Cortex Gets Busy" by Pam Belluck, The New York Times, July 24, 1999


Wallingford on Another World (Brent Collins)

Another World was my all-time favorite daytime drama. My best friend Eugene and I would race home from junior high to catch the last fifteen minutes of the show, which was then shot live at the NBC studios not far from our neighborhood in Brooklyn. When Nina and I watched the final episode in her house on Long Island on June 25, 1999, her husband Tony couldn’t understand we were saying goodbye to people we had loved for years. There were many characters in Bay City that I could tell you stories about, but the one that provided me with the most joy appeared for less than four years, starting in 1984.

Wallingford couldn’t have been more than four feet tall, and he started out as a minor character, a somewhat shady figure. With his tiny misshapen body and head, he projected a confidence and a good sense of humor. I was staying with Nina on West 85th Street in those years, sleeping on her living room floor on a futon I’d drag out from the closet every night. We taped the shows and would watch it as we sat on her bed, eating cold sesame noodles from Szechuan Broadway or vanilla Haagen-Dazs from the container.

Wallingford was a loyal friend to the glamorous Felicia Gallant, romance novelist and owner of the elegant Tops Restaurant, and her pal, playboy lawyer Cass Winthrop. The three of them got involved in all sorts of capers, like the time they had to dress up as nuns or when to pay off a gambling debt, they had to turn the mobster Tony the Tuna’s vulgar teenage niece into a classy debutante.

Brent Collins, who played Wallingford, died suddenly of a heart attack in real life. A few weeks later on Another World, Cass went up to the room in the boarding house where Wallingford lived and discovered that he’d died of a heart attack too. Even the rich people in town who barely knew Wallingford – it was never clear if that was his first or last name – came to his memorial service, and they played clips of his funniest moments. Sometimes I used to think that Nina and I had a friendship like the one Wallingford and Felicia had, but we were never so witty and we never had to sneak into some nasty rich woman’s estate to plant evidence that would make her appear to be a dangerous criminal.


Billy Douglas on One Life to Live (Ryan Phillippe)

Living in Gainesville, Florida, in the summer of 1992, I had just finished my first year of law school and I was so poor that I ate horrible Budget Gourmet frozen entrees every night for dinner. It was the first summer I couldn’t afford to go to New York, and all my classmates were a lot younger than I was, and I didn’t really have any friends.

Without cable, I couldn’t get the NBC or CBS stations from Jacksonville and I missed old favorites like Another World and As the World Turns. One afternoon I turned on ABC’s One Life to Live and was startled to hear a blond teenage boy tell his minister about an affair he’d had with another boy the previous summer.

Ryan Phillippe played Billy Douglas in a storyline about homophobia. People in Llanview apparently had never dealt with a gay teenage boy, and a jealous girl accused him and Rev. Carpenter of messing around. Billy’s father hated him for being gay, but somehow Billy managed to get through a gay-bashing, a suicide attempt, and other traumas. His best friend Joey and Joey’s girlfriend stuck by him, as did the minister.

I’ll never forget the scene when Mr. Douglas was about to slap Billy across the face when crusty General Carpenter grabbed Mr. Douglas’s hand to stop him. Years before General Carpenter had rejected his own son, who died of AIDS, but seeing what was happening to Billy made him call up his dead son’s boyfriend and invite him to town.

Billy’s mother divorced Mr. Douglas, who then left town. I would have hated him for being so homophobic, but years before Nina and I had seen the actor playing him in As Is, the first Broadway play about AIDS, in the role of a dying gay man.

Billy never had an onscreen boyfriend, and eventually his storyline petered out to his being the loyal friend of several people in town, including the girl who had once made up the rumors about him and the minister.

By the fall of 1992, I was back taking classes. I had student loans, a scholarship, and two part-time jobs. Thanks to Billy Douglas, I had gotten through that summer.


Bruce Sterling on Love of Life (Ron Tomme)

When I started Brooklyn College in the fall of 1969 after spending nearly a year in the house due to agoraphobia, my classes all began after 2 p.m. I’d wake up around 10:30 a.m., do my homework, and then at 11:30 a.m. Love of Life would come on CBS. Ron Tomme played Bruce Sterling. Years later Michael Dukakis would remind me of Bruce Sterling: that same small-framed, dark-haired, mild-mannered style.

Bruce was far from being the most interesting character in the upstate New York town where Love of Life was set. When I started watching the show, Bruce was in his mid-forties, married to Vanessa, the father of two adult children by his dead first wife. What was really interesting about Bruce was that he was such a cipher that the writers kept trying to make him interesting by having him change careers often, going from being a history teacher to an executive at his father-in-law’s lumber company to a newspaper editor to the headmaster of a private school to dean of admissions and the acting president at a state university to the town’s mayor.

He and Vanessa got divorced when her first husband turned up, not dead after all, and he married a not-so-nice Australian woman. Mobsters pissed off by his anti-crime crusading ran him down with a car, and he was in a wheelchair for a while.

Bruce wasn’t a cheerful person, and he didn’t seem all that friendly, and he was kind of distant with his grown kids. But you could tell he was decent, and he clearly could adapt to new situations. Years after Love of Life was canceled and replaced with a sexier, more glamorous soap, I remembered Bruce Sterling as I went from being a community college English teacher to a computer software trainer to a lawyer.


Dr. Miles Cavanaugh on The Edge of Night (Joel Crothers)

Nina’s friend Barbara, our neighbor at 350 West 85th Street, knew the actor Joel Crothers, who played Miles Cavanaugh on The Edge of Night from 1977 to its last show in 1984. Miles first appeared as the doctor of Nicole Drake, a pregnant grieving widow.

Miles was married to Denise, one of the most evil characters I can remember from daytime TV – and I’ve seen a lot of villains. Denise, played by the delicious Holland Taylor, suspected that Miles – a handsome younger man with a dark mustache – harbored strong feelings for his patient Nicole, and Denise plotted to destroy them both.

After many schemes failed, Denise finally decided to pretend to come down with an incurable disease to keep Miles married to her. She persuaded her father, Gus, a rich doctor who bankrolled Miles’ clinic, to fake the test results that would show she had this horrible rare condition that would kill her.

In an incredible irony, it turned out that Denise actually did have this very disease and was dying, and when she found out, she figured she could commit suicide and frame Miles for her death, so he’d get the electric chair. But somehow Miles’ sister April got sent to prison instead. Eventually Gus confessed that he’d killed his daughter to end her suffering.

Miles did marry Nicole, but a few years later she died bizarrely, from poisoned makeup. Miles became a special forensics consultant for the Monticello Police Department although he mostly ended up being falsely accused of various crimes: the attempted rape of a patient, the bludgeoning of a nurse, and the strangling of his friend Nora.

Miles struggled with alcoholism, and after being drugged by Nola Madison, he suffered from hallucinations and schizophrenic symptoms for a few months. But he always managed to come back looking as debonair as ever.

The Edge of Night ended the last week of December 1984, when I was living at Nina’s and just about to return to Florida to start graduate school in computer education. Just at the end Miles marries psychiatrist Beth Carruthers, and on the last show they are in bed together. Beth says, "This is going to last forever," and Miles says, "Yes, it is," as they go to the final commercial.

The next November, I was back at Nina’s apartment when Barbara called to tell us that Joel Carothers had died of AIDS. A lot of men we knew were dying in those years, like our other neighbor and friend Chris Bernau, who played the villainous Alan Spaulding on The Guiding Light, a show I never watched.


Grandpa Hughes on As the World Turns (Santos Ortega)

As I a kid, I was sick a lot, and when I stayed home from school, I would watch this classic old-fashioned soap whose signature scene was two people having coffee in the kitchen and discussing family problems. It was one such scene between Grandpa Hughes and his daughter-in-law Nancy, herself the grandmother of a teenager, that was interrupted that Friday in November when I stayed home from eighth grade with a mild cold.

One minute Grandpa was reassuring Nancy that everything was going to turn out all right and the next Walter Cronkite in his shirtsleeves was telling us that President Kennedy had been shot.

Grandpa, an unsophisticated good-hearted farmer played by Santos Ortega since the show had been on radio, was on the show till I was 25. He even got married again, to his neighbor Mrs. Konicki.

I remember him most fondly comforting a small crying boy, the illegitimate half-brother of his great-grandson. My own great-grandfather was a mean-spirited millionaire who never liked me, and I was glad when he died. When Grandpa Hughes passed away, I felt a lot worse.


Blackie Parrish on General Hospital (John Stamos)

I never was able to get into General Hospital until the summer of 1982, when I was living in Florida and worked in the mornings and evenings. I was having an affair with John, who’d just graduated from high school and loved the show. He’d come over to my rented condo in Sunrise Golf Village around 1 p.m. every weekday and we’d stay in the king-sized bed for hours.

At 3 p.m. he always wanted to watch General Hospital. "Do I have a choice?" I’d say, totally in love with him, and he’d reply, "Yes, we can watch it on channel 10 or channel 12, whichever you want." John was referring to the Miami and West Palm Beach ABC affiliates.

While developing a waterfront sports center, Dr. Rick Webber (portrayed by the actor famous for his "I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV" commercial) befriended Blackie Parrish, a street-smart ex-gang member played by John Stamos, and eventually Rick and his wife Leslie adopted him.

Blackie was cool, with his shaggy black hair, and like John, he looked good in his boxers. He wasn’t as tough as he appeared, and he charmed the Port Arthur kids and old folks alike. He even got the morose Luke Spencer, who then thought his love Laura was dead, to laugh when Blackie would tell him tall stories.

The weird storylines about nefarious plots by villains intent on world domination were ludicrous to me, but soaps had changed, and John was mesmerized by these stories. I’d tease him about it and he teased me about liking old-fashioned shows like his mother did. Although I was 30 and John was 17, his mom was older than mine. My mother never watched a soap opera in her life, and neither did her mother.

When John went away to college that fall, I kept watching General Hospital for a couple of years, till I moved back to New York. Blackie reminded me of John although Blackie was an aspiring rock musician and John wanted to be a chemical engineer.

As stardom beckoned, Blackie started to ignore his family, friends and his girlfriend Lou, a foul-mouthed runaway he’d turned into a lovely young woman. Eventually Lou found evidence that Blackie was stealing songs from his bandmate Frisco Jones and showed him the tape that was the proof of his theft of intellectual property. They struggled for the tape, and in a freak accident, Lou hit her head on the furniture and died.

Blackie felt so guilty and realized what a creep he had become that although he could have defended himself, he took the blame and was sent to jail for involuntary manslaughter. It was clear that John Stamos was becoming too big a star and was heading for primetime.

By then it was two years later, the summer of 1984, and I lost contact with my John. Nina asked me to apartment-sit for her in Manhattan while she was in Europe for a month and I ended up staying on West 85 Street off and on for six years. In New York I never watched General Hospital once.


Dr. Nick Bellini on The Doctors (Gerald Gordon)

When I began watching The Doctors, I was a disturbed teen coping with panic attacks that made every day at school a horrible ordeal.

Nick Bellini, one of the few Italian-American soap characters, was a hotheaded neurosurgeon who was always doing something unorthodox. Despite his tenderness toward his longtime lover, Dr. Althea Gibson, Nick was brusque, temperamental, and he had no patience for red tape. His friend Dr. Matt Powers, the chief of staff, sometimes dressed him down but Matt knew that Nick was invaluable and he always let him get away with things.

There were a lot of surgery scenes at the beginning, but eventually Nick got obsessed with work in his laboratory, where he had a loyal young woman as his assistant. Contrary to all known medical wisdom, Nick believed that schizophrenia was not caused by bad parents or a weird upbringing but by a problem in people’s brains. Everyone thought Nick was crazy, but Matt let him go on with his experiments because when needed in emergency brain surgery, there was no doctor better than Nick.

I started seeing a psychiatrist for my panic attacks around the time Nick came on the show. My doctor was an elderly Freudian and basically let me talk. Sometimes he’d fall asleep on me and I was too embarrassed to say anything. Supposedly we were going to get to the root of my problems, some event in my childhood or the way I was brought up by Mom and Dad that would explain why several times a day I’d get incredibly nauseous and start to shake and my heart would pound and I would feel an impending sense of doom and that I needed to get out of that classroom or subway car or movie theater as soon as possible or I’d explode.

I never did learn anything that made me better. I talked about my homosexual feelings, about my mother’s over-protectiveness, about my father’s coldness, about my toilet training or what I could remember about it, but the anxiety just kept getting worse and worse till it got to the point, after I managed to graduate high school, where I couldn’t leave the house at all.

By the winter of 1969, it was hard for me even to leave my little bedroom, where I’d get five or six bad panic attacks a day. I stopped sleeping. Finally one day I couldn’t stop shaking and didn’t believe I could make it through the half-hour between 1:30 and 2:00 p.m. despite the calming presence of As the World Turns. Mom called Dr. Lippman and demanded that he prescribe some medicine. He was reluctant, but Mom insisted, and that night I got started on an antidepressant.

Six weeks later I started going out and wandering further every day till by summer I was taking the subway to Manhattan to hang out in the Village, going to plays, starting college, making friends, working in political campaigns, staying out late. The panic attacks lessened and gradually faded away. It was the medicine. Nick Bellini had been right.

The problem had all been in my brain.

Although my social life got a lot better in college, I still liked to look in and see what Nick was doing on The Doctors. He got calmer and less volatile as he got older, and eventually he became a mentor to younger hotheaded doctors like his nephew Dr. Rico Bellini. When I was 25 and teaching college English and starting to publish my stories in little magazines, Nick was written off the show. I owed him a lot of happy afternoons.

Richard Grayson is the author of nine books of fiction, including The Silicon Valley Diet and With Hitler in New York.  His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Arizona Republic, the Miami Herald and the San Jose Mercury News.  He lives in Florida, where he is a law school administrator and candidate for Congress.

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