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Suddenly Susan

After almost three decades portraying Erica Kane, Susan Lucci has—finally—won that elusive Emmy. But the actress still has other roles to conquer.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

Susan Lucci looks into the gilded mirror and fluffs her chestnut hair. The soap-opera icon repositions the spaghetti straps atop her low-cut, form-fitting, soft-pink dress and adjusts the curves of her petite figure to make the dress fit sinuously. She suddenly hears a sound behind her, and turns her large dark-brown eyes toward the door across the room. Beyond the door, an eager visitor awaits.

The still-sexy, 5-foot 3-inch Lucci glides through the bright yellow living room of her palatial home in Pine Valley, Pennsylvania, a luxurious, yet fictitious suburb of Philadelphia. On the wall, in a golden frame above her fireplace, is a full-length self-portrait, the mistress of the mansion in a shining white gown. Around her is a symphony of crystal--chandeliers and candelabras--amid an effusion of yellow and green flora. Lucci opens the door. There, facing her, is the new man in her television life, actor Vincent Irizarry.

"You look sensational," he says.

"Thank you," she responds, smiling seductively. "And you know something? I was just thinking that myself."

Susan Lucci always looks sensational. Whether she's portraying vixen Erica Kane on ABC's "All My Children," or making a series of popular television commercials for Sweet One, Wendy's or Ford, or marketing her signature collection of hair products, or having a healthy breakfast of yogurt and fresh fruit at 5 a.m., the 29-year daytime-drama veteran exudes glamour and the rarefied aura of celebrity.

Soap Opera Digest has frequently selected her as "the most beautiful woman on television," and her millions of diehard fans have long concurred. Lucci has portrayed Erica Kane since 1970, bringing to vivid life the many facets of the femme fatale audiences love to hate--the always manipulative, sometimes coquettish, often bitchy, frequently voracious, occasionally vicious yet forever fabulous soap-opera heroine. Throughout her tenure on the award-winning soap, Lucci has portrayed, among other manifestations of her character, a troubled teenager, a high-fashion model, a cosmetics tycoon and a magazine publisher. Each is a complex aspect of that magnificently tortured television creation, a character who has been married nine times to six men and is more formally known as Erica Kane Martin Brent Cudahy Chandler Montgomery Montgomery Chandler Marick Marick.

TV Guide has called Erica "unequivocally the most famous soap opera character in the history of daytime TV." She has been kidnapped, survived a plane crash, stared down a grizzly bear, become addicted to painkillers, posed as a nun, hunted down Nazis in Bolivia, been tried for murder, fought valiantly--and successfully--to keep her daughter from starving herself to death, has driven a race car and tried to rescue one of her lovers from prison, via helicopter. Recently, Erica suffered serious heart and facial injuries in a car crash. On the day that Irizarry, who portrays Dr. David Hayward, arrived on Kane's doorstep, they had recently returned from Brazil, where Erica had undergone facial reconstruction, and wound up, again, looking just like Erica Kane--or is it Susan Lucci?

"I love Erica Kane," Lucci says, relaxing after a long day's shoot. "I love playing her. I enjoyed playing her when she was a 15-year-old high school girl, the naughty girl in town, and I enjoy playing her now, when she's still the naughty girl, but she's broadened her area of operation to include the entire world. It's just one of those amazing parts that come along once in a lifetime."

For portraying the often challenging role, Lucci has won the People magazine poll as best soap actress (1985), People's Choice Award (1992), and the Soap Opera Digest Award (1993). In each of the last 19 years, she was nominated for an Emmy as best actress in a daytime drama. And, as much of the world knows, for the first 18 of those years she lost, and not always gracefully, if the tabloids are to be believed.

Once, she reportedly stormed out of the awards show in tears, another time, she was said to have pounded on a table in fury. After one painful loss, the actress Shelley Winters sent a note to Lucci saying the soap star deserved to win.

Then, on May 21, 1999, in front of a national television audience, Lucci finally won her long-awaited Emmy. Critics later said that her acting in a bedside vigil over her TV daughter's emotional and physical illness had pushed her past the competition in the Best Actress category. Whatever the reason, amid a standing ovation at Madison Square Garden in New York City, with a triumphant smile on her face, Lucci walked up to the podium and accepted her award.

"I truly never believed this would happen," she said that night, tears in her eyes.

Looking back later, she says, "It still feels wonderful. Winning is a much better experience. I always wanted to win. I never made a secret of that. It has been an exciting, very happy time for me. I'm enjoying it tremendously. People have been very warm about my having won, though they were very warm all along even when I didn't win. But this is a time for celebrating."

The honor, however, hasn't changed her attitude toward her work. "When I walk into the ABC building, I'm there to play scenes," she says. "That for me is really the fun part of what I do--working on the scenes, and then playing them. It's a very intimate form of communication. It's very revealing, very daring and very exciting."

Despite the Emmy and the glamour of celebrity, the life of a soap opera star is not an easy one. "All My Children" is taped five days a week, 51 weeks a year (Christmas week is a holiday). A minimum of five episodes are taped each week, sometimes six or seven, especially after Christmas to make up for lost time. Holidays such as Memorial Day or Labor Day are rarely times of rest; the shows must go on.

On the days Lucci is working--three, sometimes four days a week--she awakens at 4:30 or 5 in the morning in her 14-room Georgian colonial home in Garden City, Long Island, a well-to-do suburb of New York City--and the town where she grew up. She has some oatmeal, yogurt or fresh fruit, maybe even a bagel.

After breakfast, Lucci travels for an hour and 15 minutes to the "All My Children" set, which is located on West 66th Street, on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "I'm studying my lines all the way," she says. "Usually, on Sundays I read all the scripts for the week. My parts are underlined, and I'll think about the lines in a loose way, which I find very creative. I commit the lines to memory on the day of the shoot, in the car. Rehearsal begins at 7:30 a.m., with the director and the script. And then it's run to hair and makeup. Some days we try to be ready to begin taping at 9:30 a.m. Other days we rehearse on camera at 10 a.m. and start taping at 1 in the afternoon. It's all about doing the lines and getting in as much rehearsal as you can and getting physically ready."<

The day's work usually ends at about 7 p.m.--although it has been known to continue until 3 or 4 in the morning on particularly difficult or busy days. "And then I go home, and on the way home I look at another script," she says. "When I go home, that's really time to be home."

For her duties, Lucci is paid well, but, she says, not as well as some. She declines to discuss salary, and says that all published reports--one number or another in front of the word million--are incorrect. "By the standards of television I do very well," she says, "but by standards in the world I'm not paid as well as many athletes, or as well as many rookie athletes. But I still love what I do. And I do many other things, and I'm rewarded for those other things, too, so 'All My Children' is not my only source of income."

In the studio, the goal is to complete one one-hour show a day. But sometimes, to allow for vacations or time off to make prime-time television movies, it's one show, with an additional seven or eight scenes. Each scene is rehearsed once on the set, before the cameras, and then taped. A typical day will involve 25 to 30 scenes, and anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of them will involve Lucci. Between the rehearsal and the taping, Lucci will often stand on the set, script in hand, going over her lines, making sure she has them down. She says the lines to herself, looks up, closes her eyes and visualizes the words and the action. Sometimes she leaves the set and walks to a corner of the studio to practice the lines aloud. She will, after all, essentially have only one chance to get them right.

Unlike the movies, in which each scene is broken into individual shots and each shot can be redone many times, a scene in a soap opera, because of the time constraints, is usually taped in one long take--unless an actor forgets his or her lines or something goes wrong technically--with three cameras shooting from various angles.

There is, Lucci says, a lot of pressure to get things right the first time. "But a lot of it is good pressure," she says, "like the pressure you feel standing backstage in a theater waiting to go on. Because you do get the feeling the show is being done live, because the goal is one take, and the whole process is geared to that. We do a scene from beginning to end, and it can be a six-page scene or a twelve-page scene, so it's a lot like doing a play. On the other hand, it's like doing a new play every day, because there's a new script every day. So it's very much flying by the seat of your pants. But I enjoy the pace. And I enjoy working spontaneously and feeling the kind of electricity that comes with that."

Lucci has certainly provided more than her share of electricity as Erica, so much so that an observer might think the two have much in common. But with a few exceptions, Lucci and her television persona are as different as the sun and the moon. For instance, unlike Erica Kane, Lucci has been happily married to the same man, Helmut Huber, for nearly 29 years.

"Erica and I are both very ambitious," Lucci says. "We both love men, and we both love clothes. But I was very lucky to meet my husband. I met him when I was very young, and now that I'm grown I still think I made a great choice. He's a lot of wonderful things that make me very happy. But I think that probably the greatest difference between Erica and myself is that I had a great relationship with my father. He used to take me out with him after blizzards and hurricanes. He's the kind of man who would go out in the community to see if a tree had fallen down and if somebody needed help, because he really knew what to do. He would take me with him, when I was maybe seven or eight years old, and I would sit in the front seat of the car and I'd feel so proud that he took me with him.

"We used to watch bullfights on television together. He loved bullfights. I remember reading Hemingway when I was 12 or 13 years old just to find out about these men's men. My father always made me feel like I was important and that I could do anything I wanted to do. He would always tell me that. He would introduce me as the brains of the family. He made me feel very proud of myself.

"Erica had a father who left when she was nine years old and who did some terrible things. He allowed his best friend, who had a crush on Erica when she was fourteen, to be alone in a room with her, and turned his back when his friend raped her. He was a horrible monster. She has a lot of issues she has to get over that stem from that bad relationship. And I have a great relationship with my father."

Susan Lucci was born in Scarsdale, New York, a suburb of New York City, on December 23. She is reluctant to reveal her age. "I must come from a different time," she says, "because I really believe in mystery and I think that in any other profession no one would ask anybody, men or women, how old they are."

She says that all previous published reports of her year of birth are incorrect. She grew up in Garden City. Her father, Victor, was a construction contractor and her mother, Jeanette, a nurse; Lucci has an older brother, Jimmy, who is a business management consultant.

Her love of acting began at an early age. "I had a very happy childhood. My father would take me ice skating and horseback riding. We would sing together. He was a wonderful artist. He taught me to draw, to use pastels and charcoals. My parents were always in the audience for me. From the first play I was ever in--a Girl Scout play based on 'Cinderella' in which I got to play Cinderella--they've always been in the audience for me. They've always rooted for me. They've always encouraged me to dream my dreams. Even though they didn't want to part with me, they let me go to Norway when I was 16 as an exchange student. They didn't want me to be an actress, but they let me try for that, too. I know that was difficult for them, but what they did was very good. Because I was very headstrong, and I was going to do it anyway.

At Garden City High School, she was a cheerleader and an honors student, and she acted in all the plays, among them The King and I. She went on to major in drama at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York, where, she says, she was lucky because "the drama faculty was from the Yale School of Drama and the Royal Shakespeare Company of London and the Martha Graham Dance Company."

At one point, school and career collided. When she was a senior at Marymount, one of the directors with whom she had worked on campus told her he knew the owner of the Miss Universe Pageant franchise. "He asked if I would be interested in trying out for the Miss New York State part of the pageant, and even though my parents didn't want me to be an actress, they were very proud I was asked to do this and they said yes. I was one of the five who made the finals. We were supposed to do the bathing-suit competition at the Nevele Country Club in the Catskills, but it was the same weekend I had to take my four-year comprehensive exams to graduate. So at that point my father put his pride aside and told me that I needed to get my degree, forget the Nevele Country Club and the finals, and go take my exams. And that's what I did."

After graduation, Lucci went to New York City to launch her acting career. She got bit parts in a couple of movies--Goodbye, Columbus and Me, Natalie--but her first efforts were not encouraging. A casting director told her that she should forget about television because her skin was too dark. She might have had a chance, he said, if she had blue eyes.

"He told me that olive skin and dark eyes and dark hair were the wrong combination," she recalls. "But he also told me that if I wanted to make it in New York, I should give myself a year. I shouldn't take anything out of town. And that's what I did. I remember that when he was talking to me I thought, 'I will find work. I'll do it. I'll be all right.' I was very determined."

One day, in 1969, while working on an independent movie that was never released, Lucci was called for a routine meeting with a casting director for a soap opera that was scheduled to debut in six months. "Agnes Nixon, the show's creator, really wanted somebody dark to play this part. She has always been ahead of her time," Lucci says. "At the end of the meeting they told me they thought I would be very right for a part they had in mind, and they said they would call me in six months or so, when they got the project on its feet. I didn't know whether to believe them, because six months is a long time. But they did remember, and they called me in. They called hundreds of people. But I kept progressing from one reading to the next, and then to the next, and I got the part."

The part, of course, was Erica Kane, and the soap was "All My Children," which debuted on ABC on January 5, 1970. Lucci first appeared as Erica in Episode 10. (Nixon told The New York Times in 1993 that she considered Lucci "a great find." Lucci had "innocence but with a little bit of vixen. And she understood Erica's vulnerability. Through the years Susan has created Erica as much as the writers. If she left the show we would never recast the part. It would be impossible.")

Nine months after her debut as Erica, Lucci got married. She had first met Helmut Huber when she was 17 years old, and he was 29 and divorced. "I was working during the summer at the Garden City Hotel," she says, "and he was the executive chef. Right after that he became the director of food and beverages for the hotel chain. But he was there that summer, and I thought he was the smartest person in the entire hotel. I used to stand in the back of the cocktail lounge and listen to him speak German--he was born in Austria--to two German hostesses. I thought they were so worldly, so sophisticated, so attractive. And I thought Helmut was just a great, attractive older man. He thought I was a pretty little girl, but clearly I had not been around the block yet, and he had been several times. His friend told him to stay away from me, that I was too young. And he did."

That is, until a few years later. "He happened to be in the hotel the same evening my parents were giving my engagement party--I had become engaged to someone else--and my parents knew him through the hotel and they invited him to join us. He sat across from me all evening and I remember thinking that he's really very attractive, even more so now, and that I shouldn't be feeling like this if I'm engaged. I didn't know it at the time, but that evening Helmut leaned over to my mother and said, 'This thing between Susie and this boy is never going to last.' And he was right. I broke my engagement a couple of months later."

But it still took a while for she and Helmut to get together. "I started going out with a friend of his," she says. "One day Helmut and his friend were having lunch, and Helmut asked, 'What's new?" and the friend said, 'Well, did you hear about Susan Lucci? She broke her engagement.' My [future] husband excused himself from the table. He didn't know I was going out with this guy. He went to the telephone and called me. I wasn't home, so he left a message with my mother that he'd like to talk to me. When I called him, he asked me out for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. He was very decisive and funny and he made me laugh. But he came on too strong, and I was scared because I was newly free, so I told him I wouldn't go out with him anymore.

"So he went back to Europe for a couple of months. And when he came back he called me again and asked me to a black-tie dinner-dance. Now, this is going to sound so superficial--it's not the reason I married him--but when he arrived he looked so handsome. And that night he was speaking French and Italian and German with everyone. And there was a Viennese orchestra playing beautiful waltzes, and he taught me to waltz. And I thought, maybe I'll reconsider what I feel about him."

These days, Huber manages Lucci's business affairs, particularly the hair products. Lucci has a new product coming out this fall--a fragrance called Invitation, in both eau de toilette and eau de parfum variations. It will make its debut on the Home Shopping Network and on the Internet the weekend of September 26.

In addition to their Garden City home, she and Huber have a ski villa in Colorado and a 13,000-square-foot house in the Hamptons, on the eastern end of Long Island. "We built it for entertaining," she says. "By Hollywood, or even Hamptons, standards it's not enormous. It's just a nice house." They have two children, Liza Victoria, 23, and Andreas Martin, 19. "Andreas has just finished his freshman year in college," Lucci says. "Liza graduated from college with a degree in film production. She was going to be on the other side of the camera, but we encouraged her to try her hand at acting. And after a few weeks she landed a role on a new show called 'Passions,' on NBC."

Lucci and her husband enjoy traveling, and they are especially passionate about skiing. "The city I really love is Vienna," she says. "Of course, I'm with an Austrian who speaks the language and has a lot of friends there. But we also love to ski in wonderful places. One that's little known in this country is Ischgl, on the Austrian-Swiss border. The skiing is gorgeous--it feels like you're on a lemon-meringue pie. We also go to Lech in the Austrian Alps. And we go to a place outside of Salzburg called Hohe Tauern. That's great in the spring, because it's very high up and the snow comes very late."

It was in the Austrian Alps, almost two years ago, that Lucci first tasted a cigar. "I had been wanting to try a cigar for a long time," she says. "We were at a beautiful hotel, and we walked into the cocktail lounge and sat at the bar next to four men. My German is pretty good, but I'm in a dangerous place with it. But I knew the men were flirting, and they were smoking cigars, and I said to my husband that I think one of the men just offered me his cigar. I thought about taking it. Finally, I said no. But the bartender saw what was going on, and he came over with a humidor and opened it up. And because we were in Europe, all the cigars were Cuban. I could take my pick. So I took a Cohiba. And that was my first cigar."

She liked what she tasted. "It seemed a perfect choice," she says. "It felt great. It was a surprisingly wonderful experience. It was much smoother than I thought it would be. I liked it a lot."

Lucci has since, she says, become an aficionado of the atmosphere of smoking cigars. "I've always been really fascinated by men's clubs, and men's camaraderie," she says. "I love the repartee among men, and I love being around them. I like watching men smoke cigars. The aroma in the room is wonderful. Now, of course, women are smoking cigars, too, so I thought I'd try it. But I still prefer to be around a group of men and enjoy all of what they're doing. I can go to a great place like the Grand Havana Club, which is made for it, and have fun."

About 5 million people daily watch Lucci play Erica Kane on "All My Children." The program used to rank No. 1 among the daytime soaps, but these days it's No. 5 or 6, depending on the week's A.C. Nielsen numbers. The numbers, and the ratings, have gone down in recent years, as have the ratings of the other daytime dramas, because of competition for viewers from the tabloid-television talk shows, cable networks and the Internet. This past June, "Another World," a soap opera staple, was forced to end its run after 35 years and 8,891 episodes.

Another major reason for the decline in viewership was the murder trial of O. J. Simpson, a real-life television drama that for months dominated the nation's TV screens and preempted many of the afternoon soaps. Viewers, television executives say, learned to live without their daily dose of daytime drama; after the O. J. verdict, they filled their days with other activities.

And, of course, there are fewer housewives to tune in on weekday afternoons. More women work today than in the years after the Second World War, when the soap opera medium was born on television. And many of today's women are busy making deals in the boardroom.

For Lucci, this evolutionary process has its pluses and minuses. "After all," she says, "the ratings for prime-time network television are down as well. It's across the board, because of all that competition. But as an actress, it's not bad news. It just means the work is all spread out, that our horizons are broadened. And what's good news for our show is that in terms of demographics, we do very well with the 18- to 49-year-old audience, the most desirable one."

Those broadening horizons permit Lucci to consider her future as an actress. She plans to continue as Erica, she says, at least for the foreseeable future. "As long as I'm happy," she says, "I'll stay. And playing Erica has given me the opportunity to do many other things."

One of those things has to do with helping others, and plays an important role in her life. She devotes considerable time to raising funds for Little Flower Children's Services of New York, which covers Long Island and New York City, taking in abandoned children at its home in Wading River, on Long Island, and placing AIDS babies for adoption.

Lucci has appeared in a slew of television movies, such as French Silk (1994) and Blood on Her Hands (1998), once hosted "Saturday Night Live"--where she self-deprecatingly poked fun at her yearly Emmy misadventures--and guest-starred in the final season of "Dallas," playing a scheming seductress. And, of course, there are the commercials, the hair-care products and the new fragrance. There is also the new Erica Kane collectible doll from Mattel, called Champagne Lace Wedding, featuring one of Erica's series of bridal gowns.

But, she says, what she would very much like to do is act in a feature film, and perhaps star in a Broadway play. "That's always been in me," she says. "That's where my dream started. I listened to Broadway albums as a little girl. I learned all the lyrics. I acted all the parts. My heart is really there. I still think Tennessee Williams is one of the great writers for women's parts. I'd do Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tomorrow."

A reporter once asked Lucci if Erica Kane would ever become old and gray. "She may," Lucci replied. "I won't."

Yet, Lucci cautions against our youth-obsessed culture. "I think people make a mistake when they look only at youth as the judge of attractiveness," she says. "Some of the people I admire most are the women and men who have gone before me. If you ask me who my idol is, I'll tell you Sophia Loren. This woman is gorgeous, and womanly, and warm, and fabulous. I can only hope at some point to possess the qualities she has. And I think Sean Connery is spectacular. And I don't know and I don't care how old he is."

Yet, she is idealized by a legion of fans for the way she has seemed to discover a personal fountain of youth. So how has she managed to keep looking good? "I think that for everybody the gene pool plays a huge part," she says. "My mother is a beautiful woman who still looks wonderful. I've watched her take very good care of herself. She set a very good example.

"I believe we are born with certain things, and it's up to us to take care of them. And I think if you start very young, and just take care of them every day, pretty soon those days add up."

For Susan Lucci, those days have added up to international stardom and a successful family life. 
 
Mervyn Rothstein, an editor at The New York Times, is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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