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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

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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.

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