She was dubbed the leading lady of daytime television while portraying the narcissistic, engaging, high-strung, ambitious Erica Kane on the storied soap opera "All My Children." Actress Susan Lucci began playing Erica in 1970 and continued until the show was canceled after 41 years in 2011. She seems to gravitate toward longevity, having been married to Helmut Huber for 33 years. They have two children.
After being nominated 18 times for a Daytime Emmy for best actress, she finally won on the 19th try in 1999. She also took over for Bernadette Peters in the Broadway hit musical "Annie get Your Gun" to rave reviews. She is currently hosting "Deadly Affairs" on Investigation Discovery Channel. The new series about real-life soap operas, which premieres Saturday at 10 p.m., explores spouses who make fatal mistakes outside the marriage vows. You can see her in a 10-minute first look today at 1 p.m.
As a woman who has been married for more than three decades, do you have any idea how you would react if you found your husband was having an affair?
[Laughing] It would be a really big deal, and I would feel really terrible and all of that, but I think I would opt to walk away. Divorce is always an option. A lot of carrying on might be an option, but I don't think I'd pull out a pistol [laughing].
You played Erica Kane for 41 years. Was it difficult to protect your privacy?
Sometimes it was more difficult than others. I mean, I certainly set out to protect my children's privacy, to allow them to grow up in a most normal way possible without a spotlight on them. Then when they get to be adults, they could choose what they would like to do. Sometimes it was unavoidable. I was in people's living rooms five days a week. I can tell you people were so lovely and so positive. It made me happy to know that they were watching, and they were entertained.
When your children were little, did they ever see you playing Erica Kane?
Not that often. It was on at 1 o'clock in the afternoon and they were in school ,and before they were in school they were playing or taking naps. I do remember one time when my daughter was about 4. It was a summer day. She tossed her little hair, and she had just a little bit of hair, and she tossed it like I would as Erica, and she said, "Mommy how do you act like Erica?" I thought that was great that she asked me that question because it meant I wasn't acting like Erica at home.
Did you ever have to suppress the Erica personality from rising up when you were off the set?
[Laughing] Well, I think there's a little bit of Erica in everybody. I think you try to suppress those things as best you can. When I played her I actually got to have an outlet for that. It's just a matter of trying to seek the balance, and some days you get luckier than others.
Because you had to learn so many scripts each week, how long did it take you to memorize a script?
It depended, because the truth is in the last five years we were doing more than one show a day. Sometimes I would be doing two full shows and another half show and at the very end I was playing two characters doing that. When there was more material and I was a very busy character as Erica, I had a lot of scenes all the time. Basically, when we were in New York I had about an hour- or an hour-and-20-minute commute in the morning. I would read for the weekend. I would set aside a number of hours so when it came time to memorize I wasn't looking at a script cold. During that commute, I would sit in the car and study my lines, basically. I would eat lunch with my script because I didn't want to miss anything. Her character was so rich and nuanced. I just lived with the script [laughing], so the material would become second nature to me.
I would guess the character just became second nature to you, too.
Yes, and yet what was a blessing was that, unlike a long run in a Broadway show, which has its own challenges, what I loved about playing Erica is that there was time to develop all the nuance. Every day was a fresh script and a fresh set of other characters to bounce off. I got to play such a range, you know, both drama and comedy. That really made me so happy as an actress.
Speaking of Broadway, is it true Marvin Hamlisch gave you the confidence to do "Annie Get Your Gun"?
Absolutely, and I am glad you brought up Marvin. We were unfortunately at his funeral and we visited with Terri, his wife, the day before. Marvin Hamlish was so generous to me. He wrote a signature song for me after I had been on Broadway and was going to do my nightclub act. Actually, the first time I worked with Marvin was in Pittsburgh at Heinz Hall. I mean, this was just incredible. I had met Marvin and Terri on Long Island on Sag Harbour at a benefit for the theater. ... He called me several months later and asked if I would like to appear with him in Pittsburgh for the Pittsburgh Pops. Then I worked with him again in New York.
When the producers asked me if I wanted to play Annie Oakley on Broadway, I was thrilled. Marvin said, "Why don't you come and sing for me first?" I wanted to know that I could do it well. It wasn't enough to want to do it.
Marvin had just gotten off a plane from Scotland, and he said, "Come to my apartment and sing for me. Why don't you sing through some of the music."
So I did. He said, "You can do this. You can do this if you want to."
He had me work with his colleague for 10 days and come back to him and sing again. Marvin said, "You are very brave. Tall you're not" [laughing]. He was so funny.
That's great. Sometimes all it takes is someone you respect believing in you.
Exactly. Then when Regis [Philbin] asked me to put together a nightclub act, Marvin called and said he'd like to write a signature song for me. That was another pinch-me, are-you-kidding moment. So I have a song that he wrote for me.
Did losing the Emmy all those years in a row ever impact your self-esteem?
It didn't, you know? I don't know how other shows worked because "All My Children" was the only show I was on, but we were all so busy every day from year to year there was no talk of Emmy. There was only talk of running lines and if the scene worked and on to the next. It really was an ensemble of wonderful actors. I knew at the end of the day that the people I worked with and for were happy with my work. The people I respected respected me. The audience response was enormous for me all the way through, which means the world to me. For myself, as an actor, I always feel that I have more to learn and more to grow. So if I didn't win, let me go back and see if I can do better.
Would you call yourself a workaholic or a perfectionist or both?
A perfectionist, not a workaholic. You might think so because I do do a lot of work. I have a big capacity for work, and I love what I do. I also want to be home, and I want to be with my family and my friends. I'm looking for the balance always. But I need to do what I do. I mean, it is how I played as a little girl. I would make up stories and act out the parts and learn the lyrics to Broadway cast albums and get all the kids on the block to do plays. It's just who I am. I am a perfectionist. I'm trying always not to be because it can get in the way.
Do you ever think, "What would Erica do?"
Hah, it's funny. Sometimes people will say something to me, and I will answer them as Erica and I know I am and they get it, too. I am not conscious of saying, "What would Erica do in this situation?" I will tell you, and this is going to sound so crazy, but the first time I had anything close to what you're asking me was on the ski slopes.
My husband grew up in Austria. He used to ski to school. He doesn't remember when he learned to ski -- It was just part of life.
I came to it later. I didn't learn to ski until I was in my early 20s. I was a little scared. I grew up on the flats of Long Island. I remember skiing down a mountain and being scared and talking to myself saying, "You know you can do this. You created Erica Kane along with Agnes Nixon. You can do this!" It gave me confidence in that way.