SOAP was a situation comedy that was an unabashed send-up of daytime dramas. It was a comedy that used a serial format.
The show starred Katherine Helmond (later of Who's the Boss?) and Cathryn Damon (later of Webster) as two sisters who were the matriarchs of an extended family, who were considered to be completely crazy.
The series was created by Susan Harris (The Golden Girls; Benson; Empty Nest; Nurses) and was produced by Paul Junger Witt (whom Susan Harris would marry) and Tony Thomas through their production company, Witt-Thomas-Harris Productions. The series aired on the ABC Television Network from 1977-1981.
The series was slated to take the previous attempt at sending up soap opera conventions, Norman Lear's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, one step further.
When it first premiered, it was criticized by many various groups, both secular and religious, (including two LGBT groups that were worried about the gay characters being played in stereotype) and some stations (mostly in the south) either played it late at night or refused to air it at all.
However, when it went into repeats, it was shown and discovered and it was revealed to be very well written and well acted. The show took the various soap opera staples and made them funny without being disrespectful.
The show's announcer was originally slated to be the late Casey Kasem (American Top 40; as well as the voice of Shaggy Rogers of Scooby Doo fame); but after he objected to the content of the show, he was replaced by a then-unknown Rod Roddy, who would later gain fame as the second announcer (after Johnny Olson) of the long-running CBS game show, The Price is Right.
At the beginning recap every week, Roddy would always ask (or used a variation of same), "Confused? You won't be, after you watch this week's episode of......Soap."
Four soap opera veterans played major roles on the series, Robert Mandan, who had played Sam Reynolds, a beau of Joanne Barron on the show, Search for Tomorrow; Arthur Peterson, Jr., who had played Rev. John Ruthledge on the radio version of Guiding Light; Caroline McWilliams, who had played Janet Mason Norris on Guiding Light in the early 1970s; and Donnelly Rhodes, who had played the role of Katherine Chancellor's husband, Phillip, on the series, The Young and the Restless. During the first season, creator, Susan Harris would have a bit role as Babette, a prostitute who seemed to know every man in town.
Plot and Premise
Soap was set in the fictional town of Dunn's River, Connecticut and it focused on the lives of wealthy Jessica Tate (Helmond) and her more middle class sister, Mary Campbell (Damon). The sisters' maiden names were Gatling.
The extremely sweet but sheltered (and more than a bit daffy) Jessica (who, as the announcer stated, lived in the neighborhood known as "Rich") was married to wealthy Wall Street stockbroker, Chester Tate, a notoriously pompous philanderer; two of his numerous affairs were with his demanding secretary Claire and another woman named Pigeon. Chester was also a very haughty individual and didn't like a lot of people.
Chester and Jessica had three children, one of which was the diffident and social climbing Eunice (Jennifer Salt). Eunice was a journalist who passed herself off as an ice queen, but she was in reality having an affair with a Congressman named Walter McCallum (Edward Winter). That ended when his wife, Marilyn (Judith-Marie Bergan) manipulated him into ending it.
Her sister, Corrine (Diana Canova, later of Throb) was rather man-crazy, having dated many men, when she was introduced. She was later revealed to had been adopted by Jessica and Chester.
Corrine's real parents were Randolph Gatling (Bernard Fox), Jessica and Mary's eccentric brother; and the family's former Swedish housekeeper, Ingrid Svenson (Inga Swenson) who hated the entire family and wanted nothing more than to see them destroyed. She always punctuated her diatribes with a nasty sounding "HA!"
Ingrid nearly drove a wedge between Corrine and Jessica, but Corrine saw Ingrid for the hateful woman she really was and left her, moving back to the Tate residence and embracing Jessica as her mother.
Rounding out the Tate family was Billy (Jimmy Baio, the cousin of Scott Baio), the youngest and the only son of Chester and Jessica. Billy was often left out of serious family discussions due to his age, and this continually irritated him, as he usually had to find out about things from other sources. To his mind, if he had been in his fifties, they would have still thought him as too young! Their servant, Benson, clearly favored Billy, as according to him, he was "the only one in the family worth a damn."
Although Chester did the lion's share of the philandering, neither he nor Jessica were really models of fidelity, as Jessica had indulged in several affairs herself, mainly to get back at Chester.
Also living with the Tates was Benson DuBois (Robert Guillaume), their insolent black cook/butler, who despised and had nothing but contempt for Chester; about Chester's philandering, "The man jumps on anything that breeds!" Chester would often put Benson in his place by yelling at him, "Shut up, Benson!".
Although he hated Chester, Benson, on the other hand, had a compassionate heart and a very obvious soft spot for Jessica, who considered him her best friend. He also had a best friendship with Corrine and clearly favored and protected Billy, while he pointedly ignored Eunice, although that changed, in the second season.
Benson gets his own spin-off!
Benson, due to his cutting remarks and put-downs (mainly towards Chester), became such a popular character that he was made the lead role on the spin-off television series, Benson (which unlike the parent show, did not use the serial format, but was more of a straight situation comedy). Benson premiered in 1979 and ran until 1986.
After leaving the Tate family's employ, he began working as the head of household affairs, then later he became state Budget Director and even later on, as lieutenant governor of an unnamed state, which was run by Jessica and Mary's widowed cousin, Eugene Gatling (the late James Noble). Gatling was a bit goofy, but as a Governor, he was very capable.
Two of Guillaume's fellow Soap alumna, Inga Swenson and Caroline McWilliams were also cast in the new series, due to their strong performances on Soap.
Swenson played Gretchen Kraus, the cook/head housekeeper at the Governor's Mansion, and Benson's arch-foil. She and Benson would later became close friends and trusted allies (in fact, Kraus would become his chief aide). McWilliams would play the Governor's secretary, Marcy Hill until the second season, when she got married.
The show also featured, over the seven season run, Rene Auberjonois and Lewis J. Stadlen as the Governor's aides, Clayton Endicott and John Taylor, respectively (both of whom clashed with Benson often; and as such put them down frequently); Ethan Phillips as the press secretary, Pete Downey, who got along well with Benson; Didi Conn as secretary Denise Stevens, who worked for Benson when he was Budget director (she and Pete would marry, have a baby and she would get a job at NASA); Billie Bird as the later head housekeeper, Mrs. Rose Cassidy; and Missy Gold as Katie Gatling, the governor's daughter, of whom Benson got along with. (The show also featured Jerry Seinfeld, early in his career, as a messenger) It was during the show's run that Benson's last name was finally revealed. His name was Benson DuBois.
Saunders takes over
After Benson left during the third season, Jessica (by this time, she had thrown Chester out of the house) had to hire a new cook/butler called Saunders (Roscoe Lee Browne). Saunders was more polished and articulate than Benson was, but was just as insolent and rude as his predecessor, especially towards Chester. Yet, like Benson, he had quite the soft spot for Jessica.
Jessica finds out about Chester and his infidelity!
During the series' first season, the naïve Jessica would constantly deny that Chester was cheating on her, although everyone in her family, including Benson, tried to tell her that he wasn't to be trusted; until one day while at lunch with Mary, she caught Chester in a romantic clinch with his secretary, Claire (Kathryn Reynolds).
Claire had been both Chester's secretary for 12 years and his mistress for nearly as long, and she had demanded that he finally dump Jessica and marry her or else he would be arrested for stock fraud, due to his mishandling of a trust fund he was working on. To achieve her aims, she resorted to blackmailing him out of a new car, and a new condominium, in order to get her way.
Shocked at the sight, Jessica breaks down crying in her sister's arms, realizing that everyone had been right about him all along. That all the while Jessica had thought he was faithful, Chester was cheating on her brazenly. The next evening, Jessica confronted Chester on his infidelity and then walked out of the house, but she would come back the next morning.
Chester, having tired of Claire's foolishness; not to mention her blackmailing and wanting to support Jessica through her court issues (she was charged with murder), finally fired the blackmailing secretary, who made a terrible scene in the restaurant (to the point that she would scream and pull the tablecloth off the table and smash the meal), and she called the Securities and Exchange Commission and exposed Chester's Stock Market fraud! Chester was arrested soon after Jessica was.
Jessica and Chester would separate in the third season and would inevitably divorce in the final season. In the third season, Chester continued his philandering, by bedding another of his secretaries and having gone to a hotel and Jessica caught him red handed in the act! She would finally get brave and throw him out of the house!
When he made a pass at the daughter of a minister, Jessica finally had had enough of him and his lies. She then told Chester exactly what she thought of him and his antics, telling him he had no soul and that he could not be hurt. She then forcefully threw Chester out of the house for good. He would move to the pool house where Jessica charged him room and board by cleaning the pool! A dismal come down for the former high-and-mighty Chester Tate!
Jessica would remain single to the end of the series and she never remarried, although she would date others; but Chester would later marry his daughter, Eunice's ex-friend, Annie Selig (played by Nancy Doland, the real life wife of Martin Short).
On the other side of the spectrum, Jessica's sister, Mary was on her second marriage to overly macho, yet extremely nervous building foreman, Burt Campbell (Richard Mulligan later of Empty Nest). She was raising her two sons from her first marriage to mobster Johnny Dallas, Danny Dallas (Ted Wass, later of Blossom) and Jodie Dallas (a then unknown Billy Crystal).
Burt initially did not like his stepsons, having fought with both of them, on several occasions, especially in the earlier episodes. He also did not get along with his brother in-law, Chester, because of their differing economic stations, and the two of them would fight continually. Even during the show's openings, Burt and Chester would get into a fist fight, with everyone in the families trying to separate the two combatants!
Burt would also have an affair with a woman named Sally (the aforementioned Caroline McWilliams) and, in one of the more bizarre stories of the entire series, was kidnapped by aliens and a replacement (also played by Mulligan) was sent to Earth. The alien would be returned and the real Burt would come back to earth.
Jodie, Mary's younger son by Johnny Dallas, was one of the first openly gay characters on television in the 1970s. Burt and Jodie clashed over the latter's being gay, he never liked that. Jodie was first dating a football player, Dennis Phillips (Bob Seagren), but he fathers a baby with attorney Carol David (Rebecca Balding).
The selfish and conniving Carol fell in love with Jodie and plotted to have him bed her, despite his being gay. She succeeded and she was pregnant. Carol and Jodie had planned to marry, but she selfishly left him at the altar before the marriage. She also sued him for custody of the baby.
He eventually fought for (with the aide of E. Ronald Mallu, Carol's former employer) and won custody of the baby named Wendy, despite the vindictive Carol and her daffy mother, Mrs. Lurleen David, (Peggy Pope) lying about him. Mrs. David eventually rescinded her perjured testimony, which set the stage for Jodie to win custody. Carol hired F. Peter Haversham, Mallu's arch-rival, to represent her at the custody hearing.
Carol then spitefully kidnapped the baby, with the aid of her new boyfriend, a rodeo cowboy (played by a pre-Knots Landing Ted Shackelford) and Jodie enlisted the help of Private Investigator, Maggie Chandler (Barbara Rhodes) to help locate her.
With the aid of several others in the families, they succeeded in finding the child and Jodie proposed to Maggie. After a failed hypnotherapy session, with a scheming psychiatrist Dr. Rudolph (George Wyner) in order to see if his relationship with Maggie was real, Jodie thought he was an 90 year old man named Julius Kassendorf.
Danny was a mobster, like Johnny Dallas was, and had to contend with the Godfather (Richard Libertini), who wanted him to kill Burt because he was the one who had (supposedly) killed Johnny Dallas.
It was later revealed that Johnny Dallas had been killed in self-defense, because he was aiming to kill Burt, and Burt accidentally pushed him off a high-rise building under construction. Danny eventually forgave him, as did Mary. He would later marry a mobster's daughter, Elaine Lefkowitz (Dinah Manoff, who would be later reunited with Mulligan on Empty Nest, playing his daughter, Carol Weston).
At first Danny and the Campbells were totally annoyed by Elaine and her crass ways (one of her arguments with Mary earned her a pie in the face!), but in time, Danny grew to really love her. Sadly, at that same time, she was eventually killed by kidnappers, which angered Danny and he planned revenge.
Danny would later become a policeman, and would later date a woman named Millie (Candace Azzara), a former girlfriend of one of Elaine's kidnappers; then when she left after being exposed and not liking his crazy family,
The hapless Danny would start dating an African American woman named Polly Dawson (Lynne Moody, later of Knots Landing); which met with disfavor from her overprotective brother, Eddie (Kene Holliday) and, then later, a former prostitute named Gwen (Jesse Wells). He would also later discover that his father was not Johnny Dallas, as had long been thought to be believed.
Elaine's widowed father, mob boss Charles Lefkowitz, who had disowned her after she married and showed that he really did not love her by refusing to pay her ransom leading to her death, was played by actor Sorrell Booke, who would later become better known as Boss Hogg on the long-running adventure comedy, The Dukes of Hazzard.
It was later revealed in the final season that Danny was really the son of Chester Tate (when he had a brief affair with Mary, before he married Jessica). This information came to light after Danny was shot and had to have a kidney transplant. Upon finding out about Chester having an affair with Mary, Jessica would not speak with her sister for a time.
It was revealed that Jessica had married Chester to satisfy blackmail conditions that the sisters' mother had over Chester's father. Had Jessica not married Chester, the elder Mr. Tate would have been jailed for embezzlement, as the elder Mr. Tate had stolen a fortune from Mrs. Gatling!. Like Father, Like Son!
Jessica would later forgive her sister, as Mary would have had no idea of what happened between their mother and Mr. Tate the elder; but on the other hand, she never forgave Chester for this final deceit! She had divorced him, prior to this, but after that, she never spoke to him again and threw him out of the house for good!
Mary gave birth to her third son, Scott Campbell, her first with Burt, but it was revealed that the pregnancy was from the Alien Burt, and when Scott began to manifest the powers that he gained from his father, Mary slowly became an alcoholic.
Burt also had two sons from his first marriage (his first wife left him, fifteen years prior to the series beginning, moving herself and her children to Hawaii). He had a son named Peter (Robert Urich), a local tennis pro (after he was killed off, Urich would later headline the long-running detective series, Vega$, playing Dan Tanna) and Chuck (Jay Johnson) who also had a ventriloquist's dummy named Bob who was quite outspoken, to the point of being belligerent and obnoxious.
Chuck was meek and polite, but Bob was the outlet for Chuck's belligerence. Bob's nasty comments and his general obnoxiousness have caused nearly everyone in both families to want to destroy it, making some caustic remarks referring to him being made into sawdust, Lincoln Logs, made into a pepper mill, among other threats.
Who killed Peter?!
Peter was notorious for his continual womanizing at the Tennis Club he worked at, and had several relationships with various women from Dunn's River, including Jessica and Corrine Tate, which nearly drove a wedge between mother and daughter. He also had an affair with a Mrs. Sheila Fine (Nita Talbot), whose testimony in court nearly sent Jessica to prison!
However, the randy tennis pro would only last the first season, as he was murdered in his shower. Everyone in both families were suspected in the murder, as was gleefully stated by the idiotic Chief of Police of Dunn's River (or "Piece of Cholief") Tinkler (Gordon Jump, later of WKRP in Cincinnati).
Jump would be reunited with Howard Hesseman, who played Prosecutor Franklin, on WKRP, where they would play Arthur Carlson and Dr. Johnny Fever, respectively.
At first, it was thought that Corrine was the murderer (as she had been living with him, and had threatened to kill him for his infidelity), and was arrested and jailed.
However, it was Jessica (she had also threatened Peter with death) who was arrested. She was also tried, convicted and sentenced for the murder, despite the able help of famed and highly powerful attorney E. Ronald Mallu (Eugene Roche, who would later join Cathryn Damon on Webster as her on-screen husband), who fell in love with her.
However, it was later revealed that Chester had killed him and had set her up to take the fall for his crimes, which infuriated Jessica (not to mention that Eunice, Billy and Corrine came down to the kitchen and cooked food, to Benson's dismay).
For Jessica, the charges were dropped and the conviction was overturned. Chester, meanwhile, was sent to prison for this (his stock fraud charges were forgotten, but was presumed that would be considered in his sentencing). She would deal with a lot of other things, including near death and being in a coma. Benson arrived and revealed that Jessica was and always would be his best friend.
His cellmate, Dutch Leitner (Rhodes), would eventually manipulate Chester to escape prison, and then he would begin to date, and eventually marry Chester's daughter, Eunice. He would later have a fling with Corrine, but he would later return to Eunice, whom he married soon after.
Corrine, on the other hand, would forget Peter and she married the man she was really in love with, former priest Tim Flotsky (Sal Viscuso). This angered his mother, Flo Flotsky (Doris Roberts, later of Everybody Loves Raymond) so much, that she died after cursing them both and making a scene at her wedding. Flo died on their wedding night.
They eventually had a child named Timmy, who was demon possessed, perhaps due to Flo's curse. After exorcising the baby, who had some able help from Jessica, Tim couldn't forget his life as a priest and left Corrine, annulled the marriage; and then went back to the Church, devastating her.
After her affair with Dutch (which led him to return to Eunice whom he would eventually marry), Corrine moved to California to raise Timmy away from the families and the insanity of Dunn's River.
Not to be outdone, Billy had his own share of issues. He had been kidnapped and brainwashed by a group called the Sunnies (a take off on the Unification Church), having to be rescued by his friend, Benson; then later becoming a member of a communist country's military; and having dated one of his former teachers, Leslie Walker (Marla Pennington, later of Small Wonder), who after being rejected by him, went crazy and tried (but hilariously failed) to kill Billy and/or members of his family. One of her attempts wounded Saunders.
Living with Jessica was her and Mary's widowed father, Major Gatling (Peterson), The Major, as he was commonly called, was a senile old man, suffering from dementia, who thought he was still fighting World War II! He thought of everyone in his family as being soldiers or being back in the World War II era.
Much of the series' stories dealt with the usual soap staples. Infidelity, romance, unwanted pregnancies, kidnapping, murder, and also talked frankly about homosexuality and gender reassignment surgery. The topics were very daring for the time (which explained a lot of the animus towards the show) but the series would become so popular, that it lasted for four seasons, and then had a healthy run in Syndication.
The series finale featured cliffhangers all across the board. Chester caught Danny and Annie in bed (he was so mad he was ready to kill them both!); Burt was to be ambushed by some political enemies, which placed his life in danger; and Jessica faced a firing squad in Malaguay, the former home of her lover, El Puerco.
The closest thing to any of the scenarios being resolved was in the series, Benson, when Benson was visited by Jessica's ghost, implying that she had been in a coma and had been declared legally dead by the rest of the family.
In later years, the series had achieved classic cult status for its well-written stories and the excellent cast. The topics that were so daring back in the 1970's would be considered commonplace today.
Because the audience knew about the characters' complicated histories and also because of the show's well timed use of the serial format, the situations and dialogue were made sharper and became even funnier.
After the series ended
The entire cast, principal as well as secondary, had their careers expanded as a result of this series and they went on to even greater success after Soap ended. Most notably of the cast was Billy Crystal, who later became a major movie star.
Those no longer with us
As of 2017, Cathryn Damon (Mary Campbell); Sorrell Booke (Charles Lefkowitz); John Byner (Detective George Donohue); Richard Libertini (The Godfather); Richard Mulligan (Burt Campbell); Arthur Peterson (the Major); Eugene Roche (E. Ronald Mallu); Roscoe Lee Brown (Saunders); Robert Urich (Peter Campbell, The Tennis Pro); Gordon Jump ("Piece of Cholief" Tinkler); Harold Gould (Barney Gerber); Nancy Doland (Annie Selig Tate); Edward Winter (Congressman Walter McCallum); Doris Roberts (Flo Flotsky); Charles Lane (Judge Anthony Petrillo); Jack Gilford (Saul) and Caroline McWilliams (Sally) are all deceased.
- RAE ALLEN -- Judge Betty Small
- CANDACE AZZARA -- Millie
- JIMMY BAIO -- Billy Tate
- REBECCA BALDING -- Carol David
- JUDITH-MARIE BERGAN -- Marilyn McCallum
- SORRELL BOOKE -- Charles Lefkowitz
- ROSCOE LEE BROWNE -- Saunders
- JOHN BYNER -- Detective George Donohue
- DIANA CANOVA -- Corrine Tate Flotsky
- BILLY CRYSTAL -- Jodie Dallas
- CATHRYN DAMON -- Mary Gatling Dallas Campbell
- WILLIAM DANIELS -- Heinrich Himmel
- NANCY DOLMAN -- Annie Selig Tate
- MICHAEL DURRELL -- F. Peter Haversham
- BERNARD FOX -- Randolph Gatling
- JACK GILFORD -- Saul
- HAROLD GOULD -- Barney Gerber
- ROBERT GUILLAUME -- Benson (last name later revealed to be DuBois)
- SUSAN HARRIS -- Babette the Prostitute
- RANDEE HELLER -- Alice
- KATHERINE HELMOND -- Jessica Gatling Tate
- HOWARD HESSEMAN -- Mr. Franklin (the prosecutor, also his twin, a defense attorney)
- JOHN HILLERMAN -- Episcopal Minister
- KENE HOLLIDAY -- Eddie Coleman
- JAY JOHNSON -- Chuck and Bob Campbell
- GORDON JUMP -- "Piece of Cholief" (Chief of Police) Tinkler
- CHARLES LANE -- Judge Anthony Petrillo
- RICHARD LIBERTINI -- The Godfather
- ROBERT MANDAN -- Chester Tate
- DINAH MANOFF -- Elaine Lefkowitz Dallas
- CAROLINE McWILLIAMS -- Sally
- LYNNE MOODY -- Polly Coleman Dawson
- RICHARD MULLIGAN -- Burt Campbell
- MARLA PENNINGTON -- Leslie Walker
- ARTHUR PETERSON -- Major Gatling "The Major"
- PEGGY POPE -- Lurleen David
- UDANA POWER -- Nurse Nancy Darwin
- KATHRYN REYNOLDS -- Claire
- EUGENE ROCHE -- E. Ronald Mallu
- BARBARA RHODES -- Maggie Chandler
- DONNELLY RHODES -- Dutch Leitner
- DORIS ROBERTS -- Flo Flotsky
- JENNIFER SALT -- Eunice Tate Leitner
- BOB SEAGREN -- Dennis Phillips
- GREGORY SIERRA -- Carlos "El Puerco" Valdez
- INGA SWENSON -- Ingrid Svenson
- NITA TALBOT -- Mrs. Sheila Fein
- ROBERT URICH -- Peter Campbell "The Tennis Pro"
- SAL VISCUSO -- Father Timothy Flotsky
- TED WASS -- Danny Dallas
- JESSE WELLS -- Gwen
- EDWARD WINTER -- Congressman Walter McCallum