After nearly 42 years of scandalous affairs, decades-long rivalries, fairy tale romances, kidnapped babies, serial killers, resurrected loved ones and the occasional Pennsylvania tornado, All My Children as fans have known it will come to an end on Friday. Two weeks before production wrapped, TVGuide.com spent a few days behind the scenes of Pine Valley as writers, producers and cast performed something of a three-ring circus, rallying to deliver what they hoped would be a satisfying conclusion for their loyal viewers.
During one morning meeting, longtime director Steven Williford planned out the moment in which Angie (Debbi Morgan) would get her sight back, enacting how she would stumble, joyful and teary-eyed, toward Jessie (Darnell Williams). Downstairs on set at the Pine Valley police station, Tad (Michael E. Knight) and Dixie (Cady McClain) — together, at last — confronted David (Vincent Irizarry) perhaps for the final time, begging to know who else he had brought back from the dead, literally. In the editing bays, producers watched tape of JR's (Jacob Young) final scenes, in which he seems to be hitting rock bottom. Christina Bennett Lind, who plays Bianca, dropped by on her day off to pick up gifts fans had sent congratulating her on her first love scene with Marissa (Sarah Glendening). In the hallways of the production offices, producers who have been with the show for years continued to talk about how wonderful it was having Josh Duhamel reprise the role of Leo DuPres, not to mention a cameo from Carol Burnett, who's declared herself one of All My Children's biggest fans. A few miles away, at the Descanso Gardens, Ryan (Cameron Mathison) and Greenlee (Rebecca Budig) played red rover with Emma and then embraced while looking meaningfully, as they so often do, into the sunny distance...
We asked the actors who've dedicated the bulk of their careers to the now-canceled show — Susan Lucci, Michael E. Knight, Cameron Mathison and Rebecca Budig — along with executive producer Julie Hanan Carruthers and series creator Agnes Nixon to talk about the last few months building and taking down Pine Valley, the challenge of ending decades' worth of story, and what the future online holds:
How do you wrap almost 42 years of storytelling into a 36-minute episode?
Carruthers: The writers felt an immense amount of pressure... Everybody wants everything. We wanted it all. We wanted to see all the faces. We kind of honed in on the feel-good parts of Pine Valley, which is ultimately, I think why the audience watches. Yeah, they want the dish, they want to be outraged, but at the same time, watching is like going home. I think that's why the cancellation was huge news. It's like, "Wait a minute, that's like home to me."
Budig: I don't know if anyone will ever really feel satisfied because it's a bummer that it's going off the air. I think that no matter what we do, no matter how good it is, most people are left disappointed. I hope not though!
Mathison: In some cases, I think it's as simple as seeing your favorite couple back together.
Nixon: Wrapping the run on ABC wasn't as important to me as keeping the show interesting and making people want to watch it once it began again online. We did not wrap everything up with people fading into the sunset with happy endings. It's a continued story. The last episode, we think, will make people want to come back very much to get some answers.
Lucci: Knowing how Agnes writes, the end is not shocking at all. I knew she wouldn't tie it up in a neat bow. There are several cliff-hangers.
How did you go about crafting the show's final ABC broadcasts? What were the mandates for the big goodbye? Obviously, you wanted to bring back certain characters — some of whom are dead.
Nixon: It isn't as far-fetched as one might think! Also, it's David Heyward, and one never knows with him... But yes, we wanted to bring back a lot of the favorite characters who were no longer on the show. The last episodes took three months to write because I just think we were giving the audience exactly what they want. You watch and tell us.
Carruthers: We didn't want everything so sugary and saccharine that in the last two weeks people would be saying, "Could they lay it on any thicker?" ... Some people will be able to rise above their conflicts, others won't be as lucky or strong or they'll have so many things weighing against them that it's impossible. We want tears and laughter and warmth. We want you to want to stay there and have it not be over. We want it to be the best feeling. Like the best emotional experience and yet true to All My Children and what it represents, which is a tall order. And you have to sort of pay off the stories you're in the process of telling. It wasn't about the bells and buzzers.
Nixon: The cliff-hangers are true to what I feel has been part of the character of All My Children in that they're all related solely to characters and personal emotions.
Dixie (McClaine), who sparked fan outrage when she was killed by poison pancakes, came back for several episodes. So did Brooke (Julia Barr) and Adam (David Canary). How did that go?
Nixon: Ooh, the tension between Brooke and Erica is delicious.
Lucci: David's presence has been so missed. It was truly most exciting for me to have him and Julia back because they were people I worked with so much. On set these past few weeks, I would be running around and have to stop because there's David on a monitor, you know, looking fabulous. It's been so fun playing scenes with them again. I know the audience has missed them very much.
Knight: Cady and I weren't even supposed to be together if I remember correctly. We weren't supposed to be a couple. She was pregnant by Adam Chandler, my nemesis. But I think there was a period where I realized we did have something special, when Tad and Dixie went on the run together. Cady and I had a very easy chemistry with a lot of humor that played as romance. The director used to come out and go, "Sexy as a fish!" ... It's been so great for me, having her back.
What have these last days on set been like?
Lucci: Just before we shot the final scene, Rebecca and I caught each other's eye and both of us just started to tear up. It's been happening to all of us. The emotions come over you when you least expect it. Cameron and I were talking about it, how it just doesn't seem real. I don't know if it's a protective mechanism. At the same time, I'm blown away by how everybody has continued to work on all cylinders, with a great attitude and smile on their face and no whining. And with Agnes here, it's been amazing.
Mathison: I'm in denial. I don't think I'm really even acknowledging the end. It's been my life for so long. I've known these people, the cast, the crew, longer than I've known my wife and kids. The whole thing is just surreal.
Carruthers: The show ending actually raised the bar in some ways. When you don't have a lot of tomorrows left, hitting your marks takes on a whole new meaning. Everybody's been excited by the material and the stories and having people come back. I'm sure it'll be sad when everybody walks out of the door, but right now, people are excited to be here. It's not only a historical time, but it's kind of a privilege and an honor to be a part of this time.
How did you feel at the time the show was canceled, and everything that led up to that?
Knight: Agnes was shoved to the side very unceremoniously a few years back by people who shouldn't be in this industry as far as I'm concerned. They didn't know what they were doing... It ended up taking us down.
Nixon: I was saddened, but I saw it coming because the ratings were going down and personally I felt the show wasn't being written as it should. It wasn't true to the characters. You know, they had focus groups every three or four months, and I went every time knowing what I would hear. "Oh, we still love the characters, but the stories don't work for us. What happened?" So, it wasn't a total surprise to me... I was the saddest when they killed Stuart.
Lucci: The fans were very vocal about not recognizing the character. I wondered why it was allowed to go on so long. I wondered why Lorraine was brought in for two weeks and we were all so happy and then the show got canceled. You could listen to the focus groups and see the ratings were dropping and know that someone was off.
Knight: It's been a real roller coaster the last couple of years. We've been doing more with less [money], I think everybody's just sort of been biting the bullet to get through... It's been alternately rewarding and exciting and frustrating and humiliating. Different people came in and tried to adapt the show to ideas they thought were more exciting or whatever, and it didn't work. Then they brought Agnes just to tie everything up in a short amount of time. We've been working at an almost surreal pace.
What do you think about the show continuing online? [Mathison and Lindsay Hartley on Monday signed on to the Web series, while Young and Morgan have joined The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless, respectively.]
Nixon: Why wouldn't our fans watch online? You don't have to watch at 1 o'clock now — you can watch them any time of day and catch up on what you missed. I know it's a transition, but maybe the thing we're making is electronic history. There's no reason this won't work. The story is my world. I call it my real world of make-believe. These people live 24 hours a day for me, and I have no problems with anticipating and creating new stories. ... At the same time, until deals are done, I can't even start to think about plots until we know who we have to plot about. [As for Susan Lucci continuing with the show], she and I are very good friends, but neither one of us wants to talk about that; it's off limits.
Lucci: I'll say this: it won't be All My Children if Agnes doesn't do it.
Knight: I would say if there is a future for the characters we had on the show, it would have to be under Agnes or someone of her choosing because, for example, my character has been so marginalized over the years, I just don't see how he can carry forward with any relevance because it doesn't make sense... I'm not saying it's not possible, because Agnes is a miracle worker, but I would be surprised. I think she's seen real idiots come in and mess with her legacy and I think she's passionate about it. She could shake things up. You never know.
Budig: I don't pooh-pooh anything, and I don't know what they're offering, so who knows? In my estimation, these people who own the show don't have to ask any of us to participate — it's a business and they own the show, they can do whatever they want.
What has been the most fun you've had on the show?
Budig: I threw a girl off a yacht. I also remember I had this one dream that I was on Gilligan's Island and I was Mary Ann, and Leo was Gilligan ,and Palmer was in it. Palmer was Howell, and Leo's mom was the Mrs. Howell. There was the time I had to dress like a green butterfly trapeze artist. That might have been, when I was like, "Really, what have I done with my life?"
Mathison: I loved my first story line. When I came on to the show, Ryan was broke, a con man. He meets Gillian (Esta TerBlanche), this princess from Europe that he thinks is loaded. She's hot, and Ryan just woos her and uses his charm to get her to fall for him, and he also tells her he's loaded. Meanwhile, he has no idea that she's broke and was also using him. So they get married for all the wrong reasons, and then find out they're both broke... but then, of course, they fall in love for all the right reasons. That was such a fun, smart story.
Do you remember being hired on All My Children?
Lucci: I remember my audition script. I remember everything. I came in Episode 10, and there were four of us, all playing teenagers, so that's already visionary Agnes in 1970 writing a show where each generation had a major storyline. I hadn't seen it before. I remember thinking Erica had the possibilities to be a modern-day Scarlett O'Hara. I was also moved by her relationship with her mother, Mona. I mean, they would have knock-down-drag-out fights. I have to tell you, my own mother and I loved their scenes, too. We would laugh because they rang true.
Budig: I grew up watching the show, so when I started, I was like, "Oh my God. There's Erica! There's Adam!" It was bizarre because I felt like I knew them. I felt so honored, I still feel so honored.
Mathison: Oh, totally. Completely. I was shooting in Toronto, I was pretty much the local Canadian guy in all of these American productions. I was on Studio 54 with Mike Meyers and Neve Campbell and Ryan Phillippe and Salma Hayek and I got the call that I had booked the part and I felt like so cool. And it's been a good life. It's maybe not everybody's ultimate goal in the world of acting. But for me, it's a really good fit for my priorities and what I like in life.
Budig: Greenlee says the craziest things, I couldn't stay away.
All My Children is often cited as daytime's most topical soap. What issues are you most proud to have addressed?
Budig: I liked when Fusion was started. I thought that was like...that was to me very different for daytime that these women were sort of taking over the canvas. I mean really. And it was so female dominated, which you just don't see. It's usually all about the men, and the women are all weak and kind of, I don't know, and I just think that on our show we have strong women.
Nixon: You know, growing up as a child in the racist South, I would ride buses in which distinguished black men and ladies would have to walk past me to stand in the back of the bus. That really does have an effect on someone. We did stories about teenage prostitution, we were the first to deal with gay culture and having the first lesbian on daytime. We did a yearlong story on AIDS, alcoholism, child abuse... There's been a lot.
Tell us what you can about how it all ends.
Carruthers: What you get — and this was our No. 1 priority — is a sense of family. So, all of the families, whether they're at the height of dysfunction or they're most connected, all the families come together in one way or another. Our last week is a true tribute to the families that make up the canvas of Pine Valley. Trust me, you will need a Kleenex every day of the final week.
Knight: Our major strength in soaps is legacy, the families and people who you get to know and invite into your living room 20 years in a row. They brought Agnes, which was a blessing for us because we get to revisit some of that legacy and that family stuff. The history of the show didn't mean so much for a while, for maybe the last 10 years. I get a curtain call that I don't think I would have without them.
Lucci: Adam and Brooke are throwing a party in the final episode, and I was surrounded by the whole cast, so the setting was spectacular and perfect for the last day of shooting. I looked out to all the crew and just mentally took pictures of all of them. And then the last night was a real outpouring of love from the cast and the crew to Agnes. At the end, she said she wanted to sing a song that she felt was really appropriate and she wanted us to sing it with her. It was the Noel Coward song "I'll See You Again." She sang beautifully, and everyone joined in. I will say after that there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
How sad are you that All My Children is ending? Will you watch it online?