We can't say she didn't warn us. After 25 years, three Emmys, and several hints that she's contemplating retirement, Susan Flannery has chosen to exit her role as Stephanie Forrester, the grand matriarch of CBS's The Bold and the Beautiful. That has exec producer-head writer Bradley Bell planning a landmark sendoff, one sure to go down in the TV record books. In the episode set to air Friday, Oct. 12, Stephanie learns that her lung cancer, which had gone into remission, is back and now beyond treatment. Come December, the beloved character will die. TV Guide Magazine spoke exclusively with Bell about his plans for this startling and profound story.
TV Guide Magazine: This is huge.
Bell: It is huge. And amazing. I knew this day was coming but I've been in denial about it. I've been loving and treasuring every one of these last few days we have with Susan. Well, almost every day. [Laughs] You know Susan.
TV Guide Magazine: Was it always the plan to use Stephanie's lung cancer as a way to write Susan off the show?
Bell: Susan has been talking about leaving us for a while now, but I knew that I could go into the cancer plot and come out of it two ways. Stephanie could survive it, or we could take the story to an unfortunate end. We will try to do justice to the disease itself, playing it honestly and accurately, but the primary goal is to honor both Susan and Stephanie and to give anyone who watches something beautiful to keep with them for a long time to come.
TV Guide Magazine: So Stephanie is told there's no hope whatsoever?
Bell: She receives the diagnosis that the cancer has spread and that there is no chance for survival. Stephanie has always been a woman of great strength and character and she's determined to deal with this in her own way. She doesn't want tears and long faces — she wants a celebration of her life, a blowout to end all blowouts. She'll definitely be in touch with her mortality, living each day as if it's her last, and she's determined to make the most of every moment. After the diagnosis there is some initial shock, but she is quick to create a purpose — the party — and that becomes her obsession. She wants everyone to remember her in peak form. And that's the way Susan feels, too. She wants to go out on top.
TV Guide Magazine: Sounds a bit like the bucket-list party Stephanie threw after her diagnosis.
Bell: Yes, only much bigger! She'll be inviting a lot of people to the party but certain people will receive hand-written invitations that will be delivered personally by Stephanie. This is going to play out on air starting Oct. 18 for eight [consecutive] episodes. Each day Stephanie goes to one of the key people in her life — her sister Pam, her son Thorne, her best friend Taylor, her namesake Steffy — and tells them her time is up and that she's throwing herself a party. Donna will also have a day, as will Brooke, of course. Stephanie and Brooke are the true supercouple of B&B. Each day will be a video tribute to one of Stephanie's great relationships, with lots of flashbacks featuring the "best of" moments. We've even worked out a way to have Stephanie visit with her old pal Sally Spectra [played by the late Darlene Conley], with Fabio as a special guest since he was a part of their story.
TV Guide Magazine: And Eric's in the loop from the get-go?
Bell: Yes. In a way he's the ringleader and will be planning more than a few surprises for the big event. This party is going to be Beverly Hills all the way with big-name performers. We're blowing the budget on this one. It'll air mid-November over the course of three episodes. It'll be a real humdinger.
TV Guide Magazine: What about Ridge? How can he not be there to say goodbye his mother?|
Bell: There's a big question as to whether or not Ridge will show up for the party. He may make a surprise appearance...you never know!
TV Guide Magazine: Might he show up looking just like Ronn Moss?
Bell: [Laughs] You just never know! It's a possibility. Stephanie's daughters Kristen and Felicia will also be there. We're firing up the Forrester living room set for the last time. Emotion will be filling that room.
TV Guide Magazine: And, after that, how much longer until Stephanie dies?
Bell: It will be pretty quickly after that, within a matter of weeks. It'll happen in December.
TV Guide Magazine: Which, as I recall, was the same time of year you had Stephanie's mother Ann [Betty White] die.
Bell: Yes it is. We'll also be seeing Ann in flashback during Stephanie's day with Pam, who is of course going to fall apart. This is an opportunity to show a lot of different responses to impending death.
TV Guide Magazine: What about Stephanie's response? Is this a mask? Does she have private moments of fear?
Bell: Oh, definitely. She's scared. We'd be missing that beat if we didn't play it. Even though she has platinum armor, she's very human and the fear of death is strong within her.
TV Guide Magazine: Is there a spiritual aspect to this? I don't recall Stephanie ever being all that into God.
Bell: She is not. She relies on her friends and family for that. She has always drawn her strength from them and that will continue to be the case until the bitter end. She will look to Eric and to her children and to Brooke in many ways. At the end, Stephanie and Brooke will have some of their finest scenes ever.
TV Guide Magazine: So far, Susan has chosen not to give interviews about her departure. How is she handling this?
Bell: Susan will not allow herself to get sad about this, to be traipsing around the set in tears. Like Stephanie, she is not that kind of woman.
TV Guide Magazine: As dreadful as it is to see Susan go, do you see it as a privilege to write her out your way?
Bell: Absolutely. In a way I feel we're doing this for the entire soap-opera community. We all know each other and we deeply respect the great actors who play our matriarchs and patriarchs — the ones who made this business — and it's been sad to see so many of them drop away without getting a proper homage. This is a wonderful opportunity that's bigger than B&B, a very special and universal thing. I'm so happy to be able to do it this way. And I'm only able to do it because Susan came to me and said, "I'm ready to leave the show, but I will give you the time you need to write out the character." She also said, "I don't want to know what you're going to do. I just want you to do it your way, and I will play it." So I'm writing it and I can't wait to see what she does with the material.
TV Guide Magazine: She literally has no idea how you're going to handle the final days?
Bell: [Laughs] Not at all! But that's Susan. She's always been this way. I really, really offered to keep in her in the loop but she always insists on a separation between her performing from my writing. I tried to start the conversation. "What do you think would be the best way..." and she put up her hand and said, "Write it! I'll play it! I don't want to know anything!" So, no, she still has no idea where I'm taking this. She reads the scripts right before each episode. It's been that way for 25 years. Her attitude is, "We don't know what's next in life, why should we know what's next on B&B?"
TV Guide Magazine: As the end approaches, it will be hard on everyone — for you all at the show and for us watching at home. How do you make sure this is something people want to watch? How do you keep it from being one great big bummer?
Bell: By keeping the whole thing in the true spirit of Stephanie and Susan. We take our cue from them. To see how these two great ladies handle this will be very inspiring. Of course, there will be sadness. There will also be a lot of smiling through tears, a feeling so hard to capture but so terrific when you do. But mostly this will be uplifting, with a lot of love and laughs. We are going to pay proper tribute to our dear friend Susan — a brilliant actress and a daytime legend.
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