CBS's As the World Turns will end its landmark run on Friday. What better way to say goodbye than to let the fearless, unsinkable Eileen Fulton — now in her 50th year playing Lisa — cut loose one last time!
TV Guide Magazine: Fans are hurting bad over the cancellation. How was it for you guys to wrap it up?
Fulton: Terrible! I have never been so relieved to leave a place in my life as I was on that last day! I took my picture of my dog, Geraldine Page, and my radio and my damn bedroom slippers and walked out of my dressing room, got in the car and said "Thank God!" It was very hard for everyone. People got extraordinarily depressed. They were tearing down the sets as we were trying to do our final scenes. We had to ask them to stop hammering so we could act. Then there was the fire.
TV Guide Magazine: Uh...what fire would that be?
Fulton: On the last day they took all of the hairpieces worn by Benjamin Hendrickson [the late actor who played Hal Munson] and burned them one by one in the yard at the studio. Benji hated those hairpieces but the show insisted he wear them — let me tell you, he was furious! — so we told stories about him and wished him well and knew that he would be delighted to see those damn things go up in flames. So that was fun, but it was a hot, humid day and we were choking to death on the smoke. It was an odd way to end things. [Sighs] I love the show the way things used to be. I love all of the people I used to work with — the cast, hair, makeup, wardrobe, the darling kids in the office. [Laughs] And yes, the producers, too...even though I left ATWT three times forever.
TV Guide Magazine: How is the finale itself? Will the audience be satisfied?
Fulton: It's marvelous! Very touching without being drippy. [Executive producer] Chris Goutman did a good thing — I just love him! — and I was very proud of everybody. It's a beautifully written script and a great tribute to Helen Wagner. There are some wonderful old scenes with her character, Nancy, that the fans are gonna love. [Wagner, who uttered the very first words on ATWT, died last May]. I wish Helen had known how much I appreciated and admired her.
TV Guide Magazine: Weren't you two notorious for your backstage tiffs?
Fulton: Oh, we'd get mad at each other but I loved her so. She'd always fuss at me because I cuss so much. She'd say, "Watch your mouth!" And I'd say, "Helen Wagner, if I can't say my 'goddammits' then goddammit I couldn't live my friggin' life!" [Laughs] Only I didn't say "friggin!" You know, dear Helen was supposed to be in my 50th anniversary episode. She died right before. We were scheduled to do a lot of scenes together that day, but the week before that she went into the hospital. Still, she was studying that script! She told the doctors, "You have to operate and sew me up and get me back on my feet because I have a show to do on Thursday!" Nobody had greater respect for ATWT and the acting profession than Helen Wagner.
TV Guide Magazine: How did you feel about that episode, by the way? I was horrified when I heard they were going to re-do some of the classic Lisa and Nancy scenes with the younger cast members as way to pay tribute to your 50th. It seemed like rather a rude idea, but it turned out fantastic. And it was a big, fat, juicy Valentine to you!
Fulton: Wasn't that precious? I adored it! I thought Ellen Dolan [Margo] was Helen, and the girls playing Lisa were wonderful. They went and watched my old scenes on YouTube and really channeled me! I just loved it. [Laughs] Now, had they tried to do this several years ago, I would have killed them!
TV Guide Magazine: Back in the '60s, you set a record for what's humanly possible. You were performing ATWT live each day, appearing as Honey in the matinee cast of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway and playing the starring role of Luisa in the musical The Fantasticks every night Off-Broadway. Were you insane?
Fulton: [Laughs] I was young! And nothing in my body ached back then! It never dawned on me that I couldn't do all of it, so I did! Wednesdays were crazy. Back then we did ATWT from a studio at Grand Central Station. We'd be on the air with ATWT from 1:30 to about 1:56 in the afternoon. Then Helen Wagner would run with me, carrying a stopwatch to keep me on schedule, and I'd hop on a shuttle that went across town to 41st street. Then I'd run to the theatre where Virginia Woolf was playing and get there by 2:05pm. Curtain was at 2! Fortunately my character didn't show up until 20 minutes into the play, so I still had time to get into costume. And it's a long damn play! At intermission, I'd call a restaurant down the street and order a shrimp cocktail, a steak and rice pudding and ask to have it ready so I could run there and eat right after the show before I cabbed down to the Village to do The Fantasticks. You're right. I must have been insane!
TV Guide Magazine: Lisa was the very first soap supervixen. Look what you started!
Fulton: Procter & Gamble was getting ready to fire me but [ATWT creator] Irna Phillips said, "I can write for that little rascal. She can play a bitch!" That's how it happened. True story! One of the P&G men came to me six months into my run and said, "I want to tell you what a wonderful job you are doing, because when you first came on the show we thought, 'We can't keep her. She's not very good.'" It was kind of a backhanded compliment. It was kind of a f--k you.
TV Guide Magazine: Seriously? But you were the hottest thing in the country.
Fulton: I was bringing a style to the show that was real, and they just didn't understand that. Only Irna understood! I get so mad at all this reality crap on TV nowadays. Real housewives indeed! It's just one phony shock after another. The audience has loved ATWT and stayed with us for 54 years because we're real to them. Recently at my nightclub act, I had a young man come up to me in tears. He said, "What am I going to do when I come home from work and sit down to watch ATWT over dinner and suddenly my family isn't there?" That broke my heart. Maybe CBS didn't care about us, but the people still do. We still matter to a whole lotta folks out there.
TV Guide Magazine: Talk more about Irna Phillips. Was she as formidable and scary as legend has it? Did you ever get a chance to just hang with her?
Fulton: She lived in Chicago and wrote the show from there but one time she came to New York to see me — I think it was the first time I wanted to leave the show forever — and she asked to have a talk in my dressing room. The production people all stood back and said, 'Boy, Eileen's gonna get it!" They were sure I'd be fired. But Irna sat down and told me how much she admired me, and how she wished she could have been an actress and done the kind of work I was doing. Instead she settled for a career in writing, and that's why she wrote such wonderful material for me. I was so moved by that. She hugged me and gave me a kiss. And I walked out of my dressing room with tears running down my face — so, of course, the cast and crew were thinking, "Wow, that Irna really laid into her!" Irna was tough, but that's why I loved her. We had our fights, too, because I had no inhibitions. There were things I simply would not do. That's how the "Granny Clause" came to be. [For many years, Fulton had it written into her ATWT contract that Lisa could not become a grandmother.] You have to stick up for yourself in this business!
TV Guide Magazine: Ever take it too far?
Fulton: I was the prodigal kid. I was always mad at the show. I got mad at the writers. I asked Chris Goutman several years ago to please either kill Lisa off or let her marry a prince and move away. He wouldn't do it. I don't like it when we play down to the audience. I have a fit! And I didn't like it when decisions started being made by focus groups. I called them "f--k-us" groups, because they really do a number on us. You don't give the people everything they want! You gotta make 'em suffer so that they watch. The audience loves to suffer! I didn't like it when the show became so plastic, especially with some of the comedy we tried to do. We weren't a sitcom, and we should never have tried to be. You want funny? Put the camera on Don Hastings [Bob] and just let him be his funny self. Oh, I don't know...sometimes I'd say all kinds of things that I didn't really mean. And I did leave from time to time but I always knew I would come back, and that I would always be welcomed back. [Sighs] Now there's nothing to be welcomed back to.
TV Guide Magazine: So what's next for you?
Fulton: I'm continuing with my nightclub act, of course! I have a new press agent, Judy Katz, who is just wonderful. And she got me a great agent, Jamie Harris at Clear Talent, so I had to make a sizzle reel — I didn't even know what that was! — to send out to the casting directors. And I'm moving to a new apartment. They just wrote about me in the Wall Street Journal saying "Serial Bride Moves Again." So there's a lot that's new and different in my life and I'm very excited. Best of all, I can walk to my shrink from my new place. Always make sure your shrink is within walking distance.
TV Guide Magazine: Life lessons from Eileen Fulton! Thank you, dear. It's been a thrill interviewing you so often over the years. Keep the world turning!
Fulton: Oh, I will, my darling. You can count of that!