In a long overdue shakeup at daytime's No. 1 soap, The Young and the Restless, Maria Bell is out as executive producer-head writer and former General Hospital chief Jill Farren Phelps is in the house! Phelps takes the EP gig while Josh Griffith, who stepped in and kept Y&R afloat during the 2007-2008 Writers Guild strike, is back as head writer. Their first official episode will air Oct. 12. No exec on the suds scene is more credentialed and trophied than Phelps, a seven-time Emmy winner who has helmed a record six daytime dramas. And no one is more polarizing. TV Guide Magazine had an exclusive chat with the controversial lady, who addressed the firestorm of rumors and reports currently circulating on the Web. Will there be mass budget cuts and cast purges at Y&R? Is Genie Francis in danger? Is Christel Khalil in or out? Will Phelps fill the show with her actor pals — the notorious FOJs? Then there's the million dollar question: Is she man enough to make Eric Braeden stop pissing and moaning because Maria Bell got fired? It's getting a little annoying!
TV Guide Magazine: Besides GH, you've run many a landmark soap — Santa Barbara, Guiding Light, Another World, One Life to Live. How's it feel to take command of the big one?
Phelps: It's exciting. Thrilling! I never imagined I was going to be here. And it feels particularly great to be doing this with Josh. He and I go all the way back to Santa Barbara, then we got together again just recently for [Nickelodeon's] Hollywood Heights. He knows the characters and the history of Y&R really well and deeply respects this show. I trust him completely. Producers don't make ratings, writers do, and Josh is the exact right person to be here at this time. He knew I was going to be talking with you and he said to tell you, "Genoa City will explode with intrigue and romance!"
TV Guide Magazine: It damn well better. This show needs fixing! So what is your mandate from CBS and Sony?
Phelps: The mandate is to make Y&R financially feasible so it can continue on. And also to bring the show into 2012. We will give it a more contemporary feel, shake up the way it looks and sounds just a bit, though nothing that will have the audience feeling uncomfortable. It would be so wrong to try to pace it and structure it and stylize it like GH. We just want Y&R to be more alluring and compelling as we move into the future.
TV Guide Magazine: How strong is CBS' faith in this show?
Phelps: There is a very strong sense around CBS that Y&R has a long future, and that their current daytime lineup of soaps, game shows and a talk show is a mix that really works. So, with that commitment, I'm going into Y&R not with a hatchet but with a scalpel in order to make it function as a more economical show. In daytime, we're all working under incredible restraints but there is still great belief and trust in the genre. The people at CBS and Sony see that Revenge and Dallas and other serials are doing really well in primetime and consider that a very encouraging sign for daytime. So they seem to be in it for the long haul and there's a lot of freedom and comfort in that. It allows us to make our changes gradually and be very careful about the decisions we make. We're not ripping apart the core of this show, not even to save money.
TV Guide Magazine: So, even though you must cut costs, there will be no huge cast purge?
Phelps: I'm not going to say there won't be one, but that doesn't mean there will be. I will only say right now that there will indeed be changes. We have a cast of really wonderful actors but, at the end of the day, we need to look at the entire canvas and decide who is catching fire with the audience. And where can we create fire where there isn't any?
TV Guide Magazine: It seems from your new casting calls that you intend to amp up the African-American contingent, which was a huge ratings draw back in [Y&R creator] Bill Bell's heyday.
Phelps: There isn't enough diversity on this show and we want to strengthen that. There is so much potential. Kristoff St. John [Neil] would do well in a really hot love story.
TV Guide Magazine: On that topic, a lot of people want Victoria Rowell [Drucilla] back on the show, including Miss Vicki herself. Are you aware of all the drama that went on with her? Will you overlook that and bring her back?
Phelps: I only know it's a hot-button issue but I don't know the full history. I'm not going to make any comment.
TV Guide Magazine: Are the two new African-American characters you're looking to cast, Tyler and Sally, really, truly new? Because there's buzz that these are actually recasts of Devon and Lily, the parts now played by Bryton James and Christel Khalil. And that brings us to all the Khalil hoo-hah. Word is, she chose to leave and now she wants back in. Is she in or out?
Phelps: The male role we are casting is definitely a new character but, yes, the female role is a recast for Christel's role. However, since we sent out that casting breakdown, negotiations with Christel have resumed. I don't yet know how that's going to work out.
TV Guide Magazine: Is there any hope for the Abbott clan? They were Bill Bell's pride and joy and a huge deal with the fans but the last couple of writing regimes just decimated that family.
Phelps: Josh has an incredible story planned for Peter Bergman [Jack] which will put the spotlight on the Abbotts in a big way. This may not be a quick rebuild. It may take a while, but I assure you the Abbotts are very important to Josh and me. We will put some meat back on those Abbott bones!
TV Guide Magazine: It wouldn't be a JFP production if the fans weren't frothing at the mouth on the message boards. Let's talk about the rumors.
Phelps: Like what? [Laughs] Why am I such a magnet for this sort of thing?
TV Guide Magazine: You drive the fans crazy like nobody else in the soap world! No one's even a close second. Why? I personally think a good 75 percent of it is because you're a woman. A male producer would never cause so much...uh...
TV Guide Magazine: Exactly. But that's a subject for a whole other interview, if not a college thesis.
Phelps: Look, I'm sorry I killed Maureen Bauer on Guiding Light all those years ago, but I am not responsible for the death of Frankie Frame on Another World! That was not my doing and I am tired of taking the heat for having killed a character when I didn't! [Laughs] The other day we were in a network meeting talking about one of the Y&R actors who wanted out temporarily to go do something and I said, "Let her go do it!" And the network executive looked at me and said, "You're not nearly the monster I've been hearing about!"
TV Guide Magazine: Hey, as long as they're talkin' about ya! So about the rumors....
Phelps: Okay, hit me.
TV Guide Magazine: You hate actors over 40 and the Y&R vets should be very worried.
Phelps: I don't know where that comes from. Yes, we want to set the stage for the future of the show by using the next generation but not at the cost of the veterans. There is no truth to that. In fact, I'd love to bring some back. I have already talked with Jess Walton [Jill, who chose to leave the show last spring]. She has agreed to come back, though not on a full-time basis. She says she'll return if the right story is there, and we want to make that happen. Audiences want quality drama. They are too smart to be fooled by really young pretty people they don't care about. Even teenagers are going, "Why am I supposed to care about this?" So it is simply not true that I don't like people over 40. Hey, I'm over 40. My friends are over 40. I really appreciative the talent of those at Y&R who are in that age group.
TV Guide Magazine: Next rumor: The characters Maria Bell created during her reign are also in danger.
Phelps: We're not changing or dropping things just because they stemmed from Maria. We're doing what we feel is best for Y&R, deciding who is of the most value, who brings the most to the table, and that has nothing to do with previous regimes and who got hired by whom.
TV Guide Magazine: By the way, I don't think that particular rumor comes in the form of a fear or complaint. Few, if any, of Maria's characters have electrified the audience.
Phelps: Either way, we do not have a Maria Bell hit list. But, again, that is not to say that everyone stays. I was not sitting by the phone hoping someone would get fired so I could have this job. The phone call came in, Josh and I said yes, and here we are. It's our job to make this a better Y&R — not a different Y&R but a better one — and that doesn't take anything away from the people who were here before. So...what else?
TV Guide Magazine: A sidebar rumor to that one: Genie Francis [Genevieve], also one of Maria's hires, is very likely to go since you two previously tangled at GH.
Phelps: Genie and I had a wonderful talk when I came to Y&R and I think we're really quite fond of each other. She's a magnificent actress.
TV Guide Magazine: Let's talk about the Mustache! Eric Braeden went on the record — here, there and everywhere — saying how pissed he is about Maria's dismissal. And Maria went on Facebook and claimed he was "choking back tears" during her going-away ceremony on the set.
Phelps: I wasn't there.
TV Guide Magazine: Uh, yeah, I kinda figured...but did you have to do damage control? Did you need to coddle Braeden and tell him everything's okay?
Phelps: I had a meeting with all of the actors and said to them: "I come in peace. I am not here to rape and pillage Y&R." And they could not have been warmer or more welcoming. Clearly, Mr. Braeden has been here a long time and he has a tremendous affection for the way things have been. I don't begrudge him that at all. I'm crazy about him and Melody Thomas Scott [Nikki] and we have great plans for them. Actors don't get better than that.
TV Guide Magazine: Rumor: It's only a matter of time before you find a role for James Franco, just as you did at GH and Hollywood Heights.
Phelps: I'll never say never on that one. Here's the thing about James. If I were to ask him to do Y&R he would probably do it but right now I really have many more important things to take care of. [Laughs] Now, if he calls me and says, "I really have a hankering to do Y&R," I would try to find a way to make it happen. He is absolutely welcome.
TV Guide Magazine: Franco is what's known on the boards as an FOJ — Friend of Jill. What do you say to the rumor that Y&R will soon be overrun with FOJs?
Phelps: The rap I get for casting FOJs is legitimate. When you've done as many shows as I have and have been in the business this long, you accumulate some really wonderful actors as friends. Hiring people from my past shows is just a natural thing. They are fabulous actors and I know they can deliver. Nobody ever tells Steven Bochco or David Kelley they shouldn't keep hiring actors they believe in and bring them along from show to show. [Laughs] And let me be very clear that I am not comparing myself to Bochco and Kelly! My point is that you don't get that blowback in primetime like you do in daytime. That said, I have no current plans to bring on any FOJs. But if one of them is right for a role, I'm not going to ignore it just because the fans might be mad at me.
TV Guide Magazine: Which is exactly the kind of statement that makes the fans mad at you.
Phelps: I mean them no harm. In the course of my career I have made a very public mistake or four. Killing Maureen will go down as one of the biggest blunders in soap history and I agree! I have learned my lessons and, hopefully, I will never make those mistakes again. Many of the people who are mad have been mad for years and will probably stay that way. But I think I have also done some good stuff in this business. I want the fans of Y&R to know that I very much care what they think about the show, that I am here to honor its legacy and that I'm going to do my absolute best. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be here and know that I am very lucky. That is not lost on me.