Question: Please help prove me right. Maybe it's my age (I'm only 22), but as far as I'm concerned, Dallas was the first prime-time soap on TV. My sister says Dynasty. Who's right? Vicki M., Parkman, Wyo.
Televisionary: Neither of you, though you're in a little better shape since Dallas debuted in 1978 and Dynasty didn't come on the scene until three years later. The progenitor of both, the one that demonstrated the public appetite for nighttime soaps, was ABC's Peyton Place, which hit the air more than 15 years before anyone even thought of shooting J.R.
Of course, Peyton executive producer Paul Monash, who was known for writing The Untouchables and was brought on board to adapt the fabulously trashy and popular novel for the small screen, hated his show to be lumped in with all those other soaps. "Instead of calling it soap opera, which is a pejorative term, I would prefer people to say: 'My gosh, Monash has created the first great television novel,'" he said in 1965.
Actually, they called it a lot worse than that. One critic termed it "a worthy candidate for TV's trash barrel and the sooner the better," while another said he had to wait a day to write about it because he was so nauseated after watching the show's first episode. Jack Paar piled on, too, describing it as "Television's first situation orgy."
None of that really mattered, though, because the viewing public called it irresistible, making the executives who decided to air it twice a week, a TV first, look like geniuses. Of course, they didn't look quite so bright when they upped that to thrice weekly, but they quickly took it back down to two in the second season when the audience didn't seem to want it that much. (And I'll bet you kids thought ABC pioneered that kind of mistake more than three decades later with Who Wants to be A Millionaire.)
That wasn't the first bad call the network made with the show, but luckily one of the bigger ones was corrected before the pilot was ever shot. Initially, executives wanted to call the show Eden Place to avoid being tainted by the scandal surrounding the infamously "dirty" book. Then someone woke up to the fact that that kind of taint was the whole reason for making a TV version of the book, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for 59 weeks and sold more than 9 million copies in its hardback and paperback versions.
Peyton Place's bread and butter was pretty standard soap stuff questions of paternity, romantic entanglements, murder, mayhem and affairs, affairs, affairs but it was pretty spicy by '60s prime-time standards. And because this was Hollywood, the behind-the-scenes doings made for some fairly eventful storytelling, too.
The most obvious example of that was demanding star Mia Farrow. The actress after wreaking havoc on shooting schedules and making the writers' lives hell by taking a two-month vacation left her role as young Allison Mackenzie to marry the significantly older Frank Sinatra.
There was Dorothy Malone, who, while playing Allison's mom Constance, made a point of complaining that she never had anything interesting to do on the show. "I live much more drama and tragedy in my own life than I ever do on Peyton Place," she said. And she was right. She went through a nasty divorce from French actor Jacques Bergerac, accusing him of marrying famous women (Ginger Rogers among them) only to make a name for himself. And she was off the show for a time while suffering through a truly scary medical crisis involving blood clots in her lungs and an ensuing enlarged heart, a condition so bad that few at the time had ever survived it.
Ryan O'Neal, who played wealthy young lothario Rodney Harrington, proudly told of trying to get his wife drunk in their dating days via an arrangement with a waitress who brought the lucky lady stiff drinks while serving the actor watered-down ones. (It worked, but instead of asking him back to her place, she turned the tables by asking him to accompany her to pray at a church at one in the morning a move worthy of a Peyton episode.)
Add to that Joyce Jillson's parade of boyfriends and fiancées (one of whom successfully sued her for breach of promise) and her myriad unlisted phone numbers. Throw in the catty Barbara Parkins, who once, after seeing another new actress arrive on the set, said to reporters: "I took one look at her and I knew I didn't have to worry." Then mix in the wacky but entertaining Diana Hyland, who told TV Guide of her belief in flying saucers (and her desire to ride in one) before displaying rare honesty about the quality of her role as a drunken, nymphomaniacal minister's wife: "It's not ladylike to throw up, but the scripts are starting to get to me."
All of that intrigue behind and in front of the camera added up to something that was probably bad for you in the long run, but couldn't be kicked. It was "like a narcotic," Monash explained. "If you tune in often enough, there is a very strong threat of addiction."
Spoken like a true entertainer, no? (Or maybe more like a tobacco exec you make the call.)