The Bold and the Beautiful can be wildly goofy and trash-tastic — and we do love that! — but the CBS soap turns deadly serious for its 6,000th episode on February 7. That's when stage 4 lung-cancer patient Stephanie Forrester, played by Susan Flannery, and several actual lung-cancer survivors — including Desperate Housewives star Kathryn Joosten and Chinese opera diva Zheng Cao — will attempt an intervention to convince Nick (Jack Wagner) that he needs to deal with his addiction to cigar smoking. TV Guide Magazine got a rare chance to speak with the ultra-private, four-time Emmy winning Flannery — herself a cancer survivor — and got her take on this groundbreaking story.
TV Guide Magazine: Few survive stage 4 lung cancer for more than a few years. What were your thoughts when [exec producer-head writer] Brad Bell gave Stephanie such a dire diagnosis?
Flannery: [Laughs] And then he added brain tumors! Yes, it was shocking, and I think Brad really played on that. I'm so very proud of our show and especially proud of Brad because he's gone balls to the wall with this cancer story. When word first got out at CBS, a lot of people came over from The Young and the Restless — which shoots just across the hall from us — and they were saying, "Susan, are you really leaving the show? Is Brad nuts?" And I said, "Well, you never know what's going to happen in this business!" [Laughs] I think that drove all the Y&R actresses crazy! But it's true. You never know what lies ahead.
TV Guide Magazine: Were you concerned that this story might hit too close to home?
Flannery: Brad first called me about it last summer. He'd originally thought of giving Stephanie colon cancer — which is the kind of cancer I was diagnosed with — and he wanted to make sure I wouldn't take offense or have a problem with it, which was very sweet of him. I said, "Whatever you want to do is fine with me." But then I think he did further investigating and decided to make it stage 4 lung cancer after learning there might be a way one could survive something like that. Of course, he then threw in the brain tumors...so who knows?
TV Guide Magazine: Where do you think this is headed? It's hard to imagine Brad letting Stephanie die, but nuttier things have happened in Soapland...
Flannery: I don't know if Brad will kill Stephanie off or if she's going back under the knife — I never ask him about story. It's my belief that actors should stay the hell out of that. But wherever this is going, I know I'm in good hands. It seems to me he's making a really huge generational shift in the show and building up a lot of the young ones to more prominence, which is great. He's cast some marvelous kids in the last year or so — Jackie, who plays Steffi, is wonderful, and so is the kid who plays Liam, and Kim, the young one playing Hope, is really developing nicely. It's a great group, the future of our show, and I think we'll see them win some awards over the next few years.
TV Guide Magazine: You've talked in the past about the possibility of retirement. Where do you stand with that now?
Flannery: I'm okay to work a bit longer, especially now that we have this great shooting schedule where we get 20 weeks off per year. I'm thinking I'll work for another couple of years.
TV Guide Magazine: Given your personal experience, did you have input into Stephanie's story?
Flannery: The only thing I shared with Brad was the importance of keeping your sense of humor after a cancer diagnosis, otherwise you don't survive. If you can't find a way to laugh every day, if you can't find things to be joyful about, then you will give into the disease. I have seen that happen to people. So, yeah, humor... that was the key for me. And I think that's what made Brad have Stephanie create a bucket list. Even though she was all prepared to go and had made her peace with everything, she had a few whimsical things she wanted to try. I liked that a lot.
TV Guide Magazine: All that fun stuff played well, yet there was a pall hanging over the bucket list episodes because Stephanie was refusing treatment. Could you relate to that part of her story?
Flannery: No, but then I didn't really face that choice in my own life. When they told me I had colon cancer, practically five minutes later I was heading into surgery. I was like, "Great! Now we know what's wrong with me!" The doctors had been trying to figure it out for a month or more. So when somebody finally gives you an answer in a situation like that, you're in some ways relieved. Also, unlike Stephanie, I felt I still had a lot of time left in me.
TV Guide Magazine: Let's talk about the 6,000th episode.
Flannery: I like that Brad wanted to honor the show's anniversary by extending the cancer story in this way. Although I did think, "Oh, my God, here we go again!" I'm once again playing a character interacting with real people, just as I did when we shot down at the Union Rescue Mission and Stephanie talked to the homeless. It's a tricky thing. When Brad approached me about going down to Skid Row to do those scenes I said, "I'm not Oprah! I'm not Barbara Walters! They made careers out of asking people questions! That's not what I do!" But he agreed to help me out and do research on the people and help me with the right questions. [Laughs] And then he threw me to the wolves! I had to wing it!
TV Guide Magazine: But those episodes were beautiful! You asked all the right questions and asked them from the heart.
Flannery: Oh, thank you, honey. Yeah, I guess it all came out okay. I was concerned about repeating that with the 6,000th because we have real cancer survivors interacting with fictional characters. Kathryn Joosten and Zheng Cao, who has a stunning voice and sings with the San Francisco Opera Company, are wonderful women and really got into it. I think their scenes are going to be very effective. But we also had cancer survivors [who are non-performers] interacting with us. They had very moving stories but I'm not sure they made the connection as well. We'll see. That's the beauty of editing, isn't it? The whole thing is very brave and innovative, a very interesting experiment. I think Brad might be riding a wave toward a new way of making soap operas, with reality being interjected into scripted drama. And of course it's good to get out the word that smoking is bad. [Laughs] She says as she puffs on her cigar...
TV Guide Magazine: These women you mention are part of a cancer support group Stephanie has formed by reaching out on the web. Will we continue to see them on the show?
Flannery: I don't know. Again, I haven't asked Brad. If we do, we'd really need a qualified group leader, perhaps a psychologist, in order to do this realistically and responsibly. The whole set-up is a little funny. Stephanie connects with these survivors on the Internet but has never actually met them until they come to her home to admonish Nick. Well, the Forresters are supposed to be very rich and famous — Eric Forrester is like Ralph Lauren — and we shouldn't let just anybody in the house! [Laughs] But our audience is very forgiving of that stuff.
TV Guide Magazine: B&B has won back-to-back Emmys for best soap — first for Storm's suicide, then Ann's death — and many are predicting it'll be three in a row with the cancer plot. Soaps can serve up all the evil doppelgangers they want, but when it comes right down to it, it's matters of life and death that really resonate with the audience and make daytime drama matter. Why don't more soaps get that?
Flannery: I totally agree. It's what we do best. That's what I've always tried to beat over the heads of the rest of the cast. When those big life moments come you gotta go balls out, and really commit, and you also have to be smart enough to know when those big moments come. The rest of what we do is what I call "coffee cup scenes," where you want to make it as natural and simple and relaxed as possible, but every once in a while you have to remind them that you're an actor and really act! Know what I mean?
TV Guide Magazine: Indeed! Don't you think Brad's late dad, [Y&R and B&B creator] Bill Bell would be bursting buttons over his kid?
Flannery: Yes, but I think Bill knew Brad had the right stuff before he died, even in those last stages before he totally slipped away from us. He was very aware of Brad's gifts and very proud of him! And I know how much finally winning that writing Emmy last year meant to Brad. He so deserved it. This is one of the best working experiences a lot of us on the show have ever had. His writing has pulled us all together as a company. We are totally juiced!