The loss of Emmy winner Jeanne Cooper is a staggering blow to the daytime drama community and to the millions of fans of The Young and the Restless, where she spent nearly 40 years as supernova Katherine Chancellor. CBS plans to honor the actress, author and humanitarian, who died May 8 at age 84, with a 60-minute tribute airing on Y&R Tuesday, May 28.
Cast members taking part are Jess Walton (Jill), Melody Thomas Scott (Nikki), Eric Braeden (Victor), Peter Bergman (Jack), Doug Davidson (Paul), Christian LeBlanc (Michael), Michelle Stafford (Phyllis), Tracey Bregman (Lauren), Kristoff St. John (Neil), Greg Rikaart (Kevin), Billy Miller (Billy), Daniel Goddard (Cane), Kate Linder (Esther), Bryton James (Devon), Tricia Cast (Nina), Lauralee Bell (Cricket), Beth Maitland (Traci), Michael Fairman (Murphy) and Jerry Douglas (John), plus The Bold and the Beautiful's John McCook (Eric) and Heather Tom (Katie). Eileen Davidson (Ashley) and Michael Damian (Danny) were invited to participate but were forced to decline due to schedule conflicts. Stephen Nichols (Tucker) and Beau Kazer (Brock) are also on the invite list, but are not yet confirmed. The memorial episode will be helmed by longtime Y&R director Sally McDonald.
But what about Cooper's beloved character? Will Kay Chancellor also die, or will the show recast the role, as has been rumored? TV Guide Magazine sat down for an exclusive chat with Y&R executive producer Jill Farren Phelps to get the facts.
TV Guide Magazine: The outpouring of love and sadness over Jeanne is unprecedented in daytime, wouldn't you say?
Phelps: I've never seen anything like it in all my years in this business. It's a real phenomenon. But then there was never anyone like Jeanne Cooper. She is the heart of this show and it's just devastating. There are a lot of tears, still. Jeanne was a loud and wonderful voice in these halls, and for that voice to be silenced — on the show and in life — is shocking. So hard to believe.
TV Guide Magazine: Tell us about the plans to honor her on air, and what you plan to do about her character.
Phelps: We're going to have the actors closest to Jeanne — probably 25 in all — sit in the Chancellor mansion set and tell stories and reminisce about her life, as themselves. We'll serve tea and let everyone talk and cry and laughs and share and we'll find the best photos and clips we can get our hands on and edit it all together into a beautiful celebration episode. This is all for Jeanne. And then later we will deal with the death of Kay Chancellor. We've already written the show into July, so it will take some time before we can address her departure on air. In the meantime, there will be references in the script that Katherine and her husband Murphy are off somewhere on a trip.
TV Guide Magazine: Was there any thought to handling this the way Brad Bell dealt with the death of Darlene Conley on The Bold and the Beautiful — by sending her character, Sally Spectra, gallivanting around the world, leaving us with the comforting feeling that she'll always be out there somewhere?
Phelps: We decided, for the sake of the audience and the characters, that it was important to have closure with Kay. And, contrary to rumors, we never gave a thought to recasting the role — not for a minute! Y&R was forced to do it when Jeanne was out ill for a bit a couple of years ago, when she was replaced by Michael Learned. But that was a temporary situation. You cannot replace the irreplaceable. The greatest way to honor Jeanne is to make Kay's exit as dramatic and meaningful as possible.
TV Guide Magazine: In a way that will create more story?
Phelps: Exactly. That's all part of our thinking and planning. We have not yet decided how Kay's life will actually end, but we are talking a bit already about what she will leave in her wake. It will be something that will leave the memory of Kay Chancellor deeply imbedded in everyone in Genoa City. What happens to Chancellor Industries? What decisions did Kay make in the event of her death? The ramifications need to be big.
TV Guide Magazine: Will you keep the Chancellor mansion set? It's pretty damn iconic.
Phelps: We haven't gotten that far. Whether it gets passed down to another generation or not, I can't yet say. Right this moment, the celebration episode is occupying almost all our thoughts. But I can tell you that we'll approach everything with Jeanne in mind, asking ourselves, what would she have wanted us to do?
TV Guide Magazine: Jeanne's final scene, which aired May 3, seemed strangely prophetic, almost as if the writers knew it would be her last.
Phelps: I assure you we had no idea it would be the last time she'd be with us on the set. She actually adlibbed her final word, "Goodnight." That wasn't us. It was all her. And how great that her final scene was with Jess Walton, of all possible people. It was so right.
TV Guide Magazine: I can't shake the feeling that Jeanne knew she wouldn't be back. It sure feels that way when you watch the clip.
Phelps: [Cooper's son] Corbin Bernsen came in to see us for a couple of hours to help plan the May 28 celebration. I had the feeling talking with him that Jeanne kind of knew that it was time to go — if she couldn't continue to be all the fantastic things she had been in life then she just wasn't interested. I can tell you that Corbin is going to be with us on-air to participate in the tribute to his mother, and he will also be with us when we have the memorial to Kay Chancellor, in his role as Father Todd.
TV Guide Magazine: Was it tough limiting the group that will participate in the Jeanne tribute?
Phelps: Yes, because every actor loved her, every crew member, everyone in the production office. I think by the time everyone is finished it will probably be a two-hour special. The plan is to take the material that doesn't make it into the episode and put it online. We want to hear from George Guzman and Patti Denney who did Jeanne's hair and makeup and had long, wonderful relationships with her. [Laughs] I mean, who knows you better than the people who do your hair and makeup? God, Jeanne was a pistol! And so giving. Not long ago, I was in the hall and she motioned me into her dressing room with one of those long, fabulous fingernails. We had a young actress who had just started on the show and Jeanne said to me: "Let me work with her. Let me see if I can help her. Do you trust me?" I said, "Yes, absolutely!" And how fortunate for this young actress, that she had a chance to be taken under the wing of Jeanne Cooper and be mentored by her. Jeanne took the honor and privilege of being in people's homes very seriously.
TV Guide Magazine: And she suffered no fools. She couldn't tolerate anyone who took their gig for granted.
Phelps: That is so true. Working in daytime meant the world to her and she gave so much back to daytime. There's so much we'll never forget — that energy, the wonderful way she treated people, the way she made us all laugh, how she was dead serious about her work, yet not serious at all. She was a great broad! Totally real, always down to earth, yet at the same time she was like the movie star of our show. And she was totally fearless. She wouldn't want any of us crying over her departure. [Laughs] In fact, she'd be waving that fingernail at us and saying in that inimitable voice, "Stop that! Shut the f--k up!" I think she'd want us to be laughing like crazy.
TV Guide Magazine: One of the best stories in her memoir Not Young, Still Restless is about the funeral of her ex-husband Harry Bernsen. It's total hilarity!
Phelps: We're just all so mad we didn't get more time with her. It was never enough! And we know the audience feels the same way. Even if you watched her on Y&R for nearly 40 years, it still wasn't enough. There has never been anything comparable to the power of that woman. There never will be.