Nancy Curlee is a former soap opera writer who has written for “Guiding Light.” She began writing for the show in 1985 as a Script Writer and quickly rose up the ranks, holding positions as Breakdown Writer, Script Editor, Associate Head Writer, Co-Head Writer and then eventually becoming the show’s Head Writer from 1990–1993 (she shared the position with James E. Reilly, Stephen Demorest, and Lorraine Broderick). She is a three time Daytime Emmy winner (including one as part of the Head Writing team in 1993) and a Writers Guild Award for the 1991 season.
Curlee graduated from Hollins College, in 1979, with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She also attended college at University of East Anglia in England for a year. Curlee is married to Stephen Demorest, who is also a soap opera writer. The two met in June of 1985 in Pamela K. Long’s (“GL’s” Head Writer at the time) living room. Within two weeks, they started dating each other and have been together ever since. They have three daughters and currently reside in North Carolina.
Xavier Toups: What have you been doing since leaving GL in 1993? What are you currently doing now?
Nancy Curlee: I’ve always kind of needed to disappear into a cave for big stretches. That’s hard to do with three daughters who need more of me than that allows. I’ve spent the last several years really focused on my family. We’ve done some traveling. I’ve done a little acting, for fun, in local plays and some student films. I’m only now getting back into doing some writing, short stories, mainly. And I am loving it.
Toups: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Curlee: I’m not so sure you decide so much as discover that you are. I was making books out of paper towels by age five.
Toups: When/Why did you decide to become a soap opera writer?
Curlee: I began as a screenwriter, and sold a couple of features before moving on to gainful employment. The movie scripts were romantic comedies, but were never produced.
Toups: How did you get your first job in the soap opera industry?
Curlee: Maeve Kinkaid (Vanessa) was a family friend through the Streeps – she’s married to Harry. She put me in touch with Proctor and Gamble’s scriptwriting development program. Then producer, Gail Kobe, who liked my sample script, had lunch with me. We talked and laughed all afternoon, and finally she sighed and said, “What am I going to do with you?” Being 26 and appallingly dumb, I said, “Hire me?” Thankfully, she did.
Toups: Did you watch soaps before joining Guiding Light in 1985?
Curlee: I did. As the World Turns, All My Children, and of course, Guiding Light. I always knew that [they] were so much better than they were given credit for being.
Toups: Were there any soap writers whose work you admired while you was growing up and watching soaps?
Curlee: I really loved Doug Marland, and though I didn’t know it at the time, Patrick Mulcahey. Those stories and scripts in the late 70s, early 80s were brilliant.
Toups: As a Script Writer and Breakdown Writer, were there any specific episodes that you were really proud of?
Curlee: I wrote Reva’s wedding to Josh, and a lot of the scenes between Josh and Marah at the time of her death. I loved those. And many of the Alex and Alan Spaulding scenes, my favourite being a moment where they were lunching at the Club, waiting for HB Lewis to join them. Alex explained HB would be late, and Chris Berneau asked if he had to finish his “chores”? I can’t think of a funnier word coming out of Alan Spaulding’s mouth, and Chris was so perfect in his delivery. I also did the Cliff House scenes between Holly and Roger, and they were both so good, they could have made the phone book sound like high art.
Toups: What were your duties as Script Editor?
Curlee: I was in charge of tracking and continuity, and essentially read and edited all scripts for story irregularities, and where necessary, cleaned up the dialogue.
Toups: Did you have a favorite position, since you were in every position on a soap opera writing staff?
Curlee: Scripts are great fun, particularly if you have enough trust from the headwriter to expand and put your own stamp on them. (See Patrick Mulcahey.) But headwriting was the best, because as exhausting as the work was, it was just glorious to get the whole boat moving in a direction you liked, to weave all of the characters and stories, to have things appear, recede, come back. It’s like a Victorian novel on speed.
Toups: In 1989, you were promoted to Co-Head Writer. What was your role in that position under Head Writer Pamela K. Long?
Curlee: We shared responsibilities for stories. I was able to put the Roger/Mindy/Billy/Alex story in motion, which had great legs, I thought, and focused on actors I particularly liked. I did a lot of the layout of the week, which meant breaking the stories down into episodes.
Toups: Then in 1990, you promoted again to the Head Writer position, along with the late James E. Reilly, and your husband Stephen Demorest. Then later, Lorraine Broderick joined the Head Writing team. Can you tell us how you felt when you were given this huge responsibility?
Curlee: The hard part was gaining the trust of the executives, so that they eventually loosened the reins and allowed us to steam ahead with stories they were initially reluctant to sign off on.
Toups: As a team, what was the Head Writing process like? How were the responsibilities distributed?
Curlee: It varied according to the people involved. I am naturally the bossiest, so they were gracious enough to let me drive a lot of the time. Stephen is brilliant at lay out, particularly with mysteries. Jim Reilly was a genius at upping the ante and also taught me how to infuse the show with more energy and run mini-stories that were really fun and entertaining. He was great fun and a pleasure to work with. I worked less with Lorraine who didn’t stay long after I returned from a maternity leave. Patrick was a soul mate, loved all of the same stuff Stephen and I did. He was especially good at the Cooper family stories, and Buzz Cooper in particular. He had such a great way of turning a story slightly askew and telling it from a very specific vantage point you might not have considered before. I think Buzz Cooper was his baby, and I loved what he did with that.
Toups: James E. Reilly has been one of the most talked about Head Writers in the last two decades. What was it like to work with him as Co-Head Writers?
Curlee: Jim was a prince of a fellow – a great big heart, a wild sensibility, and he was just the most fun. We definitely came at story telling from different places, and it was a shotgun wedding. But I learned so much from him, and had a ball while doing it. He was so good at the big stroke, the grand gesture. He was also my salvation in learning how to work with the executives when we were embattled for a time. You can’t imagine how much and how hard we laughed holed up in those airless little rooms at CBS.
Toups: How was Head Writing a soap with your husband, Stephen Demorest, like?
Curlee: Stephen’s strengths are so different from mine, it was a blessing we had each other. He is meticulous, methodical and really, really smart. He was an island of calm in turbulent waters. I’m much more prone to big bursts of enthusiasm, and was always so emotional about it all. He was so good at plugging holes, dotting i’s and crossing t’s and knitting it all together in a way that made it hold. He’s also very dry and funny. And pretty cute, too.
Toups: Sometimes having “too many cooks in the kitchen” can be the downfall of a soap, but how did the Head Writing team keep the show on such a creative high?
Curlee: You had bloody better have a lot of respect for each other’s talents, and really trust each other to present a unified front to the execs, first of all. With Stephen and Jim and Patrick, we really had each other’s backs. We recognized what each person brought to the table. We knew a rising tide lifted all boats, and so we made it work. I was the youngest, the “girl”, and the bossiest. But we adored each other, and trust me, that COUNTS.
Toups: The dialogue was so crisp during your tenure, what did you look for in Script Writers?
Curlee: People who avoided clichés, found a fresh way to say things, had essentially the same sensibility about the characters and the show, in general. How lucky were we to have Patrick, Courtney Simon (who is unbelievably good), and Lynda Miles working on the same show?
Toups: How did you come up with three years worth of storylines without feeling burnt out?
Curlee: By the end of my time there, frankly, I was burned out. More to do with endless meetings defending our work and pitching and justifying, than with the writing itself. But it is hard, under any circumstances, to maintain that kind of quality. I probably should have relinquished more control of it, in hindsight. I felt very protective of the material and the actors, and had a hard time saying okay, that’s good enough if I didn’t think it really was.
Toups: Do you have any favorite moments from the Writers Room that you can share?
Curlee: You know, the best times came when we were so tired we were slapdrunk, and bordering on insane. At that point, people would just say anything, the more outrageous the better. If a starlet were being especially difficult on set, we’d contemplate giving her a wasting disease of the skin. There were also times we would be so invested in the way a particular scene should play out, we’d get teary eyed doing the dialogue for it.
Toups: What storylines did you not enjoy writing?
Curlee: I wasn’t really very plugged into the Francesca/Mallet story we told after Jim and Stephen and I began…just wasn’t invested and felt like it was a drag. I was a little embarrassed by the way in which Roger Thorpe was initially brought back, after I had fought so hard to get him there. (Anybody remember the mask and the undersea cave? Right.) I thought Marcy Walker was a brilliant actress, but the character of Tangie was a mess…too abrupt and superimposed to be woven in well. And I loved Ellen Parker. ‘Nuff said.
Toups: What storylines did you really enjoy writing?
Curlee: When the edict came down on Ellen, we were determined to at least make it as important as it should be. I think that two weeks of writing and acting was perhaps the best we ever did as a company. Ellen, Peter Simon, Maeve Kinkead, all of them really, were brilliant. I loved the love stories we launched in the beginning, Harley and Mallet; Mindy and Nick McHenry, and the archetypal struggle between Mindy and Alexandra; Alan Michael and Eleni and Frank Cooper; Billy and Vanessa and Nadine. Holly and Roger. The murder mystery that kicked off with Blake dangling her feet in the pool at the Club, and screaming her head off when she discovered the body. I loved Jenna and Buzz and Roger scenes. Hart and Bridget and Julie and Dylan.
Toups: What is the one single storyline during your Head Writing tenure that you feel represents the best of your work?
Curlee: The stuff I enjoyed the most is listed above. I think the fans would be able to answer that better than I could.
Toups: Who were some of your favorite characters/actors to write for?
Curlee: Alexandra, Roger, Billy spring to mind, because they were just so big. All of them really. Rick Hearst as Alan Michael used to deliver his lines with exactly the same cadences I had heard while writing them. Eleni? Holly? Blake? Vanessa? Harley? All of them were favourites in some way or another.
Toups: Who was the most difficult character to write for and who was the easiest?
Curlee: For me, Tangie was the hardest and least successful, mainly because we never had time to develop her the way I would’ve liked. That’s honestly the only one who comes to mind…all of the others felt natural as breathing.
Toups: What type of storylines do you love?
Curlee: Love stories, domestic/family drama, mysteries.
Toups: What type of storylines do you hate?
Curlee: Convoluted corporate business stories.
Toups: In 1985, Charita Bauer died. How did the writers respond and how did they try to move the show forward from such a loss?
Curlee: I had begun doing writing workshops for P&G, but had not yet joined the show that spring of 85, so I wasn’t there. I’d watched and loved her for years and so I felt her loss as keenly as any viewer. The Bauers had been so marginalized at that time, I don’t think she it was made as important as it should have been.
Toups: Was it difficult writing Alex as the head of the Spaulding family after the tragic loss of Chris Bernau (Alan Spaulding)? What was that transition like?
Curlee: Beverlee McKinsey was up to anything we asked of her, but Chris Bernau’s Alan was painful and his absence was keenly felt.
Toups: Roger Thorpe returned to the show in 1989. Who made that decision and why did they think it was time to bring him back?
Curlee: Pam Long had never seen Roger, so when we heard he was available, I convinced her to write him in. The execs were another story, feeling it would violate a reality they felt had been firmly established with his death. We actually sat and studied his fall from cliff, hitting rewind again and again, arguing over whether his head had made contact with a rock, with the execs. It’s hilarious in retrospect, but at the time, deathly serious. Finally, I got Ed Trach to concede that there were “no skeletal remains”, the be all end all in soap opera resurrections. Ed, by the way, was Roger’s greatest fan, and no one was happier and more grateful for his scenes a year or two down the road.
Toups: What is the key to writing a successful complex villain like Roger?
Curlee: The clear understanding that nothing is really black or white…it’s the gray zone that’s most interesting. As I’ve said elsewhere, the villain always thinks he’s the hero, especially in Roger’s case.
Toups: How hard was it to transition the show after Kim Zimmer left in 1990 to a more ensemble piece, since Reva was such a huge character that was given a lot of airtime?
Curlee: I thought Kim was amazing, and GL is fortunate to have had every second of her that they’ve ever gotten. It wasn’t Reva’s fault that the show was unbalanced. I was always more in favour of the show as an ensemble piece, but there was no reason Kim couldn’t have been part of that. There was some resistance at one point about bringing her back, but it never came from the writers.
Toups: Were there any plans to bring Reva/Kim Zimmer back during your Head Writing tenure?
Curlee: See above.
Toups: The Blackout storyline in the summer of 1992 was such a popular story. Who initially came up with the idea and why was that such a big story?
Curlee: Wasn’t that terrific? I was on maternity leave, so I honestly don’t recall. I know Stephen and Jim and Jill were working together really well at that point, but don’t know who had the initial seed.
Toups: Was Jenna supposed to be a short-term character and if so, why did the show decide to expand the role?
Curlee: Stephen created Jenna, and then we all fell in love with her (and Fiona Hutchinson). The romance we created between Buzz and her was just a colossal stroke of luck in terms of chemistry and plot, and we couldn’t bear to let her go.
Toups: In 1993 the character was Buzz was introduced, was it difficult writing for him when the character’s daughter, Harley, who went in search of him, left soon after he was introduced?
Curlee: Harley was there for long enough to ground him, and to have a good storyline with Mallet, as well. By the time she left, he was pretty well grounded in the show.
Toups: What were the challenges of writing young characters, like Bridget and Michelle, so realistically for the most part, since younger characters are awfully written in general?
Curlee: It helped to have a daughter of my own around Michelle’s age. And with Bridget, well, it helped to have a memory. And an actors of that caliber.
Toups: Why did you feel the need to bring Bridget on the canvas, since Maureen was the only surviving Reardon?
Curlee: First choice would’ve been Nola, but I wanted a young Nola, and that was the model for Bridget.
Toups: Was there any intention of pairing Bridget and David Grant romantically?
Curlee: We always thought they were a natural, but even that recently, the network was reluctant to do an interracial story line.
Toups: Was it difficult writing for African American characters, since the Grants had such a prominent role on the show?
Curlee: Well, I grew up in the South, and contrary to popular wisdom, black people and white people live in closer proximity to each other there, and tend to know each other a lot better than in more segregated urban environments. It would’ve been nice if we’d had more African American writers, but we didn’t have anyone coming through the door at that particular point, though of course they were out there. I just hope African American viewers felt it was authentic enough.
Toups: How did Beverlee McKinsey’s sudden departure impact the storyline plans?
Curlee: It was a huge disappointment to see her go, but I loved Beverlee as a friend as much as I did as an actor, and it was the right choice for her.
Toups: The decision to have Roger and Holly sleep together 15 years or so after the infamous rape, why did you think it was time for Roger and Holly to connect sexually again?
Curlee: Because the truth is, that was only one truth among many between those two characters. Holly was 19 when she fell for Roger. I just loved watching them together, in every single facet of their complicated relationship.
Toups: What was the reasoning behind making Maureen the only one to see and accept Roger for who he really was and never judged him?
Curlee: Maureen was an old soul, and there always was such a sweetness in Roger underneath all of the scar tissue. At the risk of using a beat to death cliché, it was not unlike Rhett Butler and Melanie Wilkes. She had the calm center that helped him be his best self in her presence.
Toups: So many writing regimes have never really understood the character of Alan-Michael Spaulding (played by Rick Hearst), but the character seemed to come into his own during your tenure. What makes this character special and so difficult to write?
Curlee: Stephen and I both grew up with a lot of kids like Alan-Michael, so writing him was not much of a reach. And as with all people, not just privileged trust fund babies, it’s never just one thing, is it? He had so many colors, and so did Rick Hearst. It was fun to play them all.
Toups: What made the Alan-Michael/Eleni/Frank triangle such a good triangle to write for?
Curlee: Oh, man. They both just loved her, didn’t they? And there was such a classic contrast there…the earnest, good, hardworking son of immigrants against the darker, more complex, even dangerous, rich kid? But that darker kid having a vulnerability that gets to the girl? Think East of Eden, and you’ve got the prototype.
Toups: Were there any characters you wanted to introduce but didn’t get the chance to?
Curlee: Dozens. But it would’ve had to be done organically, over a long stretch.
Toups: Is there anything you didn’t write that you wished you had?
Curlee: A more complicated relationship between Maureen and Roger, which would’ve had to have been done with great care, and I’m not even sure it would’ve been romantic.
Toups: Why did you stop writing for soap operas?
Curlee: There’s never just one reason, no matter what anyone says. My husband says I tried to be a racehorse, in a business that was really designed for a plow horse. Then again, he really likes me, and resented the way I was “handled” down the stretch. Basically, I felt we’d done something special, with the help of a lot of people, and then when it was really flying, people tried to wrestle it from us and make it something else, or put a different stamp of personality on it that was unnecessary.
Toups: I’m going to say a couple of names and I would like to know how it was to work with them. First, Pamela K. Long:
Curlee: Pam was chock full of native talent and with relatively no experience accomplished some wonderful things.
Toups: Patrick Mulcahey.
Curlee: What can I say that I haven’t already? I love him.
Toups: Jeff Ryder.
Curlee: A dedicated, enthusiastic guy who tended to get all of the blame and none of the credit for his years as headwriter with Pam Long.
Toups: Richard Culliton.
Curlee: One of the best soap writers ever. I just loved his scripts.
Toups: Nancy Williams Watt.
Curlee: Loveable and hard working and great, great fun.
Toups: Trent Jones.
Curlee: Another wonderful writer, Trent and I had a real brother/sister relationship. We laughed, we cried, we threw pencils at each other… I think he’s great.
Toups: Gail Kobe.
Curlee: A great nurturer of young talent.
Toups: Robert Calhoun.
Curlee: A pro, who really put his neck on the line for me at a certain point. I’ll always be grateful and have great affection for him.
Toups: Jill Farren Phelps.
Curlee: For all that has been written, slamming Jill, no one should ever question how much she loved GL. She loved good writing and good actors, and was one of the best technical directors I ever worked with. There was a time when she and I finished each others’ sentences, and I’ll always remember that fondly.
Toups: Ed Trach.
Curlee: He absolutely loved GL, and told me when he retired that he was prouder of his affiliation with the show during our time there than he ever had been. His departure really marked the end of an era, and it really hasn’t been the same since.
Toups: If you returned to television writing, what type of show would you like to write for or create?
Curlee: I think Friday Night Lights may be as close to the kind of show I would write as anything on the air right now. I felt that way about Once and Again with Sela Ward, too. My big love is for family drama and love stories, done with an ensemble cast.
Toups: What was your reaction when you heard Guiding Light was cancelled?
Curlee: I felt like a great old family member had passed away, or more accurately, had been taken off life support. I wish that her problems had been addressed and repaired before she reached that stage. Having said that, a show with that kind of history, and that kind of cast, is always revivable. Had the network or P&G indicated any willingness to seriously try to do that, she could have gone on forever.
Toups: At its heart, what do you believe Guiding Light is all about?
Curlee: For me, the Guiding Light was always a porch light, just outside the Bauer’s kitchen. Outside, a bad moon may be rising, forces gathering to do you harm, foes behind bushes…Outside, friends may be treacherous, lovers untrue… But if you ran like hell, and made it to the porch, and banged through that screen door, inside there would be warmth and light and the smell of good things cooking. The Guiding Light was about love and home truths and compassion prevailing. For me, anyway, that’s what it was all about.
A special thanks to Dan Gobble and Alvin O’Brien for contributing to this interview.