In our last article on Casting Capers, we reviewed those last-minute recasts that occur when the writers want to go in a different direction with a story.
There is another part of Casting Capers, however, and that's stunt casting.
Possibly the biggest stunt of all was Elizabeth Taylor creating the role of Helena Cassadine on General Hospital. Here's how it all came about.
Back in 1981, 14 million soap fans tuned in daily to see the #1 soap opera in the country, General Hospital, a show that was earning $50 million-plus yearly in profits. To give you an idea of the enormity of this, the highly popular prime time show Dallas, which was more expensive to produce, was earning half as much as General Hospital in its prime.
With the Luke and Laura wedding approaching, no one was worried about ratings. However, in an unheard of coup, General Hospital signed on mega-star Elizabeth Taylor for five episodes.
Like a lot of other people, General Hospital was Taylor's favorite soap. While she was doing The Little Foxes on Broadway, she was visited by an executive of the show and agreed to do it once the run of The Little Foxes was over and she had returned to Los Angeles.
The casting of a huge film star was actually not without precedent. In 1968, while Christina Crawford was on The Secret Storm, she became ill, and her mommy dearest, Joan Crawford, replaced her. Crawford was directed by Gloria Monty, who thirteen years later brought in Taylor.
Of course, there were accommodations made for Taylor, but also a few ground rules set. Producer Gloria Monty gave Taylor her office, as well as the office of a consultant. She also brought in Christopher and Aileen Wilding, Taylor's son and daughter-in-law as extras, and Taylor was allowed to bring in her publicist, makeup man, and hairdresser.
As far as stipulations, Monty was firm. Elizabeth Taylor had to play a role, not herself. For that, the part of Helena Cassadine, the widow of Mikkos Cassadine, was created. Helena sweeps in and donates millions to GH to make up for the havoc Mikkos had wreaked on Port Charles, but her generosity was hiding a vicious side. During Luke and Laura's wedding, Taylor as Helena, her hair in a turban, put a curse on the happy couple.
Taylor's time on the show took two days to film, and she donated her $2,000 paycheck to two hospitals in Virginia where she had had treatment. By all accounts, Taylor thoroughly enjoyed the filming, and everyone enjoyed Taylor's presence on the set. She was very relaxed, approaching the lighting man and asking him to "watch out for my chins." She also had difficulty pronouncing the name Cassadine, at one point calling it "Cassadeen." On every flub, she was burst into contagious laughter that rocked the set.
"She worked hard and with humor. She wasn't tap-dancing," says Tony Geary. "She hugged each member of the cast, she knew people's names. She treated me like a total peer--not like a clown or a freak." For Geary, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and gave him some much-needed validation. "The fact that Elizabeth Taylor chose to come here because she's a fan must mean we're doing something right," says Geary. "It validated General Hospital for me."
Tristan Rogers (Robert Scorpio) also has happy memories of working with Taylor: "I was one of the only people who had a one-on-one scene with her," Rogers recalls. "I was warned, 'Tristan, do not ad lib. Elizabeth has never worked with a five-camera set-up.' We got on the set, and she had cue cards. I was warned about that, too -- 'Don't change the lines!' I said, 'OK.'
"I walked into her dressing room and introduced myself. As we talked, it became apparent to me that she knew the script probably better than I did. I said, 'Look, I've made a couple of changes here ...' She roared with laughter. She'd been told the whole set was a monster of improvisation. She said, 'Just do what you do,' and we did it." Fans can still remember Scorpio's entrance into Helena's suite. Gazing at Taylor, glamorous in her trademark purple, he says, "I swear you do it with mirrors."
Thus the role of Helena Cassadine began. Helena became a character who showed up from time to time, but alas, never again played by Taylor. She has been portrayed for some years now by the glamorous, sophisticated Constance Towers, who makes a wonderful Helena.
With news of her passing, the show put out a statement: “We were honored to work with Elizabeth Taylor on General Hospital. Her portrayal of Helena was a defining moment for the show and an extraordinary experience for everyone involved. She was a great talent, a gracious lady, and a rare presence. We are deeply saddened by her passing and send our deepest condolences to her family and friends.”
And from Tony Geary: “Elizabeth was more than a great star, she was an amazing human being. Her world famous physical beauty paled in comparison to the beauty that radiated from her heart and soul. She had great humor, didn’t take herself too seriously, and had the most wonderful bawdy laugh.
"She was a fierce and loyal friend and tireless advocate. She dedicated herself to education, treatment and the search for a cure for HIV/AIDS long before it was fashionable to do so. Back in the dark days of ignorance and prejudice against people stricken with the disease, Elizabeth was at the forefront of the battle. I was fortunate enough to call her my friend and every moment I spent in her company was unforgettable. I loved her very much. The world is a little darker, a little colder, a little less beautiful without her.” And so is the world of soap opera.