Pine Valley Lament

09.20.11

Goodbye to My Soap Star Life

Michael E. Knight, who has played Tad Martin on "All My Children" for nearly 30 years, writes about the show coming to an end—and why he’s at peace with it.

I have been asked to express my thoughts on the cancellation of All My Children this fall. As a member of its cast for almost 30 years, I must admit this feels a little like tacking pieces of Jell-O to a bulletin board. After all, the show has been a dominant factor, and commitment, for well over half of my life. The last few years in particular have been immensely challenging. Making sense of things will, doubtless, be an ongoing process. Were I to attempt it six months from now, I’m sure the result would be a completely different article. But in the here and now of it, I ask for your patience, and forbearance, while I give it a shot.

Without a doubt, our audience has made much of the sad news. The ongoing outcry has made us all intensely aware, with varying degrees of discomfort and gratitude (depending which side of the camera you worked on), of the dangers of messing with a piece of contemporary zeitgeist, especially during an era of such immense, and global, transformation.

That said, for years “soaps” have been struggling for relevance and, according to some network executives, losing the fight. The genre was always a simple one, easy to satirize and dismiss, though immensely profitable. More recently, due to constantly evolving cultural and economic changes, soaps have been all too easily labeled (even by those responsible for their welfare) as dated and archaic. Advancing technology challenges advertising; reality television continues to redefine entertainment; and an increasingly sophisticated audience has embraced the right to choose how, where, and when it spends its downtime. In late January, after One Life to Live also ends, only four daytime dramas will still be airing on the three major networks, out of 10 a decade earlier.

It’s gratifying to know that All My Children continues to represent something worth fighting for, as evidenced by the efforts of forward-thinking men like Rich Frank and Jeff Kwatinetz, whose Prospect Park has secured the rights to continue both All My Children and One Life to Live on the Internet (and perhaps cable), with the cast and staff still in flux. A smaller audience, more specifically targeted through an online network, may yet save the day. We will see.

If so, I hope the show’s future is more successful than its recent past. The complications and expense of a four-decade legacy may well be an equation too complex to factor. If it is possible, I hope the good men and women of Prospect Park strive to understand and respect the tastes, the sensibilities, and the incredible commitment of the shows’ fans. Obviously all things must change and adapt to survive. But change without some awareness of where we’ve been, and why, will be pointless. 

The job is one that requires the skill of a master storyteller—someone like Agnes Nixon. At its heart, All My Children’s history has always been its greatest asset. Any generation, no matter how remarkable, must nurture—and then bow to—its successor. To intuitively know how and when to surrender the past in favor of the future is a rare and precious talent. More important, it is the very thing that lends an ongoing story its power.

In its heyday, the miracle of AMC was always greater than the sum of its parts. Pine Valley was as much a living presence as any of its citizens, a lovable collection of ridiculously eccentric and often scandalous families struggling to evolve in an ever-evolving world: families brilliantly brought to life by the talents of such people as Kay Campbell, Ruth Warrick, and Mary Fickett.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I took on the role in December 1982, or how fast so many years could fly by.

We thrived while Agnes was there: our always unseen but benevolent creator, who could almost effortlessly divine order from chaos—the person behind the curtain who appreciated not only the heart’s incredible ability to endure but also its needs for community and purpose. That sensitivity, that wisdom, was the foundation on which she created one of the most beloved and longest-lasting shows in television history. Along the way, Agnes helped found an entirely new industry behind the camera by training and honing the skills of other daytime storytellers like Lorraine Broderick, Hal Corley, Karen Lewis, and Wisner Washam.

Even though the future is always an uncertain and frequently troubling destination, Agnes will always be the first to tell you the “good news”—that with a little faith and a lot of family, you never have to get there alone. If these essentials sound too dated to the show’s new benefactors, I hope they don’t find it necessary to spend too much time trying to reinvent the wheel, because it isn’t necessary.

On a more personal note, rolling up the streets of Pine Valley for ABC has been a profound experience. That place has been a job, a lesson, a career, and a home for close to 30 years. Tad and I have been in lockstep for a long, long time, and in many ways he’s a much better man than I am, a more polished amalgam of triumphs and mistakes all rolled up into a singular, frustrating, wonderful character. 

Being so closely associated with one role for so long, especially one in the “guilty pleasure” zone of daytime television, has come at a price. I’ve never been in danger of being taken too seriously. I may have also been guilty of “staying a little too long at the party.” But having Thaddeus James Martin as a third rail has been a real godsend. He learned his lessons of responsibility and entitlement as a much younger man, and his willingness to surrender and endure for those who come after has taught me how lucky I was just to have been invited to the party in the first place.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I took on the role in December 1982, or how fast so many years could fly by. If I had, I might have run screaming from the room. Then again, the reality of being able to make a living for so long, doing something I’ve loved, with people I love, isn’t just a blessing, it’s been a downright miracle. Success isn’t always defined by what you do or how much you make. Sometimes it’s defined by what you make of success while you’re doing it.

In any case, change is here, and I’m thankful that “goodbye” finds me at peace. I’m hopefully a little wiser, definitely more humble, and profoundly grateful to have been given such a remarkable opportunity. I’m fiercely proud of the work we’ve done and forever beholden to millions of people who gave us the chance to do it—the fans. Thank you. God bless you all ... each and every one of you.