As the World Turned

July 3, 2014

DON HASTINGS photo: zimbio.com

DON HASTINGS
photo: zimbio.com

The death this week of Bob Hastings, the popular and ubiquitous character actor, reminded me that it has been just over 33 years since I passed some time with his brother, Don.
Somewhere in the genetic makeup of these siblings was a trait for longevity, and not only because Bob Hastings was 89 when he died on Monday, and Don Hastings, who lives in upstate New York, is 80. No, it’s their professional longevity that is remarkable. Bob Hastings was an actor for 77 years, and Don has been at it for 74 years. Almost all of their cumulative experience has been in television. As has been reported widely in days since his death, Bob became familiar to millions through his regular appearances on such shows as Sergeant Bilko, McHale’s Navy, General Hospital, and All in the Family.
Both brothers began their performing careers on a radio show, Coast to Coast on a Bus.

DON HASTINGS "The Video Ranger"

DON HASTINGS
“The Video Ranger”

I first became aware of Don Hastings when I was seven years old and television’s first science-fiction series, Captain Video and his Video Ranger made its debut on the DuMont Network, which broadcast on Channel 5 in New York. Don, who was about 15 years old at the time, played the Video Ranger for the entire five-year run of the show, which ended in 1955. Captain Video was played first by Richard Coogan and then by Al Hodge. DuMont was the weak sister among the television networks at that time, and Captain Video ran on a very low budget. In fact, Don Hastings told me that the weekly budget for props and scenery was $15: “Anything we could get from the shop and paint to look like something else, we used.”

AL HODGE and DON HASTINGS in action

AL HODGE and DON HASTINGS in action

The production quality of this show was, perhaps, laughable even by the standards of other networks at that time. Still, it was an adventure, and an important one at that. Captain Video was broadcast live, at first six days a week and then five. There were no do-overs, there was no editing, what you saw was what you got. And that, as any actor who worked in early television will tell you, was exciting. Don Hastings, who had a long career in the far more sophisticated medium that television became, thinks well of his experience as a legitimate television pioneer: “It was more fun. The whole attitude was different. Big business wasn’t really with us then.”

“After Captain Video,” Don told me in 1981, “I didn’t do a television show for four months, and that’s the longest period I’ve had in my life when I didn’t work.. It was good for my golf but bad for everything else.” He made up for it, though. From 1956 to 1960, he played Jack Lane on the daytime drama The Edge of Night and from 1960 until 2010, he played Dr. Robert Hughes on As the World Turns. He had the last line spoken on that show when it went off the air: “Good night.”

DON HASTINGS with KATHRYN HAYS, who played his wife, Kim, on "As the World Turns."

DON HASTINGS with KATHRYN HAYS, who played his wife, Kim, on “As the World Turns.”

 
As well known as Don Hastings became with all that exposure on national television, he told me that he experienced a different kind of fame than what a Hollywood actor or a sit-com star might experience, something unique to soap opera figures. “People treat us like people they know,” he said. “I don’t mean we’re celebrities to them; we’re people they recognize and know. If you’re recognized, it’s not going to ruin your dinner.”

I felt at the time that Hastings might be comfortable with that sort of relationship with fans, because he is soft-spoken and well mannered and, as I learned first-hand, a consummate professional. While I was waiting for a lunch date with Don Hastings, I watched from the control room the taping of an episode of As the World Turns. Something went wrong with a scene, and it had to be re-shot. During the brief pause, Hastings, whom we could see on the monitors, made a wisecrack, but he did it in character, as Dr. Bob Hughes. One of the technicians said to a colleague, “Now there is a guy who can have fun while he’s working without acting like an amateur.”

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Radio days

December 10, 2009

JULIE STEVENS

The announcement by the CBS television network that it had cancelled “As the World Turns” got me to thinking about the soap operas my mother listened to on the radio. In that era, it was common for a radio to be on all day in a house, so what Mom listened to, the rest of  us listened to. That is, unless we happened to be in the downstairs kitchen, where we listened to what Grandma listened to — namely, WOV, the Italian radio station in New York.

One of the shows I became quite familiar with was “The Romance of Helen Trent,” which, the announcer reminded us every day, was “the real-life drama of Helen Trent, who, when life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair, fights back bravely, successfully, to prove what so many women long to prove, that because a woman is 35 or more, romance in life need not be over, that romance can begin at 35.” That show was on CBS radio from 1933 to 1960, with three actresses — Virginia Clark, Betty Ruth Smith, and Julie Stevens playing Helen. The one I remember was the gorgeous Julie Stevens, who played the Hollywood dress designer from 1944 until the show went off the air and later appeared as reporter Lorelei Kilbourne on the TV series “Big Town.”

DOUGLAS EDWARDS

Another radio show I vividly remember was a unique series called “Wendy Warren and the News,” which was on CBS every day at noon, beginning in 1947.

Wendy Warren, who was played by Florence Freeman, was a radio and print journalist, who got involved in all kinds of mysterious and dangerous situations. The show was injected with an unusual element of realism by including an actual daily newscast — with the redoubtable Douglas Edwards as the anchor — and by telling its stories in 24-hour increments. The show, which was broadcast on weekdays, even took the weekends into account in its scripts.

FLORENCE FREEMAN

Time, the news magazine, reported on the show as follows in its edition of July 7, 1947:

Sudsy daytime serials are easy targets for radio’s detractors. But soap operas go on & on because sponsors find them profitable. Last week, an outlandish new jumble of fact & fancy called Wendy Warren and the News (CBS, Mon.-Fri., 12 noon, E.D.T.) tried desperately to vary the formula.

The new twist: CBS Reporter Douglas Edwards leads off with a three-minute summary of the day’s headlines. A girl reporter named “Wendy Warren” (Actress Florence Freeman) follows him, shrills out 45 seconds of “women’s news,” promptly plunges into her tortured fictional love life. By the end of the first broadcast, the new heroine was in an old, all-too-familiar lather. “She turns deathly pale,” the announcer confided, “and, but for Gil Kendal’s ready arm, would fall.”

VIRGINIA PAYNE

I can still hear the announcer’s voice saying, “And now …. Oxydol’s own Ma Perkins.”

This show was broadcast on NBC from 1933 to 1949 and on CBS From 1942 to 1960. In an unusual arrangement, “Ma Perkins” was heard simultaneously on both networks from 1942 to 1949.

Ma Perkins was played by Virginia Payne, who didn’t miss a broadcast in 27 years. Her character, if you can believe it, was a widow who ran a lumber yard in a small town called Rushville. The story line was hometown stuff, all about Ma Perkins’ three children and her relationships with the locals. Payne was only 23 when she took the part, so an older model was used for public appearances at first, and Payne herself dressed up in a wig and spectacles  so as not to ruin the image of the kindly old woman. An interesting quirk in this show was that Payne was never identified on the air as the actress in the title role until the final episode in 1960, when she made some farewell remarks at the end of the broadcast.

One more show came to mind today: “Our Gal Sunday.” I heard this one often enough, too, that I can recite the daily introduction. This was “the story that asks the question: Can this girl from a little mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?”

Sunday, played by Vivian Smolen when I was listening to it, was an orphan who had been raised by two prospectors in a mining camp. She wound up as Lady Brinthrope, married to a titled Brit who lived on the East Coast of the United States. The stories often had to do with the tsurris caused by high-brow women making a play for Sunday’s husband, Lord Henry.

The memories of a misspent youth.

ANN ELSTNER, left, played the iconic radio character Stella Dallas. She is shown with VIVIAN SMOLEN, who played Stella's daughter on that series.

One hell of a sunset

December 9, 2009

DON HASTINGS

I see by the papers, as Phil Cook used to say, that “As the World Turns” has been cancelled by CBS after 13,661 episodes spread over 54 years – most of the history of commercial television. TV blogger Ava Gacser wrote about a sort of personal tie to the show, and there’s a link to her blog on the right of this page.

Like Ava, I took the news personally, and for a similar reason. I was never a daytime drama fan, but I watched “As the World Turns” several times because  I was prepping to interview performers who appeared on the show.

Chief among these was Don Hastings, who has been playing Dr. Robert Hughes for almost 50 years. Hastings has set some kind of record for hours on television. He started out when he was about 16, and in 1949 he started appearing  as the second banana on “Captain Video and his Video Ranger,” a live sci-fi show for kids – when I was a kid.  Among other gigs, he was on “The Edge of Night” for four years before signing on to “As the World Turns.” He has been one of the constants — maybe the most constant — on the TV screen for the past 60 years.

DON HASTINGS and AL HODGE (Captain Video)

I had lunch with Hastings many years ago. The occasion might have been his 25th annivesary on “As the World Turns.” He was a very pleasant man and had a lot of good stories to tell — including anecdotes about fans who had begun to confuse him with Dr. Hughes to the point that the would ask him for medical advice. As crazy as that sounds, that mentality was validated for me once by Joyce Randolph, who told me folks used to send curtains and table cloths to CBS because they thought the Kramdens actually lived in that drab apartment.

Hastings, who is 75, is the brother of Bob Hastings, who has also had a long acting career. His TV debut, by the way, was on “Captain Video.” Bob Hastings, who is about 11 years older than Don, has 144 credits listed on the International Movie Database site.

I also did a telephone interview with Eileen Fulton, when she was marking some benchmark in her “As the World Turns” resume, and I interviewed the gorgeous Lee Meredith, a New Jersey woman who had a short spin on the soap a long time ago. My interview with Lee didn’t have to do with that show, however, but with her role as the sketch nurse in a major production of “The Sunshine Boys.”

GREGG MARX

I also did a lunch interview with Gregg Marx, who in the 1980s had a recurring role on “As the World Turns” as a member of the Hughes family. He won a Daytime Emmy for that part. Gregg is the grandson of Milton “Gummo” Marx – the fourth of the five Marx Brothers. Like Don Hastings, Gregg is a sociable guy, and he was a pleasure to deal with.

For each of these interviews I had to tape the show for a week or so in order to talk intelligently about it to the actors. Fortunately I was working full-time back then. If I hadn’t been, I think I would have become addicted.

Maybe I’ll buy the boxed set.