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The General Hospital Q & A Pages

General Hospital Interviews!

There Was Something About Mary
A one-on-one chat with GH's definitive "Heather Webber," Mary O'Brien
By Gary Bennett

"I'm a very private person...I'm not even sure why I became an actress."

There was an era on General Hospital, before Luke raped Laura, before Liz Taylor became a Cassadine, when the sleepy town of Port Charles boasted everyday people with everyday problems. Actors over 50 led top-drawer storylines, faces weren't lifted and being a hunk didn't require membership in a 24-hour gym. It was 1978. Producer Gloria Monty, already a television legend, had been recruited late in the previous year to spice things up. It worked. Within a year of her takeover, the show shot to number one and became the most talked-about event in daytime. This was before Laura married Scotty, before Liz divorced John Warner and before the world heard of Oprah Winfrey.

Amongst the unscrupulous Tracy Quartermaine, the soon-to-be- unfaithful Rick and Monica, as well as a variety of other characters, young and (perish the thought) old, was Heather Grant, a troubled, desperate young woman who, after selling her out-of-wedlock baby, Steven Lars, on the black market, wound up marrying the baby's young father, Dr. Jeff Webber (Richard Dean Anderson). Telling her new husband the baby died at birth, Heather endured Jeff's discovering their son was alive and, after learning good friends Dr. Peter and Diana Taylor unwittingly adopted her young son, she set out to get the baby back at any and all cost.

Brilliantly executed, this was the plot that sent the ratings through the roof, putting the show squarely on the map for years to come. And while there's no denying the impact of subsequent powerhouse Anthony Geary and his brood of cohorts, Tristan Rogers, Jack Wagner and the like, the core of the show's rebirth lay in the devious, yet vulnerably human Heather, portrayed masterfully by Mary O'Brien.

Throughout 1978 and half of '79, O'Brien's Heather was the subject of college chit-chat, office debates and, in my high school psychology class, analysis. Yet despite her enormous popularity, O'Brien all but vanished in July of '79, her character institutionalized after imbibing an LSD-laced glass of iced tea, intended for "friend" Diana, in a desperate attempt to regain custody of Steven Lars - now renamed P.J.

The talented Robin Mattson took over the role a year later, of course, but the nuance and varied layers O'Brien infused in the character simply weren't there. For decades after, O'Brien's fans, myself included, wondered what happened to this gifted actress. Finally, last fall, I located Mary, who now resides in Las Vegas, and she agreed to an interview. Clad in jeans and a pink sweater, the still beautiful - and stunningly youthful - O'Brien discussed her landmark role over salmon and iced tea (sans the acid).

GB: You look great. You haven't changed at all!

MO: Thank you. I think I was blessed with good genes.

GB: To many fans, you're like the Greta Garbo of daytime - you just disappeared.

GB AND MO: "I want to be alone!"

GB: Right!

MO: (laughing) That's funny.

GB: Is this the first time you've been approached for an article since leaving GH?

MO: Yes, it is, although I did them all the time when I was doing the show.

GB: Where did you grow up?

MO: California.

GB: Did you come from a large family?

MO: No, just one sister.

GB: What kind of child were you?

MO: Well, when I was very small, I wanted to be an actress. I was always putting on little plays.

GB: Did you do plays in high school?

MO: Oh, no, by that point, I became very interested in politics. I was a political science major.

GB: You were a serious student.

MO: Oh, yeah, I really wanted a political career.

GB: What kind of music were you listening to? I mean, were you a Carpenters kind of girl or a rock 'n roll girl?

MO: Oh, no - no Carpenters. I was a rock 'n roll girl.

GB: How did you get into acting?

MO: Well, someone told me if I wanted a career in politics, I should take some public speaking courses. I wound up taking some acting classes at Paramount Studios.

GB: Did you go to college?

MO: Yes, I went to UCLA. That's when I started getting acting jobs. I worked a lot.

GB: How did you get your first agent?

MO: I had a friend at Paramount who introduced me to her agent. And I got the very first job I went out on. It was a commercial for Clearasil. (laughing) I had great skin, but on the day of the shoot, I had this big zit on my face! The make-up guy wasn't happy.

GB: Any other commercials?

MO: Oh, yeah, I did tons - Certs, Chevrolet. I guess I had a good commercial look.

GB: How soon before you got actual roles?

MO: Pretty much right away. I did guest shots on shows like Cannon and Hawaii Five-O.

GB: So you took acting seriously.

MO: Yes, I really studied.

GB: How did General Hospital come about?

MO: Well, it was interesting because I read for it but I didn't know what I was reading for.

GB: You're kidding.

MO: Next thing I knew, I had the part.

GB: Do you remember that feeling when your agent called and said it was yours?

MO: Well, actually, my boyfriend at the time - a writer - got the news. I was in acting class at Paramount and he called and said, "You got the part!" We were living together and I remember I came home and he had painted this huge star with my name on it, which was very sweet.

GB: Were you excited about it?

MO: Very excited, yes.

GB: Now this was September, 1977. You were replacing Georganne LaPiere, who originated Heather the previous year. Do you know why she left?

MO: No, I don't remember. I only met her once when we were on the same commercial shoot.

GB: Tom Donovan was producing GH at the time and I believe the show was 45 minutes long then, right?

MO: Yes. And Tom was a nice man. He left a few months later.

GB: Had you ever watched the show before?

MO: No. I never watched any soaps.

GB: What do you recall of your first days on the show? Were you nervous?

MO: Yes, I was. The first thing I had to conquer was the memorization process. I mean, I could get up to 40 pages of dialogue a day. And we had to say every word exactly as written.

GB: How did you deal with it?

MO: Well, the mind is a muscle. I just developed the skill of learning it quickly.

GB: I spoke with Brooke Bundy (Diana Taylor) and she said you always had it down cold when you came in. She credited your days in Catholic school.

MO: (laughing) That's right! When the nuns asked you to memorize something, you memorized it!

GB: Now at this point, the show wasn't the huge success it would become. In fact, it was near cancellation. Did you know the show was in trouble?

MO: No, I don't recall that.

GB: Gloria Monty, of course, took over as producer after Donovan. She is credited with saving the show. What did she do besides expand it to 60 minutes?

MO: Well, she moved us to a bigger studio. Twice, as I recall. She had sets redesigned, including the nurses' station. She changed the look of the show.

GB: At this time, the show featured really strong characters: the Quartermaines, Rick and Lesley, Bobbie Spencer, Scotty and Laura and, of course, Heather and Jeff. And the entire cast was topnotch. Brooke Bundy told me the secret to the show's success was that no two characters were alike.

MO: That's true. On some soaps, the characters will be similar.

GB: Let's talk a bit about Heather. I think what fascinated us was that she wasn't like a lot of soap characters - either evil or benevolent - she was gray. At the hospital, she was surrounded by professionals - doctors, psychologists - while she pushed the book cart around.

MO: And that's how I approached her - someone with very low self-esteem. When Gloria Monty came on board, she told me I was "too smart." She wanted me to play her as dumb. I couldn't do it. Heather was uneducated, yes, but she was very street smart. Let's just say that was the beginning of a very difficult relationship with my producer.

GB: Heather was a classic narcissist in that the world was fine, so long as things were going her way. Yet she wasn't a sociopath, as her scenes alone with Steven Lars were very loving.

MO: Yes, that's how I saw her and approached her.

GB: Did you have anything in common with her?

MO: (thinking about it) No, not really. She was truly different from me. Although she could be tough when she needed to be and I've always managed to tough things out. (laughing) I remember my boyfriend once wrote me a poem and one of the lines was, "Mary, soft as silk and tough as nails!"

GB: Did you ever have moments when you felt the character went too far?

MO: During the last year I was on the show, they suddenly brought in an ex-husband for Heather -

GB: Larry Joe (Hunter Von Leer).

MO: Right. And I thought, what's this?...Since when does she have an ex-husband? I didn't like the direction they were going with her then.

GB: Douglas Marland was the head writer. Did he ever discuss the character with you?

MO: No, not at all.

GB: How far in advance did you know the storyline?

MO: You know, I don't remember. I really don't.

GB: Let's discuss the quality of your performance. You were very natural and superbly subtle - a technique not always utilized in daytime. Was this deliberate?

MO: I don't think so. I approached acting from a very natural standpoint, so that's how my performances came off.

GB: Barbara Stanwyck once said that the eyes are the greatest asset an actor has and you used your eyes to convey so much of what was on Heather's mind.

MO: Well, she was constantly on guard. I mean, she couldn't trust anyone.

GB: You were extremely skilled at what's known as "telling a lie." In other words, there was always the duality. You had to play Heather telling the truth, as well as Heather telling a lie because the audience knew you were lying, but Jeff did not. And he was a smart character. You employed great subtext, so the tension was very involving.

MO: And she was never relaxed. Ever. Even when everyone around her was calm, or the situation was quiet, she was more or less up to something.

GB: She was a cold character, whereas you're obviously very warm. Yet you never let Mary show through.

MO: (laughing) Well, I'm generally a very nice person but if people are pushing me and pushing me, then the Heather in me can come through. But it takes a lot of pushing.

GB: Did you watch yourself?

MO: Very rarely, as I was working all day. And when I was off, I was always learning lines for the next show.

GB: What about your friends and family?

MO: I think my mom watched, but that was about it. The trouble with friends and acquaintances is they tend to critique. People will say, "Oh, you could've done so and so differently."

GB: Like if the guy's a dentist, he'll...

MO: (laughing) Right. Thanks for the critique...Oh, and by the way, I didn't like the way you put that crown in!

GB: Did you receive a lot of fan mail?

MO: Oh, yeah. Housewives, students, people in prison.

GB: Did you reply?

MO: Absolutely. But after awhile, the mail got pretty overwhelming, so I had an assistant help me with it.

GB: Were you recognized when you were out in public?

MO: Oh, sure. People were generally very nice. I'd be out for dinner with friends and fans would come up to my table. My dinner companions would say, "Oh, here she goes" and excuse themselves because they knew I would chat with people.

GB: Any weird fans?

MO: Well, one time I was in the supermarket and this lady threatened to throw a tomato at me! She was asking me how I could do such things to Diana. She was obviously mentally ill. I calmly said, "Ma'am, I'm glad you enjoy the show, but my name is Mary, not Heather.

GB: Wow. Any hate mail?

MO: (thinking about it) Well, one time I got a fan letter from a 15 year-old boy. I think he was from Maryland. I replied and he kept writing me. Then, in one letter he wrote, "I know where you live." Then, he phoned me at home! He said, "I'm coming over to visit." I think he wound up hospitalized.

GB: What was a typical shooting day like?

MO: Very, very long. 12, 14-hour days. Our call time was 7:00 A.M. And you knew never to be late.

GB: What was the first thing you did? Go into make-up?

MO: No, rehearse. Then we'd block, then camera-block. And certain actors - even actors you weren't in scenes with - would sometimes run lines with you.

GB: Brooke told me actors would get their scripts about a week in advance, but it was difficult to memorize a group of days in advance because it was hard to compartmentalize.

MO: Yes, because so many scenes were similar from day to day. It was hard to learn more than one script at a time.

GB: Lucille Ball always said she learned her scripts for her shows by association. Like, Oh, I say this by the door, I say that by the phone... But you couldn't do that.

MO: No, because we had to have it all down before we got any direction.

GB: Brooke also said everyone relied on the teleprompter for phone scenes.

MO: Yes, the guy holding the teleprompter was usually crouched below (the camera). And it's funny because when I started the show, I couldn't read it! I realized I needed glasses for the phone scenes. I wound up getting contact lenses. But other than the phone scenes, I decided early on I'd better not get into the habit of relying on the teleprompter.

GB: What happened if you went blank?

MO: I never went blank once. I just had it down. And I used to feel so sorry for the actors when they'd forget lines. Remember, we shot live -

GB: Live on tape.

MO: Right. And time is money and they didn't want to stop tape.

GB: Did you have to worry about hitting marks?

MO: Oh, sure. You had to for the cameras and because you wanted to make certain not to block the other actor's key light.

GB: Did the crew use on-the-spot editing like in live broadcasts? In other words, did you see that infamous red light, telling you if you were in close-up?

MO: No, not at all. All the editing was done later. We had great editors, by the way. The crew was just great.

GB: You taped two weeks and one day in advance, is that right?

MO: That sounds about right, yeah.

GB: What would happen if you were deathly ill and couldn't come in?

MO: You just did. You always came in.

GB: Let's talk a bit about the art direction. I felt the sets suited all the characters so well. I mean, Tracy's penthouse looked like the place she'd live in; Rick and Lesley's place suited them; Steve and Audrey's country cottage...

MO: With the fireplace, yeah.

GB: I thought Jeff and Heather's apartment was extremely claustrophobic. It was the only set that didn't have any windows.

MO: I never thought about that. You're right. It was a very small set.

GB: Your hair was also every effective - the blonde, feathered bangs and page boy, framing a very troubled face. Did they create this look, or was that how you wore your hair?

MO: Oh, no, it was my look. I did my own hair.

GB: Really!

MO: Yeah, they always put so much hairspray on all the girls. Ever notice? They had to because of the hot lights. But it was just too much. Same thing with the make-up. Finally, I just started doing my own hair.

GB: You worked with three different directors: Alan Pultz, Marlena Laird, sadly both deceased, and Phil Sogard.

MO: Marlena died? Oh, I didn't know that. And Alan too?

GB: Yeah. But Phil Sogard told me you were one of the most professional actresses he ever worked with.

MO: That's nice. He was a nice guy.

GB: What was it like being directed by a woman in those days? I heard Laird was tough on actors.

MO: I never had any problems with her. She was fine with me. I do remember how the stress would affect her. She used to joke, "I'm gonna quit all this and go get a job at McDonald's."

GB: Let's talk a bit about the terrific cast you worked with. Did you get support from such stalwarts as John Beradino, Emily McLaughlin and Rachel Ames?

MO: Oh, yes, they were wonderful. Rachel Ames was very, very supportive and John - I remember hearing when he got sick with cancer. And poor Emily McLaughlin...Her husband (Jeffery Hunter) fell off a ladder or something. I don't think she was quite the same after that. But she was very sweet.

GB: When we first spoke on the phone, you referred to Brooke Bundy as your "buddy." She called you a "sweetheart" and said you looked like a cheerleader, but she was often shocked by what came out of your mouth.

MO: (laughing) Well, again, if I was pushed to the edge. Executives from ABC would often visit while we were taping. Afterwards, they would go on and on, saying this went wrong and that went wrong. Then we'd hear, "Notes in room two!" One day I finally said, "Don't you have anything positive to say??" Lo and behold, the next day we heard, "Nice show everybody."

GB: How about Lieux Dressler, who played your mom? Her Alice was such a sad character.

MO: She was great. Just like a real mom to me and, like Brooke, a real friend on the set.

GB: Another important character was Cal Jameson, who was black- mailing Heather. I spoke with Larry Block (Cal) and he said his favorite memory was shooting out at the pier. What are your memories of that shoot?

MO: We shot at the Santa Monica Pier. It was, I think, the very first location shoot in daytime. I remember it was a gray, gray day. I was wearing a long coat and leather gloves and the director wanted me to climb through the railing and hang from the edge of the pier. I mean, high above the ocean. They didn't have any net or anything and I was just hanging on - with leather gloves! It was hard to sustain any grip. Finally, I remember some of the guys - even Richard Dean Anderson - running below and telling me they'd catch me if I fell.

GB: In the last year, Tony Geary came on board as Luke. Did you have any inkling of the kind of phenomenon he would become?

MO: No, not at all, as I really didn't have any scenes with him. He was excellent, but I had a hard time with Luke and Laura marrying later on. I mean, he raped her! That didn't sit well with me and I'm not the only one who felt that way.

GB: Doug Sheehan was the last important actor to join the show in your last months (as detective Joe Kelly). This was one of his first gigs. Was he nervous?

MO: (thinking about it) No, he was very, very confident. And very professional. He was a nice guy.

GB: Did they use twins for the role of Steven Lars/P.J.?

MO: Yes, and they were very well behaved. I had worked with toddlers before who were very fussy.

GB: Richard Dean Anderson, of course, was the most important actor you worked with in terms of your character. You had more scenes with him than anyone else. He became a huge primetime star. What was he like to work with?

MO: Again, a very nice guy, although it was a little awkward when I first started as he was dating Georganne. But I settled in and we got along fine.

GB: Your scenes together were so effective. Both of you were very low-key actors. It was thoroughly believable that you were in love. Were the bedroom scenes uncomfortable to do?

MO: (laughing) Well, I remember at one point, Rick was dating an actress who used to show up every time we had a bedroom scene. The first time she was there, the director staged it so my back would be to her so she wouldn't distract me.

GB: Larry Block said he remembered waiting endlessly for "all the sexy people" to come out of make-up. And sexy a lot of you were. Gail Ramsey, who played your cousin Susan, ended up marrying Steve Carlson, who played Gary Lansing. So, had you been single at the time, do you think you would've been tempted to date actors or crew?

MO: I'm sure I would have. I mean, many couples meet through work. But the guys knew I was spoken for and they respected that.

GB: Did you ever socialize with the cast?

MO: Really only Brooke and Lieux, although I enjoyed working with everyone. And as I said, I loved our crew. All the guys were so supportive, particularly John Zack, one of our lighting guys. But I just cherished my days off, so there wasn't much socializing.

GB: Ever have any problems with cast or crew?

MO: There was one actress who simply didn't like me. At all. I remember one day we were shooting a scene where she had to slap me on the side of the head. She slapped me so hard, I fell back. For two days I couldn't hear and, to this day, I still have problems with my (left) ear.

GB: Did you live close to the studio?

MO: Not in the beginning. I used to have these long commutes from Malibu into Hollywood. I think my boyfriend and I wound up moving twice while I was on the show and the show itself moved to two different studios, as I said. In the end, I think we shot at Sunset and Gower Studios.

GB: In my correspondence with many old-time fans for this article, it seems a number of us are gay males. Does it surprise you that many fans of Heather would be gay guys?

MO: That never even occurred to me.

GB: Speaking for myself, I was a zit-faced kid, still a little uncertain of my sexuality. I think some of us felt we had something to hide, and Heather was hiding something. We somehow related to her drama.

MO: Wow. That's really interesting. Again, I never thought about it, although I've had gay buddies since I was knee high.

GB: In 1979, you made the decision to leave the show. You mentioned a difficult relationship with Gloria Monty, as did Phil Sogard and Larry Block. Any other reasons?

MO: Well, I was ready to move on. As I said, the days were long, and I was averaging four days a week. I wanted to go to Europe for a while. Plus, I was interested in moving into interior design. And, yes, Gloria Monty and some of the other executives were tough to deal with.

GB: You left in July of '79. Was that when your contract expired?

MO: Yes, I stayed through my contract. By the end, I was really ready to get out of there.

GB: Your decision to leave resulted in a bizarre twist to your storyline. I'm speaking, of course, of the classic segment where Heather, in an effort to drive Diana insane, pours LSD into her iced tea, but Steven Lars himself spins the lazy susan, and Heather drinks it herself.

MO: Right, right.

GB: Both Brooke Bundy and Phil Sogard mentioned to me how much acid you put into the tea. Sogard said he was afraid they'd get a nasty call from Timothy Leary!

MO: (laughing) Yes, I remember pouring a ton of it into her glass.

GB: How did you prepare for the hallucination scenes?

MO: I remembered the reactions of some of the kids who were experimenting with LSD in high school. So, I just used that and went with it. It was really wild.

GB: Was the scene where Heather is strapped down in the bed the last thing you shot?

MO: I think so, yeah.

GB: When you left, they institutionalized the character for many months. You told me they asked you to come back.

MO: Yes, they did. But I declined.

GB: Any regrets about that?

MO: No, not at all.

GB: If you had come back, do you think you would've been one of those actors who stay for decades?

MO: Oh, no, I would've become too bored. And put in that situation today, I don't think I could memorize all that dialogue.

GB: Robin Mattson, a talented actress, took over the role a year later. Did you ever catch Mattson's portrayal?

MO: No, I didn't, although I met her when I attended the GH Christmas party just after she started. She, like Georganne, looked nothing like me. She was so much bigger than me!

GB: The thing about Mattson is that she's a very tough actress. You could almost smell the Marlboros in her hair. We expected her to be bad, so the irony was missing. You weren't tough; you were fragile. We were rooting for your Heather to get Steven Lars back, despite all the terrible things you were doing to Diana.

MO: That's interesting.

GB: Did you consider any other acting roles after declining your return to GH?

MO: No, I moved on. But GH was an interesting experience for me. I really felt it helped make me the person I am today. And I enjoyed doing the show. But I needed to grow and move forward. And there's a funny twist: When I left the show, the only thing I took with me was my prop wedding ring. Recently, I came across it again and noticed the engraving - 18 karats!

GB: You moved into a very successful career in interior design. Was this cultivated in your GH years?

MO: To a certain extent. I was always interested in the sets and art direction.

GB: You moved to Las Vegas. Why Vegas?

MO: Well, I married an attorney and we were out here often on business. We also got to see a lot of shows. This was 14 years ago and it wasn't nearly as developed as it is now. It felt free and open so we moved here.

GB: Are you ever recognized in your interior design business?

MO: Every so often, sure. I remember the housekeeper of one client. Her name was Gloria. She recalled more than you and I put together, Gary. Every detail from the beginning of the storyline through the end.

GB: Interesting. Do you miss acting at all?

MO: Nah, it was an interesting experience as I said, but I don't miss it.

GB: Mary, this has been such a treat for me and I know your fans will enjoy catching up on your life.

MO: Well, thank you, Gary. It was fun.

Gary Bennett is a freelance writer and an independent filmmaker. He can be contacted at:  garywillwrite@aol.com

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