General Hospital Interviews!
There Was Something About Mary
A one-on-one chat with GH's definitive "Heather Webber,"
By Gary Bennett
"I'm a very private person...I'm not even sure why I became
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
GB AND MO: "I want to be alone!"
MO: (laughing) That's funny.
GB: Is this the first time you've been approached for an article since leaving
MO: Yes, it is, although I did them all the time when I was doing the show.
GB: Where did you grow up?
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
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
GB: Did you go to college?
MO: Yes, I went to UCLA. That's when I started getting acting jobs. I worked
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
GB: How soon before you got actual roles?
MO: Pretty much right away. I did guest shots on shows like Cannon and
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
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
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
MO: No, I don't remember. I only met her once when we were on the same
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
GB: Douglas Marland was the head writer. Did he ever discuss the character
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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