Over the past several months, the current creative state of The Young and the Restless has been a source for contention for many longtime fans and critics. Last fall, the daytime soap went through another change behind the scenes as controversial scribe Charles Pratt, Jr. (The Lying Game, All My Children, Melrose Place) assumed head writing duties along with a co-executive producer credit.
One of the stories Pratt inherited from former head writers Jean Passanante and Shelley Altman was the prostate cancer diagnosis given to Genoa City attorney Michael Baldwin played by veteran actor Christian LeBlanc. The TV Watercooler had the opportunity to discuss this heavy storyline with the actor while he was attending fan appearances in the Toronto area this past weekend. We chat about whether or not he thinks the show is at its best right now, how he feels about Anthony Geary, whom he’s faced off against for several Daytime Emmy Awards, announcing his retirement and who he thinks has been the best written male character on Y&R.
You’ve played Michael Baldwin for over 20 years now…
If you include the three years that Michael was in jail, it’s been 20-something years. It’s not really what most actors get to experience… It’s been a great gift. We get to love with our characters and our fans. We live with them, grow old with them and experience their whole lives – five days a week and 12 months a year. We don’t even get summers off. You end up developing these amazing relationships with your fans. Fans, who at times can get very angry and sad.
We rely on that passion because they know us. We come into their homes. It’s a form of performance art that you don’t get to experience in any other aspect of the industry. Now we have primetime shows steal our stuff with continuing stories and guest stars. It amazes me because sometimes in this genre, we haven’t even scrapped the surface of what we can do.
Shows like Scandal where the show runner doesn’t even consider her show a soap opera.
No. There’s a very old prejudice against it. My very first job was on As the World Turns where I was with Meg Ryan, Marisa Tomei, Julianne Moore and Margaret Colin. Whitney Houston and Jermaine Jackson sang at my character’s prom! It was Whitney’s first television appearance. I was with Phyllis Diller and those old New York stars would come through there. That was my first job ever!
That’s an amazing first gig.
It was an amazing experience. I’m putting up a website now to sell my artwork but I’m through my archive of photos from that time. It’s amazing to walk through all these pictures. There’s some of me with Eva Marie Saint, Eileen Brennan and there’s even one with Dick Van Dyke from one of our scenes on his show.
Acting has given me an amazing life… A life I didn’t know I could have. Who knew? I was in medicine when I started out.
That’s right, a photographer discovered you while you were swimming.
Yeah, I was a swimmer. I wasn’t really good at that. I had joined the club but not the team because I lived out of town and studying took up so much of my time. I couldn’t compete, really. But I swam and that’s how a photographer saw me at Two Lanes pool and that was kind of a way to pay for medical school gone awry! I’m still technically on a leave of absence because you never know! [Laughs] That’s my mother’s voice in my head, “You never know!”
How has the fan reaction been during your events here? A lot of people have grown up watching the show in their homes, as a family even, to the point where they feel a sense of ownership to these characters. If things aren’t that great on-screen, they can get pretty worked up about it.
I think that it’s more of a sense of kinship. They are very proprietary. People [from the outside]can think it’s strange but it’s what this industry relies on. Primetime shows and movies would kill to have that kind of faithfulness from their fans and that kind of passion. So even when we’re being controversial or taking big risks with out storylines all press is good press.
Michael’s been dealing with prostate cancer for some time now. This storyline started out with another head writing regime. There’s a 99% survival rate yet for weeks Michael didn’t want to tell anyone or seek treatment.
I don’t think that death is the issue here. The diagnosis of stage III prostate cancer was given awhile back. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s a much more complex situation. It’s a man’s cancer that the then-head writers Shelley and Jean wanted to tell. Chuck inherited this story. I don’t think he would have chosen [this story]. He’s been very clear about that.
Yes, he’s been quite clear. Chuck Pratt couldn’t even say “Prostate Cancer” in his interview with On Air | On Soaps’ Michael Fairman. I believe he said “Man’s Private Parts.”
But that’s exactly why you do it. I never ask for a story or demand anything. Michael is not me… I keep the character very far away from myself and that’s been a challenge for over 20 years. That’s what keeps it exciting but it’s very hard. So when they came to me and told me about a cancer I said “Oh!” but then they said prostate cancer and I went “Aww… Not the glamour one, huh?”
Men will wait for a stage V diagnosis of anything even before going to the hospital because of the shame attached to a disease that has anything to do with sex, sexuality or sexual function. They would rather die than go to the exam. It’s ridiculous. There’s a great PSA sign out on the freeway that I saw and it stuck with me, “This year a thousand men will die from stubbornness,” and that’s the issue. Death is not the issue for Michael. The issue is “Can I live without this sexual part of me?” and to have that change. They picked the right character for this story. This is a character that has done sexual harassment and is the product of an abusive home. Sex was everything. He married the hot woman [Tracey E. Bregman’s Lauren Fenmore] on the show and sex is a large part of their relationship. He just went through infidelity for the first time [when Lauren cheated with Carmine]. Poor Josh [Morrow, Nick] does it every week! Michael’s never had an unfaithful wife. So now this happens to him and the question is not “Do I die from this?” but “Do I want to live with the consequences of surviving prostate cancer when your libido or function can go permanently? It’s a big question mark. It’s about the fear that the man has about this and watching a woman see her husband refuse to deal with the disease. It’s very complex and not easy to write. These things are usually very private and can be very ugly.
You gave a heartbreaking performance last week when Michael confided in a prostitute played by Lindsay McKeon.
Thank you. The actress was amazing. It’s one of those things where he wasn’t talking to her about dying, he was talking about “I don’t want to live if I’m not a man” or what he thinks of himself as a man.
Do you think that the show should be spending more time showcasing these beats and everything that you’ve talked about rather than have yet another doppelgänger and serial killer run around and terrorize Genoa City?
Well, that’s not the storyline that I’m in but I will tell you that those come from a long tradition… Even Bill Bell had some fantastical storylines. Our ratings are up and I’m not the boss. But I do think that we are out our best when we are not blowing things up. I think that the key to doing drama at its best is when you’re doing relationships between multigenerational families.
That’s what I’d like to know. Judith Chapman is amazing. But then again, a new writer comes in and feels their way through. “New, now and sexy” is important to have on the show. But Jeanne Cooper was a great lesson in that “New, now and sexy” is great, but when “New, now and sexy” is talking to their grandmother? That’s brilliant! And Jeanne in her 80s was pulling major storylines and that’s a great lesson. She was wildly popular.
And greatly missed. Everyone looked up to her.
Y&R has a large male audience in both the U.S. and Canada. It would be beneficial for the show to have its male characters talk about this illness as there is a stigma attached to it where nobody wants to talk about it.
Oh I’ve played the hot flashes but I’d love for Michael to go to therapy. Or even talk to Lily (Christel Khalil) who has also suffered from cancer and she tells him to shut the hell up! “What are you whining about?” There’s the thing. But then again, I’ve never been diagnosed with cancer but I have been around it. My father passed away recently of it. I’m in awe of people who live with it. The great thing about meeting the fans this weekend was there were four cancer survivors and three people who have relatives who are going through prostate cancer and they were telling me that my performance was a very accurate depiction of a man going through and not talking about it. We’re not a doctor show, so we are not going to go certain places but we have talked about the results and we’ve talked about E.D. They talked about Michael using Viagra to counteract those things.
You can’t write about generalities and it can’t be a public service announcement. This is Michael Baldwin’s prostate cancer and it’s going to be different from Christian’s prostate cancer or Kevin’s or Jack’s prostate cancer. It doesn’t behove us to make a big old banner of generalization about it. I’ve talked to some doctors about it. I’ve talked to a doctor whom I go to in New Orleans and he’s a tough specialist in prostate cancer. I text him and texts me right about the issues that my character has on the show.
Some men blossom after their initial shock and shyness. They want to talk about it. I’ve met men with breast cancer. Most of the charities that I do are about cancer. So it was very important for me to get this story right. One man can become this amazing apostle of the glass being half full and moving on with your life. Educating men about the necessity of early detection. But you’ll also have people who’ll turn in on themselves just like any other wide range of people with depression, drinking or self-destruction and they’re not terminal. It’s about your sex and there are very few touchstones that give you such a profound reaction. Women deal with breast cancer and I can’t conceive it… When I’ve sat with people who have it, when they’re body is no longer their own, I get chills. It’s emotionally difficult and it’s a hard truth.
A lot of ladies at the event weren’t being kind to Lauren and I said “Listen ladies, you know exactly what your man does when he’s sick. He’s a pain in the ass and a big baby!”
After doing this story, what would you tell the male viewers?
Well, it’s not a young man’s disease. But there is a thing about taking responsibility for your actions, life and sex life. Get tested. There is a big attitude and a very natural human response: “If I don’t know, then it won’t happen. If I don’t take the test, then I might somehow escape.” Take responsibility for your own health. Knowledge is power.
The big soap news from the last week is that Anthony Geary (General Hospital’s Luke Spencer) is retiring.
I can’t believe it. I’ve been nominated with Anthony many times and it never leaves me that I’m up there with him. I never watched General Hospital, I was not a daytime watcher when I was first cast on a soap, but to be in the same category as Luke from Luke & Laura fame for an Emmy and my name is being called right after his name is amazing. He is a class act. He came over and hugged me this year. There were five years where he won, I won, he won, I won and he came up and hugged me before the category and said “This is yours. I’ve seen your stuff!” And then he won and he’ll bow down on his way up the stage. He’s a classy guy and he is soaps. That’s the history of soaps right there. He saved soaps. That wedding turned around the whole thing.
30 million viewers.
It’s a tough business. I’ve also seen Anthony on stage and he’s brilliant. So if he wants to do other things and find life, I respect that. I will certainly miss him. I’m sure his fans will be devastated.
His exit will definitely open up the chances for others to win a Daytime Emmy in the lead actor category.
You know what, I like winning an Emmy when I have good competition. Billy Miller (ex-Billy, Y&R; Jason, GH) and all of them were great. I’m always thrilling to go up against some amazing competition. I’ve been in this business long enough that I’m up against my friends. You want to win but if I’m going to lose to Anthony Geary, then so be it.
What would you say to the unhappy fans right now? Chuck Pratt and Jill Farren Phelps did an interview with Michael Logan last week and even said that “They hate it but they’re watching.”
He doesn’t mean that. Chuck’s humour can be taken out of context. You can never write for demographics and Bill never did that. You can write what you’re passionate about and what you know your skill is. I can tell you that we’ve had several head writers and people are always looking at me or another actor to point out and say, “You’ve ruined the show.” These are creative people too. Every producer that I’ve worked with, Maria Arena Bell, Lynn Marie Latham, Jack Smith and Kay Alden, each one has given me something so amazing. They’ve given me scenes that I’ve been terrified to do because they’re so hard. I can’t denigrate that. These people have a thousand voices in their head telling them what they’re supposed to do. If you want to yell at somebody, it’s very difficult to pinpoint whom to yell at. The other thing I thought is to give him a chance. He just started the show and unfortunately business practices with the way they are, it’s very little time. Writers go in there and try to shake up as much as possible just to try to earn their keep because they were brought in for change.
I personally don’t think that it’s the best. I think if you look at our show’s history, you’ll plumb the debts of these amazing 40 years of history and you’ll get enough storyline. But then again, I don’t run the show. I don’t have to sit there and drum up a show a day. I love the fans for being passionate. We rely on them. Good on them. Let them know. They read those emails and God help us all they follow Twitter and Facebook. They do it all! Fans do have power and when we do these appearance they ask us and I tell them let the show know… Tell them what you want. They’ll listen to you. They keep people around that you love and get rid of people that you don’t love.
A lot of people were worried that you’d be leaving Y&R and going to General Hospital.
I’m not. I think it’s because I’ve got friends that have gone to General Hospital. We have lost some beloved actors [like Emme Rylan, Michelle Stafford and Billy Miller]and when Michael got sick those rumours started. But I’ll tell them that I’ll be at Y&R with the roaches… I’ll outlast them all! I’m glad the fans care. I don’t want them to say, “He goes, he stays… Whatever!” I want them to be passionate. We rely on that. I think the show is happy with my work and I love doing this story. It’s hard work. It’s been extremely hard but I didn’t come here to do easy stuff.
Has this been the hardest storyline you’ve ever played?
I don’t think that there’s a hardest per say but I think it’s hard as an actor to come in and automatically be a good actor. Good acting is rare and much rarer than people seem to think it is. To go in there and be the kind of actor that I dream of being is the challenge that makes me an actor. You won’t succeed all the time because if it were easy, we’d all be doing it. This show gives me the chance to really sweat it out and try my best. When we try to succeed in what we do and it’s all about what you’re passionate about. It’s a journey. The show and the way it’s structured has given me these amazing opportunities.
I think that Michael Baldwin is the best written guy on the show. I couldn’t be happier. I want more writing! We are whores. Statistically when this profession came about, we were thought of no more than whores or thieves and I can see it because I’m greedy for good storytelling. I want that and I have been given it.
You have had some amazing stories over the years.
Yeah, not easy stuff.
The Young and the Restless airs weekdays on Global and CBS. Canadian fans can catch up with Y&R on demand or online at GlobalTV.com.