By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
In 1960, when Eileen Fulton, the daughter of a preacher and native of Asheville, N.C., was cast as young scamp Lisa Miller on “As The World Turns,” she never expected that she would still be playing Lisa Miller Hughes Eldridge Shea Colman McColl Mitchell Grimaldi Chedwyn 46 years later. But that doesn’t mean she’s not pleased.
“I’m very excited about it,” she said when asked about the CBS soap’s 50th anniversary celebration. “I didn’t realize that I’d be connected with a show for 46 years, but I’m very happy about the scripts we’re doing now, and I think it’s just terrific.”
Ms. Fulton, more than any other actor, is “ATWT’s” true superstar. Lisa was the original daytime diva. A decade before Susan Lucci was making headlines as Erica Kane on “All My Children,” Ms. Fulton’s creation was inciting fans. “People believed we were real,” she said. “They saw us every day and they felt like they really knew us, and they went through what we went through.”
But as believable as Ms. Fulton’s acting was, she acknowledges that she had a lot with which to work. “When I first started, I was a real live scheming conniving person. I mean my character, Lisa, was. But you can’t just play a mean lady; you have to say, ‘Why am I acting this way? What’s my motivation here?’ It was a wonderful character part. This is why I’m an actor. I like to create something different. I want to live different lives, so I do this in acting. That’s the whole joy of it: creating something new.”
Ms. Fulton imbued Lisa with such vitality that fans had trouble distinguishing the actor from the role: “I remember when I was just on the show a few short months and Lisa had just married Bob. She was awful, running around with Bruce and all of that stuff. Anyway, I was standing in front of Saks Fifth Avenue and this woman in a beautiful pink Chanel suit came up to me and she said, ‘Excuse me, aren’t you Lisa?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, my first autograph!’ I said, ‘Why, yes, that’s the part I play.’ I opened up my bag to get my beautiful new Tiffany pen to sign her an autograph and she said, ‘Oh, I hate you!’
“Then she bopped me, knocked me across the street, knocked my pen in the gutter. Everybody stood and looked at me like, ‘You horrible sneaky little devil.’ They let that woman just walk away.”
That experience, as well as her own ambition, led Ms. Fulton away from “ATWT” for a while. “I quit after a year and a half,” she said. “Of course, I was busy doing Broadway and such.” In fact, at one time Ms. Fulton was multitasking to the nth degree: She did “As The World Turns” in the morning and early afternoon, raced to the matinee presentations of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” on Broadway, where she played Honey, and wound up the day as the ing%E9;nue in “The Fantasticks” at the Sullivan Street Theater in Greenwich Village.
Still, Oakdale was in her blood. “I kept coming back,” she said. “They’d promise me more things; they’d dangle that carrot in front of me, because she was such a popular character.”
She was popular enough that the producers thought another actress could take over for Ms. Fulton. “They tried to replace me once. When I left the first time, they brought in another woman to play me. She had supposedly lost her mind, so for two weeks, this girl looked like me, she sounded like me, her elbows were like mine, but when they finally said, ‘Lisa, take down your hands,’ because she couldn’t face anyone, they said, ‘The part of Lisa will be played by Pamela King,’ and it was quite a shock to see someone playing my part. And the audience was furious to be treated like that.”
But as compelling as Ms. Fulton was as Lisa, the “As The World Turns” spinoff “Our Private World,” launched in 1965 and built around Lisa as a lead character, was a misfire. The prime-time serial was conceived by Irna Phillips, the creator of “ATWT,” as a continuation of the soap, but Ms. Phillips’ story ideas were ignored.
“‘Our Private World’ was a disaster,” Ms. Fulton said. “It was supposed to be called ‘The Woman Lisa’-that’s what Irna told me. I was going to go to Chicago, and her idea was to have the characters go from ‘As The World Turns’ to the nighttime show, back and forth. But then she got disillusioned and didn’t write it anymore and it went down the tubes.”
So Ms. Fulton returned to “As The World Turns” and thrived. She was the top daytime star throughout the 1960s, on the cover of hundreds of TV fan magazines, and in 1970 she wrote her autobiography, “How My World Turns.” She had made her mark to the extent that fans were naming their daughters after her character. “I couldn’t get over all these people with these little children named Lisa. And I’d say, ‘Why did you name your child after Lisa?’ They said because she’s a survivor. And I thought, ‘Yes, that’s true.'”
Over time, Lisa became a nicer person, even a bit eccentric. That evolution had less to do with the head writers and more to do with Ms. Fulton.
“Lisa was originally unlike Eileen, but as the years went on and we changed many writers, I didn’t have very much to do, so I decided to make her dippy,” Ms. Fulton said. “I’ve had great fun being dippy. I have loved every minute of it. But I will say that when Doug Marland was writing our show [in the 1980s], he really knew Lisa and gave me some wonderful stuff do to as well. Douglas knew how to weave stories for all the characters. Now, Irna Phillips did this first, and he had worked with her. They would start a story line and when you came to the end of that, another one was in the middle so that you just had to keep on watching.”
Ms. Fulton recalls Ms. Phillips fondly. “What I loved about Irna was that she acted out every show and Rose, her secretary, wrote it down. She was so involved, and we were, to Irna, her family. We were the Hughes family; she would not accept the fact that I was Eileen, not Lisa.”
Mature, but Still Feisty
Today, Lisa’s antics are no longer the main story line, but she does still have a presence. “I hate the word ‘matured,’ but she was a little snip and she couldn’t continue to be that way, Ms. Fulton said. “But if anybody steps on Lisa’s toes, Lisa will pop ’em. However, she has become more compassionate and more understanding. … Now that I’m working with the kids it seems like Lisa is there to take them under her wings, and I like that.”
Ms. Fulton also likes “As The World Turns” as it is today. Reflecting on the show’s 50th anniversary and the key to its success, she said, “It’s the stories, but it’s also the characters because it comes across that we really care for one another. We have a fabulous cast.
“I hate to sound like a goody two-shoes … but when other people have come on our show from other shows, they say, ‘My heavens, what a wonderful group of people. Everyone is so kind.’ And I think, ‘Well, aren’t people kind on other shows?’ I enjoy working with young people. I enjoy working with old people. I like to work, but I especially love the new talent we have.”
Speaking of new talent, Ms. Fulton remembers fondly some famous young actors she shared scenes with on “As The World Turns.” “I loved Parker Posey. She was crazy and she had a spark. And so did Marisa Tomei.”
Looking forward, Ms. Fulton sparkles with optimism. She’s ready to put in another decade or two. “The things that [head writer] Jean Passante and her staff are coming up [with] are interesting, and it covers characters of all ages and ties them together, the way Irna and Doug did. Lisa can get more in the middle of everything. I think she’s going to.”