By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
If you really want to meet an apprentice, don’t ask Donald Trump. Instead, talk to David Kreizman, head writer for CBS’s daytime drama “Guiding Light.” He joined the show as a production assistant 11 years ago, answering phones and making copies. Today, he’s the man in charge of every word uttered by the actors. He’s been given the task of telling stories in the tradition of soap opera pioneer Irna Phillips, the lady who invented the genre and created “Guiding Light” as a radio serial in 1937. (It moved to television in 1952.)
In 2007, “Guiding Light” goes into the record books as the longest-running program in the history of broadcasting. “It’s very exciting. It’s also a big honor and a big responsibility. It was especially true when I was doing the research for the anniversary episode that airs on Jan. 25,” said Mr. Kreizman. That episode will re-create the first “Guiding Light” radio broadcast, with today’s cast playing the actors from yesteryear. “I got a real sense of the history, even though I’d always been somewhat aware. This made me aware of the importance of it to our audience and also to everybody who has worked on the show.”
Having spent so many years working on “Guiding Light,” Mr. Kreizman learned the soap from the inside out. “When I was just in the production office, in a way I became a fan of the show. I didn’t have any creative control then, but I fell in love with the show and learned the history at the same time,” said Mr. Kreizman. “I did research, pulling clips for flashbacks and things like that, so I was getting an intensive `Guiding Light’ history lesson. It gave me a great grounding for when I became a writer later on.”
Mr. Kreizman follows in the footsteps of many head writers, in addition to Irna Phillips, and he’s appreciative of what they brought to the tapestry of the soap. “I certainly liked the Douglas Marland era, and I liked the Pamela Long era,” he said, referring to the times when characters like Roger Thorpe dominated the storylines, and the dynamic Reva Shayne was created. The influence of Michael Zaslow’s Roger and Kim Zimmer’s Reva still resonate on the show. “Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle, matching a role with an actor. I think that happened with Michael Zaslow as Roger, from what I understand. The role was created a certain way, but once they got into it and realized what they had, Roger became something different,” said Mr. Kreizman. “We just had that happen with Tom Pelphrey as Jonathan. After we cast him, I had an idea of what I thought would be a really good story, but I didn’t know what I was going to get with him. If he had been just bad and evil, he would have probably lasted just three to six months. But after a week, we realized how much more there was to him, and how much more we could do. So the character became what he became and we wrote this love story for him, and all the great stuff with Reva.”
As much as Mr. Kreizman enjoys looking back at “Guiding Light’s” legacy, he also has worked with executive producer Ellen Wheeler to embrace the future. Every Wednesday, for example, the soap presents episodes called “Into the Light,” which break out of the standard daytime storytelling format. “Ellen had seen a movie called `Everything Is Illuminated’ and the movie had long periods of not that much dialogue and concentrating on character. She said, `what if we tried to do that… every single week?”‘ said Mr. Kreizman.
“Originally, we thought it would be a way to slow down storytelling because we’re getting a deeper understanding of character. But then as we got into it, we also realized that you can move faster because sometimes we can tell one or two weeks of story in a day. It gives us a chance to do things we don’t normally do like voice-over, or going back and forth in time, just different things to shake up the conventions of soap opera,” said Mr. Kreizman. One episode in particular really shook up soap conventions when “Guiding Light” teamed up with Marvel Comics. Mr. Kreizman collaborated with the comic writers to write an adventure for a new superhero called “The Guiding Light.” He then appeared in the episode as a villain who is thwarted by the hero.
Trying new forms, including technology like podcasts and webisodes, is important to Mr. Kreizman. “We realize that we can’t just stand in place. Good stories and good acting isn’t enough. There have to be other ways to reach out,” said Mr. Kreizman. “You can go online and have companion pieces, talk to other fans, view other things that are created as part of the `Guiding Light’/Springfield universe. There really is a community there, people who work on the show and people who watch the show. We’re part of a big community that has gone on for 70 years.”
Part of the “Guiding Light” anniversary celebration includes monthly volunteer efforts, starting with a project in the Gulf Coast to rebuild three homes ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. “Ellen worked on the community outreach effort and I was working on what we could do on the show,” said Mr. Kreizman.
“The big question that I kept coming to was why has `Guiding Light’ survived for 70 years when so many other shows haven’t? This show has stayed on the longest because it was about a guy putting a light in the window to tell people they weren’t alone. It’s the message that Irna Phillips wrote when she created it, a brotherhood of man. That’s what has connected with people through so many generations. Yes, we do wild stories, murders and betrayals and adultery, but I think underneath there is always that spirit of the community and the family and hope. Certainly things have changed, in life and on the show, but the things that are important have remained.”