In 1973, actress Jeanne Cooper was on vacation in Hawaii with her children and three of their friends when she got a call offering her a role on a new CBS daytime drama called The Young and the Restless.
Cooper says she had never watched a soap opera but “I had three children I had to take care of [and] no help from the other half,” so she gave it a try. Close to 40 years later, she is still playing Y&R’s Katherine Chancellor, the woman she sums up in her new memoir as “the wealthy, powerful, alcoholic, adulterous pillar of Genoa City, Wisconsin, society.”
It’s not the only thing on her resume, of course.
“I did quite a few movies,” she said in a recent phone chat. “And from the beginning of television I’ve got, what, a couple of hundred of those silly things out, from Playhouse 90 to [1950s syndicated series] State Trooper and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” But she is best known for her daytime work, and titled her memoir Not Young, Still Restless (It Books, $25.99, in stores Tuesday).
In Not Young, Cooper, now 83, chronicles her life from birth in Taft, Calif., through various onscreen and offscreen adventures.
She said she wanted to be honest but not dishy. So think of it not as a tell-all, but a tell-a-lot, including what Anita Ekberg thought of Tyrone Power in bed. But even that, Cooper wrote, was “almost too much information.”
Still, she notes her own romances of varying duration with David Janssen, Dennis Weaver, other actors and some of her Y&R co-stars, including one 20 years younger than she was.
“A woman doesn’t stop,” she said — although when asked about her current romantic life, she said, “Not for a while. Well, listen, I’ve trampled it to death.”
Romance and rehab
She details the failings of her ex-husband Harry Bernsen, father of actor-filmmaker Corbin and of Cooper’s other two children. She mentions stints in rehab for Katherine and herself. She describes close friendships (for example with the actress Barbara Hale), occasional on-set difficulties, winning an Emmy and getting a face-lift — which was televised on Y&R as Katherine getting one.
She talks up favorite charities, her children and grandchildren — and Corbin’s Akron-set-and-shot 25 Hill, which took its name from a spot in Taft. And she describes a now-gone era in soaps, when glamour, budgets and ratings success were far more impressive than they are now.
Written with help from her author friend Lindsay Harrison, it’s as conversational as Cooper herself was during our phone chat. In fact, Cooper has far more to say than the book contains. “After it’s done, you think of 10,000 things that happened in your lifetime,” she said. But she is at least satisfying fans’ long-standing wishes for a book.
By popular demand
“For the last 15 years, everyone has been saying, ‘Jeanne, where’s the book? Why don’t you write a book? You should write a book,’ ” she said. “I really got tired of people saying ‘When are you going to write a book?’ ” With a laugh, she added, “I shut ’em up.”
Making the book did not come easy at first, she said.
After hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews over the decades, she felt as if some things had been said again and again. “Like being an actor and being asked ‘How did you get into the business?’ You’ve told that story so many times, you wish you’d been a golfer instead.”
Still, Harrison, “a dear friend of mine and a very fine writer,” persuaded Cooper to take a tape recorder and to record her memories in an informal way. “When you think of something, just say something,” was the advice. Harrison also quizzed Cooper about events. “Like a good interviewer, she’ll ask certain questions which are necessary,” Cooper said; Harrison was also good at steering Cooper away from topics once they had been exhausted.
But, most important to Cooper, Harrison “does know how to put things together so it’s the way I want to say it, and … retain my own personality.” Her voice comes through on the page.
Caught in the act
It’s a voice that can be very loving, and very harsh, with the latter especially evident in her talking about Harry Bernsen, a handsome agent and producer who cheated on her, lied to friends about her — and was finally, irrevocably caught when his secretary accidentally sent Cooper a Valentine’s Day bouquet intended for his mistress.
On top of that, she said her money helped pay for Bernsen’s liaisons. “Harry hadn’t been robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she says in the book. “He’d been robbing Jeanne to pay Michelle and God only knows who else.”
That was in 1974, after 17 years together. While repeatedly saying she is grateful to Bernsen for their children together, Cooper doesn’t forgive his transgressions.
“I’ve sort of made a Fang out of him,” Cooper said, referring to the awful husband in Phyllis Diller’s monologues; before Bernsen’s death in 2008, Cooper said, she made clear to her children that they should not invite both parents to gatherings. (“She won’t let it go,” Corbin said in a separate interview. “She’ll never let it go.”)
And she has had her most enduring success since then. She still likes working on Y&R, though not more than three days a week so “I can relax and be easy.” Asked what she did to relax, she said, “Staring at the walls.”
A long laugh followed, then a litany of visits to family, attending functions outside Los Angeles, meeting fans and helping charities like the Humane Society and the Springboard Center, a Texas facility treating alcoholism and drug addiction.
It’s not what she dreamed about when young. Those dreams found her triumphing on the New York stage. But she worked long and hard, and celebrates roles along the way, and her two families. It is no accident that the book has a photo of her real-life family on the same page as a cast shot of Y&R. “I have no regrets,” she said.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Twitter (@rheldenfels) and Facebook. You can reach him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.