For the last decade acclaimed Upper West Side horror novelist Peter Straub has followed the ABC soap opera One Life to Live with such dogged enthusiasm that earlier this year the producers awarded him a walk-on role.
“I played retired detective Pete Braust,” Mr. Straub said recently, during his customary midday writing break for lunch and “stories.” “His last name is an anagram of mine. I was blind, and I had been the partner of Michael Easton’s character’s father, Tom McBain, who’d been a cop and was shot dead. I had seen the killer, but now, being blind, I wouldn’t be able to identify him.”
The cause of the blindness, he noted, was unclear. “Something went sadly wrong in a domestic-dispute call. It was probably too painful for the writers to mention.”
Mr. Straub, whose 16 major works include two collaborations with Stephen King, is neither the first blind officer of the law nor the first literary man to grace daytime television. Frank McCourt, whose brother Malachy had a recurring role on One Life to Live, had a cameo on the program in 1997. The playwrights Wendy Wasserstein and Christopher Durang, both longtime followers of Another World, did a guest stint as autograph hounds on a 1981 episode of Ryan’s Hope. The book-cover artist Chip Kidd appeared alongside two editors from Hyperion in an episode of One Life to Live that aired last winter. David Sedaris, a fan since childhood, has his own dressing room at the studio.
“We knew that he’s a fan of the show,” said executive producer Frank Valentini, “so we sent a letter to his agent and said, ‘Please forward this to David.’ We said we were going to dedicate the David Sedaris Annex to him. He said yes. We had a party and a cake. We all sat in the wardrobe room.” The celebration occurred last fall. “It was a mutual love fest,” Mr. Valentini said.
The David Sedaris Annex now serves as a combined fitting area and wardrobe-overflow closet. Mr. Straub tried the door during his day on set. “It was locked,” he said.
“I was surprised at how many of my intellectual writer friends watch soap operas,” said Robyn Goodman, the producer of Avenue Q on Broadway and a former supervising producer of One Life to Live—apparently the soap opera of choice among Manhattan’s intellectual elite. “Part of it is ’cause they’re home during the day trying not to write, but I think there’s something about episodic storytelling that appeals to them.”
“It’s really most like a 19th-century novel,” said Linda Gottlieb, a feature-film producer whose credits include Dirty Dancing, and a former executive producer of One Life to Live. “It’s sprawling. It’s like Dickens.”
“Dickens, absolutely,” said Mr. Durang. “I think the continuing-story aspect oddly gets you hooked. When I was watching Another World”—a habit he picked up at Yale from Ms. Wasserstein, who picked it up during her undergrad days at Mount Holyoke—“there were always several characters who were really evil, who were just causing awful trouble. You enjoy the evil characters, they’re always more fun, but you also want to see when they get caught.”
Mr. Sedaris has written extensively about the writerly appeal of soaps, especially One Life to Live, and he is thought to have appeared several times on the program as an extra, although Mr. Valentini demurred to discuss these roles. “I’ve asked him a few times to consider a speaking part,” he said, “but he said he would be too nervous.”
In 1993, Mr. Sedaris did a commentary piece on the subject for National Public Radio. It included the following entry from July 19, 1989, filed after an episode during which two female characters were abducted, one for the third time that year: “Everyone on One Life to Live has been kidnapped at one time or another. They’ve been stuffed into bags more times than my laundry, but once the ransom is delivered, they wipe the slate clean and start fresh. They’re easy that way.”
The appeal isn’t difficult to fathom. For most soap-opera viewers, the murder and intrigue contained within an hour-long episode of any given show may be an escape from the humdrum daily happenings of suburban Middle America. But for the small sliver of the demographic that comes from Manhattan and Europe’s intellectual circles, all those live burials, mysterious disappearances and long-lost-twin revelations are a happy distraction from a darker art. Writing can be dull work. The writing on soaps is everything but.
“The genre allows you to do so many different kinds of fiction-making,” said Michael Malone, a former head writer for One Life to Live, a Harvard Ph.D. and an accomplished novelist in his own right. Mr. Malone was on the phone from a suite overlooking the Mediterranean at the Centro Studi Ligure in Bogliasco, Italy, where he is working on a book. “The soap opera lets you do everything from drama to murder mystery to fantasy to comedy to musicals,” he said. “We once did a play within a play, a dream of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s so much of it, in a way—such breadth of canvas—that for a writer, it’s paradise.”
And for that paradise, Mr. Malone preferred playwrights. In the early 1990’s, he hired several, including Jeffrey Sweet, Neal Bell and the librettist William M. Hoffman. “I may be the only playwright in history to have written both for soap opera and grand opera at the same moment,” said Mr. Hoffman, who in 1991 worked on One Life to Live and mounted the first production of The Ghosts of Versailles at the Metropolitan Opera.
Mr. Sweet was the show’s script manager the same year. He recalled collaborating with Mr. Hoffman on an episode that, by order of the executive producer, took place entirely on a pirate ship. “There was a great deal of cross-dressing,” he said, “and the men absolutely refused to wear skirts, so I had to rewrite the scene at the last minute. I ended up doing a story about one of the characters having a past-life regression, or reversion, or whatever they used to do back in the 90’s. She plays a pirate, captures an English lord, straps him to the mast and seduces him.”
Set in the fictional community of Llanview, One Life to Live was created by Agnes Nixon and follows the life of this character, Victoria Lord Davidson, played by Erika Slezak. A sufferer of dissociative identity disorder, “Viki” has had five children with four different men since the program debuted on July 15, 1968, and from them, four grandchildren, two of whom are deceased. She has been molested, hypnotized, widowed, rendered comatose, drugged, jailed, blackmailed, reunited with several lost lovers, engaged to a newspaperman and, of course, many times kidnapped. Ms. Nixon, it is said, had a philosophy on soap-opera construction: “Make ’em laugh. Make ’em cry. Make ’em wait.”
“When I was working on One Life to Live,” said Ms. Goodman, “I’d call my friend Richard Greenberg”—the Tony Award–winning playwright and a fan of the show—“and say, ‘How are we doing?’ We’d have these long very intellectual discussions about Viki’s multiple personalities.”
“I feel that soap opera’s great lessons are not bad human lessons,” Mr. Malone said. “They are that the people you love never really die. They may look like they’re dead, but they always come back. The person that first loved you will always love you. Your family will never desert you. To me, that’s much more at the heart of what soap opera is than hot tubs and champagne and roses, although I suppose that part’s true as well.”
As to what draws the literary-minded to his soap, “I guess I would answer that question very carefully,” Mr. Valentini said. “Because of course we think our show to be the best-written, the most literary, the most highbrow, the most happening.”
On the day Mr. Kidd filmed his appearance on the show, the cast was shooting several other plots. “There was this guy who was being held prisoner, who was chained to a bed, but he had a cell phone. And his girlfriend was being held prisoner somewhere else, in the trunk of a car. But she had her cell phone too, and they were talking to each other, trying to figure out how to save each other,” he said. “My parents, when they saw it, were pretty freaked out by that.”
Mr. Kidd appeared in one scene, a release party for a book whose jacket he designed. On the show, the book was written by one of the main characters, Marcie Walsh, played by Kathy Brier. Marcie, a part-time receptionist for the obstetrician Dr. Conklin at Llanview Hospital, fell in love with the prescription-drug-addicted Alonzo Holden, whom she infected with a rare disease she caught after being thrown in a dumpster during a rally for Middle East peace. Al died, but his spirit survived to inhabit another man, Michael McBain, with whom Marcie fell in love and who encouraged her to write a mystery novel, called The Killing Club.
Then it gets complicated. (“You have to just lie back and let it happen,” said Mr. Kidd.) Mr. Malone wrote an actual book called The Killing Club, for which Mr. Kidd actually designed the cover. It was published by Hyperion—on the show and in the real world—and, after its real-world release, made it on the New York Times best-seller list.
The book’s editor, Gretchen Young, and Bob Miller, the president of Hyperion, were both extras, alongside Mr. Kidd, in the fictional book-release-party scene.
“The party was at a restaurant that is frequented on the show. It had a very peachy background,” said Ms. Young, who wore a brown skirt and a blue floral top, both from Anthropologie by way of her own closet. “It was over a year ago—and you know, what can I say? It was very lovely. The setup was for the actress/writer to enter, then she would sit at a table, and her agent, quote-unquote, made a statement to the crowd. We were there in the background, just sort of smiling.”
Ms. Young had two lines in the episode, which she practiced while she was having her stage makeup applied. “What I did not realize—and this was kind of a fun eye-opener—is that to deliver those two lines, I had to be on the set for about eight hours. You have ample time to rehearse.”
Mr. Kidd had one line—“Thank you”—and no costume, he said. “They basically said, ‘Dress as you would if you were going to a publishing party in New York.’ So I wore my new Etro jacket.”
For this, he was paid $1,000.
Mr. Durang and Ms. Wasserstein were paid approximately $160 apiece for their appearance in a bar scene on the since-cancelled soap Ryan’s Hope. Each had five lines. Both delivered them too loudly, in retrospect. “We really seemed like we were in a play rather than in a soap opera,” Mr. Durang said. “We kind of projected too much—not just our voices, but our presence.”
During their cameo, the playwrights were served drinks at Ryan’s bar, which was tended at the time by future writer and gubernatorial hopeful Malachy McCourt, who played Kevin McGuinness. “I was always saying all sorts of profound things like, ‘Can I get you another beer?’” Mr. McCourt said. He went on to a one-year role as Thomas Keneally, a terrorist, on One Life to Live. He named his character after a friend—Thomas Kenneally, the author of Schindler’s List—because “Tom terrorizes Australia with these Republican ideas,” he said.
In one memorable episode, Mr. McCourt, pursued by terrorist-hunters, ducked into a university library, only to find the author Frank McCourt signing books. While evading assassination, Malachy asked Frank to autograph a book “to my brother. He thinks he’s a writer.”
Mr. Straub appeared in three scenes in the episode that aired on March 27, 2006. He had about 20 lines, he said, which he practiced “whenever possible” in the weeks before the shoot, which took one day. “My wife helped me. My assistant helped me. My daughter Emma might have helped me. I once had lunch with my friend, the writer Bradford Morrow, and he fed me lines.” Mr. Morrow, who also lives in New York, is the author of five novels and was a finalist for the P.E.N./Faulkner Award in 1992.
“Brad never watches soap operas,” Mr. Straub said, “but he’s very high-minded.”
Mr. Straub began watching soap operas when his daughter was 10. She watched All My Children, and when she went to summer camp, his job, since he was home all day anyway, was to watch the program and write her daily reports.
“When I first began getting into soap operas as an adult,” Mr. Straub said, “I learned that a number of jazz musicians were the same way. Roy Eldridge and a disciple of his named Spanky Davis were devoted to All My Children. I used to meet Spanky Davis and we’d have long talks about Susan Lucci.”
By the late 1990’s, Mr. Straub found himself dozing off during All My Children and waking up during One Life to Live, which he found to be a better-written show. “So I switched my allegiance and moved my lunch back,” he said.
The Straubs were friendly with Mr. Malone, and through him Mr. Straub’s wife arranged a tour of the set. Mr. Straub passed out autographed copies of his books to his favorite cast members. He struck up a close friendship with one actor, Mr. Easton, who plays Lt. John McBain. One evening, at the Straub’s brownstone near the park, Mr. Easton was talking about Mr. Sedaris’ occasional extra appearances and his refusal to deliver lines.
“So I said to Michael, ‘Well, I’d say some lines if you gave them to me,’” Mr. Straub said. “And he said, ‘You’d be on our program?’ And I said, ‘Sure, in a second.’”
So he was. And he did such a good job of it that he was invited back to testify if there’s ever a trial of the man who killed the elder McBain.
“The funny thing is, most of the audience won’t know the difference,” Mr. Valentini said. “They think, ‘Oh, it’s just another actor.’”