Tales From the Road: Backstage with Soap Opera Guiding Light

by Rikki Lee Travolta

For many years, I thought I was destined to end up on a soap opera. I would have been happy with that.

While some people sneer at the art form, I point to the fact of how popular daytime dramas like The Young & The Restless, Days of Our Lives, General Hospital, and The Bold and the Beautiful are today.

Granted, we’ve seen some great soaps close shop. Passions shuttered its doors in 1999. One Life to Live lasted until 2013. As the World Turns kept making episodes until 2010. All My Children ran for 40 years before going off the air for good. And Guiding Light aired its last episode in 2009.

Days of Our Lives was the soap I secretly pined to be on. When Stephen Nichols left the show in 1990, they killed off his character – Patch. But being a soap opera, they left the door open that maybe he didn’t really die because the body was secretly taken before burial.

A few years after Stephen ended his run with the role, a magazine suggested the casting idea of resurrecting Patch with a  younger actor. I was the name they suggested might be able to pull it off.

Patch is one of the most iconic characters in daytime television. He was a rough-and-tumble guy in a pretty and predestined world.

Stephen Nichols is an incredible actor, very deserving of his multiple prestigious awards for his theatrical work, and of course his Emmy nomination as Best Actor for his portrayal of Patch. So, I would never suggest that the key to the character is just having long hair, a leather jacket, and an eyepatch. But, if those were the only necessary qualities, it certainly made sense why I could have been a contender. 

Not only did I have hair at the time, I had long hair. In fact, my hair was rockstar-beautiful. Up until that point, a lot of my career had been on stage playing gang members – so there was photographic evidence that I looked cool and tough in leather. And I’m pretty sure the costume department wouldn’t have a problem coming up with an eyepatch for me.

However, Stephen created the character and he put an indelible stamp on how Patch had to be played. As an actor, taking on a role that is so closely associated with another talent can be very tricky and very challenging.

I played Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the theatre where Paul Newman started his acting career as a young man. He had earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Brick in the film adaptation. So, I knew I was stepping into some big shoes. 

I’ve also played McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – a role intimately associated with Jack Nicholson. Nicholson won an Oscar for his film performance in the part. At least when I did that show, it wasn’t at the theater he started his career.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes whatever you bring to the role is special enough that audiences accept you. Sometimes all the talent in the world still won’t win over die-hard fans.

Peter Reckell is just as famous for playing Bo Brady on Days of Our Lives as Stephen is for playing Patch. In fact, one interesting tidbit is that Peter beat out Tom Cruise for the role of Bo. After Peter left the show in 1992, they brought in Robert Kelker-Kelly as a younger version of the character.  

I personally thought Robert did a great job. I think he’s a monumental actor.  but he was never truly accepted by the die-hard fans. Most viewers liked him, and many loved him. But there were also those who only tolerated him as a placeholder. The experiment lasted a few years, but the producers ended up bringing Peter back in the end. Apparently, Tom Cruise wasn’t interested in the role at that point – something about Mission Impossible movies taking up too much of his time.

While I certainly would have loved the challenge of blending my talents into what Stephen Nichols had already established as the core of the character of Patch, as far as I know, it was only a magazine story. I’ve gotten pretty far in the audition process for a number of soap characters, but I was never asked to read for Patch. 

Guiding Light, however, is probably the most interesting of my soap opera stories. When I got married and started a family, my acting career went on the back burner as I transitioned into a career in public relations and marketing – proudly serving as the public face of some of the country’s most respected businesses.

After putting a few companies on the map with my unique brand of promotions, I was recruited by Empire Today to take them to the next level. And, I’m proud to say I responded to the challenge. In my first year alone, I increased documented media coverage by over 700% and facilitated the company being named one of the Top 200 Brands in the US by Advertising Age Magazine

You may wonder what this has to do with soap operas. Well, Empire Today is most well-known for its flooring and carpeting. One of the things I am very adept at is product placement. For instance, under my leadership, we became the official flooring provider of several TV shows such as The Montel Williams Show.

The producers at Guiding Light were interested in having Empire come in and redo the carpeting on some of their sets. In anticipation of closing the deal, casting director Rob Decina and I were working on a really fun and outside-the-box way to announce the news.

We outlined a scene in which one of the principal female characters on Guiding Light would be waiting for Empire Today to show up and install new carpeting in her home. While waiting she falls asleep. She awakes to a knock at the door. When she opens the door, she expects to find the Empire Man – the elderly spokesman associated with Empire Today’s cult classic television advertisements. Instead, however, she finds a new version of the Empire Man – tall, tan, muscular, and with a long flowing mane of golden locks. In other words: me.

In typical soap opera fashion, my character would come in to start work, only to discover an overwhelming attraction to the leading lady. Unable to fight our primal desire anymore, we would end up in a passionate embrace.

A knock at the door, however, interrupts the action. In fact, the knock actually awakens my would-be lover who realizes our encounter was just a dream. After another knock, she hurries to the door to discover the traditional Empire Man (played by Lynn Hauldren from 1977 until his passing in 2011).

It was a cute scene that played up the nostalgia of having Lynn’s classic Empire Man on the show, but also played up the hot and heavy angle with me as a young strapping version of the character. Everyone seemed to love the idea. The only reason it didn’t happen was that I ended up leaving the company.

Rob and I continued to play with the idea of having me come on Guiding Light in some sort of cameo even without the Empire Man story angle. Ricky Paull Goldin played Gus Aitoro on the show from 2001 until 2008. In April 2008, his character was killed off. Since Ricky and I have similar facial structures, our idea was that I would appear as a mysterious character who might or might not be Gus. 

Since Gus had been killed off in dramatic fashion, with his heart being transplanted into the character of Olivia Spencer, trying to create a scenario where Gus could reappear was the biggest challenge. But it wasn’t an insurmountable challenge. Remember, the prime-time soap Dallas justified bringing back Patrick Duffy’s Bobby Ewing by saying the entire year of plotline after Bobby’s death in Season 9 was just a dream. So, obviously, soap writers are known to be able to get pretty creative to reintroduce dead characters.

I was really excited about the idea of being on Guiding Light. Unfortunately, though, the show was canceled in April 2009 after 72 years on the air (15 years on the radio and 57 years on television). We were still working out the details of the Maybe Gus appearance when we got the news.

Sadly a lot of soap operas have been retired from television. My heart goes out to the creative talents who continue to make these steamy dramas. There is definitely a place for them in the hearts of millions of viewers.

I admire these shows, and I still truly hope someday I’ll have the chance to appear on one – even in a cameo. It’s the one area of my career that I have yet to conquer – well that and beating out Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Bradley Cooper, and Christian Bale in head-to-head competition for the Best Actor Academy Award.

Who knows, maybe a future Tales from the Road backstage story will be about my appearance on one of the dramas that still dominate the daytime ratings. That’s a story I’d love to tell.

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta


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