Tonight, the series finale of _House, MD_ airs, and on June 13, Larry Hagman will reprise the role of J. R. Ewing on TNT’s new _Dallas_, saying to his new sister-in-law, in a promo shown for almost a year now, “Guns don’t seem to have much of an effect on me.”
And my thoughts turn to the character–and the actor–to whom Hagman, Hugh Laurie, and so many in between have owed their success.
It was 1971. _Guiding Light_, the longest fictional narrative ever told, had already been on the air for 35 years, and there were certain “rules” still in play. Only “good” characters were allowed to “stick around.” Characters could have faults but were expected to redeem themselves. Anyone truly evil had to be punished in some way, or in rare cases redeemed. Only a few actors received long-term contracts, and writers could easily add or remove people from the canvas as needed.
A few years before, GL had gone from 15 minutes to a half an hour, and the cast was increased to reflect the change. In one of the first known cases of Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome, brothers Mike and Ed Bauer, both born onscreen in the early 1950s, were now in their late 20s/early 30s on the show, a lawyer and doctor, respectively, and a new family named the Norrises had recently been introduced.
Barbara Norris was a widow with three teenagers, and her ex-husband was Stanley Norris, one of the richest men in town. Stanley was intended to be the show’s driving villain for the time being, but every good archvillain needs a henchman. His daughter Holly was intended to be a new love-interest for Dr. Ed Bauer, and to fill out the triangle of the storyline, the show needed a young man who would rival Ed for Holly’s affections. He was going to be a short-term character tied in to the eventual murder of Holly’s father.
When the casting call went out for a roguish young man in his 20s, out of a crowd of stereotypical “leading man” types, the casting director picked a young stage actor who wasn’t necessarily TV/movie star “handsome,” but had a deep charm and charisma.
Thanks to the casting of Michael Zaslow, Roger Thorpe, intended as a catalyst for one story arch of a few months, became one of the longest-running, most well known and certainly most influential characters in the history of daytime, and arguably in the history of all television.
Never before on *any* series had people tuned in specifically to watch the “bad guy,” with the possible exception of Barnabas Collins on _Dark Shadows_, which while a cult favorite was not a ratings success. But I had the same exchange at least three times with different middle aged men where _Guiding Light_ came up, and the fellow said, “You watch *soap operas*??” “Just _Guiding Light_.” Then I’d mention Roger, and the person said, “I remember Roger! I used to tune in all the time to see Roger!”
Before Roger Thorpe, villains were supposed to get their comeuppance, but Roger always kept coming back, and one of the reasons he worked was that he was, like the best comic book villains, a character with depth. He was an ambitious young corporate executive, first working for Stanley Norris and later working for Alan Spaulding, a blackmailer, embezzler and con artist. He also had a horrible, violent temper, and at the peak of his reign of terror committed spousal abuse and rape. But he also had a sensitive streak, the streak that made him so appealing to the women on the show and in the viewership. He wanted somehow to have it all: family, power, money, and his conflicting desires led to the conflicts in his life. He would try to be better, but his appetites always got the better of him–and when he managed to keep his appetites in check, others’ low opinions of him would lead him back into his wicked ways. For the ultimate driving force in his life was his father, Adam, a wealthy executive and “good guy” on the show who was publicly known for his righteousness but was extremely hard on his son and, according to Roger, abusive at home.
After several departures, faked deaths, and an arrest or two, Roger was to finally be killed off in on April 1, 1981 (the announcement that Roger was “going to die” was also the first “spoiler”), though 8 years later the character would return yet again, and with his fall from a cliff retconned into yet another faked death and a “fifteen year” stint in the CIA.
Certainly, every long-running villain in daytime in the past 40 years has owed his or her existence to Roger Thorpe. After Zaslow left GL, some of its competitors even cast actors who bore a resemblance to him to play their villains.
Zaslow never had much of a career outside daytime, sadly. Years before Roger, Zaslow played the first crewman whom Dr. Leonard McCoy pronounced “Dead” on _Star Trek_, and had another notable but short appearance as a different _Enterprise_ crewman. IMDB and several Wiki sites claim that Zaslow played an uncredited role as a background character in _Star Trek First Contact_, but the character in question looks nothing like him.
Zaslow also had a couple guest appearances on _Law & Order_, and there was a rumor that Dick Wolf was considering him for a starring role in the series at a point when Jerry Orbach was considering leaving–but Orbach stayed, and Zaslow was stricken with ALS, dying within 2 years of his diagnosis.
In the meantime, the original “man you love to hate” inspired a myriad of prime time imitators, and as scripted daytime television nears extinction, as Hugh Laurie announces his retirement from television and Larry Hagman comes out of semi-retirement, I hope they stop and at least give some thought to the equally talented but nearly forgotten actor to whom they owe their careers.