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Jeanne Cooper Interview: In-Depth and Candid with 'The Young and the Restless' Legend

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Jeanne Cooper

In the fictional town of Genoa City, Wisconsin, Katherine Chancellor, the grande dame and wealthy pillar of society has been portrayed by veteran actress Jeanne Cooper since 1973 on The Young and the Restless, the highest rated daytime drama on television. Cooper’s character has broken ground in the daytime medium by having her real-life facelift televised on the soap as her character underwent the surgery at the same time. It was the first time an “extreme makeover” had been broadcast in daytime television.

The veteran theater, film, and television actress has received eleven Daytime Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress and one for Outstanding Supporting Actress, and two Primetime Emmy nominations (one for Ben Casey and another for her recurring role on L.A. Law). She won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in 2008, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Daytime Emmys in 2004, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on August 20, 1993.

“When someone speaks of someone 50 and over, they think of the rocking chair, possibly a cane, slightly bent over, and white hair. They put you into categories as a secondary citizen.”

During her entertainment career that spans 60 years, Cooper has appeared in numerous television shows including Highway Patrol, Playhouse 90, Twilight Zone, Maverick, Cheyenne, Rawhide, The Big Valley, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Wagon Train, Perry Mason, Branded, Daniel Boone, Mannix, McCloud, and L.A. Law, Touched by an Angel, The Bold and the Beautiful, and Guiding Light.

Jeanne Cooper

Jeanne Cooper (Monty Brinton/CBS)

On the big screen she has appeared in The Redhead from Wyoming, The Man from Alamo, There Was a Crooked Man, Tony Rome, and The Boston Strangler.

The Taft, California native graduated from the famed Pasadena Playhouse School, attended the College of the Pacific, and performed in the Civic Light Opera Company and Revue Theater in Stockton. The heart of her personal passion is reserved for her family; actor Corbin Bernsen (1954) who is married to British actress Amanda Pays, Collin Bernsen (1958), a daughter Caren (1960) who is an actress, and eight grandchildren.

Cooper donates her time to several charities, hospitals and organizations including The Interval House (for abuse victims), the Children’s Hospital of Toronto, the National Wildlife Association, Greenpeace, London’s Children’s Cancer Research, San Diego’s House of Hope, and is the founder of a national volunteer support network called The Katherine Chancellor Society.

Nearing her 82nd birthday on October 25, this generous, funny, charming, gracious force of nature hasn’t slowed down a bit and is definitely one of television’s living legends.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jeanne, you’ve been on The Young and the Restless for 37 years. How did you get the role as Katherine Chancellor?

Jeanne Cooper: John Conboy, who was one of the designers and producers of the show said, “I’m going to take a long shot and call her in because she is such a good actress and I hope she will be interested in daytime.” I had never expressed any interest whatsoever in daytime. Anyway, I went in to see him and the script they handed me was marvelous.

I had friends who had been in daytime and they told me that I would hate it because it was the same thing over and over and over again. They told me I would want to get out after six months. Long story short, I basically said, “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.” When I signed the first contract it was for three years. I had just gotten a divorce, so I said, “Well, three years, yeah, okay.” Thirty seven years later here I am.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Had you watched daytime dramas before you went in that day?

Jeanne Cooper: No, but I’ll tell you what I did. When I was a kid my mother listened to Stella Dallas on the radio. It was so wonderful because she was in love with this Lord of England and she was a little coal miner’s daughter (laughs). I’d tell my mother I didn’t feel well so I could stay home. It was just so stark and real to me.

When I got the call from John Conboy and he asked me to just please sit down and hear him out, I swear to God I thought this was going back to when I was a kid. That’s what good soap operas are all about and that was radio. Isn’t that wild? I was a victim of my own delight in a sense.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever thought about leaving or retiring?

Jeanne Cooper: Well, yeah, there are times I think about it.  But then I think that daytime is constructed in a way that you develop your audience that goes along with you. I still have people from 37 years ago, four generations. It’s incredible. Where can you do what you like to do especially when you get older and be accepted and, in some cases, adored … and make a living?

The main thing I tried to do, after my kids were grown and married, was to figure out where I could give back. It’s just amazing how you look at things. You have people who follow you because they respect you and have grown older with you. It’s an amazing thing when people love someone who they watch everyday and grow older with.

The younger ones look at you and think, “Boy I hope to get to do that when I get to be that age.” But you have to respect the audience back. You can never play down to them … ever ever ever.

That’s been my course of action, to uplift anybody in everything I can, and to keep myself uplifted also. That’s a hell of a responsibility, Melissa. That is, if you can really look at it, stop being selfish, and start looking at what good you can do instead of, “Look how important I am.” If you’re in the business of saying, “Look how important I am,” you need a shrink to go along with it (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You recently spoke rather candidly to Soap Opera Digest about your role. You said, “Katherine’s just not here to serve rice pudding.”

Jeanne Cooper: Right, and I’m sure you know what I mean. You’re 35 years old and some little kid says, “Ma’am, could you tell me where the …” You turn and say, “Ma’am? You called me ma’am?”

When someone speaks of someone 50 and over, they think of the rocking chair, possibly a cane, slightly bent over, and white hair. They put you into categories as a secondary citizen. We call them seniors, I think, today. They are only secondary citizens because everything is guided toward the youth. But, an older person makes it very possible for the youth of today to do everything they’re doing.

This whole thing of rice pudding and picket fences … it’s a Father Knows Best kind of thing (and I adored Robert Young in that show), however, father does not know best. But that’s how we geared everything. Grandma or mother is baking the cookies saying, “Oh thank God you’re home, I have the most wonderful cookies waiting for you,” instead of something like, “I helped to push a bill through Congress today.”

There are many people walking around with canes, slightly bent, and rocking on the front porch, but that has also been a mental concept that has been kept alive because so much attention has been placed on youth. I adore the youth. I love to see a young group coming up to watch them make mistakes, but also to watch them make great leaps and bounds toward the future.

I think after you get to be a certain age you can critique life pretty well with some sense of wisdom. The one thing I like about me is that I have let myself believe and strive for the fact that I am productive and can still donate to life. I’m not a little picket fence and rice pudding (laughs).

I’ve seen the kids at the studio get married, have their children, see them graduate and have their own children. The only way you can make young people respect who you are is getting their trust and by believing and listening to what they have to say. You may disapprove, but you’ve got to listen to them and then you’ve got to do something that gives them hope. I think that’s what growing older is all about. You tell young people it will all be okay if they don’t blow it. But if you want to be just young and stupid, then 30 is a good age to live to (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You know, I miss your volatile relationship with Tucker. I must’ve slept through the scene where everything was forgiven between you two.

The Young And The Restless

The Young and the Restless - L to R: Patrick Murphy (Michael Fairman), Katherine Chancellor (Jeanne Cooper), Jill Fenmore (Jess Walton) and Phillip Chancellor (Thom Bierdz) attend the wedding of Victoria Newman and Billy Abbott (Monty Brinton/CBS)

Jeanne Cooper: No, you didn’t miss a thing! I wish you had talked to somebody about that. It would have helped me out tremendously, Melissa (laughs). All of a sudden here’s this kid of mine that I’m going to challenge and he may get the best of me … then we go to “isn’t he sweet?”

In the last month or so we’ve had a little bit of contact in scenes and I’m trying to bridge that distance again of, “I’m not sure I can trust you and don’t try anything because I’m your mother” kind of thing. You know, Stephen was thinking the same thing. He said, “I thought we weren’t supposed to trust each other.”

People who have watched the show for years criticize it because they do not understand the relationships of people anymore. We have so many people going in and out and people wonder who that new person is in Genoa City. In daytime dramas you have to give an audience time to get to know someone.

They say time is of the essence. I have no idea, I wish I had an answer. Please tell me what it is, Melissa, and I’ll relay it to some other people and then they’ll have the answer (laughs). It’s very strange. I don’t know what to make of it really.

I know we have countless options of what to watch, but I have to say I’m really not that interested in reality shows. I really don’t care about somebody’s horror or about him or her not getting along sexually. That’s none of my business. I don’t feel like somebody should be paid $100,000 to show me his or her seamy side of life. There’s just so much more going on in the world, don’t you think so?

My God, everybody complains about someone. I say, “Don’t complain if you didn’t vote.” I’m finding out there are so many more new Americans that know more about our government than half the people who are born here. It’s true. I don’t know where the fix-it is. The fix-it is where society is at this point. I’m certainly holding out hope. That’s why I said it’s not rice pudding and picket fences. If it is a picket fence it needs repairing (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there anything you have wanted Katherine to do over the years that she hasn’t done yet?

Jeanne Cooper: Yes, there was one thing. I wanted her to run for governor. Of course, they laughed and gave that to Jack.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Y&R has always had the reputation of being a grounded soap that deals with social issues and real relationships. Then there were the “twin” storylines and it seemed like every woman in town had a doppelganger. Did you enjoy playing dual roles?

Jeanne Cooper: Well, I created that many years ago. In this case, I didn’t mind playing it, bringing Marge back. I didn’t want her to die and it did bring back Beth Maitland, Tricia Cast, Julianna McCarthy, and all of these people that were with the show in the beginning and the audience got to see them. Of course, they’re using them as recurring characters, which is pleasing to the audience now, as well as the audience who watched from the beginning. They’re getting their family back in a sense.

You cannot make the audience get used to all of these people running across their screens within two weeks time. You’re going to lose an audience because they will say, just like you did, “What happened to you and Tucker?” As actors, we ask the same thing. We ask, “Why did you guys do this? Why are you playing around with these characters?” Consequently, daytime is about getting acquainted and making someone your family and a part of your life.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Victoria Rowell claims there is racial discrimination going on at The Young and the Restless. Are African American actors being treated differently?

Jeanne Cooper: Not that I know of. I think Victoria Rowell is one of the most talented young women in the business. Why she is taking this tactic … it certainly would never have taken place in my presence. I would never have allowed it. I can’t speak about it simply because I’m not black, but all people are equal in my presence.

I have a mouth on me and it wouldn’t … again, it wouldn’t be rice pudding and picket fences (laughs). That’s what I meant by that statement as you can tell by now what I mean. I’m not rice pudding and picket fences. Don’t put me in the category where I’m supposed to act a certain way according to your way of thinking.

I don’t know what Victoria is doing. Of course, she may have had experiences that she’s never discussed with me and that could be. I just think, at this point, that she should really name names if that is the way she feels. She should name names and let those people either defend themselves or whatever because then she would have an answer to the goal that she’s trying to achieve.

Without naming names for that sort of thing, most people just start saying, “Oh, there she goes again.” I so respect her talent. I don’t want people to think that of her as a person. Now, if it means press for her … I have no idea what her goal is but I think she should be brave enough to come out and take those people to task if that’s the way she feels.

Kristoff St. John is a beautiful actor. Even at times he feels that sometimes this kind of publicity sets them back two steps for every step forward. I mean, it doesn’t matter to me what color … I was raised with black kids.

It’s very difficult to see Victoria’s way of trying to move something forward because it’s better to come out and fight the fight rather than to just throw barbs at something. I just think she’d be farther ahead if she would name people because people have begun to think less of her opinion. It’s not befitting to her because she’s bigger and better than that. I’d really like to see her have a more direct way of presenting her hopes of what to do about the situation.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you close to Jess Walton, Melody Scott Thomas, and other cast members off screen?

Jeanne Cooper: Yes, there are a lot of kindred spirits there. There’s sort of a protective spirit that comes out that goes beyond what is written in the script. These are emotions and friendships that develop with that constant … again you become victim of your own circumstances. Being in close proximity to them is like developing a relationship that has to do with a daytime performance. You have to have time to nurture it, and then all of a sudden these people become very important to you. There are several people in the show who have become exactly that.

I know you’ve interviewed Eric Braeden and Billy Miller. Isn’t Billy a super kid? I tell you, talk about an actor! He deserved two Emmys! He’s of that sense of Brando, Dennis Hopper, and James Dean. He’s of that in-depth kind of talent and focus.

Doug Davidson is one of the most unsung actors we’ve had. I’ve been on the show the longest and he’s been on the longest next to me. He has turned in some incredible performances. I went to see all of these babies when they were born in the hospital. He’s like another son to me. I adore him.

Christian LeBlanc is one of my favorite people. He’s so funny, but do you know how talented this man is as an artist and as a humanist? Boy, you talk about complexities. There you have it with him. I’d say to him all of the time, “Now that’s enough coffee beans. You can relax, no more coffee beans. I’m not giving you any more coffee beans.” He’s a committed man to his family and he’s a very committed person to this industry, to his craft.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Nikki is starting to have those same old troubles with Victor again. I’d like to see her get back into the corporate world.

Jeanne Cooper: Again, you’ve got to be very careful because they may shove her into rice pudding and picket fences. Right now she’s a tender kind of a thing, but there’s some stuff coming up which will prove her mettle again which you will enjoy very much.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Thom Bierdz is back for a short time.

Jeanne Cooper: Thom will be in and out. He’s not going to disappear. He developed into a marvelous man. You know, all of these kids were kids when they first started and I watched their development and they became family. Some people are coming back on board now because they’re using some of the people that people were used to. They started getting so many new people the audience didn’t know who to watch or didn’t have time to be committed to another relationship. It’s like having too many girlfriends or too many boyfriends. Pretty soon you’ve got to say, “Hey, I’ve got to pick a couple people and go with them because I’m tired.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think Y&R will have a gay storyline? On his Facebook page, Thom asks people to contact CBS if they want Phillip to have a boyfriend.

Jeanne Cooper: Well, I know, but that isn’t Thom’s decision. I love Thom. I’ve been through so much with him from his mom on and long before that. His mom became a very sweet acquaintance and I was very fond of the lady. He was always with her and included her in his life so much.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That was a tragic family story.

Jeanne Cooper: Yeah. At this point, if there is a gay story it has to be one that makes it more than just two guys who sort of sexually like each other. It’s got to be something more to that. Well, it’s like Milk, you know, with Sean Penn.

The thing of it is, in order to get this group of people around the world to get it out of their minds that they are two gay people, they’ll just have to be two people of the same sex. That’s what has to be pushed to people so they can’t say, “Ew, two gay guys.”

They’re only thinking of the graphics rather than … even a lesbian association … only thinking of the graphics rather than the brilliance of people. Their sexuality is their choice. That doesn’t make them a whole person or make them who they are. That’s what I said to Thom when he was discussing it. I said, “You have to bring something to people.” Otherwise, well, we know that Victor Newman never loses and he’s always in control. If he changed you wouldn’t like him.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That wouldn’t be Victor Newman.

Jeanne Cooper: Right. That’s what you have to do to make this really sing. It can’t be about your sexual life. It’s got to be about two human beings of the same sex whose plan in life has nothing to do with their sexuality.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In other words, don’t have a gay storyline just to have a gay storyline.

Jeanne Cooper: That’s right. They’ve done the gay stories on the other shows and lost some people because of it, but it can also be used to educate people. Everybody is so concerned about everybody’s sex life. I mean, if they want to sell toothpaste just have somebody hanging over your shoulder looking at a pair of breasts while you’re brushing your teeth and you can sell the toothpaste (laughs).

If you’re a thinking person you’d say, “That’s not going to make your teeth whiter and it’s not going to prevent cavities.” If you want to go to bed and fornicate, let’s do that and then we can decide (laughs). After having a tumble in the bed I don’t know of anyone who wakes up and says, “Are your teeth any whiter?” I don’t know of one person who’s ever said that (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, in 37 years you’ve had a facelift, had bouts with alcoholism, and were married several times.

Jeanne Cooper: Yeah, well, listen, I want to tell you … not as many husbands as lovers. They’re all buried under my window so I don’t have to go far to look out the window and adore one or the other (laughs). I now have so many I can compare, which I think all women should have.

Do you know I was the first reality show back when I had the facelift in the 1980s? Do you realize I opened up cosmetic surgery on television? Nancy, the person handling the legal stuff at CBS at the time told me that. She said, “Jeanne, you were the first reality show. Do you know that?” I said, “My God, you’re right.” Do you know that I still have people coming up to me and saying something about that facelift?

I think the thing that pleases me most is that it opened up the reconstructive surgery for parents who have children who had jaws disfigured and so on. I swear, Melissa, even I was astounded. I was in Paris a year ago and I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and said what a wonderful thing I did.

The alcoholism was an incredible thing. I’d be at appearances and people would come up and say, “Thank you so much,” shake my hand, and leave one of those chips in my hand whether it was 30 days, 90 days, whatever. I called up AA and told them they were giving me chips. They said, “Jeanne, that’s what is keeping them sober. You just collect them.” I must have 300-400 chips. That was to prove they’re sober. I would get letters and I still get letters from people that just say “thank you.” They got sober with Katherine so I don’t know what I’ve been doing right.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Apparently a lot since you’ve been in show business right at 60 years.

Jeanne Cooper: Honey, you’ve got it! Corbin and I were just talking about it. Tuesday was his birthday and my grandson, Harrison, had a birthday a couple of days ago, so on Labor Day we just celebrated the whole thing. Corbin said, “Mom, you’ve been in this business 60 years!” I said, “Professionally in 1952, studied and did stage three years before that, so I’d say about 1950, yeah.” Isn’t that wild?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes it is. Was acting always your career choice?

Jeanne Cooper: Not until the 8th grade. That’s when I did a play and I just loved it when the audience responded.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You liked the applause and the attention.

Jeanne Cooper: Oh yeah, they paid attention and it was marvelous. It ignites something inside of you and you go after it with a passion.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Eric Braeden has been in show business a long time. Did your paths ever cross in filming those old television shows?

Jeanne Cooper: Never, isn’t that something? Chris George (who was in The Rat Patrol with Eric) and his wife, Linda Day George, were our best friends. So I knew him without knowing him.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you ever in a film with John Wayne?

Jeanne Cooper: No, but I did meet him at Paramount one day.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you have a favorite leading man?

Jeanne Cooper: Glenn Ford was a very soft-spoken man. I also learned he was a student of the psychic and that was a side to him few people knew. Anthony Quinn was a crazy crazy man, but such a brilliant actor.

Somebody asked me in an interview if I could have been directed by anybody who would it be? I said, “Frank Sinatra. He knows women as well as any director could possibly know them and possibly better.” He knew what was right for women even though he was so complicated and complex. I would have loved to have made a movie with that man directing.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jeanne, take us through a typical day.

Jeanne Cooper: My day starts between 4:30 and 5:00 because I like the dawn. I like the silence and the sounds of the earth waking up. I just sort of think of nothing for a while. Then I will take my script, study some dialogue, have another cup of tea, get up and shower, get dressed, head to the studio, and hope I’m there at 6:30 or 6:45. The day begins.

When I finish there, I come home and have dinner, play with the dogs, make phone calls, get phone calls, or go out to dinner. If the next three days or so are appearances, I pack and get ready to get on a plane the next morning. On Saturdays and Sundays it’s sort of like everybody else, you know. I get organized for the following week and try very much to stay in close contact with family: Corbin, Collin, and Caren, and all the grandkids.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are any of the grandkids interested in show business?

Jeanne Cooper: Oliver, Corbin’s oldest, is 21 and he worked with his dad as his art director on the film that Corbin just finished producing and directing. The twins, Henry and Angus, are at NYU; one wants to be a filmmaker and the other wants to be a professor at an Ivy League college. You ask Finley, Corbin’s youngest son, what he wants to be and he replies, “Well an actor, of course Grandma!” And as well he should become an actor because he has the constitution of one.

Weston, who is Collin’s oldest son is 20 and is in New Zealand right now doing an exchange semester in Wellington. He’ll be back in December and halfway through his third year of college. Harrison, the youngest of Collin’s boys, wants to be a pediatrician.

Caren has the only two girls in the family, Sarah and Grace. Grace wants to be a forensic something or another. She’s a little blond haired blue-eyed girl who’s a marvelous writer. Anything is possible with Sarah. She’s 12 and if she says she’s going to build a building, she probably would build a building.

I was sort of a single mother the minute I started Y&R. I think my divorce ensued a year after in 1974 and the kids were teenagers. Caren was 12 or 13. But, the higher powers have been very good to me and I’ve tried to be good in return. Other times I decided I wasn’t going to be good and I was very very bad (laughs). I was definitely not rice pudding and picket fences (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, I want to thank you for many hours of entertainment. You have been a pleasure to watch over the years.

Jeanne Cooper: Melissa, you want to know something? What you just said to me is all the thanks I need and means more to me than anything in the world. People come up to me and say, “Thank you for all the days and hours that you have entertained me in my lifetime.” I look at them and think, “I guess I have.” I worked so hard to gain the respect of society.

I swear to God, I was thinking about this the last six months or so and Corbin again pointed it out to me. He said, “Mom, do you have any idea of the respect that people have paid you or how many millions of people have watched you and liked you?” I said, “I never really thought about it.” You know, at the time you’re doing things you never think of the impact you have on other’s lives. But, I think my answer to the question, “Has it been worth it?” would be, “Yeah, I’ve made somebody’s life a little bit better.”

© 2010 Smashing Interviews Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.

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