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Doug Donovan

Loving premiered in the summer of 1983 as a two-hour prime-time movie, featuring film actors Lloyd Bridges and Geraldine Page. The ads showed pictures of many cast members and asked: Who’s the victim and who’s the murderer? Out of a large cast, it was pretty easy to deduce who were the one-and-done characters: the stars. Bridges and Page weren’t going to go on to do the series; they were bait to attract viewers and get them hooked on the world of the show: the blue-collar Donovan family and the blue-blooded Alden clan.

We started work in the dead of winter 1983. I was one of the last actors hired on the show, and I remember feeling so damn lucky. I wasn’t Clerk or Cop #3. I had a name and a job and relationships. And I was working with some of my heroes. Commanding Geraldine Page, whom I loved in Hondo and Summer and Smoke and Sweet Bird of Youth. And I’d grown up watching Lloyd Bridges as US Navy frogman Mike Nelson on Sea Hunt.

He was so generous. If it was raining, Lloyd would get everyone lunch at the studio. I remember thinking: WOW. That’s a good guy. I barely had enough money to buy myself lunch, so a free meal made a difference.

Some actors complained about mild inconveniences like early start times, and I remember Lloyd said: Better than digging a ditch. That left an impression on me. He was the star, and he was appreciative. I remember thinking: That’s how I want to be. And indeed I was grateful to be there, and it wasn’t digging a ditch. After all the restaurant jobs, the security-guard detail, Great Expectations, loading trucks at Roadway (HIGH AND TIGHT!), and all the derisive comments (You’re an actor? What restaurant do you work in?), I thought: I’m here.

Being hired on Loving as a series regular was the breakthrough in my career. I’d just turned twenty-six years old, and I was a working actor. To this day, that remains my proudest professional accomplishment.

I surprised myself by how prepared I was for this break. What I lacked in formal education I had gained through hard work, through paying attention. I’d worked as an extra, making thirty bucks a day, but I wasn’t there for the thirty bucks. I was there to learn the dynamics, the protocol, the jargon of the set. Acting for film and TV has a technical component. You need to know your stuff. What does the gaffer do? What happens when an actor doesn’t hit his mark? A “mark” is a little piece of tape they set for you on the floor. Setting a mark ensures that the actor correctly executes the blocking he has worked out with his director and other actors. The camera team bases its work around the marks that have been set. Let’s say an actor does a take that’s all there. He cries, he laughs, he kills, he hits all the emotional notes. If he didn’t hit his mark, it was worthless. He wasn’t lit properly. Or he was out of focus. That’s not the cameraman’s fault. It’s on the actor. If the actor screwed it up, that means wasted time, wasted energy, wasted money. I didn’t want to be that guy.

I knew it was important for the actor to speak loudly enough so the sound could pick up what he was saying but softly enough to maintain intimacy if intimacy was required. Even though cameras and equipment and people surrounded you, if the scene called for you to be alone with your girlfriend, say, making out on a park bench, you had to find a way to speak in just the right pitch. Private but detectable.

I knew that, on camera, when you walk into a room in your own home, you must know where the light switch is. You can’t need to look. Or else it’s a lie, which is like giving the audience a pinch of poison.

When you tell a story, you have to take liberties. You compress time. You create composite characters. You jump years ahead or flash back. Art is not life. But if your character has a longtime girlfriend and you’re tentative or formal with her, touching her as if she’s someone you just met? Another pinch. The audience might not be consciously aware of these little pinches, but if you keep doling them out, they’re reaching for the remote, or they’re walking out of the theater. They’re sick of the poison. They don’t want any more. They’re done.

They might not even realize they’re responding to inauthenticity or sloppiness in storytelling. It’s not the audience’s job to articulate the reasons. It’s their job to feel.

I’m curious from an acting standpoint, so I’ve never walked out. On anything. I’m always learning something. If an actor is false, I’m looking to see what is making him false and whether he knows it. Is it lack of talent or focus? Does he not believe in his character? Maybe he’s judging his character and that’s seeping into his performance. If the play or the movie is horrible, is there someone who stands out from the mess? I’m interested from a professional point of view. But I don’t expect general audiences to stay with something that’s not true. All that matters where the audience is concerned is: Did it work? Were they moved?

I learned this in dribs and drabs in the parts I’d done leading up to Loving, but it all started to click once I was working day in and day out on the show. People sometimes say: You honed your craft on a soap opera? Absolutely. I did.

I was Doug Donovan, the son of a large Irish Catholic clan and a professor at the local university. Doug was a nice guy, a good guy. There was one instance, however, when I found out my fiancée, Merrill Vocheck (played by Patricia Kalember), was fooling around on me. That broke up our relationship. Upset in the aftermath, I snapped at my mother, played by Teri Keane. Teri loved it. It gave her something to react to. After I snapped, she was stung. She poured herself some coffee and waited a beat. Then remorse flashed across my face. I saw that I’d hurt her. And the audience could tell I wanted to say I was sorry. Teri let it sit, let it calm down—like a mom.

“Do you want to talk about it, Doug?” she said.

I calmly said, “I don’t.” We didn’t change any of the dialogue, just the way we approached it. Honestly.

“Cut, cut!” The producers insisted I say it nicely, kindly, like Doug.

“But it’s more interesting this way, more real,” I argued.

“But the audience won’t like you,” the director said. “Doug is supposed to be likeable.”

“They’ll like me,” I said. “They’ll like me more if the character is honest and relatable—much more than if I’m saccharine sweet all the time. No one is sweet all the time. Doug is not perfect.”

In the end, I did it their way. I didn’t yet have the clout or the courage to stick with my instincts in the face of an authority saying: “Do it this way.” I didn’t want to get fired.

Also, that’s just daytime television. When you’re on the relentless pace of a soap opera, it’s tough to take the time to be thoughtful. Got the shot? Good. Move on. Efficiency is everything. You can’t debate the integrity of a character or the truth of a moment.

In another episode, the Donovan family gathered for dinner. In the middle of a scene, Lauren-Marie Taylor, who played my sister, knocked over a glass of milk by mistake. Napkins came out. We all moved to wipe it up. “Cut!”

“Cut? Why did you cut? The milk spilled. Milk spills! That’s what happens in houses.”

“Nope,” they said, “clean it up. Let’s do it over again.”

“Can’t we just have a real moment and react to it?”

“No, because how do you get back onto the script?”

“We’ll get back on. Trust the actors to figure it out. We’ll get back on script. And you’ll have an honest moment. The audience will feel that.”

Eh. Honesty was a luxury.

On Loving, I had to memorize up to thirty pages of a script each day, often four days a week. With 120 pages of dialogue to absorb, it was incredibly difficult to match quality with quantity. It would have been so easy, so utterly defensible to coast. But my fellow actors and I fought to elevate the material, to bring nuance and humanity to our performances. That’s why I felt no shame in being on a soap opera. Truly, I felt proud. I still do.

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