Fans of the now departed soap One Life to Live remember the character Karen Wolek (the doctor’s wife-turned-prostitute-turned-baby switcher) from 1976-1983 played most famously by 2 time Emmy winner Judith Light. However, when the soap premiered there was another character named Karen that snagged Dr. Larry Wolek first. Theater actress Niki Flacks had just co-starred on Broadway with Walter Pidgeon, Arlene Francis, June Havoc, and Pamela Tiffin in the Broadway revival of Dinner at Eight. [You can read her recollections of this show in my upcoming book Pamela Tiffin: The Films from Hollywood to Rome, 1961-1974.]. Soon after, she was cast as grasping nurse Karen Martin in a new ABC-TV daytime soap called One Life to Live created by Agnes Nixon.
When not caring for patients, Karen Martin had her sights set on handsome young doctor Larry Wolek (Paul Tully briefly followed by James Storm). He however was in love with fragile rich girl Meredith Lord (Trish Van Devere followed by Lynn Benesch), whose father Victor disapproved of the relationship and was pushing his daughter to marry Dr. Ted Hale. Larry discovered that Meredith was suffering from a dangerous blood disease, but kept it secret from her. When Ted found out, he and Larry argued. Hale took a tumble down the stairs and died. Karen heard the argument and being spiteful testified against Larry. He was eventually cleared and Meredith learned the truth about her illness. She ran off to California leaving Larry in the hands of manipulative Karen who professed her sorrow through crocodile tears in regards to her testimony. This did not bring Larry and Karen together, but when she risked her life to safe him after he was caught in a fire the two drew closer. After his bandages were removed (and new actor Michael Storm took over), the couple drew closer and made love. Karen thought it was now smooth sailing to the altar, but sad sack Meredith Lord returned to town. With her health improving, she declared her love for Larry and the two reconciled–for a moment anyway. Karen discovered she was with child and threatened to end the pregnancy if the good doctor did not to right and make her his wife. Trapped, he agreed. Shortly after tying the knot, Karen miscarried and Larry sprinted to the nearest judge to end the marriage. Not wanting to work at the hospital with Larry knowing he was with Meredith, Karen chose to leave town never to be heard from again.
What do you recall about the early days on One Life to Live?
I was one of the original actors on the show. Agnes Nixon was brilliant. She is a genius. It was beautifully produced by Doris Quinlan. She was just so top notched. She hired wonderful directors and was very closely involved. Evertything was done on a really high level.
Was the show shot live when it began?
We did not shoot live, but on tape. However, editing tape in those days was expensive so you had a lot of pressure to do it as if it was live.
One Life to Live came right at of the gate breaking new ground with its controversial storyline about light skinned African American Carla Gray (Ellen Holly) who passed herself off as white.
We were all very aware that we were breaking new ground with the diversity and were very proud of it. Ellen Holly had established herself as one of the best stage actresses of her generation. She broke ground constantly, doing Shakespeare and other classics as a Black actress. I adored her! I know that ultimately she felt ill-used by the show and story lines. But those first years were very exciting for all of us, including her. I also became very close to the actress playing her mother [Lillian Hayman]–a wonderful character actress. Seeing the Black faces as we would sit around the table doing our first read-through of a script certainly gave me a thrill. Remember, this was the 60’s. We had protested during college and supported the sit-in’s happening in the south. And during my years on the soap I remember wearing a black arm band in protest of the Vietnam war. Much to the horror of many of the ‘grips’ (stage hands) who were quite right wing in their politics.
You went through 3 leading men playing Larry Wolek in the almost three years you were on the show.
Paul Tully [Larry #1] was just not strong enough. After James Storm [Larry #2], his brother Michael took over the role and stayed with the show for a long time. He was delightful to work with. All the women drooled over him–the fan mail was incredible. And in real life he was happily married–a very solid guy.
Any other actors stand out for you?
Gillian Spencer was also very easy to work with although my character didn’t really interact with hers very much, but we were often at the studio at the same time. Trish Van Devere was the first Meredith Lord. She was sooooooo difficult to work with. She decided she was a big movie star ordering people around. She was so awful and was fired. We all breathed a sigh of relief. Lynn Benesch took over and she was just lovely–an incredibly generous, beautiful person. The cast, after the first shake up was thoroughly professional and everyone seemed very well cast in their roles.
You were the bad girl the audience loved to hate.
Yes, especially after Karen got Larry drunk and seduced him. They were prudish in those days so one episode ended with the big kiss and the next episode had me in bed yawning and purring like Scarlett O’Hara. And of course from that one night of bliss Karen got pregnant. Even though Karen knew Larry loved another, she said, ‘I’m having your baby.’ Though she threatened abortion, it was illegal and actually we couldn’t even say the word ‘abortion.’ Larry was a Polish Catholic and the implication was that he would marry Karen and he did.
Why did you leave?
I left because I wanted to return to more theater. They said we are not going to kill you because we would like you to come back. For about a month Karen apologized to everyone for being so horrible and did a lot of weeping, which they knew I was good at. Karen was going back to her home town to try to find herself. I left and a few years later I was married and pregnant. They called my agent and wanted to bring back Karen. He said, ‘Darling, do you want to go back to One Life to Live?’ I said, ‘Do they want me seven months pregnant?’ He laughed and replied, ‘I don’t think that is in the storyline.’
Niki Flacks went on to have a distinguished career in the theater. She is currently teaching and writing on acting technique.