No story about Susan Lucci is complete without mentioning her well-publicized wait to win an Emmy. But there’s far more to Lucci, perhaps better known as Erica Kane on All My Children, than not getting a trophy those 18 times.
But more on that later.
Lucci always knew she would act. Growing up on New York’s Long Island, she remembers turning on the television so early most mornings that the day’s programming hadn’t even started. Late at night, she sneaked out of bed and sat at the top of the stairs as her parents watched TV in the room below.
Lucci soaked up The Ed Sullivan Show, I Love Lucy and whatever appeared on the Million Dollar Movie. But simply watching didn’t quite do it for her. “I always knew I didn’t just want to watch TV,” she says. “I wanted to be on it.”
She performed in plays with her Girl Scout troop. She rounded up the neighborhood kids to help her act out stories she’d penned. She learned drama at Garden City High School and, later, Marymount College. After her school days, she auditioned for a new soap opera, and got the part of feisty teen Erica Kane—who made her debut just days after All My Children premiered on ABC.
Thirty-six years later, Kane has been married 10 times, been to jail repeatedly, stolen numerous boyfriends and even run away with the circus.
Lucci counts among her highlights a food fight that filled 13 script pages, was choreographed by a celebrated fight director and took a full day of rehearsal. She mentions her character’s modeling scene at New York landmarks, notably in a fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel with the temperature in the single digits.
“The crew was in parkas, and I was in a tiny chiffon dress. That was some of the best acting I ever did,” she says with a laugh.
Lucci, who over the years shared the Children set with Christopher Walken (playing an escaped convict, naturally), Kathy Bates and Elizabeth Taylor, says she’ll continue to portray Erica as long as the role continues to fulfill her. “It’s a great marriage of writing and acting, and I continue to be in amazing hands,” she says. “It’s a hard one to walk away from.”
Children creator Agnes Nixon says the part is Lucci’s as long as she wants it. “Susan’s a terrific actress and team player, and she’s part of the family,” she says. “She created Erica as much as I have.”
Lucci thinks it’s unfair that the soap segment is seen as the “whipping boy” of the TV industry. “There are so many talented and hard-working people [in soaps],” says Lucci, who credits daytime TV with opening doors for her into a wider range of show business. After her starring role in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway, Lucci was approached by Regis Philbin about sharing the stage on a nightclub tour. The pair is currently traveling the country, performing with a 22-piece orchestra. Philbin, who calls Lucci “one of the great actresses in television history,” gives her high marks for her cabaret work as well: “She’s really a terrific entertainer and a wonderful singer.”
And back to that Emmy. As has been painstakingly documented, Lucci was nominated for a Daytime Emmy 19 times before finally winning in 1999, a distinction that has spawned numerous jokes and even a few sympathetic songs (the chorus in rock band Urge Overkill’s “Erica Kane” says, “Let no one say you’re second best”). Through it all, Lucci kept her sense of humor. She says she developed a “protective mechanism” in which she went numb just before the winner was announced each year.
When the presenter opened the envelope in 1999 and said “the streak is over,” Lucci thought he was referring to sports scores.
Indeed, it took a team effort to get her onstage. Rosie O’Donnell removed Lucci’s purse from her lap, and Lucci’s husband, Helmut Huber, helped her up and pointed her toward the front.
“When I saw the entire industry on their feet, I just turned to cream cheese,” she recalls. “Everything I ever thought I’d say went out of my head. I could barely stand, let alone speak.”
These days, that fateful Emmy sits on Lucci’s mantel. But for years, it stayed hidden. It was only when she worked with composer Marvin Hamlisch, and saw his array of Grammys, Oscars and Tonys on display in the living room, that she gave her trophy a more prominent position. “I thought, 'Gee, that’s terrific. You’re allowed to be proud of what you’ve achieved,’” she says.
Lucci holds her Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame induction right up there with the Emmy.
“When I think of who’s in the Hall of Fame—William Paley, Leonard Goldenson, the founders of television—it’s extraordinary to even be mentioned in the same sentence with them,” says Lucci. “I’m very, very honored, to say the least.”