Sixty Minutes - Entertainer

Entertainer

 
Soap star, wife
patching play together

By Sandra Kreiswirth
THEATER CRITIC

Daytime TV viewers know Stephen Nichols as Patch on NBC’s “Days of Our Lives.”

Theatergoers might remember him as the too-cool-for-his-own-good Hart in “Delirious,” J.D. Bunzel’s drama at the Pilot Theater about life in the fast lane.

Now he’s adding another hat, one fraught with complications: that of producer-director on a play written by his wife, in which they both star. Complicated for some, perhaps, but Nichols says not for him.

The play is “Sixty Minutes From L.A.,” written by Lisa, his wife of 4½ years, and debuting Thursday at the Gene Dynarski Theater in Hollywood.

“It’s semiautobiographical,” he said over the phone during a break from “Days,” with loud-speakers occasionally blaring in the background.
 
“Lisa grew up in Lancaster, which is 60 minutes from L.A. It’s high desert, but the mentality is basically that of a typical Midwestern town. Its themes are resistance to change and the inability to let go of the past.”

The action in Lisa Nichols’ first play concerns four women planning their high school reunion party, an older man and a boyfriend who’s a successful writer in L.A. Most of the characters grew up in the ’70s without anything to identify with. Nichols calls it a play about relationships, serious but with humor.

Stephen met his future wife when he was doing “The Zoo Story” at a community theater in La Canada. At the time, she was studying journalism, but she changed to the theater, where, according to her proud husband, she’s worked very hard to develop a career.

“This play will really show her off,” he said, “and I’ve been dying to get back to the stage. ‘Delirious’ was actually my last play three years ago. Since then, I’ve had a couple of offers form the Tapir, but they could never use me, because they rehearse six days a week and I was tied up with this job. I was brokenhearted.

“Meanwhile, Lisa also wanted something for herself, so she wrote this play for us. As producers we don’t expect to make any money. In fact, we’re expecting to lose money. We’re doing this to satisfy our creative needs.”

Directing yourself can be difficult for even the most experienced director. This is Nichols’ first go-round, but he’s worked it out by using Christopher Reagan as his assistant director. Reagan keeps an eye on him while he’s acting.

Soaps self-directed

Nichols has had his eye on directing for a long time.

“I think it’s been developed by doing a daytime show. We basically have to direct ourselves, because the pace is so fast. We have to find the rhythm in the scenes and in each other as actors. It’s not there in the writing,” he said, “and the directors have too much to do just planning out shots.”

Nichols’ morning call is at 6 a.m., and he usually works 10 to 12 hours a day 3 ½ days a week on the average, three to six days a week during a heavy story line. That’s not including an additional two hours at home memorizing 30 to 50 pages of the next day’s dialogue.

When he came to “Days of Our Lives,” he was handed the eye patch and basically told to create his own character. “I wasn’t even under contract,” he recalled. “I was a day player for a couple of months. Then I became permanent.”

He describes Patch as originally an evil guy who had something redeeming about him. “I played him vulnerable when he was alone,” he added. The writers created a story line that gradually changed him into a good guy. “But he’s still real street,” Nichols said. “That’s who he is.”

The role has made the actor very visible. “I’ve been No. 1 on TV Cue (an advertiser’s service that determines a star’s recognition quotient) for two years.”

For Nichols, that’s both good and bad. It brings in the bucks — not, according to him, as much as one might think, but definitely a good living and as much as he needs.

Fanatical audience

“But a lot of people know you when you walk down the street,” he said. “And sometimes you feel like your energy is being drained.So many people just want to get near you. You feel it psychically. It’s not anything intentional; it just happens because the audience is really large and loyal–and a little bit fanatical.”

Unlike the old days when being on daytime TV was the kiss of death for crossing over into prime time, Nichols has a mini-series coming up April 2-4 on NBC.

“It’s ‘Around the World in 80 Days,’ based on Jules Verne’s book, not the movie. I play Jesse James.” The star-studded cast includes Peter Ustinov, Pierce Brosnan, Eric Idle of Monty Python fame and Henry Gibson.

“It was an amazing experience.I worked in Yugoslavia for a week. I’m in the third night. The whole thing was shot in four international locations with a budget of $16 million. And there was none of that kind of high pressure or nastiness that happens when things are going wrong.

“And what a great group of people. Peter Ustinov, a legend. He’s the sweetest, most loving guy. He like a god. And he’s a roving ambassador who tells stories all day long. It was amazing.

Nichols is quick to admit he’d like to do more nighttime. As for the soap, he says there are big changes taking place in the writing and producing. “Things are supposedly getting better. I’ve been frustrated since July when my character got married. They say when two characters get married and the chase is over…but I didn’t believe this had to happen to him. Patch grew up in an orphanage, has this patch over one eye. There’s lots of stuff, plenty of possibilities. But things fell apart during the writers’ strike and after, and I’ve been frustrated. So I’d been thinking about a way to move on, and now I’m doing the play. So I’m feeling a whole lot better being back on stage.

Being a producer, he’s involved in everything, including the technical side of the show. “Yesterday I hung the lights with the designer guiding me,” he said. “When we turned them on, my heart started to pound. I’m having a blast.”