When Jeanne Cooper passed away on May 8 after almost 40 years on The Young & the Restless, Hollywood lost much more than one of its best actresses.
It also lost one of its bravest.
In an industry full of people trying to hide their addictions and plastic surgery scars, Jeanne put hers out there. Her struggle with alcoholism was written into Katherine’s storyline, giving The Duchess many opportunities to throw highball glasses across her rich-looking living room until she, like Jeanne Cooper, sought help. Cooper also had the first onscreen facelift in 1984, using actual footage from the operating room as Katherine received the same new face awarded to Jeanne.
“Through her personal and professional journey, she saved thousands from the depths of alcoholism,” praised Y&R co-creator (and close friend) Lee Phillip Bell last week. “She embodied compassion and forgiveness.”
Nowhere was that compassion more apparent than on the Y&R set, where Cooper often counseled young actors. She set a great example of how to be prepared and professional, while also having fun during taping. There’s an anecdote in her autobiography “Not Young, Still Restless” (written with Tainted Dreams head writer Lindsay Harrison) that captures her spirit perfectly.
“It amuses the hell out of me,” wrote Cooper, “to sneak in a playful pinch as my way of saying ‘Let’s not forget to enjoy [this].’” Only her faves got pinched: Joshua Morrow (Nick) and Greg Rikaart (Kevin) were regular targets – on camera, when they couldn’t flinch!
Cooper also set an example of how to grow old gracefully. She was once asked if she was ever going to retire, and she responded, “What would I do? I’m no good at crocheting. My fingers would bleed.”
Much like her co-workers hearts are now…
The episode that turned out to be Cooper’s last came about partly by accident. “We had a short show because an actor became unavailable at the last minute,” explains longtime Y&R writer Janice Ferri Esser. “I said, ‘Let me flesh out the Jill/Kay progression. I’ll write a heart-to-heart about why Kay chose to put her faith and trust in Cane instead of Jill. Nothing will be resolved to Jill’s satisfaction, but at least she’ll have a chance to really speak her piece.”
The two hashed it out, and then Jill told Kay to head upstairs and get some rest.
Jill: “Do you want me to help you up the stairs?”
Katherine: “I believe I can manage. Thank you, though. Goodnight.”
“Jeanne played the hell out of that staircase moment, didn’t she?” praises Esser. “I never imagined in a million years these would be Jeanne’s last scenes. I feel humbled and honored and saddened all at once to have written them.”
As it turns out, Cooper didn’t just shine her light on fellow actors. “I can think of several times when I was home working and the phone would ring,” shares Esser. “It would be Jeanne calling unexpectedly from the studio, praising me to the skies for some set of scenes she’d just taped. Of course, I’d written them two months earlier and couldn’t always remember which scenes they were! But for her to take time out of her colossally busy day to pick up a phone and give me an ‘Atta girl’ was incredibly meaningful to me. I’ve been with the Bell organization 24 years now, and I can count on one hand the number of Y&R or B&B actors who have gone out of their way like that to express their thanks. Anything you’d write for her, she would not only perform as you envisioned it, she’d make it SO much better. She was a truly gifted – and giving – actress, colleague, friend and human being.”
Michelle Stafford (Phyllis) can vouch for what a giving colleague Cooper was. “I didn’t know Jeanne when she was drinking, but she made her amends,” offers Stafford. “She could see when other people were in trouble, so she took it upon herself to help them. She could see the signs [of] drugs and alcohol, we talked about it. It was really beautiful the way she went out of her way to help people. She knew she was the matriarch of the show – the grande dame – and she took it on herself to help the new kids who were maybe going a little wild. She checked people.”
Cooper also set an example with her work ethic. “I remember one show where I had the flu,” cites Stafford. “I had scenes with Michael Damian [Danny], Lauralee Bell [Christine] and a judge to get custody of the kid [Daniel]. I was throwing up in between scenes. Jeanne was there that day and she said to me, ‘Good for you. That’s what we do. We come into work.’ That’s how she lived her life. My personal thought is that she was really sick at the end. She had that same work ethic even though she was sick. You come to work regardless, all the way up to [age] 84.”
Cooper’s long, storied life will be celebrated with a special Y&R episode airing May 28, featuring cast and crew talking in small groups on the set of the Chancellor living room (where else?). “The tribute is going to be great,” predicts Stafford. “I have a couple of good stories. I think they’ll go with what we said, and then find the clip that matches our stories.”
One story that I think Jeanne would find funny is that her last scene was ascending a staircase. “We used to joke about it: ‘Don’t go upstairs!’” laughs Stafford. (As most soap fans know, AMC’s Bobby Martin went upstairs to get his skis and was never heard from again.)
“We’re all going to pass, so you want to look back and say, ‘I lived the life that I wanted to,’” sums up Stafford. “Jeanne definitely lived. That’s really the most important thing.”