Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Count and His Contessa - Interview with Thaao Penghlis and Leann Hunley

By Tammy McKinley Weston

Back in junior high when my friends and fellow classmates were going to dances, sports events and the local Tastee Freeze after school, I rushed home to catch the latest episode of my favorite soap:  Days of Our Lives.

Now I had been watching DAYS since I was ten years old, not ever hearing the word "supercouple".  But when the 80s rolled around, every soap could boast its own staple of supercouples...and you knew them because of their astronomical popularity!  What sucked me in were the love stories:  more specifically, the love/hate stories.  Those couples who are destined to be brought together only to be torn apart by circumstances out of their control.  They dramatically reunite months later, break up again, reunite...and the cycle continues indefinitely...keeping viewers, like me, glued to the TV set!

"Tony and Anna Dimera" were one of those couples.  They had all the makings of a supercouple.  He was rich and gorgeous.  She was beautiful and the classic gold digger, always plotting and scheming on how to get Tony to fall in love with her...which he did.  Their undeniable perfect chemistry, bantering and timing earned Leann Hunley a Daytime Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in 1986.

Fast forward 25 years later.  As a freelance writer, I was always looking for a good topic to write about.  They always say, "Write what you know".  So I did.

I had come up with the idea to write about the impending doom of daytime soaps (and this, before AMC-OLTL cancelations).  I had a stroke of Irish Luck.  (My Irish grandmother always told me it would come eventually!)

Leann Hunley (who happens to be a personal family friend) was going to be visiting her family in our home state.  So I took the opportunity to ask her if I could interview her (and hopefully Thaao) for an article I was working on while she was here.

"Sure", she said.

She would have to call Thaao on the phone as he was still in Los Angeles.  But that was okay with me.  I was beyond thrilled.  I got my long awaited and very FIRST celebrity interview for which I had no idea what the hell I was doing.  But it turned out to be gold!

On the day of the interview, I had been helping Leann and her family move her parents into a new home.  Since it was chaotic in the living room, we decided to take the interview into a quiet nearby bedroom.

The mood was set.  Leann looked as beautiful as I had remembered on TV, laying across a bed with pink satin sheets.  As she began to talk, she held her cell phone (with Thaao on the other end of it) up to my Dictaphone.  (Sorry, kids!  No candles or soft music on this one.)

I recorded it all, feeling ever so "Diane Sawyer" like.

To have "Tony & Anna" to myself (and in a bedroom no less!) was a great fantasy.

Tammy:  Thank you both for giving me this time to talk with you.  You've both been favorites of mine since the first time I saw you together in the early 80s.  I loved your chemistry...the bantering.  You're both still well loved; and "Tony and Anna" live on in the memories of the fans.

L:  Thank you.  It's our pleasure.

T:  So very nice.  Thank you.

Tammy:  The questions I have for you are strictly dealing with your time together on stage as Tony/Anna.

L:  Okay, fine.

Tammy:  Question 1:  How many years have you both been with the show collectively?  All the years combined?

L:  Well, I was hired in 1982 to 86.  I think you left in 85?  Didn't you?

T:  Yes.  But all my years was about 28 years.

L:  And then I came back in 2007 to 2010.

Tammy:  And can you tell me a little bit about your first time together on stage?  I've known people, and myself included, who have experienced being thrown into a love scene with someone they've never met and how uncomfortable it is.  Was it that way for the two of you?

T:  Well, I think it's that way for almost everyone.  Especially since you're doing it in front of a director/crew.  But with Leann and I...we just had that "click".

L:  They had originally tried to pair John [de Lancie] (who portrayed "Eugene Bradford" on DAYS) and me up, but it just wasn't working.  We were great pals, but the chemistry just wasn't there.

T:  It's all a question of either it vibrates or it doesn't.  (Leann, blushing and laughing...)

L:  Thaao!  You are so bad.

T:  Did you know me for anything else, my darling?  (with a sly laugh)

(Leann pictured above with Deidre Hall and John de Lancie, DAYS)

Tammy:  Were you hired to be John de Lancie's love interest?

L:  No.  Not originally.  But they thought they'd try it.  It didn't work.

T:  Then they gave her to me!

L:  (Laughing)  Yes.

T:  She had to reign me in.

More laughing from both.

L:  I have to admit I often played protective wife.

T:  Yes, she did.  But it worked.  And that's what makes it unique and we had splendid chemistry because of it.  They allowed Leann and I to dance out our interpretations of the characters and what was written.  That's why (I think) the characters were larger than life, although they never ran with the story ilke they did with "Bo and Hope"...which was too bad.

L:  I'd like to also add that I think the storylines back then were character driven.

Tammy:  To both of you, the soap genre has changed so drastically over the years with the cast and age-related storylines getting younger and younger.  What are your thoughts on this?  I mean to me, the BEST soap years for most of the characters on the show were from 1976-1986.

T:  Well, I think that had a lot to do with Pat Falken Smith who looked at the stories on a grand scale, coming from GH and the Cassadines.  She had that influence.  And as far as cast...well...I guess if they're willing to hire John de Lancie, then I guess they'll take anyone.

Said all in fun...laughing from all three of us.

L:  Now, nice.  John is a sweetheart.

T:  No.  Really, a splendid fellow.  I enjoy him!  In those days though, I think for me...I was playing two different characters and the pressure was sometimes too much.  But Leann was always there to sort of comfort me and talk me through things.  We got to wear some beautiful clothes and had some wonderful dances and wondefully romantic scenes together.  When you look at it...back at it, how many couples can you say had that chemistry?

Tammy:  Well, I can think of two who top my list.

They both know I'm speaking of my undeniable "supercouple" love of "Don and Marlena" (played by Jed Allan and Deidre Hall on DAYS).


Tammy:  After talking with about 150 friends, along with acquaintances and people on the street, asking them if they watched or ever watched soap operas and who they remembered the most, it was the 80s that were mentioned the most.  Aside from the famed "Luke and Laura" saga from GH, "Tony and Anna" were among the top 10 mentioned.  Why do you think then that the show would keep letting go of the beloved veterans and bringing in younger actors if no one can remember them?  It seems like the fans are screaming for our vets to come back.

T:  Good question.  I'd like to add that major character changes...a lot of that is producers.  You can only go so far with storylines before they intervene.  I mean, today, they don't take in account the fans.  They get on a certain road and they keep going from there.  What they're doing now is bringing back veterans and trying to recreate what they once had.  And you can't keep doing that because they lost a lot of fans when they let the vets go; and the younger viewers don't want to watch the show.  They have things like the internet and "tweeting" now.  The older viewers don't want to see young storylines.  They've lost the quality...not that they can't retain that again, but certainly not with the budgets they have now.  Somehow it becomes "cost effective".

L:  Yes, I think a reason why the old storylines really connected was because (back then), they were more character driven storylines instead of action driven storylines.  And because the way the new world is, you have to catch that audience's interest.  They wrap a storyline in a month or 3 months.  They have someone meet, go to bed together, break up.  There's no ROMANCE anymore.  They always have to keep that storyline movin' as fast as they can.  Which is unfortunate, because I would hang in there for the long run.  For the payoff at the end.

T:  When Leann and I came back, it was fairly an easy situation.  Because of the foundation we already had, we didn't have to "recall" a lot of things.

L:  Right.  We had a lot of history.  You can't ignore that.

T:  PAYOFF is the operative word.

Tammy:  That's great!  

Tammy:  That leads me into the next question.  How much input with your characters are you allowed to have with the writers or producers?  (Leann starts laughing at this point)  I mean, can you go to them and say..."I don't like this, I can't say this, or this is really silly"?"

L:  Thaao did.  But I didn't.  I never did.

T:  I tried to be a voice.  But Leann and I always talked about it.  Sheri Anderson, who was headwriter at the time, really was wonderful in that way.

L:  Oh, yes.  She was receptive.

T:  Yes, she was.  At the time, writers were separated from the actors (and still are).  She allowed me to come in...and she said one day, "Our actors aren't allowed to come in and give input on the characters".  And that's why most of the time they don't want the actors talking to the the writers have their own interpretation of the character.  Problem is...we're the ones that bring their words to life.  So Sheri was wonderful in that way...because she did want feedback from the actors.  Every time she came in, she always had something new to tell me...and then she gave me room to elaborate.  Then "Anna" came into my world. It became confusing at times, but a great complex story.  I think it was a great contrast to "Bo and Hope"; and we were a more sophisticated couple.  I'm not sure if the writers that came in after Pat Falken Smith (Leann adds:  "Or Sheri") were able to empower the Tony/Anna romance the way they did.  The writing in my opinion was much more sophisticated back then.

L:  Thaao gave her ideas.  Things she could build on, take as opposed to being negative, you were positive out of it.  And I think that's why Sheri was so receptive to ideas from us as actors.

T:  When Leann came back, I had been on the show for so much longer.  I threaded my character through many stories.  So when she came back, she had to deal with that.  What came to me, and I reminded her of, was our history and because we remained such good friends all these years.  It helped our working relationship.  I think they were pleased with the connection, but the producers never did anything with it.  It's a shame because the fans were really happy about us being back.  It's like "our wedding"?  I always wondered why.  Why didn't they give us an elaborate wedding?  Because those characters were popular; and I thought it was good for the show.  But they never did.

L:  Yes, according to our fan mail and magazine covers, you'd think...?

T:  And yet we were never asked by NBC to present an award together.  I always thought "Hmmm??"  I wonder why?

Tammy:  It's too bad for your fans too, I assure you.

L/T:  Thank you.  I'm sure it is.

Tammy:  I wanted to know if there was ever a time before having to shoot a love scene or an emotional scene where the two of you had a disagreement, or maybe you were just in a bad mood for whatever reason, that made it hard to get through?  If there was a certain behind-the-scene tidbit you could share with us?

Leann giggles.

T:  Yes.  You certainly have tricks and all that.  If I wanted to get Leann in a certain mood, I'd have sardine sandwiches.  (Leann and I break out in hysterical laughter!)  I know.  I was terrible.  (Leann:  Yes, you were!)  But it was a way of me taking control or having fun with her or teasing her.  Whatever the situation was, sardines do not go away easily.

L:  Well, the first one that comes to my mind...okay, the ONLY thing that comes to my mind, because I felt like we really worked it out as much as we could, but there was one day...and Thaao I'm sure will remember this well...he used to have this chain.  This little chain he kept in his pocket.  And if he wasn't saying anything interesting during the scene, he would pull it out and flip it around on his finger.  And one day, he was flippin' it around while I was talking...and I couldn't get my lines out and I reached out and I grabbed it and he's trying to pull it out'ta my hand and I'm pullin' it from him and I was trying to get my sentence out as fast as I could...(laughing)

T:  She was trying to take control of my scene.  I just couldn't allow that.

L:  It's true!

T:  You know Greeks and middle eastern men like to have "worry beads".  I remember doing it in the theater; and one actress was PISSED OFF.  I like to ad lib to draw attention...(laughing).  I can do many different things with a chain.

Tammy:  So you like to take control?

T:  As much as possible.  (Laughing)

Tammy:  How much "ad-libbing" were you allowed to do?

L:  There was some.  There was one we worked out that we got a chuckle out of a cameraman during rehearsal that we used later on that we were lucky that our producers allowed us to do that.

Tammy:  Because they were receptive to your ideas and input.

L:  Back in the day!  Back in the day!  Nowadays, not so much.

T:  I tell you this much.  When you're doing work that pleases the producers, they tend to give you leeway.  I found that out later working with another actor.  He was famous for ad libbing and I would just crash into his dialogue when it got too much.  But today, I don't think it's so easy, especially with the pressure.  (Leann:  Yes, the time line...)  But during rehearsal, you have one rehearsal and then you shoot.  So there is certainly time to be creative that way.  You're trying to get your lines out; and there's so many.  I found that at times; and we created something special.  Even the shower scene where I unzipped her dress all the way down, knowing that would upset her because her mother would be watching.  (Leann:  Yeah, thank you for that!)  You're welcome, darling.  No.  Really.  But it worked.  I couldn't do much really, but I knew I was in control of the scene.  I remember the bathtub scene with our rubber ducky (that's our good luck) where the water started running out of the tub and the clothes we were wearing were stretchy material of some sort, and as the water is draining, I'm trying to hide Leann's left breast.  (Leann:  Which is FLOATING!)  I've always been protective of how Leann looks on camera.  (Leann laughing)

L:  I sat on the drain!  And the water started running out.  It was a mess.  I kept trying to get lower and lower, and the water kept running out.  But we both knew that if we didn't get that scene, we'd have to sit and wait for them to fill that darn tub up again!  So we were desperately trying to make it work.

Tammy:  You both have me laughing so much I can't remember what question I'm on?  Oh!  I know; Daytime TV in general:  is there hope for it?  It's Young Hollywood now.  Where do our beloved vets stand?

L:  Money.  One word.  I think that's why they hire the younger actors.  They work cheaper and they can work them more often.  Although their experience isn't ours in the long run of the show.  They rush through the storyine so quickly now to keep the interest.  You know again, back in the day, they used to say you couldn't turn on the soaps and 7 months later they were still taking about the same subject.  But there was a sense of reality that went with it.

T:  Sadly, I agree.  And I'll tell you this much.  Back in the seventies, eighties, and even nineties, they appreciated our work.  It was always about the quality of the work.  It was once told to me by a writer that was hired later on, "It has nothing to do with the talent".  I was shocked!  All those years studying, working the pavement for know?  Shocked.  They would have never said that to us in the eighties.  I just don't think you have the same quality ensemble as you did in the early eighties.  And it has changed.  Leann is right.  Having to get so many scripts out so fast and getting younger people who aren't trained like we were.  So I think with that...and James E. Reilly's over-the-top stories...daytime has become sort of cartoon-like.  I think people want those more sophisticated stories of the past.  Plus, I just don't think people know how to write about that anymore; and it's sad.

Tammy:  Do you mind if fans approach you as "Tony and Anna" in public?  Does it bother you, considering you've done other work?

T:  No.  I think it comes with the territory.  They know our characters, they know our faces...

L:  I think it's a lovely compliment really.  It means someone is watching.  You know we don't do this work because we want to satisfy ourselves...but because we love the reaction and love from those who watch.  It means we as actors have made a connection with them.

T:  Well said.

Tammy:  Last question.  Why do you think "Tony and Anna" were so popular?  What made them click?

T:  I think most of all why Leann and I worked well is because we've remained friends for so many years.  And we both had a sense of humor.  We always aim to make each other look good on stage.

L:  And respect for each other.  A mutual love and respect.

T:  You know, like when Leann [as Anna] was laying in the hospital bed unconscious and I had to go wake her up.  I thought I'll go in and kiss her like "Sleeping Beauty" and she could wake up.  Wouldn't the audience love that!?  It was such a contrast between the previous scene between Joe Mascolo and myself, with having all that anger and rage because my "father" was coming after "me and Anna", that it was so gentle and tender a scene.  Thankfully, the director agreed; and it was a lovely gift for the fans.  So yes, Leann and I have never had the kind of working relationship where we didn't know what the other was going to do.  Except when I slapped her in the face!  She didn't expect that.  I did it in rehearsal and then when we taped...I did it on the other side of her face, which she was not expecting either.  It worked well.

L:  No, I wasn't expecting it.  But it got the reaction he wanted.

T:  I'm surprised she didn't drum me up on assault charges!  But I've been slapped so many times on that show by her, my god!  I'm surprised my balls are still there!

We all break out in laughter.

Tammy:  So you were quite protective of Leann and your characters?

T:  I think you have to be.  In order to have that trust.

L:  Yes, I'll agree.  It's a must, or you don't have anything at all.  He's my friend; why wouldn't I?

Tammy:  "Tony and Anna", I want to THANK you again for talking with me and giving an insight to your world!  You made it very easy on me.  I think I speak for all of your fans:  We love you and never stop hoping you'll come back to Salem!

T/L:  Thank you.  That's sweet.

The interview is over; and we're still laughing at the answers given.  As an "outsider", I can clearly see the friendship they have and why "Tony and Anna" were so successful.

"Like" Thaao's Official Facebook Fan Page at


  1. Tammy, I enjoyed this so much. Thank you for sharing with us. Here's hoping one day soon Thaao and Leann will again call Salem home.

  2. great interview! they sound intelligent, funny and genuinely like their fans!

  3. I enjoyed the blog very much. I miss Thaao and LeAnn on the show. Hoping maybe to see them back on "DAYS" very soon.

    Pam Rogers

  4. This interview was definitely a highlight! Cheers!!

  5. Thanks for the wonderful interview! I loved all the questions that you asked and they both seemed very comfortable telling you their answers honestly.

  6. Thank you for sharing this wonderful interview..Love Thaao and LeAnn. They nailed it on the Head Romance has died and along with it have Soaps..

  7. Loved the interview!