Actress Jeanne Cooper, whose career spanned six decades, but who will likely be best-remembered for her 40-year portrayal of grande dame Katherine Chancellor on The Young and the Restless died Wednesday. She was 84.
Back in 1997, I worked for a CBS station and had pulled off the seemingly-impossible: I convinced them to send me, a photographer and one of our anchors out to CBS Television City in Hollywood to produce a behind-the-scenes report on its two hottest daytime shows at that time: The Price is Right and The Young and the Restless. My idea was that the two pieces would air on the station’s recently-started noon newscast, since, in the Eastern time zone, a CBS affiliate’s noon newscast is sandwiched between both shows.
It was an experience to see those long-familiar sets in person. I sat in the big black leather chair from which actor Eric Braden, as Victor Newman, runs the fictional Newman Enterprises. I walked through an elaborate hospital set that had been put up because a character at that time had recently been shot during a cliched struggle for a gun. I even had the privilege of meeting Bill Bell, the creator of Y&R, and a man who revolutionized the soap genre with his push toward more contemporary issues of the time.
But the one person I hoped I’d get to meet, Jeanne Cooper, wasn’t working the same schedule we were that day.
Cooper’s Katherine Chancellor has been part of the daytime television landscape since 1973, only about six months after the show premiered. She played a drunk whose husband left her for a younger woman, spawning a feud that lasted for the better part of all of those four decades. Cooper played Chancellor as a powerful, dominate woman but with a definite quick-witted, humorous side.
In 1984, Cooper decided to have a facelift. Since it would be hard to explain the actress having one without her character having one, the operation — and the decision leading up to it — were written into the script. In an early example of true “reality television,” Cooper allowed cameras into the room as her real-life doctor removed the bandages after her surgery: Cooper the actress and Chancellor the character saw the results for the first time as viewers did.
Last Friday, Cooper’s character returned to her home after surgery for a benign brain tumor. She was weak and frail-looking. But her feisty side was still there. Her final scene that day was with actress Jess Walton, who has played her arch-nemesis, Jill Abbott, for more than 20 years. The scene certainly had the feel of an on-screen farewell, as Katherine, after saying good night to Jill, ascends her mansion’s staircase. Her final words on the show were, “Good night.” There was a poignancy there that was only intensified if you watched it knowing the real-life situation Cooper and her family faced at that moment.
It turns out that the scene was the final one Cooper taped; script supervisor Brent Boyd confirmed via Twitter that though she was scheduled to appear in the next four weeks’ worth of shows, Cooper was too ill to continue. And a final, odd coincidence, that final scene was taped on March 26th, the 40th anniversary of the show.
For longtime fans of the show, it’s hard to imagine Genoa City, Wisconsin, the mythical setting of the show, without Katherine Chancellor.
Cooper’s son, actor Corbin Bernsen, kept fans updated on his mother’s worsening condition via his Facebook fan page and his verified Twitter account. She entered the hospital back in April, after taking a brief, though unexplained medical leave of absence from the show last year. Things looked bad for a while, but last week, she was released and things seemed to be looking up. On May 1st, however, that changed and she was readmitted.
Through messages to his mother’s fans, Bernsen kept things incredibly honest and raw, allowing his fans to enjoy the kind of openness they had come to know from his mother, but also standing as a perhaps-unexpected example of how to face those end-of-life decisions none of us like to think about.
He compared his mother to a fighter in the ring, bruised and bloodied from battle, but who “still has fight and a potential to win (for the short term only – his title will certainly be taken away sooner or later), but he’s still there sitting in a corner, bloody, unrecognizable, and his will to come out swinging isn’t diminished. That is what it’s like. So letting go, is more difficult.”
Early Saturday morning, he tweeted, “2 nite I’m letting go. I have come 2 a place of peace and want the same 4 mom. 2 ask more of her is unfair and really, only for me.”
Her long acting career, awards and accolades aside, perhaps her greatest legacy is the one she so clearly taught Bernsen, reflected in his writing last week as he braced fans for the outcome he began to understand was coming:
“I do believe there is more for her here, on this earth, in this part of her longer journey. I don’t know what it is or why, perhaps just a continued fight for some time to show us all the power we have to make a difference… or maybe simply to encourage me to write about that, share that… our individual power to bring change. For me, the world is suffering right now, and it is only through us, each of us; parents, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and expanded communities of a variety of beliefs, faiths, and political agendas, that when we call on our deepest individual strengths as human beings – like my mom is doing now, hanging on, fighting – that we can come together for the common cause, and perhaps bring remedy to our suffering. Personally, while my faith is clear and has been made clear here, I welcome all into this challenge and conversation. Without judgement. With love. Maybe that is the point of all of this. That is indeed my mother and the lessons she taught me and is now, at the greatest cost, showing me one more time.”
By that measure, Cooper definitely left a valuable mark.