This week the soap opera The Young and the Restless will begin the memorial service for the character of Katherine Chancellor, the show’s “grande dame” for the last 40 years. Her portrayer, Jeanne Cooper, passed away last May. The death of Cooper and the necessary death of her character (though briefly replaced during her tenure a couple of times, a permanent recast was unthinkable) leaves not only a huge hole in the show, but soaps as a whole, and maybe television as well.
Every soap has to have a “grande dame,” but they never saw one quite like Katherine Chancellor. Most of them fall into one of two categories. The first is The Perfect Mom Everyone Wants To Have, i.e. Nancy Hughes of As The World Turns, Maeve Ryan of Ryan’s Hope, Alice Horton of Days Of Our Lives. The second is the Bored Busybody Who Interferes With Everyone’s Love Life, i.e. Phoebe Wallingford of All My Children or Aunt Liz Matthews on Another World.
Katherine was rich, and she was a mother, but she was far from perfect (in fact, she was beautifully flawed) and usually too concerned with her own love life to butt into what other people were up to.
When she first appeared on Y&R 40 years ago, she was a rich, married alcoholic who couldn’t keep her hands off the stable boys. Into the mix entered her soon-to-be life-long nemesis, Jill Foster, a poor and ambitious girl Katherine hired as her companion. Soon her husband Phillip was in love with Jill and seeking a divorce.
What was fascinating at the time (yes, I am old enough to remember the original episodes—though I was, of course, a mere CHILD) was how Katherine never quite evolved into the villain that the writers of the show perhaps initially wanted her to become. Even though she was imperious and did things that would seem to excuse Phillip’s unfaithfulness (i.e. her own affairs with employees) somehow Cooper made you understand that it came from a deep loneliness and despair. I remember having far more sympathy for Katherine, even though I was young and perhaps should have identified more with Jill.
What was really different about her—I would even say unique—was the way she fought against the idea that women should quietly retire to a shelf once they reached their 40s. This was hardly an unusual storyline—for instance, on All My Children Phoebe fought for years against her husband Charles’ wish for a divorce to marry his secretary Mona. But it was not because she demanded love and passion from Charles—it was because the divorce would upset her position in society.
Unlike Phoebe, Katherine fought against the idea that she was OVER as far as society was concerned as anything more than a society matron. She still wanted the love and the passion. For 40 years, she never stopped looking for both. She fell in love frequently, and with partners who could be seen a “inappropriate”—several of Jill’s beaus, a gigolo here and there, a Latin American revolutionary who rescued her from drowning.
The show even once briefly toyed with the idea of Katherine falling in love with another of her female companions, but they yanked that faster than you can say, “Next, on The Young and the Restless.” (I still crack up when I remember the horrified and indignant way Joanne, her supposed object of love, reacted when Brock, Katherine’s hippie-evangelical preacher son, brought up the subject.) Her final love, Murph, is a blue-collar sweetie who adored her but seems completely out of place in her opulent mansion.
She also fought against aging, most famously having a face lift, which Jeanne Cooper had in real life and was broadcast as part of the show. Another way character and actress paralleled was how both never retired, staying involved in work almost until the end of their long lives, though of course Katherine had many to help her do the heavy lifting.
The primary relationship in Katherine’s life was her rivalry with Jill, which carried on longer probably than any in television history. They fought over men, they fought over whether or not Katherine killed Phillip Chancellor, they fought over Jill’s son by Phillip, they fought over business. They fought over ownership of the mansion, half of which was eventually awarded to Jill in a lawsuit, so they were forced to live together for years under the same roof.
A new headwriting team got the rather dumb idea to make them long-lost mother and daughter (rescinded by a subsequent headwriter) which changed the dynamic of the relationship, though admittedly not in an entirely negative way. Something always remained under the surface from their initial positive relationship, and now that Katherine is gone, Jill is somewhat lost, both because she ended up loving her and because she still needs the conflict they generated with each other.
I had stopped watching The Young and the Restless for a few years and only started up again a few months ago—I’m so glad I did. I got to see Cooper’s last months, and her final, almost chillingly prescient scene. Home from the hospital after having a brain tumor removed, Jill asked if she needed help getting up the stairs. Katherine refused, then turned around and said (unscripted, according to the writers) “Good night.”
Good night Katherine. Good night, Jeanne. It was a fabulous 40 years.