INTERVIEW: Marj Dusay looks back at her career and storied roles

Posted Wednesday, February 5, 2020 10:03:43 PM

Last month, veteran soap opera actress Marj Dusay passed away. Now, in a previously unpublished interview, Dusay opens up about her career, rollerskates, and her favorite role of all time.

September 22, 2017, was a magical afternoon. I recall it so vividly. I spent over three hours with Marj Dusay at her New York City apartment. For many years, I was captivated by Marj's sophisticated style and remarkable talent, but I longed to know more about the woman behind the characters she made appear larger than life.

Upon hearing the news of Marj's passing on January 28, I rummaged through my old journals, searching for the memory of that warm autumn day. I recalled that after I left her apartment, I wrote down every detail I could remember because I wanted to keep that day frozen in time. There, in blue ink, it was.

I walked into the spacious, sun-soaked living room. Marj was sitting there in pajama bottoms with a black cardigan over a black blouse. A silk scarf with a hint of red and beige was loosely wrapped around her neck. Her beauty radiated. She had a smile on her face as I handed her blue flowers. Immediately, she said she had just the place for them. On her giant flat-screen TV, music from the '50s and '60s played in the background.

Ready for our interview, she had crackers, cheese, and various cookies out. We had a coffee, but she informed me she would eventually switch to wine. Before I could ask her anything about her life, she wanted to know about mine. Not long into our discussion, she pulled out a cigarette.

"I smoke," she said without any hesitation.

She offered me a cigarette, but I told her I didn't smoke. She laughed and replied, "Well, do you want to try one?" It was at that moment I knew our time together was going to be an experience I wouldn't want to end.

But, of course, it did. Three cups of coffee and a several crackers later, our interview was over. Before we said goodbye, Marj asked me to go look in her bathroom to see the framed pictures of her many costars, covering the walls. In the hallway outside the bathroom were pictures of her family. Just looking at the images, I could feel the history of a life lived so richly and completely.

Much to my surprise and happiness, Marj asked me back to her apartment to look through her collection of scrapbooks she intended to bring up from the basement. She wanted me to have a variety of images to run with the story.

"We should do it fairly soon," she said.

Because of various health setbacks, that day never came. However, I am thankful we spoke on the phone one final time on her birthday last February.

Waiting on her photos, I never published our interview. I regret that we never met again. Yet, I'm filled with appreciation, knowing I did have at least one opportunity to know this great lady from Kansas, who, like Dorothy, made it over the rainbow.

The woman who became a soap opera legend looked inside and found the brains, the heart, and the courage to raise a family, chart her own course, and make her dreams come true.

Marj, thank you for sharing your technicolored story with me.

Dustin Fitzharris: Let's start with the soaps. Roles on soap operas have filled your resumé. Surprisingly, you really didn't watch them.

Marj Dusay: I swore I'd never do a soap opera. I watched them when my children were in diapers. I had a little, tiny 19-inch set. You'd have to hit it to make the picture come in. You had to be muscular to work it. I watched Edge of Night because it had cops and robbers in it, and I like that kind of thing.

Fitzharris: How did you feel when the role of Myrna Clegg on Capitol came around?

Dusay: I was in the middle of a divorce. I needed to do something. With the divorce looming, it was war of the roses. Right now, it's war of the lilies -- he's dead. You see, I'm disgusting with reverence. I was there [on Capitol] until we were canceled.

Fitzharris: What did you think of Myrna?

Dusay: I hated that name, Myrna. She was a high-flying, high-society, Washington bitch. I loved every moment of it! I could tell anyone to do anything. I could go around the house, saying, "No one does anything around here except me! I have to do everything around here. Open the door. Answer the phone." It was fun.

Fitzharris: After Capitol came Santa Barbara, where you played Pamela Conrad. Did you like Pamela?

Dusay: That was fun because I got to go real crazy, and I loved that. I had fun, but it didn't last long enough. They had to drive my character crazy and get me off the show.

Fitzharris: On All My Children, you brought to life Vanessa Bennett. It was the first character on soaps you had the opportunity to originate.

Dusay: That was a character. I was Proteus [a drug lord]. First, I was sweet and loving and just trying to get my hands on all of the money from Palmer and get my way into society, in spite of my son. Later, they sprung it on me. They were talking about this Proteus for a month or so. Then, I got called down to the office. God bless our executive producer. She said, "I'm so sorry. You have to be Proteus." (starts laughing) I was like, "Why? It only means the total destruction of the character. It only means changing everything. It only means, you're done!"

Fitzharris: You said one of your mantras for acting is, "What one more thing can you do to keep it interesting?" Taking that and thinking of All My Children and Proteus, what comes to mind?

Dusay: You don't always get suggestions on soaps. To do anything out of the ordinary, you have to create it yourself. One day, I was sitting in makeup -- getting ready to be crazy Vanessa. I was going to be in these hospital pants and a top. I said, "I'll put stars on my nipples." I mean, what did we have to lose? I tried to keep it where you didn't know if she was faking it [insanity] or not. You couldn't tell. Sometimes, she seemed completely rational.

Fitzharris: Unlike Vanessa --

Dusay: You want some cake? There's some crackers and some cheese. You want a glass of wine?

Fitzharris: Oh, I don't know about wine. I'll have some crackers.

Dusay: There's some cheese. Put it on there.

Fitzharris: I'll have a small piece of cheese. I try to eat healthy.

Dusay: I try to be a healthy eater, too, but I do love these pancakes at 9Ten restaurant. I thought of going there for lunch. I order an omelet, and I split these three-tiered pancakes.

Fitzharris: Well, you're looking good. What's your secret?

Dusay: It's refusing to be whatever I should be! A doctor helps.

Fitzharris: You have persevered in a very tough industry. How have you kept pushing ahead?

Dusay: We were raised to do responsible work and have a job.

Fitzharris: Before getting into show business, what were some of the jobs you had?

Dusay: Typing driver's licenses for the city. I worked at the car drive-in. I was terrible at all my jobs. My cousin owned a car hop. That was the worst job. Thank God they didn't ask me to wear roller-skates!

Fitzharris: But you were Rodeo Queen! Prairie Rodeo Queen in Kansas! What did that job entail?

Dusay: It means selling a lot of tickets. Then I was a horseback woman. I had my pinto pony. I was also Miss Russell High. The first time I won a contest, I was twelve years old. It was in La Crosse Kansas. Smiley Burnette, a big cowboy star, Gene Autry's sidekick, was there to judge the contest. About ten little girls came out with their ponies, and I won it. I won a white gold watch.

Fitzharris: As a young girl in Kansas, were you fascinated by cowboy culture?

Dusay: I was a cowboy fan. I would go to every cowboy movie every Saturday. We lived cowboy. My father was raised on the ranch. We had horses we kept in a barn right outside of the town. We rode all of the time.

Fitzharris: You described your childhood as an Irish-Bohemian, Midwest upbringing. Was it a happy childhood?

Dusay: We were city slickers. We lived in the city, but we'd ride our horses on the weekend. Once a year, you'd have top rodeo people come. They'd have parades. Oh, yeah, I had it great. I was the second of six kids. I was 16 when my little brother was born. One sister had already gone off to college to KU, and my parents still had me to get rid of. They didn't know what I was going to do.

Fitzharris: Being that your parents were teachers, what was their reaction when you told them you wanted to be an actress?

Dusay: I never said it! Did you ever see an Irishman's backhand? They said, "You're going to go to KU and major in education. Your sister did." She was a gym teacher. Then the blinders went on, and I got in the freshman school play. I went out for beauty pageants, and they made me homecoming queen for KU. That was a biggie for me. It was a shock to me. It was the beginning of a lot of things.

Fitzharris: You worked as a model after you married your first husband and had two kids. You have always had impeccable taste. How would you describe your style?

Dusay: It's simple. I love men's clothes. I love their tweeds. I love the comfort of men's clothes. I always have.

Fitzharris: You once said you got your high cheek bones from your mother and guts from your father.

Dusay: The angry guts from my father.

Fitzharris: It's only fitting that the Rodeo Queen would make her film debut with the King -- Elvis Presley. What memories do you have of the film Clambake?

Dusay: I had one scene with him. He was lovely. He was such a gentleman. I was outside my trailer, and he came running out. He was at his most gorgeous. It looked like if you touched him, he would melt. He was just like butter. He said, "How do you do, ma'am? Can I get you something? I can get you coffee or a doughnut?" He said, "I can't have a doughnut. The colonel won't let me have those."

I only had that one scene, but it's carried me a long way. Then we had an afterparty, and I did kiss Elvis. My kids got me a T-shirt one time when they went to Nashville that said, "I kissed Elvis."

Fitzharris: Can you believe this year marks the 50th anniversary of that film?

Dusay: I can't believe it's been 50 years. Then again, I can't believe I'm 81. Thank goodness I had a good time.

Fitzharris: How about today? What brings you joy?

Dusay: I am a TCM [Turner Classic Movies] nut. I tape the movies from midnight till five in the morning. Often the good movies are on at those times. I love old Bette Davis movies and Garbo movies. I just love TCM. I'm happy.

Fitzharris: For so many of us kids of the '80s, you are the one and only Monica Warner from The Facts of Life!

Dusay: That was lots of fun. They were nice shows for me.

Fitzharris: What was it like working with Lisa Whelchel, who played your daughter Blair Warner?

Dusay: She was studious. Always reading a book. I had so much fun with Geri Jewell. She was a sweetheart. Cloris Leachman was a joy and lots of fun. Charlotte [Rae] was a sweetheart, too.

Fitzharris: What would the Marj Dusay of today say to the Marj Mahoney growing up in Russell, Kansas?

Dusay: Get the hell out! I could go in either direction -- east or west. I used to sit in front of the local newsstand eating peanuts and read the movie magazines. I was always fantasizing. I used to write notes to my mother. "I'm disappointed. I'm running away from home." I'd take a stick and wrap a towel around it and walk down to the corner and sit on the curb. Then my mother would finally come down and get me.

Fitzharris: Looking around, one might wonder how a girl from Kansas ends up in a big, beautiful apartment in New York City. Although, you have said: "You put on blinders, bump into a lot of things, and one day you wake up in the big city." Did you ever wonder what would happen if you didn't make it?

Dusay: I never allowed a plan B because I never allowed a plan A. The furthest thing for me to think would happen would be ending up in New York City or being an actress. Rodeo Queen -- that was reachable. I fell into it. A sorority sister of mine called me when we were living in Kansas City on my husband's measly salary of an intern with two babies. She said, "I hear Harzfeld department store needs models." She arranged an appointment. I was skinny as a rail. I had two kids, had no help, and I still had to do his whites. I started doing fashion shows. I started doing everything there. I made some money. We could buy peanuts. We could buy real butter -- occasionally!

Fitzharris: What was the defining moment when you said, "I've made it?"

Dusay: When I decided to leave San Francisco. My mother had died. I said, "I'm not living unhappy anymore." I had been studying radio speech and improv at a studio in San Francisco with a director friend of mine. I talked to my husband and said, "If we can't talk, I'm leaving."

He never wanted to talk. I said, "The day is here. I'm leaving." He wouldn't believe it. I went to L.A., rented a house, and was scared to death. For a year [before leaving her husband], I had commuted from San Francisco to L.A. I'd get on the PSA Airline in the morning and go for an interview and come back at night. I would sometimes do that two or three times a week. I got nine commercials in a row. I knew I could afford to take care of myself and my kids. So, I put up the ultimatum, let it go, and then it happened. I was never so happy and so free to have no one to tell me what to do.

Fitzharris: In my eyes, you're quite the pioneer. Not many women at that time would've had the courage to do that.

Dusay: I was terrified of a lot of things. I rented a house. I didn't want my kids to be raised in a little apartment. They needed a yard. I wasn't going to diminish their lives. We had been living in San Francisco in a beautiful house -- although nothing worked in it except me. It was a mansion with no heat. We had it tough. We stored milk on the back porch, where the raccoons finally got to it. I knew I was contributing. I knew I was getting better at it, and I knew I liked it. When I'd leave the house, I'd say, "When I'm out of here, I'm happy."

Fitzharris: But you took a chance and decided to live life on your own terms.

Dusay: If you look at it, it was practically stupid! I didn't know if I was going to get a mortgage at the time. I was a woman and an actress.

Fitzharris: You mentioned your father's angry guts earlier. Seems like you've always had guts.

Dusay: Somewhat. Yes.

Fitzharris: Let's talk about some of the men you've worked with. What comes to mind when you think of Gregory Peck (Douglas MacArthur, MacArthur)?

Dusay: Gentleman. Total gentleman.

I'm going to have some wine -- with ice in it. Do you want another cookie or cake? You need to eat something.

Fitzharris: I'll have another cracker.

Dusay: That's all?

Fitzharris: For now. How about James Mitchell (Palmer Cortlandt, All My Children)?

Dusay: I adored him. He was a sweetheart. We had much fun. He was delighted that they gave him a love interest.

Fitzharris: Josh Duhamel (Leo du Pres, All My Children)?

Dusay: He was so gorgeous. We'd watch him in the makeup room on the monitor. We'd watch him and think there was nothing more beautiful.

Fitzharris: Ron Raines (Alan Spaulding, Guiding Light)?

Dusay: I love Ron. He's a beautiful singer. He goes all around the country, singing with orchestras.

Fitzharris: Do you sing?

Dusay: I do. Mainly where I've sung is at karaoke. My karaoke song is ... (pauses to think) It's a story. (pauses to think again) I don't know why it's slipped my memory. Too much wine! Hang with me. It's an older one. It's a standard.

Fitzharris: A standard? Is it one by Cole Porter? Is it a ballad or up-tempo?

Dusay: It's like we're playing 20 questions. (another pause) This is ridiculous. I love this song. I've sung it at several clubs.

Fitzharris: Sounds like a good song! As you think about it, what has been your favorite role in your career?

Dusay: Vanessa on All My Children. It was the most fun I ever had. It allowed me to improvise. For the first time in soaps, it gave me free reign, which I loved.

Fitzharris: You are so cool. Do you have a philosophy for life that you live by?

Dusay: Oh, get by. I try to find happiness. I try to do right. I'm a good mother. I believe in just doing good.

Fitzharris: What is your idea of a perfect day?

Dusay: Feeling like I'm making some progress. You have to get behind fear. You say, "I'm this many years old, what do I care?" But it's getting behind those negative thoughts. I could stay in bed and watch movies all day.

Fitzharris: What would people be surprised to know about you?

Dusay: I like alone time. I recover. I used to walk all over the city. I'm a bread lover. When I first moved to this city, I must have tried every bakery.

Fitzharris: After everything you've done and accomplished, what are you the most proud of?

Dusay: My daughter. She's a wonderful lady. She has a great marriage.

Fitzharris: Listening to all your stories, I think the best word to describe you is survivor.

Dusay: So far, I've been a survivor. It's a true Dorothy story. I have a cup in the kitchen. It's of Toto saying, "Hate Oz. Took the shoes. Find your own way home."

Fitzharris: You have certainly found your way home.

Dusay: I've had a very good life. I've been very fortunate. The greatest gift I was given was soap operas.

Oh! It's "Making Whoopie!" (sings a bit of it) That's the song!

Fitzharris: Ahhh! If we go to karaoke, would you sing it for me?

Dusay: I would sing "Making Whoopee!"

Fitzharris: I feel bad the interview is over and we won't get to have more coffee time together.

Dusay: We'll have it. We'll have wine time next time. When you come back again.

Would you like to leave your condolences for Dusay? What are some of your favorite memories of the actress in her numerous soap opera roles? We want to hear from you -- and there are many ways you can share your thoughts.

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