'General Hospital' Veteran Jane Elliot on Being Tracy Quartermaine and Leaving After 53 Years in the Biz
She’s outta here, baby! On May 4, Emmy winner Jane Elliot—one of the most beloved and revered stars in soaps—will make her last appearance on ABC's General Hospital as queen barracuda Tracy Quartermaine. But Elliot’s not just quitting the show; she’s leaving the biz. Here, in her only exit interview, the press-shy actress explains herself.
Could anything have changed your mind about retirement?
Absolutely nothing. I’m 70 years old! For 53 years, I’ve gone from job to job, coast to coast, movies to theater to TV, and it’s all been delicious. I’m really glad I got to do it. But now I want to use a different part of my brain—that part where I don’t have to learn lines, put on makeup, wonder if my roots are showing or think about my weight. Does this dress make me look fat? [Groans] I don’t want to live like that anymore! Do. Not. Want. To. Do. It. I’m a low-maintenance kind of girl.
You’re also the rare soap diva who hasn’t panicked about aging and had plastic surgery. Discuss.
My mother was a wonderful role model. She never did anything to her face either. She aged gracefully, embracing it as part of the life cycle, and I, too, have an inner peace and acceptance about it. I also stopped looking in the mirror a long time ago. [Laughs] That helps a lot. You can’t worry about laugh lines and crow’s feet if you can’t see them. You know what else helps?
Having younger friends. Somehow it tricks my brain into thinking that what I’m looking at is what I am. Rebecca Budig [Hayden], Emmy Rylan [Lulu] and Rebecca Herbst [Elizabeth] are beautiful, beautiful young women, and they’re what I’d look at all day long when I was working at GH. So I’m like, ‘Hey, maybe I look like them!” [Laughs] And they treat me like an equal. That’s another trick. Keep marvelous young people around you!
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How did your costars react to your departure?
There are those who are excited for me, who understand and appreciate the privilege of retirement. And then there are those who are completely mystified. “What the f--- are you doing? You’re the big chicken around here. Why would you leave now?” A lot of actors can’t comprehend giving up acting. But I’m a different animal. Pretending no longer appeals to me.
Yet there’s never a sign of that. You play every scene, every moment, balls to the wall.
But that's the job I'm paid to do. I’m paid to deliver. I know no other way.
Was there a going away party? You don’t seem the type.
I’m not the type. But, yes, there was and it was ever so sweet and relaxed. There was no speechifying, which I definitely did not want. [Photographer] Jim Warren got me a cake. I will never let him take my picture so he put my name on the cake with a sign that said; “No Photo Available.” Hilarious! The truth is, I would have been perfectly happy to do nothing but [executive producer] Frank Valentini came to me and said, “We have to do something. People want to say goodbye.” So we did it at the end of my last day, downstairs in the conference room. A lot of people who weren’t working that day came to the studio to say goodbye, and that meant so much to me. Genie Francis [Laura] got a blank journal and had everyone write something to me, which was the sweetest thing imaginable. I will cherish that journal forever.
Would you be willing to share one of the entries that was especially meaningful?
No, I would not. [Laughs] It’s personal.
Actors rarely retire. It’s usually the business that leaves them. But you are one of the rare ones who could work until you’re Maggie Smith and beyond. You sure you don’t want to reconsider this?
The business has changed and the idea of trying to get other jobs seems insane to me. Dealing with agents and reels and online profiles and social media accounts just isn’t my thing. Nowadays, when you’re up for a job, they look at how many Twitter followers you have! They check your Facebook page! No, thank you. There’s a level of narcissism and self promotion required that I’ve never been good at.
So Jane Elliot wouldn’t fare well if she was just hitting Hollywood today?
I would never make it! I seriously wouldn’t know how to do it. I don’t have the right stuff. Even now I don’t ever think of myself as being in show business. I just happen to have a job on TV.
What if someone handed you a cool acting role? Would you come out of retirement?
My son, Adrian, is directing now and if he needed me to do something, well, of course I would do it. Or I might do a part for a friend. Anyone who needs me to do them a favor, I’m there. I just won’t be looking for work.
Well, this is sounding slightly less dismal! Would you entertain the idea of a brief return to GH?
Is it up for discussion? Maybe. I’ll see how I feel in a year or two. But, right at this moment, I have no need to do it ever again. I had a conversation with Roger Howarth [Franco] about this. He said that I wouldn’t feel like quitting the business if I was, say, back east at the Williamstown Theatre Festival doing a great play by a great playwright, like Albee or Chekhov, where it’s all on the page and all you have to do is make it come alive. He says it would renew my love for acting. He could be right about that, but right now that’s just not me. I don’t know if I’m burnt out, but I do know that a part of me feels like I cheated. My father was a lawyer and, if he’d had his druthers, I would have been a lawyer too. Or a doctor. I finished high school and started working as an actor within weeks so I skipped the hard part–getting a degree in something, getting into a profession that demanded higher education. That gnaws at me.
What does your BFF Deidre Hall [Days of Our Lives’ Marlena] think of this retirement thing? It’s so not her!
She had a really hard time with my decision, but it’s more about me moving away. I have always been amazed watching Deidre negotiate the business. I believe certain people come into our lives because we're woven from the same cloth, we're in the same tribe, we've known each other for many, many lifetimes and can finish each other's sentences. But Deidre came into my life because there's nobody more different. There was a time when she and I didn’t like the same anything—movies, food, colors, architecture, nothing. But I have watched Deidre do this business her way. She is in my life to show me there is more than one way to negotiate a career. She negotiated hers with marketing and promotion, with fans clubs and fan gatherings and autograph signings and award show hostings. She did all of that stuff and I would venture to say that she earns two or three times what I do. Yes, we're both recognizable, we've both had long careers in soap operas, we’re survivors. But she did the hard work. Somebody once described me as privately outgoing and publically shy. And that’s exactly what I am. In a room full of 100 people that I know, I am the spokesperson. I am at the head of the class and perfectly happy being there. In a room of strangers? Not comfortable at all.
Has there ever been pressure from ABC to promote GH, or do they not even bother making the call?
They learned a long time ago not to ask.
Let’s discuss your GH sendoff.
Well, it’s the first time Tracy has left Port Charles not in disgrace. [Laughs] That's a big win! The first time she left, it was after she tried to kill her father, Edward. The second time she fled with a bag of money and baby Dillon. The third time, she came back to town with Dillon but Edward sent her packing again. She also got kicked out in 2003. Can't remember why. And, now, it’s by her choice. She’s leaving because she is determined to be a better person.
So that's progress!
Yes! And now her family is actually sad to see her go and so are the people of Port Charles. This time, nobody's cheering!
Please tell me there's no group hug. Tracy Q is not Mary Richards.
Hmm, well, there is some hugging...but it's not too bad.
It feels like Tracy’s daddy issues and her damn Renaissance painting are an easy-breezy way to write you out. One would have hoped for something more profound, more substantial, more worthy of your legacy. Does this final story work for you?
Oh, I think it works well enough and that the audience finds it relatable. Tracy is a woman who was never approved of by her father and has spent a lifetime trying to measure up, trying to be who she thinks he wants her to be. That's why she fell for Luke Spencer. He was always Tracy’s drug of choice. She couldn’t get Luke to commit to her the same way she couldn’t get her father to commit. So you see a repetition in her behavior. To now learn that she really did have her father's love is satisfying, as is the freedom that it now gives her.
Many fans feel your exit is also the end of the Quartermaines. Sure, a few Qs remain, but without Tracy to ride herd and call those emergency family meetings, what do we really have left?
I don’t know who everyone would show up for. Would they show up if Ned called a meeting? Would they show up for Monica? Would Monica ever call a meeting? Will they show up for Michael who has denounced the fact he’s a Quartermaine? I don’t know.
Wally Kurth has great strength and enormous potential, which has rarely been realized. With the right writer’s vision, Ned could be the new Quartermaine king.
I have always loved working with that man. There are only four soaps left and Wally is acting on two of them. He’s in 50 percent of the shows on the air! Who does that? So, yes, I agree. There could be something really great there.
GH never made you and your character the center of the show—the rich, powerful, dynamic hub from which all spokes emanate—the way Guiding Light did with Beverlee McKinsey or The Bold and the Beautiful did with Susan Flannery.
Or One Life to Live with Erika Slezak. As far as I'm concerned, they should have made Tracy the head of the mob. She should have gone one-on-one with Sonny.
Instead, she’s mostly been a supporting player, providing the energy and color and chaos when it was desperately needed but she was never the power base.
That might have done that with Tracy in my earlier years but it would never happen today. Not that long ago I had a conversation with an ABC executive about why they were playing all the young people on the show and not playing the veterans. There is a constant cry from the audience: "Play the vets!" Me, Leslie Charleson, Kin Shriner, Jackie Zeman, Lynn Herring, Genie Francis, you know the list. And what I was told by this network exec is that the young actors are played heavily because that's what the advertisers want. They believe they will attract a younger audience that way, because young viewers are the ones who haven't yet decided whether to buy Kleenex or Puffs and they can be swayed by advertising. Older viewers are not so susceptible. They don’t change their minds and make new, different choices.
Says the 70-year-old woman who just shook up her life in a massive way.
Hey, I’m not saying that I believe this to be true! But it’s how the business operates. Yes, by playing Tracy and the other older characters, you might get your lapsed audience back, but it's not the audience they want. So this is not about the fault of the producers or the writers or the network. It's all driven by the advertisers and the need to attract young shoppers. This wasn't always the case. Soaps used to be about storytelling and characters of all ages and types. We’re not doing that now. We go from event to event to event. The stories are activity driven, rather than driven by emotion. And, unfortunately, it’s easier to write an event than an emotional story, one that has depth and breadth and passion and heart. My hat’s off to anybody who is doing it in this soap business of today, because it’s all dictated by schedule and finance rather than what’s best for the stories. You are told which actors you can use, based on who hasn’t worked beyond their guarantees. You are told which sets you must use. You can’t fault the writers for the restrictions and constraints they work under.
You’ve done so many soaps in addition to GH—from your first, A Flame in the Wind in 1965, to Guiding Light, Days of Our Lives, All My Children, The City, and Knots Landing, too. What, in your mind, is your finest moment?
No question about it. Guiding Light. The story [head writer] Doug Marland created for me was just so good and so rare. Thanks to Doug, I learned who I was as an actor. He stretched me. He pulled me. And I rose to the occasion. He made me look good and I made him look good. Playing Tracy Quartermaine is fairly easy. You don’t have to dig deep. But, to play Carrie Todd, I had to go very, very deep. And it wasn’t just because of her madness. She was a fully fleshed out, fully realized character living a really rich life. It was a very complete role. And I loved playing opposite Jerry verDorn [Ross], the most generous actor I’ve ever worked with. It was a once in a lifetime thing and I knew it at the time. No 20/20 hindsight necessary.
Well, I want to thank you for ruining our lives by quitting GH but I know I speak for your many fans when I say that we wish you every possible happiness, Jane. There is so much respect for you and what you stand for. But let’s make no mistake: This is the end of an era. And that really stinks.
Awww…thank you. I do not look this amazing gift horse in the mouth. I feel very blessed and very grateful to have been in the acting profession. But I want my freedom while I'm still young enough to appreciate it. I don’t want to leave the show when I'm arthritic or I have lost my memory or there's nothing left for me to do. I'm still strong and healthy and have the full use of my faculties. I have to jump on it now because I don’t know what I will be like in five or ten years. I am extremely lucky that I get to make this choice. Will I regret it? Maybe. If it works, it works. But if it doesn't, I'll change it.
So what will you do with all this free time?
I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. I am not afraid of the void. The unknown is not hell to me. In fact, it’s perfectly comfortable. I do know that I want to be of service. I want to donate my time, my education, my intellect, my experience. And I don't want to be paid. I want to give it away. I want the freedom to expand in some new way, and I don’t yet know w hat that new way is. And I won’t know until I get away from the confines and restrictions of living in L.A. I’ve raised two beautiful children who are now adults. I have my union pension and my Social Security. I have nothing tying me down for the first time in my life. Now I want to see where my imagination takes me!
General Hospital, Weekdays, ABC