Peter Bergman Looks Back on 30 Years as Jack Abbott on 'Young & the Restless'

Michael Maloney
Q&A CBS

Smiling Jack on Young and the Restless has got plenty to smile about these days. His portrayer, Peter Bergman, is celebrating 30 years of playing Jack Abbott, heir to Jabot Cosmetics.

As veteran soap fans know, the actor joined the top-rated CBS soap after a 10-year Emmy-nominated run as Dr. Cliff Warner on All My Children. Over the decades, Bergman’s Jack has married for both love and money, discovered two illegitimate sons, and battled nemesis Victor (Eric Braeden). The show has delved into Jack’s childhood, which explains his often-caddish treatment of women, and has given the actor the opportunity to play a dual role.

TV Insider chatted with the three-time Emmy-winning actor about his journey from Pine Valley to Genoa City that began three decades ago ahead of Y&R's Jack-centric episode on Monday, November 25. He opened up about the special tribute, what story he’d like to tackle next, and if he ever envisions a role for himself behind the camera. Read on to get the scoop from the accomplished actor and gregarious gentleman!

(Cliff Lipson/CBS)

Let’s go back to the beginning. You had just been let go by AMC, which stunned not only fans of that show but pretty much everyone in daytime.  

Peter Bergman: It was still one of the most powerful experiences in my life and one of the great learning experiences in my life. Looking back, I wish I had completely let go of AMC and embraced [more fully] this giant opportunity Y&R had presented me. It was so unsettling to be cut out of a family the way AMC did. Everybody gets fired. But I wasn’t high on anyone’s list and was a team player.

It was Melody Thomas Scott (Nikki) who suggested you for the role of Jack, yes?

Yes, she was on a trip to Canada with her husband Ed [Scott, then Y&R’s executive producer, now, Bold and the Beautiful’s supervising producer). The show had already tested four or five guys [for Jack] at that point and hadn’t found what they were looking for in a recast. I think my firing was on the cover of every soap magazine. Melody had one with her and said, ‘That’s Jack Abbot.’ Isn’t that just crazy? That’s how it started.

Peter Bergman and Jerry Douglas on The Young and the Restless in 2006 (Tony Esparza/CBS)

Who did you screen-test with?

I screen-tested with Jess Walton (Jill) and Jerry Douglas (ex-John). It’s a memory deeply seared in my brain. It was such a scary time. Mariellen [my wife] was pregnant and was due any minute. The day after my last day on AMC, I had said goodbye to my family and flew to California to test for Jack. Cliff and Nina (Taylor Miller) were foundational characters for the show. They gave us a great sendoff with Cliff and Nina and our son Bobby on a parapet. We wave goodbye and they do a freeze frame. They held it for a very long time. Marielle has delivered our child. She was in recovery and had the television on watching my last episode. As she’s trying to recover [from the delivery], there’s a knock at the door with the most spectacularly floral arrangement. The note read: “Welcome to the Y&R family.” The timing was ideal.

Nina (Taylor Miller), Palmer (James Mitchell) and Cliff (Peter Bergman) on All My Children in 1979 (Steve Fenn/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

That helped Mariellen move forward. Meanwhile, I, Peter, am out in California still trying to make sense out of it all. A year and a half later, I’m up there on stage at the Daytime Emmys accepting my first award. I see all my AMC friends standing on their feet, cheering for me. A year later, I’m up there again [winning my second].

The following day, Mariellen and I were meeting friends on the West Side in New York City. That took us by the old AMC studio on 67th and Columbus. The building was being razed. It was a pile of bricks and we had to walk past it. I was overwhelmed with so many feelings, among them that this is truly, truly over. This whole magical ten years I spent there were over. The writing was on the wall. It was like “Peter, you just got your second Emmy with the new show – move on.” It was so powerful. After breakfast, Mariellen went off shopping and I had gone to meet James Mitchell (ex-Palmer, AMC) for coffee. When I got back to the hotel room, there, in the room, was a brick that Mariellen had gone back and taken for me. It sits in my dressing room today.

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The lesson of the story was that I probably missed out on a lot by looking back. This wonderful thing – Y&R – was happening and I kept looking in the other direction. Y&R had embraced me, welcomed me, encouraged me and sent me up those stairs to get those Emmys.

How do you select what scenes go on your reels?

I ask what do I have with actors who bring out my best work. You can’t do it alone. You can’t. If you have a really good scene partner, and you’re good? Fantastic. If you’re good and your scene partner is kind of eh, you have no hope.

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Jack started out as a manipulator. He helped break up Nikki’s romance with Jim (John O’Hurley) so he could marry her himself and use her as a bargaining chip with Victor to get Jabot back.

Jack had a fairly broken moral compass when I began playing him. Jack was out for Jack. Yes, he cared about his father, his family, and yeah, he didn’t want to disappoint them, but if he could really get ahead and, even if it’d disappoint them a little, that’d be a great thing. That was the original Jack. Sure, he was driven to get his father’s company back for his father, but the truth is Jack got beaten by Victor and he wanted to have the last word.

Nikki (Melody Thomas Scott) and Jack (Peter Bergman) on Y&R (CBS)

Tyler Johnson (Theo) recently heaped praise upon you for showing him the ropes. Others have told similar stories. Who helped you out when you started at AMC?

When I started, I was 26 and had never watched soaps. I was a theater snob. I went on many auditions and I got this one. They said to me, ‘We have a whole story for you, but we’re still looking for [actors to play] Nina and Palmer.’ So, they actually paid me not to work until they cast them. A few days after my first day, in come Nina and Palmer. He was pretty stern. He was there to do the work.

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What I saw was that James, who had had this long and winding career, saw [joining AMC] as a giant opportunity and he wasn’t going to mess it up for anything in the world. We were both starting at the same time. In him, I had this example of someone who came to work, prepared, ready to change on a moment’s notice or do anything they needed to do to make it work because these roles don’t come along every day. James Mitchell charted my earlier days for me. I’d look to him to learn what I should be doing. I’d watch him walk through a set and the way he did it depended on who the other character in the room was and how that person was related to Palmer.

I also learned a lot from [the late] David Canary, whom I knew from Bonanza, after he came on as Adam and Stuart Chandler. David showed me what you do once you start winning awards – you don’t do anything differently. He was the same guy he was before he won his first award that he was after he’d won five of them.

Is your advice always welcome when you share it with newcomers?

So far, yes, my advice has been welcome. It’s difficult work [today], more than when I started. When I started, we did two or three takes for every scene. You could warm up. Today, everything is one take. So, we have young actors doing one-take acting. They need some help and I have just a few small tips that I think are helpful.

Victor (Eric Braeden) and Jack (Peter Bergman) (sean smith/jpistudios.com)

A dual role, battles with Victor, multiple romances…what else would you like to experience as Jack?

We’re still inches away from what shaped Jack so much. We’ve touched on it, talked about it. Jack losing his mom, Dina (Marla Adams), when he was 14 [affected him so greatly]. Her leaving left  Jack to look after his sisters, his father…he had to become an adult. Every woman that Jack has been with has paid for Dina’s sins.

You know a lot about daytime. Have you ever thought about going behind the camera either as a director or producer?

In today’s environment, I’d probably want to be a producer more than a director [in daytime]. So much is asked of our directors. They doing everything except what they may want to most – working with actors. They have to think about cameras, sets, lighting, sound, and keeping the day moving. Sitting and talking with actors about what we need to accomplish is something I adore. The ability to help those people would be fun. Some people don’t want help and I try to be sensitive to that. I hope I’ve been sensitive in recognizing that.

The Young and the Restless, Weekdays, CBS