There is almost nothing in the world as fanatical as a soap opera fan. Actress Sandy Gabriel, who plays busybody Edna Thornton on All My Children, reports that even a presumed sophisticate like Sammy Davis Jr. once accosted her on the street, “Hey, Edna!”, and she is constantly being chastised in public for the wickedness caused on the series by her divorcee character. Similarly, her actor husband, John Gabriel, 41, is fed to the teeth with being boogied after by young viewers who think he, like neurosurgeon Seneca Beaulac on Ryan’s Hope, is a very hunky older man with an inclination for teenage girls.
The truth is that the Gabriels are about the most stable working couple in showbiz—they have been apart more than two nights only three times since they married in 1968. “To us it’s just a job,” shrugs Sandy, 32. “A lot of actors don’t have anything to come home to.” When the Gabriels return to their midtown Manhattan co-op, there’s a crowd. First to greet them is their Yorkie, Yetta Pearl, followed by daughters Melissa, 10, and Andrea, 7, and Sandy’s widowed mother, Betty Cohen. From bronzed baby shoes to well-stocked toy box, the household smacks of domesticity. “The girls are only going to be kids for a short time, and we want to enjoy them,” says Sandy.
Everybody is still in mourning for Tarzan the mongrel, who died of natural causes at 13 this summer and without whom John might not have hooked up with Sandy. That was back in 1967 in Hollywood. John, an aspiring actor and Air Force vet, was making ends meet as a talent booker for armed services shows. Sandy, a starlet in bikini flicks like Never Steal Anything Wet and Hot Summer Games (actually volleyball), came for an audition and asked him to mind her new puppy, Tarzan.
They did have a lot in common: Their fathers each owned a small grocery, and both were UCLA grads in theater arts. John, born Jack Monkarsh in Niagara Falls, N.Y., recalls running into bigotry as the only Jewish kid on a Little League team. When he was 12 his family moved to L.A., and a college varsity show sparked his stage ambitions. While in the Air Force, he sent his photograph to 20th Century-Fox, which hired him at $200 a week, he guesses, “because I looked like a leading man was supposed to. Then they discovered I couldn’t act.”
That is not false modesty. He picked up his nickname “Stiff” not for his first role (a corpse in The Young Lions) but for his acting style. Recalls Charles Grodin, who knew him when and is still his best friend: “John wasn’t ready to become an actor. In Hollywood he is just now getting over the reputation he had 15 years ago.” As a lover, John inadvertently had no reputation. “I was dating a lot of beautiful, talented, exciting girls, had the convertible, the swinging pad, but I couldn’t bring it off,” he confesses. “I really was a lousy bachelor.”
Enter Tarzan and Sandy. Born Sandra Cohen in Queens and raised in L.A., she assumed the name Tyler to begin her beach-blanket movie career at 16 and then did TV bits on Batman, The Big Valley and Father Knows Best. The instant he saw her, John recalls, he told pal Grodin he would marry her. Sandy was unimpressed, but her Ouija board had just predicted she would meet a new man and marry him. Even then she stood John up on their first date so she could go to a bullfight in Tijuana with a doctor boyfriend.
John persevered with his courting and—with esteemed coach Sanford Meisner—his craft. Six months later he was hired on Broadway as Robert Goulet’s understudy in Happy Time. With a little encouragement, he proposed to Sandy by phone and she responded immediately: “Yes. When?” They married two months later, in June 1968, and it was the first time Sandy had lived away from home. John wasn’t so confident himself. “I was frightened,” he admits. “I thought you needed a steady job to get married.”
To help him approach that ideal, Sandy gave up her career—”Nobody knew, much less cared,” she says graciously—and they shuttled coast-to-coast to keep up with John’s roles. In New York, he did three years on Love of Life and four months in Applause on Broadway, then six months residency on General Hospitals L.A., followed by two years of commercials, TV guest shots and a stint on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. When Ryan’s Hope premiered in 1975, the family trekked to Manhattan again.
At that point John began to petition the producers of the soap on Sandy’s behalf until she got a small role, which provided a selling point to renew her career. She was then raided away by All My Children—Ryan’s co-producer Claire Labine admits, “It was stupid of us to let her go”—and has turned Edna Thornton into a highlight for AMC addicts like Carol Burnett.
The John-and-Sandy story is not quite as implausibly idyllic as it sometimes sounds. “If she started to cook,” needles John, “three take-out places in the neighborhood would close.” He concedes, meanwhile, to having been as domineering sometimes as Seneca Beaulac. Daughter Melissa once chided him, “Stop controlling me! I’m not a robot.” That led him to check in with his shrink briefly.
John admits his five years in analysis left a few flaws but says, “I wouldn’t have my career without it.” Sandy does not share his enthusiasm. After two trial sessions because of chronic headaches, she discovered that her problem was not her psyche but low blood sugar. Says she of her husband: “He wants to talk out problems. I’d rather forget them.” When John admits to verbosity, she banters, “You have a way with words and you feel you should use them all.” But Sandy regrets her own shyness. She has sung on telethons, but agonizes over any unscripted performance. “I hate to be me,” she concedes.
Currently John is noodling over a sitcom idea that would capitalize on Sandy’s gift for comedy. They have been approached to co-host a daytime talk show. He put together a syndicated TV variety showcase, Daytime Star, and sings on a just released LP with four fellow soap veterans. A sometime lyricist, he collaborated with Nelson Riddle on the themes for the films El Dorado and Hell’s Bloody Devils, both of which he appeared in. John has also braved Hollywood again recently and has an upcoming part in My Turn, with Michael Douglas and Jill Clayburgh.
As for recreation, John jogs around Central Park, and Sandy does Nikolaus exercises at home. Everybody unwinds with movies; the family has seen Grease 14 times in the theater and on video cassette. Neither child watches either parent’s soap—through lack of interest, not censorship.
Though John would like another child, Sandy demurs. He accepts that with affection. “I have a wife, kids and work I love. I make a decent living. If it never gets any better,” John declares, “I can still say, ‘Hey, this has been a good life.’ ”