When Louise (Mary Hartman) Lasser slumps into bed after a day’s shooting, it may very well be to bad dreams, but at least she isn’t sleeping with Norman Lear, the puppeteer of all that perversity. No such surcease awaits Judith Barcroft, the stoic heroine of ABC’s All My Children, when she returns to her Manhattan co-op to unkink. Her husband, Wisner Washam, is the show’s head writer and thus the main perpetrator of Judith’s (or rather the character Anne Wingate Tyler’s) three marriages in four years, plus miscellaneous other messing around and misery that included a spouse suffering from a low sperm count.
In reality, Judith, 34, and her Wis, 45, have one of the most stable marital arrangements in showbiz. Though they have to grind out five half-hour episodes a week, 260 a year, Washam can manipulate the 21 characters and nine subplots to the convenience of the family. Anne Tyler can be written out for days or even weeks when Judith has personal priorities, just as Ian, 5, their elder child, was written in (as Little Phillip for the past two years) so he could spend more time with Mom. (Washam even hopes to slip in his father-in-law, an Episcopal minister, to conduct a funeral on the series.) Nicest of all for Wis and their other child, Amy, 2, Daddy does all his God-playing without leaving their apartment high over the Hudson River.
None of this is to suggest that the Washams regard their work as a lark. All My Children may have a less active sex life than other daytime dramas, but it quite possibly has the highest IQ. Author Dan Wakefield has just published a 182-page tribute, All Her Children, explaining his addiction to the series and even likening soaps to Dickens. In any case, the show is the most relevant (Wis is constantly clipping newspapers for topical themes). Notes Judith: “We took 13 weeks to explore child abuse. On prime time you’d get that in one hour, thrown in with a lot of pointless violence.”
On shooting days she wakes up as early as 5 a.m. and punches into the studio by 8 a.m. A maid comes in to attend the kids so Wis can concoct his plots. At lunch Judith frequently takes Ian to a “creative movement” class for overenergized New York children. It helps her acting too. “The pace and tension are like no other medium,” Judith argues. “Some of your finest actors cannot do it. There’s no going back and making it better. Every night is a closing night.” By 3 the show’s in the can and Judith’s home. Wis may break briefly for a drink with her, then go back to work until 6. After an overwrought day, he gets a massage (though not, as it might be sensationalized if he wrote it into a script, in a Times Square massage parlor). Some of the show, inescapably, is autobiographical. Wis says that Judith shares some traits with her TV alter ego. “There’s the same elegance, the same warmth,” he says, then adds, “and she’s a bit spoiled too.” “Spoiled?” Judith echoes incredulously. “Yes,” Wis laughs, “sometimes you’re as bitchy as Anne Tyler.”
The more remarkable thing is how little the Washams have been affected by their New York soap stardom (she earns upward of $50,000 a year, he around $150,000). Both Wis and Judith are Southern gentlepeople at the core. Barcroft is her stage name—she was born Judith Williams in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, but lived around the U.S. and later Europe when her father served as minister to the American colony on the Riviera. Inspired by her aunt, Claire McCardell, Judith determined at 3 that she wanted “to be an actress—not a Hollywood star. I don’t know why,” she adds, “but I’ve always known the difference and made that distinction.” Her chance came when she studied with Northwestern University drama coach Alvina Krause. Washam is a mannerly North Carolinian from Charlotte (his stepfather was a building supplier) who went to the state university. Wis also migrated to New York to make it as an actor and, he admits, “like most, failed.” Instead, he became a stage manager for four Neil Simon plays and met Judith when they both worked on Plaza Suite. He switched to writing when she was pregnant with Ian. She landed her role in All My Children and Wis was soon hired by the show’s creator, Agnes Nixon.
According to Judith, the early years of their marriage were “rough until we realized the little gimmicks the other needed to function.” Professionally, she felt publicity was essential, but she found her fiercely private husband “would fly into tiny inside rages if anyone asked for an interview.” Though he charts the emotional seismograph of Judith’s character six weeks ahead (his scenarios are farmed out to three “dialoguers” who do the daily scripts), she rarely asks what he’s planning for her “because it makes sincerity harder to reach.” It’s the other actors who anxiously bug Wis about the next twist in their roles (he could decide to put them in a six-month coma). “At parties,” Judith finds, “he’s always sailing through the crowd to keep away from them.”
Though soaps have given her some fame (as Anne Tyler, she receives “unbelievably intimate” mail, and shoppers in supermarkets often nod chummily at her), Judith speculates about movies and has a contract with an out-clause “that allows me to do a Broadway show.” Yet she worries about a career that would prevent her “from watching my children grow. I wonder,” she continues, alluding to a distinguished soap alumna, “if Ellen Burstyn is as happy or has the freedom now that she’s in the fishbowl?” Barcroft for herself concedes “nobody has asked me to be a star,” but seems genuinely pleased to have the time to teach Sunday school and paint—Wis’s hobby is thunking on the piano. “I like where Wis and I have arrived,” says Judith. “I just want more of the same.”