The problem with daytime soaps is that their characters and stories are an endless snarl of static cling. You have your customary amnesia victim, your benighted, cuckolded spouse and your handsome, raunchy doctor, not to mention your tortured star-crossed lovers. They roil through traumas and crises day after day, and sure enough, everything comes out in the wash smelling good. Borrrrring! What these shows need is a little lightening up, a character who doesn’t take all that heavy breathing quite so seriously.
That’s where Arleen Sorkin walks on. She’s the happiest flake on the soaps, the ditzy Calliope Jones on NBC’s Days of Our Lives. Each episode finds Calliope nosing into somebody’s business and causing havoc. You can’t miss her: She’s loaded down with an outrageous assortment of junk jewelry and costumes, all tailored to signal the plot line. If she’s playing tennis, Calliope wears a hat with a tennis net, little players and rackets. For a lover’s quarrel with boyfriend Eugene (played by John Delancie), she dangled plastic cowboys and Indians from her ear-lobes. She’s all hearts and flowers for a love scene. In a wedding to Eugene last month, Calliope wore a bridal gown covered with tiny lights that twinkled when the couple kissed.
She also plays uncommonly weird. “Her ad-libs are so off-the-wall and so fast, I don’t think even Broadcast Standards [the network censors] understands them,” says producer Shelley Curtis. In one episode Calliope won $1 million in a lottery, bought a baseball team, put on a hat decorated with little ballplayers and, in an unscripted remark to team members, quipped, “I’ll bet my balls go farther than yours.” Waving goodbye to them she shouted, “Touch me, I’m home base!”
Sorkin clearly enjoys her freedom to spoof. “They let me get away with anything as long as it’s not a terribly cheap sex joke,” she says. “Even then I’ll try. I make fun of everyone and everything on the show.” The approach seems flippant but Sorkin, 29, is serious when it comes to putting her own mark on the role, which started last July as a bit part and grew into a full-time assignment. “It’s not as if people who watch soap operas were too stuck in their ironing to pick up on what I do,” she says. “My goal is to make viewers pay attention to me so that they burn their ironing. If someone sends me something with a burn hole in it, I know I’m doing my job.”
So far, no one has sent in a burnt offering, but fans constantly deluge her with trinkets—earrings shaped like Chinese food cartons or baby bottles, or a silly sun hat—that Sorkin adds to Calliope’s wardrobe jumble. Her biggest tribute came last September when a Soap Opera Digest readers’ poll voted Sorkin double honors as Outstanding Supporting Actress and Outstanding New Actress for 1985.
Sorkin’s most enthusiastic fan is her father, Irving, 67, a Maryland dentist and would-be scriptwriter. To the bemusement of his wife, Joyce, 58, Irving played the tireless stage father to Arleen and her two older brothers. “If any of us showed any ability in any area, my father signed us up for lessons,” says Sorkin. “If I stamped my foot, he got me tap lessons. If I blew into a bottle, I had flute lessons.” Sorkin’s dad also made sure she studied piano, ballet and drama. She enrolled at Emerson College in Boston as a dance major, but while acting in a class play, discovered a different muse. “I had two lines,” she recalls. “I didn’t know they were funny, but I got huge laughs. I knew then that I had a comic flair.”
In 1977 Sorkin moved to New York and teamed up with college friends to form a satirical cabaret group, the High-Heeled Women. Her comedy work appealed to NBC, which signed her to a developmental deal. That got her to Los Angeles in 1984, where she won the role of Calliope.
At times Sorkin is indistinguishable from Calliope. A rubbery football player dangles from Sorkin’s left ear, a pair of miniature bowling pins from the other. They complement her print pantsuit and pink high-top sneakers. But where Calliope is both a do-gooder and a bungler, Sorkin is a do-gooder with finesse. A self-appointed social worker to the elderly poor, she cruises the streets in New York, giving old ladies food money, helping them with shopping and fretting about their welfare. She’s stumped as to how it all began. “I must have the kind of face,” she says, “that when elderly women see me in the street, they’ll come up and say, ‘Can you help me back to my apartment?’ or ‘Could you help me across the street?’ I’ve walked at least 100 women home. I love to talk to the elderly. I don’t know how they know I do, but they know.
“I remember inviting one woman—she’d die if she saw her name in print—to lunch,” Sorkin says. “She said, ‘No, no. I get a senior citizen’s lunch, 60 cents, meatloaf.’ ” The next time they met, Sorkin was horrified to find the woman scavenging food from a garbage bin. “We had this screaming match on the sidewalk about what you can and cannot eat out of a trash can,” Arleen says. She wound up buying groceries for the woman and delivering them unannounced. “She’s so sincere about helping these people that it’s scary,” says dentist Robert Mossach, 32, Sorkin’s boyfriend. “She can also be a riot with it. She told my mother that in 50 years she’ll love her too.”
Sorkin’s close relationship with her grandmother, who died four years ago, is a key to her sensitivity. “She used to cook to the soap operas,” says Arleen, who gets misty at the thought. “If she was going to tell you a recipe she’d say, ‘Well, I put it in the oven before The Edge of Night, take it out after Search for Tomorrow. I baste it during Days of Our Lives….’ ”
Arleen has assigned friends to watch over her New York street family while she lives in Los Angeles, where she does her show. She’s co-producing an HBO movie, From Here to Maternity, a spoof based on her book about fitness for pregnant women, and an after-school special for ABC called The Only Boy on Earth is in the works. What she really hopes for is a chance to star in a top sitcom. To dramatize this, she slips into her Calliope Jones mode. Pulling out a leather aviator helmet and goggles, she straps them on and proclaims, “I’m ready for the pilot season.” Who knows? Maybe she’ll fly.