May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

I’m actually a TV first. I did the first in-house test of TV in the RCA Building, a little spiel about the possibilities of TV that was transmitted from one end of the building to the other. This was in 1939, and it was like Bell with his telephone. I remember the lights were, gosh, awful. I got burns on my face, that’s how strong they were, and the tears were streaming down, though they couldn’t be seen because the picture was a little fuzzy. After that I went to Hollywood, where I was never anything less than a leading lady. When I came back to New York in 1954, I was offered The Guiding Light, and I said, “Darn it, I need the job. I have to put my children through college.” People said, “My God, Ruth, you’ve ruined your career. How can Mrs. Citizen Kane be on a soap, for God’s sake?” In those days there were no gray areas in the characters—the other woman was always totally bad. I was the night nurse, and this young intern would cry on my shoulder about his wife. I had coffee with him, then I invited him for a nightcap. He had that, then I had him. The writing wasn’t so great then, but I decided I was going to make the role so believable that it would make me a better actress, and I think that’s what happened.

Now I’ve been on All My Children 19 years, and I’ve become a force in people’s lives. They hug me, kiss me, grab my hand. People like the strength of Phoebe Tyler, although to begin with I thought of her as a silly person whose most strenuous activity was stirring the martinis gently so as not to bruise the gin. I had been involved with the civil rights and peace movements, a really involved activist, and she was the opposite, so I made her a really ridiculous bubblehead. After a few months, the director said to me, “Your role is to make people afraid of you. When you walk into a room, they should soil their pants.” I told him that was graphic enough. That’s when Phoebe got very heavy. She was so outrageous you wanted to kill her, but she became a woman with spirit and spunk and spine, like Joan Collins and Jane Wyman would be. Oddly enough, men love her. Young people love her. Blacks love Phoebe because they have a great tradition of strong women. One black man shouted across the street to me, “You hang in there, old girl.”

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