The title of “most hated woman on daytime TV” by all rights should go to the lady who squeezed the Charmin. But she is really Robin Strasser, who dampened handkerchiefs across the land as the sultry, home-wrecking Rachel Clark on NBC’s soap opera Another World. Meanwhile, Robin’s husband Larry Luckinbill has made his own frontal attack on viewer sensibilities during commercial breaks. He strode up airline aisles for four years in a TWA ad campaign repeated often enough to give anyone aerophobia.
The irony is that Luckinbill and Strasser also happen to be two of the most articulate and intelligent actors around. But instead of knocking their dramatic journeywork, Larry, 40, and Robin, 30, are “not ungrateful” for both soaps and commercials. Her daytime role has helped subsidize Larry’s estimable Broadway career which peaked last month as the demented protagonist of Czech playwright Pavel Kohout’s psychological whodunit, Poor Murderer. When Luckinbill, who co-translated the play from the original German and nurtured it in a theater workshop, first heard the opening night “Bravos,” he admits, “I felt tears of joy welling up onstage.”
Robin, meanwhile, has cleaned up her image by switching to ABC’s All My Children to play a benevolent pediatrician, Dr. Christina Karras. But are her femme fatale agonies over? “I know Christina has a mysterious past,” Strasser speculates of her still-undeveloped character. “She’s trying to be the straight doctor that’s expected of her but…sumzing iz wrong. Vat iz it?”
Her mock anxiety reflects the unnatural grip of daytime dramas over actors’ lives. When Robin was expecting their first baby, Another World’s writers craftily scripted in her pregnancy. “I was the one who said to the good wife, ‘This baby I’m carrying isn’t your brother’s. It’s your husband’s,’ ” Robin explains. “But then my doctor said that the baby could come any minute. We did seven shows in four days. I went home but the baby didn’t arrive for a month. A week after he was born, they called me back because the ratings were going through the roof.”
Larry’s life on and off Broadway has been no less unsettling. Though he had already hit with shows like The Boys in the Band (and later in the movie), Luckinbill acidly described the financial plight of actors six years ago in a stinging article for the New York Times. In a decade of struggle, he calculated, he’d earned a total of only $12,000 in the legitimate theater.
What economic stability Larry and Robin find outside acting comes from buying, renovating and profitably selling each house they’ve lived in. So far, they’ve moved seven times in ten years. Robin groans, “I’ll break into a rash if I see another cardboard box. This is the third house in which we’ve used the same wallpaper.”
Their present investment is a three-story Federal brickfront with a garden on Manhattan’s East Side. There Larry tries to sleep off his exhausting Broadway performances amid the clamor of workmen. When he leaves for the theater, Robin takes the evening shift with their two sons—Nicholas, 7, and Benjamin, 18 months. A nursemaid helps.
For all his urban sophistication, Luckinbill is an Ozark Ike from Fort Smith, Ark., which he remembers as “a strange, wonderful dreamland for a kid. I didn’t wear shoes in the summer until I came to New York.” His hardware salesman father and secretary mother wanted him to study orthodontics at the University of Arkansas. But after a professor “took advantage of my natural show-offness,” he switched to speech and drama. He added on a master’s in playwriting at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and joined the Foreign Service as a cultural attaché posted to Rome and Khartoum. Then he quit and headed for New York. “My first job was on a soap opera segment, Young Doctor Malone,” Luckinbill winces. “I had three lines, ‘Yes,’ ‘No’ and ‘How’s his pulse?’ I blew the last two.”
He was trying to enter a world to which Robin already belonged. A New Yorker, she grew up in an art-and-egghead community on the Upper West Side. Her literary mother was married three times—once to a White Russian prince—and, says Robin, “was very supportive and encouraging about my creative work. She took me to see Peter Pan when I was 3, and from then on I wanted to be an actress.”
Admitted as a “gifted” student to New York’s High School for the Performing Arts, Robin won a best-actress award and a full scholarship to Yale’s Drama School. But after a year she dropped out to answer casting calls in New York for plays like The Impossible Years and The Country Girl. She made ends meet by clerking at Benders specialty shop.
A play-reading brought Robin and Larry together. “I said his shirt was the color of Murine,” Robin remembers. “We went for drinks, laughed a lot, and I started thinking, ‘Hmm, this is an interesting man.’ Then we walked out and Larry left me right in the middle of the block to catch my own cab.”
“I liberated her a long time ago,” Larry cracks.
“I’m from a Jewish background and Larry is Roman Catholic,” Robin goes on. “When I met him he was a weekly communicant. We both wanted to get married for a lifetime but I was still scared to death.” Larry found out just how scared at the altar when, he recalls, “she said, ‘Till desh do us parth.’ ”
Larry plunged their first meager earnings from soaps (he was by then Frank Carter in The Secret Storm) into three acres on the Windward Island of St. Lucia. “It was almost every penny we had, but Robin never questioned me. It took us six years to build a home there, but we translated our romance into reality.” (It’s still the one place they’ve never unloaded.)
By 1970 the two of them were earning between $55,000 and $60,000 on TV, but Larry had pessimistically concluded that “neither relevance nor bread was to be found in the theater.” Robin was beginning to think she’d “go into the old-age home” as the wicked Rachel Clark. They migrated to Hollywood for three years and what Larry now admits was his “star syndrome” with a brief ABC series, The Delphi Bureau. His subsequent TV roles were so violent that eventually, Larry fumes, “I couldn’t let my son watch any of my work.”
More disturbingly, Robin felt “like I was in Larry’s shadow and left out. In subtle ways I began to blame Larry for it, but then I realized that I had to work it out for myself—within the structure of being his wife, his lover and having our kids.” A sensitized Larry now regards Robin’s career “as 50 percent of our happiness.”
Even though they’re both making it now by any standard, Luckinbill and Strasser are protectively expanding their options. He’s into film production and she’s writing screenplays. Neither wants their sons to go through the acting turmoil they did. “Every night while they’re sleeping,” Larry confides, “we whisper in the boys’ ears, ‘Director! Director! Producer! Producer!’ ” In any case, the children have proved they can adapt to their parents’ nomadic life. “Within five hours of moving back to New York,” Larry sighs, “Nick was playing hopscotch with a piece of glass, had found a candy store a block away and had learned six new four-letter words.”