Christopher Bernau Guiding Light

Image: CBS

Remembering one of daytime’s most dynamic villains.

In the 1980s, actor Christopher Bernau brought an extraordinary level of complexity to soap operas as he carved out the role of the flawed and frequently malevolent businessman Alan Spaulding on CBS’ Guiding Light. Born in Santa Barbara on June 2, 1940, as Herbert Augustine Bernau, he grew up idolizing John Barrymore. After receiving a scholarship, Bernau trained at the University of California before moving to New York City where he quickly became an in-demand performer. He toured the country with various productions, including one well-lauded production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The actor starred in the 1969 revamp of the iconic off-Broadway hit The Boys in the Band and traveled to Canada for a year of Shakespearean roles at the country’s Stratford festival.

Bernau’s highly successful first fifteen years on stage included working alongside Christopher Walken and culminated in taking on two iconic roles, one on stage and one on TV. Starring in an off-Broadway production of The Passion of Dracula in 1977, Bernau was praised by the New York Times for his portrayal of the famous vampire, achieving “a fine balance between the awesome and the ridiculous.” The production was broadcast on Showtime in 1980. While appearing as the Count during the evening, he spent his days working as Alan Spaulding on CBS’ Guiding Light, and this became the role that made his career. The leap into daytime soon included a real love of the genre for what he regarded as its “totally bizarre plot twists.”

Bernau originated the role of Alan, created by Bridget and Jerome Dobson, and made his first appearance on TV screens in November 1977. By March 1981, People magazine even ran a cover story featuring him as “indisputably the Cadillac of daytime cads.” As the owner of Spaulding Enterprises, a shady business the character took from his own father, he moved his wealthy family from Chicago to Springfield, and quickly set out on a string of dirty deals and affairs. Bernau explained to People that “Spaulding is aggressive, manipulative, clever and amoral—all vices of the middle class and all virtues of industrial America.” He was also as prone to hostile marriages as he was to hostile takeovers, and in his early years went through even more partners than was common for a character at the time. The most longstanding battle he fought was for the custody and loyalty of his adopted son, Phillip (Grant Aleksander). However, these fights paled in comparison to those with people in town, especially the Lewis, Marler, and Raines families, which tended to involve fixed trials, death threats, sabotage, stalking, and imprisonment.

Bernau was not wholly new to daytime when he took on the character. Aside from the various televised versions of the plays that Bernau starred in, he also made a mark in the supernatural soap opera, Dark Shadows. Rather than being cast as one of the series’ more monstrous characters, Bernau played Philip Todd, owner of an antique shop in Collinsport, who, with his wife Megan (Marie Wallace), helped to foster the extremely rapidly aging antichrist Jeb Hawkins (Michael Maitland, Christopher Pennock). Bernau’s arc on the soap lasted from 1969 – 1970 and ended when his character died after escaping prison and attempting to kill the malevolent Jeb.

After seven years on Guiding Light, Bernau exited in 1984 only to return in May of 1986. In 1988, his failing health forced him to retire from the role of Alan, which was subsequently played by Daniel Pilon and Ron Raines. Although there had been hope that he would return, AIDS pushed Bernau into rapid decline. He died of a heart attack on June 14, 1989, at the age of 49.

After his death, Guiding Light writer Pam Long told Soap Opera Digest (August 8, 1989) how much she learned from him, adding, “He always challenged me. Chris Bernau’s Alan Spaulding was every writer’s dream. It was a privilege working with him, and he knew it. I miss him.” His former co-stars still remember Bernau with great fondness and admiration. In Kim Zimmer’s autobiography, I’m Just Sayin’: Three Deaths, Seven Husbands and A Clone!, she (Reva Shayne), recalled how intimidated it was to work with him, adding he “was a real ballbuster. Chris lived and breathed his character. He was an amazing actor who scared a lot of the other actors he worked with because all he wanted was to do his scenes, do them right, and then move on. There was seldom any laughter working with Chris. If you did somehow make him laugh, it was the highlight of everyone’s day. Let’s just say that I made him laugh a lot!”

Remember soap stars that we lost in 2020 with our gallery below.

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