Write You Are: Twenty-Nine Years After His Passing, a Tribute to Legendary Soap Scribe Douglas Marland
Few soap opera writers have gained the lofty status of this particular legend.
Born May 5, 1934, in West Sand Lake, NY, Douglas Marland, like lots of us, fell in love with old Hollywood movies, many of which would live on in the fantasy lives of the characters he created. He worked his way up through the theatre as a director and actor in touring productions, snagging small roles on Perry Mason and Checkmate. He also had the crucial experience of acting on daytime, appearing on Irna Phillips’ The Brighter Day and on As the World Turns in 1973.
Neither he nor viewers would imagine that the man playing Lisa’s doctor during her phantom fetus story would be the show’s headwriter in a few years.
In 1974, Marland attended Procter & Gamble’s first soap scriptwriting seminar. He was quickly recruited as an associate writer for Another World before moving on to the headwriting position for The Doctors. His background as an actor and director, and one who was intimately involved on both sides of the camera, no doubt helped him become one of the most beloved writers in the genre.
People in the industry were quick to notice Marland’s talent. When Gloria Monty decided that radical changes for General Hospital were needed, the newly minted executive producer made him the soap’s headwriter. The dramatic overhaul changed the way the whole show looked and operated. The pair made the series more fluid, spreading the action beyond the walls of the hospital wards. In addition to helping solidify the Luke and Laura romance that would far outlast his tenure, Marland also established the Quartermaines — a central Port Charles family — a move still felt in almost every episode.
But it was his writing for younger characters that attracted Marland’s most ardent fans and loftiest accolades. During his tenure at Guiding Light, he majorly revamped General Hospital’s competitor, strategically refocusing the stories on young characters over the summer months as a way to attract high schoolers and kids home from college.
Along with the vivacity he injected into the show, Marland was careful to level this energy into what made the series strong in the first place, refocusing attention on a central family, the Bauers. He also memorably killed off Roger Thorpe (which wasn’t to last) and let Nola Reardon live out an homage to the Hollywood films he had loved growing up. In an almost unmatched feat, with his three years at Guiding Light, he helped to drive the show from almost the bottom of the ratings to the top.
Marland’s writing made clear, in case anyone needed reminding, that at their strongest, soaps are about the longterm interrelation between generations as they evolve. Always meticulous and renowned as a chain-smoking workaholic, he refused any hint of writing by committee, oversaw the writers working under him, penning breakdowns himself and editing dialogue so that it would fit with the way in which he saw the characters.
“It’s hard to surprise a daytime audience today,” Marland told The New York Times in 1986. “They know all the formulas and are usually six feet ahead of you, but if the surprise is well thought out and justified, they love it.”
Marland’s history as an actor seemed to make him uniquely tuned in both to how to write for carefully crafted characters and how to play to the audience’s emotions. According to one tribute, “Doug confessed watching one of his new characters evolve was one of the greatest satisfactions of the job. He never ceased to marvel at the transition from his fertile mind to the written page to the TV screen.”
Marland also experimented with a new kind of soap opera, one that aired close to midnight and was advertised as an “adult, continuing drama.” He leapt at the chance to work on early cable, creating a series for Showtime that allowed him the space to do things that traditional television wouldn’t allow. The result was A New Day in Eden, a dystopian, quirkily comedic soap that included nudity and profanity. While the series didn’t last, Marland carried on bringing more complex sexual content into daytime, telling Maury Povich that the soap format provided the time needed for “sensitive” subject matter.
Published posthumously in the April 27, 1993, issue of Soap Opera Digest, Marland’s How Not to Wreck a Show is still frequently cited by soap fans when venting about what’s gone wrong with their shows. Marland advised writers to know a show’s history, to always keep an eye on characters’ backstories, to talk to everyone in the cast, to read the fan mail, not to change established characters and to develop new ones slowly.
These rules seemed hard-won by experience. In his career, Marland could play fast and loose with this. When he joined As the World Turns, he quickly turned a few good characters bad overnight, started introducing new families and extended the focus on youth. “You’ve got to be very devious to write a soap opera,” he told The New York Times. In his celebrated eight years writing for the characters in Oakdale, he introduced the Snyder family, which would eventually become pivotal, fleshed out the backstories of Bob and Kim Hughes, and ushered in daytime’s first leading gay male character, Hank Elliot.
Over the course of his career, Marland won three Daytime Emmy Awards, the first for Another World and the other two for Guiding Light. He died on March 6, 1993, at the age of 58 due to complications from abdominal surgery.
Get a sense of Marland’s place in the history of one of his most successful shows with our gallery of As the World Turns through the years.