By Patrick Erwin
Beth Ehlers is on her way to ABC and All My Children‘s Pine Valley, and they’re all damn lucky to have her. But for the second time in just a few months, P&G and CBS have made the boneheaded move of allowing someone who was woven deeply into the tapestry of a show to walk away. P&G clearly hasn’t learned from the loss of As the World Turns‘ Martha Byrne (the definitive Lily) and made the same mistake twice! They’ve let another beloved performer walk away with the audience’s heart and a big chunk of the tapestry of the show with all of the history and memories attached. This is something few recasts can ever replace, no matter how hard they try!
It’s hard to not be nostalgic and mournful. How do you let years of history and connections walk away? Harley — and Ehlers — had a connection with nearly everyone on the Guiding Light canvas.
Harley was one of the most complex characters to come from the fertile mind of Pamela Long. Pam created some amazing female characters for GL — Alexandra Spaulding and Reva Shayne, to name just two. Like Reva, who landed in Springfield in 1983, Harley Davidson Cooper came from humble, gritty beginnings and blew into Springfield in 1987 like a force of nature. She was quite a departure from traditional soap heroines — after all, she gave birth to Daisy in the back seat of a car!
Beth Ehlers truly brought Harley to three-dimensional life. Pam Long once said that Harley was angry with the world; she was arrogant and felt entitled in a way that made her “spoiled” and made her feel that the world owed her a living. (Remember when writers used this concept? I think it was called “character development,” or something!) Ehlers played these notes so brilliantly and was so real in a way we rarely see, and real in a way GL used to be effortlessly. Harley’s anger at the world and the cards dealt to her in those early years was so intense it would sometimes make me flinch. She may have been an angry, manipulative young woman (especially when she and Alan-Michael were after his inheritance), but when Harley saw ne’er-do-well mother Nadine after a long absence, Harley instantly became a helpless young girl reaching out for “Mommy.” Harley was just as unsettled and had equally mixed feelings when she learned her father wasn’t dead (in amazing scenes shot at the Vietnam Wall Memorial). Ehlers made those kinds of transitions so effortlessly and so seamlessly.
In many ways, Ehlers and Harley were a perfect fit. Beth’s upbringing as a city girl served her well for playing out her character’s Fifth Street struggles. Reel life had older brother Frank working as a mechanic; in real life, Beth’s dad was a bus driver. She was a skilled actress by the time she came to GL, having been in a host of TV movies as well as appearing in the film The Hunger” with David Bowie and Susan Sarandon.
Harley was a role that was a bit of a contrast to an ingénue like As the World Turns‘ Lily Snyder. Beth was never afraid to show anger, or power, in her scenes as Harley, and that strength eventually made Harley as lovable as Lily. Beth Ehlers has always been beautiful, but she looks so real, so much like someone we all know. In a soap world now filled with so many phony young model-actresses, she always seemed totally natural. Beth’s natural acting style calls to mind the intelligence and intensity of Jodie Foster, and the masterful timing of Bette Davis (an actress Beth worked with in the TV movie Family Reunion). Like Foster, Beth was a child actress, and clearly learned well from the masters!
One of the things I love so much about soap operas (when they’re actually being soap operas) is how the serialized format, with its never-ending continuing structure, really lets you see different aspects of a character. The same is true for an actor in a soap. Over time, a performance can be like a painting — a skilled actor can bring nuances, colors and textures into their performance. It was a treat to see the range that Beth Ehlers has, and all the different aspects of Harley she’s brought us over the years. I could fill up pages and pages with stories and moments of Harley’s life that I loved (and would love to hear from you what your favorite Harley moment was).
It’s rare that an actor can strike gold with one acting partner, but Ehlers had that magic with every actor she worked with. I’m not just referring to Harley’s romances, although nearly every character paired with Harley — Alan-Michael, Josh, Mallet, Phillip, and Gus — was a hit with fans. Harley’s scenes with the women on the show were equally as compelling. Harley as a character seldom resorted to bitchiness or cattiness, so even when there was conflict (as there often was with Harley and Beth as they fought over Phillip) Ehlers always took a more interesting, compelling path to show us that frustration or anger.
Beth Ehlers and Ricky Paull Goldin are both strong actors individually and made magic together, so it makes perfect sense that ABC would want to take advantage of that in the hopes that lightning strikes twice. But will an already hobbled GL be able to sustain the loss of Beth Ehlers? The show had already weakened the character of Harley over the last year by tossing Harley’s innate intelligence out the window to allow her an out-of-character romp with the scheming Cyrus – her niece’s boyfriend, no less. Even if GL replaces Ehlers, will anyone care what happens to Harley? No spoiler can answer that question for us.
I’ll miss Harley, just as I miss the Springfield I knew and loved. One is about to leave, but the other one is long gone, and seems more and more unlikely ever to return.