Losing “The Natural” — An Appreciation of Beth Ehlers, Guiding Light’s Irreplaceable Harley

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.

Comments

  1. Matthew J Cormier says:

    i only rarely ever watched “GL” but when i did it was Beth Elhers and Ricky Paull Goldin that kept me glued to it…. i am sad to see them leave but as an ABC soap fan am glad to see them come to my soaps!

  2. louisa says:

    Favourite “harley” moment was May 11th and 12th 1990 or 1991. In the diner, right before Frank and Eleni’s wedding, she has just found out that Buzz is actually her believed to be dead dad. She says “who are you” to buzz and he says “nobody” and it was awe inspiring and heartbreaking and just sheer soap magic. I also loved the early stuff with Harley and A-M. Harley was a great character and Beth Elhers a breath of fresh air.

  3. BL says:

    I think it usually is harder on the people on the viewing side of the audience to deal with the loss of the history and connections a long term performer brings in regards to their character they played. Though I’ll miss Harley, I’m glad that Beth Ehlers is going to be on AMC. Let’s hope whatever role she ends up playing is a good fit.

    Over the years, characters grow and change as can the performers work. While Harley of 1988 is different than Harley of 1999 for example, there is a continuity in the Beth’s performances that it seemed like the same person even if her life was very different.

    My favorite Harley memory are the scenes where Harley confronts Buzz after finding out that he is her “dead” father. They took place at Meals and Wheels. When I think of BE and the character of Harley those are the first to come to mind.

  4. Fabobug says:

    Hi Patrick

    Sorry I’m late to weighing in my opinion here.

    One of the reasons I love soaps is because of the characters that you hook into — those who you connect to, relate to, and grow with. When your chips are down, you look to these characters for hope and inspiration that you too can get through life’s challenges and tribulations.

    Very few soaps create characters like these anymore. The ones that come to mind for me were Marlena on DAYS (before the numbing), Rachel on AW, Margo on ATWT, Brenda on GH.

    And then there was Harley. Resilient, witty, impulsive, intelligent, able to problem solve, loyal to her friends, loving to her family, a true survivor. There was something so accessable about Beth Ehlers and Harley, something that helped me to move on in my life and get through obstacles that were bringing me down. “Hey,” I thought, “If Harley can survive a murder trial then I can definitely take a little criticism at work,” or something like that.

    In recent years, she came to symbolize the hope that GL still had Light to shine. Whereas Kim Zimmer often spoke out against TPTB, Beth Ehlers seemed to be the cheerleader, the loyal member, the one you could count on not to defect. As long as she was there I believed GL could come back from cast cuts, budget crises, even Peacock, NJ.

    As I said in an early column, the loss of Harley is like the loss of hope for me. Maybe that’s too harsh, maybe that’s too catastrophic. But if she’s bailing on GL, then she knows something we don’t. And I truly don’t see how GL can come back from this one.

    Your column beautifully summarized Ehlers’ spirit and essential history with the show. Can that translate to AMC? I’m skeptical, but curious. She certainly gave David Bowie a run for his money in her few minutes on screen in “The Hunger.” Maybe she can light a spark under David Canary too.

  5. Kevin says:

    I don’t think P&G or anybody for that matter could have stopped Ehlers from leaving. I think she made up her mind several months ago — when Ricky Paul Goldin left — that she was gonna go wherever he went, too.

    I personally was never much of a Harley and Gus fan. I prefered her with Phillip back in the late 1990′s.

    Kevin

  6. DS0816 says:

    Actress Beth Ehlers is my No. 1 pick for active soaps performers who were stupidly denied at least one Daytime Emmy award. She’s currently No. 3 (tied with former “Guiding Light” costar Bryan Buffinton and “The Young and the Restless’” Joshua Morrow, with five nominations each; which, by my estimation, isn’t suffice for Ehlers’s significance, which I go on about later…)—following “All My Children’s” James Mitchell, with 7, who in turn follows “Y&R’s” Jeanne Cooper (10 previous career noms: 8 in daytime, 2 in prime-time, along with a current best-actress nominee).

    What made Ehlers’s portrayal of Harley Cooper work is that she “evolved” along with her “GL” character. Ehlers had started out with a high-energy, offbeat persona, and further developed herself into a refined and matured individual. That’s in character and performance. I mean, she’s been strong and outstanding right from the get-go; but Ehlers has in no way been limited. Her value has been high. For instance, when one watches “GL,” even if you’re not too high on the Harley (or the character’s latest story), Ehlers is relatable, vital—and impossible not to watch.

    When Beth and Harley debuted in Fall 1987, we watched a spitfire and resilient figure—disillusioned yet determined to get in life what [Harley] felt she deserved. Harley also had ideals, and was peeved at the class distinctions, as presented with the Coopers-vs.-Spauldings differentials we saw in development of Harley’s romance with Alan-Michael.

    In an industry that is supposed to sell romance No. 1—and in the actress’s 1987-1993 and 1997-2008 run—I found myself paying attention to how amazing, really, Ehlers seemingly “connected” in Harley’s to-die-for romances with leading men as diverse as: Ian Ziering (Cameron), Carl Tye Evans (Alan Michael), Rick Hearst (Alan-Michael, once the two had become divorced), Robert Newman (Josh), Mark Derwin (original Mallet), Grant Aleksander (Phillip), Ricky Paull Goldin (Gus), Robert Bogue (Mallet, after the divorce), and Murray Bartlett (Cyrus).

    In all those romances, as they were playing and played out, I’d find myself saying, “Okay, Alan-Michael is meant for Harley.… Okay, it’s Mallet. Definitely Mallet. No one but Mallet is meant for Harley.… No, it’s Gus. Gus gets Harley!” Truth be told, from one romance to the next, Ehlers was crucial in selling—one at a time—and effectively resting a preceding pair. Had Ehlers not played this role, nowhere near the mileage in the character’s love life history would’ve been anywhere near the flexibility and success. And it’s interesting that Mark Derwin, Grant Aleksander, and Ricky Paull Goldin were never before Emmy-nominated prior to having worked with Ehlers. (Her 2006 best-actress nom was way overdue, compared to the actors making their same-categorical level marks years earlier: Derwin, in 1993; Aleksander and Goldin, in 2003.)

    By the way: Two romances I didn’t care for in Harley were with Phillip and Cyrus. Harley’s best pairing was with Mallet, from 1991-1993, because their’s was a character-driven dynamic—igniting a duo initially reluctant to admit they were drawn to each other; that they got under each other’s skin; and were growing with, and into, each other. The Harley-and-Mallet love story was a smart, sexy, beautiful, and intimate connection—clearly one of the best of the 1990s!

    Ehlers’s best romantic screen partner was Ricky Paull Goldin as Gus. Not character wise so much, but in the magic and ease these two shared in working with each other. Goldin, upon being hired in 2001, reportedly had taken initiative in the audition by telling Ehlers—from his take on character and story—“[Gus] loves [Harley].” He knew right away. And I think these two actors made each other even stronger. Ehlers’s dramatic commitment to story and character tempered Goldin, and Goldin’s improvisation renewed Ehlers’s spark.

    I feel that Ehlers—along with “Y&R’s” Michelle Stafford—is really one of those highly bright and honest acting pros who are like cream that always rises to the top. (Oh, how I wish she was in mainstream film and prime-time instead!) Throw junk her way, and Ehlers can make it seem, whether it’s brief, palatable. It’s a remarkable talent. And it’s a shame Ehlers has never landed in the winners’ circle at the Emmys—particularly in the lead-actress race (she was denied nomination in 2005, and fought valiantly to win in 2006 by submitting Harley’s courtroom “guilty” verdict)—because there’s not a lot of actors whose work (even if they’re considered sensations, they are sensations for a brief period) can absolutely stand the test of time.

    Patrick says: DS0816, I, too, am surprised that Beth Ehlers has never won an Emmy. I think one thing that works against an actress like Ehlers is that she is so natural in her acting style and presentation. Sometimes, people don’t think an actor with that kind of acting style is, in fact, acting.

    I for one enjoyed the Harley/Phillip pairing. The actors have gone on record in the press that they didn’t always like or understand the story. But I loved the chemistry Beth Ehlers and Grant Aleksander had even back in the 1980s. I remember scenes where Phillip played Henry Higgins to Harley, to help her to fit in at the Spaulding Mansion. When their romance began, it was virtually the only story playing out at the time rooted in the history of the show.

    I also loved the scenes with Ehlers and Beverlee McKinsey, another actress who clearly deserved an Emmy and somehow never got one.

  7. sandra g says:

    I miss Gus and Harley. I have watched GL for 25 years. My favorite Harley moment was when she played the super hero. Great entertainment!

  8. Joan says:

    I have watched Guiding Light since 1987 and have been very intrigued with Beth’s character and the entire Cooper family. Beth did a wonderful job portraying the character of Harley. Even when GL changed the set recently to make it seem “more real” Beth was Harley more so when they zoomed in on her face. At work we’d always talk about Harley and what happend on GL.

    Now, I just forward to the good parts, the ones with Reva…the rest is just plain annoying. I really like GL it’s the first soap I watched since I came to this country and I definitetly related to the Cooper family. It will be a shame it see them disseminate. I watched Ricky on AMC, not bad. Once Beth joins AMC I’ll probably DVR it as well.

  9. Amy says:

    Harley out of GL now is about as sad as pulling out Reva. It’s hard to think the character as played by Ehlers will ever walk across the screen again. Truly a loss. I met Beth once, she was as warm if not more so than her character she plays. Hopefully she will thrive at AMC, but she just won’t be Harley. P&G wake up, you’re killing legacies!

  10. Janet says:

    I watched GL as a pre teen in the late 70′s. Kelly and Morgan were who reeled me in. As a young teen I succumbed to peer pressure to watch Luke and Laura (GH). As a teenager in 1987, I was too busy graduating high school to watch soaps. It wasn’t until I came across Harley consoling Marah (Reva had just died) and then her fighting with Josh and throwing Reva’s clothes out the window that I became hooked on GL again. Since then I have loved every pairing that Harley (BE) was involved in. I finally gave up on GL when they dumbed down the character and paired her with Cyrus (her Nieces boyfriend), GROSS! It is a shame what GL has become and how they have treated their longtime employees and fans. I am looking forward to watching BE on AMC.

  11. Susan Welch says:

    Soooo sorry to see Beth leave. She and Reva were Guiding Light; but with the TERRIBLE new format, bad lighting, bad echoing sound I can’t blame her. Who would want to be a part of a wonderful OLD soap opera that has gone so terrible wrong. Maybe the sponsors will put an end to the viewers misery and get a new production company who can bring GL back to its glory.
    Good luch Beth in your new venture. You will be missed.

  12. D.A. says:

    Well, all I have to say is that I don’t watch GL the way I used to. My mom has been watching for over 40 years and my reason was mostly for Harley. I mostly gave up while she was gone the first time until she came back. I’ve even named my daughter Harley who is now 5! That’s how much I liked her character/acting.

  13. antmunoz says:

    What’s really sad is that Ehlers was one of GL’s two leading ladies (Kim Zimmer being the other), and now she’s just one of many supporting actresses on AMC. I wonder if she misses being front and center. Should GL soon be cancelled, I’m sad that she won’t be on until the end, just like SANTA BARBARA ended without some of its iconic characters. I always admired some of ANOTHER WORLD’s actors for choosing to remain on the show and go down bravely with their “ship.” But I can’t blame Ehlers for not staying at a job she apparently didn’t want any longer. That’s her choice. I just wonder if she’s truly happy at AMC. She wouldn’t be the first top-tier actress to leave “her” show for another and have her career totally implode. (For some reason, Jensen Buchanan comes to mind. She could’ve signed with ATWT as Vicky, but chose to move to California–again, her right–and sign with GH later, in a role that seems to have all but killed her career. Meanwhile, I wonder if Jake and Vicky would still be on ATWT if, only if…)

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