Goodbye ‘All My Children’: Venerating the Most Complex and Multi-Dimensional Performance in the History of Daytime Drama

The summer of 2011 has not been kind to “All My Children.” The long running daytime drama, was canceled by ABC due to, according to the show’s number one icon Susan Lucci, outright greed. On top of the worst possible possibility for fans of the show came the news on September 12 that Mary Fickett had pass away due to complications from Alzheimer’s.

Fickett’s run as Pine Valley cornerstone Ruth Martin started from day one: she appeared on the premiere episode of “All My Children” on January 5, 1970. Three years later, Fickett picked up the very first Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Daytime Drama and the conventional wisdom is that it was a single scene in which Ruth Martin passionately spoke out against the Vietnam War that earned her the honor.

Susan Lucci. Mary Fickett. Sarah Michelle Gellar. Melissa Leo. Kelly Ripa. The almost impossibly hot Kim Delaney. “All My Children” produced a Who’s Who of unknown actresses who captured the attention of viewers enough to become major players on the show before heading out to post-soap opera stardom. But the single most fascinating and memorable performance ever turned in on “All My Children” was the work of a relatively unknown male actor named John Wesley Shipp.

Shipp came to the soap straight from playing the title character of “The Flash” on a short-lived primetime series. Shipp played Carter Jones who can most accurately be described as a less murderously psychotic version of Ted Bundy. Like Bundy, Carter Jones was highly intelligent, charming, manipulative and utterly dangerous. He came to Pine Valley to enact vengeance on his wife who had him imprisoned for spousal abuse and wound up in an extended storyline focusing on his obsession for Natalie Dillon.

The reason that Shipp’s portrayal of Carter Jones on “All My Children” still resonates long after 1992 is that a conscious decision seems to have ultimately been made to present Carter Jones as a much more complex and multi-dimensional character than the typical Pine Valley villain like Ray Gardner. The show had tried something similar by infusing Billy Clyde Tuggle with a wicked sense of humor that made him seem less repulsive. The difference is that even though Carter Jones was much more explosively violent than Billy Clyde, he was hardly repulsive.

The disconnect between the popularity of Carter Jones among “All My Children” viewers and his extremely violent dark side provided John Wesley Shipp with the rare opportunity to create a soap opera character of tremendous depth within a very short time frame. Most characters who have remained in Pine Valley for decades never attained the complexity that Shipp and the writers afforded Carter Jones over the ridiculously short period of four months. So fascinating was Shipp’s richly nuanced performance and the disconnect between the popularity of Carter Jones versus his psychotic behavior that the storyline serves as the central focus of an academic paper written by current Univ.of Kansas associate professor Nancy K. Baym on how communications between fans of the show still managed to utilize humor even when discussing a story arc that Baym terms “unusually violent toward women and upsetting.”

The legacy of “All My Children” following the airing of its final episode will doubtlessly focus on Erica Kane, the plethora of “social issues” it examined well before any prime time drama and the vast number unknown actors who used the soap opera as a means of attaining later stardom. Few aspects of that legacy were capable of producing the kind of academic consideration afforded by Baym’s fascinating paper and no aspect of that legacy produced a performance to match John Wesley Shipp’s.