Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Susan Sullivan: The dark past of "Castle's" mom

Susan Sullivan in "Castle"
Long before she was mystery writer Richard Castle's mom, Susan Sullivan lived a life of murder and mayhem, international intrigue, adultery and blackmail, and mystery of another kind. For nine years, pretty much spanning the entire decade of the 1980s she played Maggie Gioberti on "Falcon Crest" which is really where I came to know her.

It's a Living – or is it?
Watching her on the latest episode of Castle tonight, reminded me of the first time I saw her. It was back in the early 1980s. CTV aired a show about four waitresses in an upscale restaurant called "It’s a Living". Sullivan played kind of the leader. Unfortunately, back in those days shows came and went on the three Canadian channels without much notice. "It’s a Living" disappeared.

The original cast of "It's a Living". Standing in back from,
left are Ann Jillian; Wendy Schaal; and Susan Sullivan.
Sitting are Gail Edwards, and Marian Mercer in blue.
At the bottom is Barrie Longfellow.
Every fall, we used to get the TV Guide fall TV preview. I used to look forward to reading about which shows were coming back, but much more to the new shows debuting. The season following the debut of "It’s a Living", I read it had been re-tooled and was now called Living it Up. Sadly, it was not on our channels. The next season it was re-tooled again and re-named Making a Living. Once more I had to read about that in TV Guide.

I recall the show being quite funny. Sullivan played Lois, the sage leader of the group who everyone looked to for advice. The show also had a lot of other interesting actors. It was blonde bombshell Ann Jillian’s first big show. Wendy Schaal was in it. When it ended she joined the cast of Fantasy Island for a bit. There was also Gail Edwards, who played Dot.

The way I discovered Making a Living was finally cancelled for good was when I settled in to watch the premiere of a new called called Falcon Crest. (In fact it was cancelled but would live on in syndication until 1989, almost as long as "Falcon Crest" would live on network television.)

Susan Sullivan and Robert
Foxworth as Maggie and
Chase Gioberti on "Falcon Crest"
Falcon Crest: A Friday night staple
I was staying at my sister’s apartment for the night in Lethbridge when we tuned in. There was Susan Sullivan, starring as Maggie Gioberti.

Falcon Crest was one of my favourite shows. I was one of the few people who enjoyed it more than Dallas or Dynasty among soap operas. It was set in the fictional Tuscany wine valley in California, based on the real-life Napa Valley. The series opens with the death of Jason Gioberti under what would be suspicious circumstances. His son Chase Gioberti returns for the funeral and takes over where his father left off. A pilot, he has no intention of staying, but eventually does, running the small vineyard left to him by his father. Unbeknownst to him, there is a provision in his grandfather's will that Chase is actually entitled to half of Falcon Crest, the mammoth winery founded by his great-grandfather and currently controlled by his scheming aunt, the family matriarch Angela Channing. Chase was played magnificently by Robert Foxworth, while Angela was played by 1950s movie starlet Jane Wyman, one of whose claims to fame was that she was Ronald Reagan's first wife. He was president of the United States as Falcon Crest debuted.

The show initially caught my interest because it was created by Earl Hamner. For the better part of the previous decade he had been the creator and narrator of "The Waltons." The Giobertis and Channings were not  the Waltons. It was a great departure.

Of course, when Chase decided to movie to California, he brought his wife Maggie, daughter Vicki and son Cole with him. I remember waiting every week for the next episode because it resonated with me for whatever reason. I found the characters more down to earth then all the glamour of Dallas or Dynasty, although I watched both of them as well. Interestingly, part of "Falcon Crest"'s longevity can be attributed on U.S. network television to the fact it followed "Dallas". What also made it cool in part was that I watched it every Friday night with my mom.

Awhile back I found season one of "Falcon Crest" on DVD and watched it. Surprisingly, for me, it held up pretty well.

Susan Sullivan as Maggie
Gioberti in "Falcon Crest"
A defining role
Maggie Gioberti changed over time. She was always a strong woman, but played a backseat that first season to her husband. That would change over the years as she faced death, murder, adultery, and all the other trappings of soap opera television. As with all nighttime dramas, she eventually split from Chase and took up with his half-brother Richard Channing (played by David Selby) and the two of them had real on-screen chemistry. Eventually, I entered high school and that meant cruising the streets of Lethbridge on Friday nights. So I stopped watching "Falcon Crest", hearing the occasional update from a co-worker every Saturday morning. I only returned to "Falcon Crest" briefly, during its last season when I was home from university for a visit. By then, Channel 7 was airing it on Sunday morning in a kind of mini-marathon.

Still, Susan Sullivan played that role for almost the entire nine seasons, appearing in 207 out of 227 episodes. Just by virtue of playing the character that long, it becomes a defining role. "Falcon Crest" virtually spanned the 1980s, running from 1981 to 1990, yet it does not come up as one of the classic nighttime soap operas like "Dallas" or "Dynasty". It's too bad, because it was gripping, at least for me. And Susan Sullivan was a big part of that.

Back on network TV
Susan Sullivan fell off the radar after that until she assumed the role of Greg's mom in "Dharma and Greg" from 1997 to 2002, then five short years ago, when I saw her playing Martha Rogers, mother of Richard Castle on the show "Castle". Older, but still very beautiful, she plays a much different role as an aging actress. Still she shows some of the same depth she did on "Falcon Crest" going from ditzy self-involved actress to concerned mother and grandmother. It is good to see her again. I wonder if there will be any more "Falcon Crest" on DVD. I may just have to settle for "Castle".

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