Thursday, May 9, 2013

Jeanne Cooper, 1928-2013: The Dimming of Another Bright Light from My Youth

In one of the current storylines on The Young and the Restless, Katherine Chancellor -- the daytime soap's matriarch and second-longest-running character (after Jill Foster Abbott Fenmore), played by Jeanne Cooper, its longest-running star -- was given a clean bill of health after undergoing surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.

Sadly, real life wouldn't mirror reel art. On May 8, Cooper passed away at age 84 in a Los Angeles-area hospital. She had recently been admitted twice, with her son, actor Corbin Bernsen, providing her fans with regular updates on her health through Twitter. Though anyone who was paying attention knew that it was coming -- "She's in the final stages," Bernsen acknowledged in a May 3 tweet -- there's no way you can ever really prepare for the loss of a national treasure.

She's the second one we've had to say goodbye to in less than two weeks, the second childhood icon that I always closely associated with my mother. The first was George Jones, who passed away on April 26 (on her birthday last Thursday, mom told me that she had been planning on going to Jones's Atlanta concert on April 25, until it was cancelled due to his illness), now Cooper.

One of my earliest memories after my family moved from the Virgin Islands to Florida in 1973 was spending a half hour every weekday afternoon watching the dramatic antics of the Fosters, the Brookses and, of course, Mrs. Chancellor, as I always called her, on The Young and the Restless. (The show wasn't expanded to its current hour-long format until 1980, seven years after Cooper joined, eight months into the show's run.)

I'm not sure what it was that drew me to Mrs. Chancellor. She was hard and steely, hardly your typical grandma, but there was a warmth lurking underneath the severe exterior, which I think must have emanated from the actress herself. Until a couple of years ago when another actress with the same first name, different spelling (Genie Francis) brought me back into the Y&R viewing fold, I'd only watched sporadically since the early '80s. Still, I was well aware of Katherine's many storyline arcs (her alcoholism, her feud with Jill, her breast cancer, her strokes, her alter-ego Marge, her long-lost son, Cooper's real-life face lift worked into the show) and Cooper's contributions to the soap genre, which among actresses, are perhaps second only to All My Children's Susan Lucci's.

She was my very first diva and the subject of my first blog post in 2008, after she won the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Daytime Drama Series. "I bet you thought I had died," she joked at the beginning of her speech, and I laughed right along with her, thinking she might outlive us all. On the verge of turning 80, she looked even better than she had in the '70s.

Cooper had recently published her autobiography, Not Young, Still Restless, and watching her and listening to her as she worked the publicity circuit, still sharp and as endearingly blunt and fiesty as her alter-ego, I was certain she had at least a second volume left in her. Sadly, that one will remain unwritten.

Jeanne Cooper's final Y&R scene (which aired last week) before her death.

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