"Ryan's Hope used to be like a tiny restaurant that people used to like to come to all the time," explained Ron Hale, who played Roger Coleridge. "The quality of the food was great, the service was great, you could spend a lot of time there and no one rushed you....then, someone came along and bought that little restaurant and decided to 'improve it.' Make more money out of it, expand it, by buying up the building next door, getting new tables. Well, what happened was that the quality of food went down, and it wasn't that quaint little restaurant anymore. It became a restaurant like any other restaurant. That's what happened to Ryan's Hope."
Set in New York City, this half-hour serial focused on a large, lower-class Irish Catholic family, the Ryans, who owned a bar. Immigrants Johnny and Maeve Ryan had five adult children: Frank, a politician; Cathleen, a homemaker and mother; Mary, a reporter; Patrick, a doctor; and Siobhan, a free spirit who later became a police officer.
The upscale Coleridges, headed by widowed patriarch Dr. Ed Coleridge, were also featured prominently. Frank, who was married to the clinging, neurotic Delia when the show premiered, loved Jillian Coleridge. His kid brother, Pat, was enamored with Jillian’s younger sister, Faith. Meanwhile, the Coleridges’ self-centered brother, Roger, was attracted to Delia.
When the series opened, Frank Ryan was seriously injured after being pushed down a flight of stairs by a self-absorbed Delia. Creators Claire Labine and Paul Avila Mayer intended to kill Frank, but ABC objected. The network persuaded Labine and Mayer to build a storyline around him.
Meanwhile, Mary Ryan’s passionate romance with sexy, argumentative Jack Fenelli was an immediate hit with viewers. Complicating their relationship was Johnny Ryan’s disapproval of Jack. After Kate Mulgrew, the first actress to play Mary, left, Michael Levin realized how special the chemistry between them was. “I remember when Katie left, I thought 'Well, that was fun but now it’ll be even more interesting,'" he said. "Sometimes it’s hard to tell when you’re doing the one that’s most important. In fact, Katie was tough to work with. With really good actors, a lot of times you’ve gotta fight - you give it to them and they give it back. Oh, Katie was terrific.”
Recasting key roles developed into a major headache for Ryan's Hope during it's almost 14-year run. Frank and Siohban were recast five times each. Mary was played by four different actresses. Likewise for Pat, Faith and Delia.
Ryan’s Hope was originally owned by Claire Labine and Paul Avila Mayer. Escalating production costs forced them to sell the series to ABC in 1979, a move that proved damaging for the earthy serial. Inspired by the success of it powerhouse line-up of one-hour serials, particularly General Hospital, the network wanted changes that would make Ryan’s Hope more fast-paced and glamorous.
"We had a very special flavor here", said Ron Hale, "all of a sudden, there were all these other characters. Once we did that - or the powers-that-be did that - it didn't work."
“They tried to make us more of a familiar show, but it didn’t work for us. There were choices and they were clear choices, business and creative choices, after we sold the show," explained creator Claire Labine. "Soap opera took a different direction after General Hopsital, and then - and I underline then - management of daytime at ABC wanted Ryan’s Hope to be different." To insure that changes would be made, ABC pink-slipped the serial’s creators.
The first step the new writers took was to replace the Ryans with the super-wealthy Kirklands. Hollis Kirkland (played by Peter Haskell) was a former lover of television station owner Rae Woodward (played by Louise Shaffer). Hollis returned to New York City hoping to renew their relationship.
When Catsy (played by Christine Jones), Hollis’s wife, learned her estranged husband intended to wed Rae, she refused to give him a divorce. Their fragile daughter, Amanda (originally played by Mary Page Keller), fell in love with Pat Ryan.
Recalling that period, Ron Hale said, "We used to call it 'Kirkland's Hope.' Hollis Kirkland was the world’s richest man. There’s always one in every soap town. I used to get letters from fans who’d ask, ‘Who is this person?’”
As the serial’s ratings continued to slip, ABC persuaded Claire Labine and Paul Avila Mayer to return as headwriters. “We had that kind of wonderful George Steinbrenner-Billy Martin relationship - you’re hired, you’re fired, you’re hired, we quit - between 1980 and 1983,” joked Claire Labine. “But when Paul Mayer and I left in the fall of ‘83, we left at that time without rancor. It was really clear that they wanted to do something so profoundly different....We had all the sturn and drang, we’d had all the fights, all the blood on the floor, and at that point they said they knew what they wanted it to be like, and they did what they needed to do, and the ratings went down and then they changed the timeslot and at that point it was irrevocable.”
"That was the second killer," observed Ron Hale. “When ABC changed our time slot from 12:30 to 12:00, it was an economic decision. But we started seeing ratings we’d never seen in our lives! It was a shock to go from twenty points to a fifteen.”
"We were affected very badly," executive producer Joseph Hardy concurred. “Noon was a bad time for any ABC station to take us because they usually have on their own local programming.”
In 1987, ABC approached Claire Labine about returning. Against the advice of friends and family, Labine resumed her former duties and tried to put the struggling serial back on track. Despite her efforts, the serial continued to lose viewers. In October, 1988, ABC announced it was canceling the series. Although the cast and crew had been expecting the news, they took it hard. "I’m angry at the politics of it all," said James Wlecek (who played Ben Shelly). “How can ABC let a good show like ours go off the air when it’s better than one or two others shows that remain?”
"It was a wonderful thirteen-and-a-half years," said Claire Labine. “There's no way to regret it and there was no way to stop what happened, no way, given the confluence of events, given the people who were in charge, given everything.”
Although it was a bittersweet opportunity, Labine looked forward to being the writer who would script the last episode. “I would hate like hell to have somebody else do it,” she said, shortly after the serial’s cancellation was made public. “And we will go off as we began. I want it to be Ryans. I want it to be Riverside, I want it to be the bar and I want it to be real, as real as it has been for all of us. I just want it to be what it is.”
Taping the final episode proved to be an emotional experience for everyone involved. "Helen Gallagher said to me, 'Oh God, just let me get through this,'" revealed Labine, "and I said, 'It doesn’t matter if you don’t. Nobody else is going to be dry-eyed....why should you?'"
In the final episode, Jack Fenelli, whose wife, Mary, was killed several years earlier in an explosion, finally put his first marriage behind him and wed Leigh Kirkland (played by Felicity LaFortune). Faith Coleridge returned for the wedding with her child, Grace, leading Pat to wonder if he was the father. The cliff-hanger was deliberate. “I couldn’t bear leaving the series in a static place,” said Labine, “because you just don’t go out on Friday in a serial in a static place. For me, I wanted to have a sense of life going on, yet I think there’s a sense of fulfillment about the last show.” The episode ended with Gallagher leading the cast in a wrenching rendition of “Danny Boy.”
“I’m glad that if we had to go out, that we’re leaving on a high note, “ said Ilene Kristen, who had returned two years earlier to reprise her role as Delia. “I think the stories have been among the best the soap has done, and I’ve enjoyed working with all the people on the show. As far as Delia is concerned, I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences with her, and I’m glad that in the last couple of years Delia was allowed to become more her own person. She grew up and made important decisions about her own life. It’s the end of a 14-year cycle, but also the start of another cycle and I feel very positive about my future.”
"I wish we had six more months," concluded Labine, "I really do."