Deidre Hall reached a major career milestone last month when she hit her 5,000th Days of Our Lives episode as beloved Salem psychiatrist Dr. Marlena Evans, becoming the longest-running soap actress ever.
Luckily, her dedicated publicist was keeping track.
“I had no idea," Hall tells Yahoo Life. "Because you don't go around counting your shows. You have a contract, you're grateful for that, you play that [role], and then it starts again." But to reach this moment "feels quite thrilling," admits the actress of the character she's portrayed (aside from a brief departure in the 1980s for a role in primetime drama Our House) since 1976 — the same year she starred in Sid and Marty Krofft's live-action superhero series Electra Woman and Dyna Girl.
"They would do my Days of Our Lives scenes on a Saturday," after doing the superhero show all week, Hall recalls of that double duty, prompting teasing from the Days director. "I'd walk in and he'd say, 'OK, tone it way down! This is not Electra Woman, this is Marlena!"
Marlena was never boring, though — she's lost a baby to SIDS, been stalked by a serial killer and has even been possessed by Satan over the decades.
Some of Hall's favorite drama, she says, came in the early days, when she got to costar alongside her identical twin sister, Andrea Hall. She was not an actress, but a teacher, and wound up on the show when the head writer learned of her existence and was so excited about the onscreen possibilities that she created a role for her.
"She spent a few years on the show and was able to pay off her college loan," Hall says of her twin, with whom she remains close. "The imbalance of that is always stunning to me — that you can be on a television show, you've never done it before, and make enough money to pay off your college loan. And that you never would've done it had you been trying to do it on a teacher's salary."
The acting veteran, though, places great value on daytime dramas, believing they do "a wonderful job of teaching" their audiences about a range of social issues.
"We have an audience that might not be exposed to gay marriage or to crib death," she says of just two of the many topics covered on Days, "or to any number of things that happen in the world. And this is a way to sort of expose people [and say] 'Hey, this could be happening to people that you know and love. And here in Salem it is.'"
When the character of Will Horton, Marlena's grandson, came out as gay and in 2014, married his boyfriend Sonny Kiriakis (with Marlena officiating) in daytime's first gay male wedding, she recalls, "I had so many letters from people — when people wrote letters — when we did the Will storyline … just young men writing in, saying, 'Oh my gosh, when Will came and told her he was gay, I was transfixed. I was glued to the television. I wanted you to be my mother and my grandmother,' and I suddenly thought, maybe now we have a template for teaching young people how to handle that moment. It was incredibly effective for people, as well as being a fabulous storyline."
Despite — or maybe because of — now playing a grandmother on the series, Hall, 75, says she doesn't feel pressure when it comes to aging in Hollywood.
"I don't," she says. "I play a character at a certain age because I've been there that long." And besides, as anyone familiar with the show will see, Hall and all her longtime costars look remarkably the same as they did decades ago — something she credits partly to lighting that "got better," and "great makeup people." Plus, she says, "I think we're all incredibly healthy. We're well-rested, we take care of ourselves, we work out, we live a life that keeps us, I think, young-looking."
Hall, for her part, works out on a treadmill daily, and has recently added weights to her routine (and, in quieter moments, is a watercolorist who produces whimsical greeting cards). "I don't go in the sun," she adds. "And I wear sunscreen and, you know, I just do the things that we know are smart to do." As for her sunny-blond hair that's she's now let largely go gray, she says, "I think we're beautiful at all ages — and if gray is a part of maturing, then there it is. And why are we acting like it isn't? … People are good looking at all ages. So embrace that, and enjoy the ride."
It's a philosophy she seemingly also applied to motherhood — something that did not come without a fight. Hall struggled for years with infertility before she opted for surrogacy, and though it was not long after the famous 1988 Baby M custody case, the first American court ruling regarding surrogacy, Hall had faith, and the process went smoothly.
"There is enormous power in women working together … And it came as no surprise to me that surrogacy would've worked for me," says Hall, who found her surrogate, a young mother named Robin, through a surrogacy center in Beverly Hills.
"Everybody was completely vetted," she explains. "There were contracts, it was very complete and very thorough, and there wasn't as much as a wrinkle … it took months to find Robin and when they did, we just knew." Robin stayed with Hall and (now ex) husband Steve Sohmer during her pregnancy, to shield her from tipped-off paparazzi.
"We're still close," says Hall of herself and Robin, who was her surrogate first for son, David, and then for a second son, Tully. "I'm still in touch with her children that I had met when they were quite small… [who understood] she was 'helping lady with a broken tummy.' They all thought that was a good idea, and they all wanted to make sure that the baby had a bedroom, so they came over to my house and saw the baby's bedroom. I mean, it was a terribly sweet relationship."
Hall told her personal infertility-surrogacy story back in 1992 for People, "so we got to tell the real story of what surrogacy is and how successful it can be when done properly," she says. And then she reenacted it for a television audience by starring in the 1995 made-for-TV movie Never Say Never: The Deidre Hall Story, with a script written by Sohmer, in which she played herself.
"I thought: I believe in this so much. I'm so grateful to Robin for the gift she gave us. And I just wanted the world to know what it was," she explains. "I had really wanted people to understand that Mary Beth Whitehead [of Baby M] was not the story, that wasn't how it worked, and that women are extraordinary and they can do things together."
David, now 30, and Tully, 27, have not seen the movie. "You know what, I don't think they have. Isn't that funny? I don't think they're curious about it," says Hall. "I mean, they know the whole story."
But her firstborn, when he was a toddler, was very involved in the production — including in one touching scene in which Hall pours her heart out to a not-yet-on-board Robin when they meet at the surrogacy center.
"When we were playing those scenes, David, who was on the set the whole time, was standing between us. He was a couple years old and knew to be very still and very quiet, and he could stand right there," she recalls. "Oh, it was magical. It was a magical time."
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