“Let’s dish the soaps,” says a smiling, sunburnt, Robert Duncan McNeill as he saunters into the posh lobby of the Omni Hotel. On a short break from his duties as Going To Extremes’s cynical Colin Mitford, the Jamaica-dwelling actor is visiting Manhattan - and it’s giving him a serious sense of daytime deja vu. After all, McNeill earned his keep here for three years as Charlie Brent on All My Children. Five years and two Charlies later, some fans still haven’t forgotten.
“It’s amazing how a soap opera never leaves you,” McNeill muses as he lights a cigarette. “Just yesterday, I was in a toy store, buying some things for my daughter. The checkout lady said I looked familiar, and remembered me from [AMC].” Since he left Pine Valley, McNeill has acted in projects ranging from Broadway plays to TV mini-series. Next was prime-time’s Extremes. But to many AMC viewers, he’ll always be Julie’s (Lauren Holly) baby-faced beau. “With a soap [fans] see you more than they see some of the people in their family,” McNeill explains.
Not that he’s complaining. Playing Charlie enabled McNeill to live comfortably in New York (no mean feat) and to make friends - including Holly, Carmen Thomas (ex-Hillary) and Robert Gentry (ex-Ross) - that he still keeps in touch with. It also earned him an Emmy nomination in 1988. “I hate awards shows. How do you say who’s the best? Everybody connects with different characters,” he says modestly. But after a pause, a half-smile crosses his face: “It was really exciting.”
McNeill’s journey to success has been smoother than most. Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, he became interested in the stage as a child. After high school graduation, he hopped a train to New York. The first audition paid off - he landed a part in The Fantastiks. McNeill attended the prestigious Juilliard School, acted in off-Broadway plays, and signed with AMC in 1985. That’s when he experienced his first - and only - doubts about acting. “It really hit me when I got on the soap,” he recalls. “There was actually a chance that I could be doing this forever. I had signed a contract, and I knew I would be acting for a few years. I thought, “Is this what I really want to keep doing?”” He mulled over other professions: “I’d always loved the ocean, so I thought about going into some kind of marine research.”
But McNeill’s fantasy didn’t hold water. “I looked into [marine biology] schools, but not real seriously,” he admits. Instead, he grew closer to his AMC castmates. “Something about a soap opera is like being in summer camp all the time,” he reflects. “When you’re not working , you’re doing publicity together. Your fellow actors become your family.”
McNeill decided to leave the nest in 1988. Daytime’s hectic schedule had become too demanding, and he longed to return to the stage. As usual, he got his wish. Right after he quit AMC, McNeill got the lead in the national touring company of Into The Woods, and then a major role in the Broadway hit, Six Degrees Of Separation. Marine research was out of the question: “I kept finding myself doing thrilling things I’d always wanted to do.”
During that time, he met his wife Carol, a former classical dancer who awakened his philanthropic side. “She was working with kids in Pennsylvania, basically troubled teenagers. She was choreographing pieces for them to explore drugs, sex, and family issues,” he recalls. “She loved it. The year after we met, we got engaged. We started talking about forming our own company and working with kids.” The idea was realised. “We started working with Fresh Air Fund camps, and I got actors who I’d met at Juilliard to help us out.”
The couple then moved to L.A. McNeill found film and TV work (notably a four-episode stint as Linda’s shifty suitor on Homefront) and Carol gave birth to their daughter Taylor, now three. After a three-month audition process, McNeill captured the role of Colin. Ironically, he ran into Holly at one audition. “Lauren got very close to being cast,” says McNeill, who also auditioned for Holly’s show, Picket Fences. “There were only two shows I was excited about. I’m on one, and she’s on one.”
McNeill says Extremes’s tight-knit cast reminds him of AMC. In fact, two of his co-stars are daytime grads. Joanna Going (ex-Lisa, Another World) plays Kathleen, and Charles Keating (ex-Cal, Another World) is Dr Jack. “We talk about soaps a lot,” says McNeill.
Unlike Charlie, Colin is perennially serious. “He’s kind of the heavy,” says McNeill of the overachieving med student who is unhappily marooned at school on the fictional island of Jantique. While Extremes features continuing storylines, it’s not a soap. “When you’re doing a soap opera, everyone’s make-up is perfect,” he observes. “On this show, it’s hot, so we sweat. Acting-wise, it’s more of a documentary. “McNeill’s new habitat was an easy adjustment. “I now feel more at home in Jamaica than I did in New York,” he marvels. “It’s just like paradise in some ways.” Colin would be ashamed - but Charlie wouldn’t.