It all started on a late morning on a highway. A camera panned to the cab of a large semi-trailer truck. The driver wore a plaid shirt and a day’s growth of beard. Next to him was a mysterious hitchhiker in expensive clothes that were ripped and a fresh head wound.
He got out at Genoa City. And he stayed.
That’s how “The Young and the Restless ” began on March 26, 1973, and a lot of people also stuck around Genoa City. The soap opera celebrates its 50th anniversary this month as the No. 1 daytime drama for 35 consecutive years, with fans growing up alongside the actors.
“I think a huge reason why the audience has stuck with us for so long is because we are the same people. We are family members. We show up every day — sometimes more than a regular family member,” says Lauralee Bell, a star and daughter of the show’s founders.
Created by the late William J. Bell and Lee Phillip Bell, “The Young and the Restless” concerns the goings-on of several Midwestern families, some of whom have a lot and some who don’t. William Bell was head writer for decades, giving the show a singular vision, unusual for soaps.
Lauralee Bell, an Emmy-winner who plays good-girl Christine Blair Williams and first joined the show in 1983, says her dad would likely not be surprised by the show’s new milestone. “He said if you have two families that come from different backgrounds and good, solid characters, it’s endless material.”
One of the ways the show will celebrate its milestone is with a masquerade ball storyline starting Thursday and continuing through the following week. Creators promise “surprise visits from fan favorites and secrets are revealed, forever changing the lives for the residents of Genoa City.” “Entertainment Tonight” also plans a March 27 special.
The CBS soap has helped launch the careers of such primetime and film actors as Vivica A. Fox, David Hasselhoff, Adam Brody, Tom Selleck, Penn Badgley, Shemar Moore, Eva Longoria, Justin Hartley and the late Paul Walker. Eric Braeden plays the male lead Victor Newman, a villain of the highest quality who once kept his wife’s lover locked in his basement.
Professor Elana Levine, who teaches media studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and wrote “Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History,” says the staying power of soaps is that they get passed down from one generation to the next.
“What streaming TV has shown us is that serialized narratives and stories that continue from episode to episode are really appealing and engaging,” she says. “Soaps did that before anybody and are the maximum version of that because the story is going for decades.”
Among the cake-flinging food fights and evil twins on “The Young and the Restless,” there have also been important firsts — it aired the first live facelift on TV, back in 1984, and when veteran actor Kristoff St. John died in 2019, the cast and crew held a funeral for his character, bringing tears to a returning Moore.
It became the first daytime drama with a character who had a mastectomy, it was the first soap opera to broadcast in HD and, perhaps most importantly, it welcomed leading Black actors in the 1980s before many other soaps.
“’The Young and the Restless’ attracted a big African American audience starting at that time because they were putting Black characters, front center, more so than some of the other soaps were,” says Levine.
That’s a legacy Bell is proud of and she puts it squarely as a result of her parents, whom she calls hard-working creators who demanded a lot from their writers and actors, even their kids.
“My dad was not afraid of of being first. All the social issues he dealt with — date rape, AIDS, alcoholism, all of that. He really felt that if our audience bonded with these characters that they would learn,” says Bell. “If we could even help one person, it was worth it.”
Show veteran Melody Thomas Scott recalls a story that featured infant CPR, which is nothing like the adult version. “I think Bill and Lee wanted the world to know the difference,” she says. On the soap, a baby swallows a coin and Victor Newman — of course — becomes the hero by showing viewers the correct CPR technique.
“We got so many calls in our ‘Y&R’ office the day after that episode aired, some mothers in tears, so grateful,” she says. “That is the ultimate goal of sneaking in some social issues because it can save lives. It can change people’s lives.”
One of Bill Bell’s hallmarks was telling stories in real time, for instance waiting for a couple’s first hand holding, then waiting a while before their first kiss. “If the audience doesn’t believe it and grow with them. It’s hard to buy sometimes,” his daughter says. The soap always stayed in the realm of reality: No getting possessed by the devil in Genoa City.
Scott is celebrating her 44th year on the show as Nikki Newman, a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Her character has gone from a tempestuous, alcoholic stripper to the serial’s luminous and resourceful leading lady.
She says the show has stayed true to Bill Bell’s vision of a show with compelling characters played by beautiful people. Visually, the soap has stayed lush and elegant, with plenty of fresh flowers or candles onset. “We look different from any other show,” she says.
Bell not only had a knack for storylines — he also knew his actors. Scott recalls being surprised when Bell paired her bratty character with tycoon Victor Newman, two people she thought had nothing in common.
“We discovered that we had this chemistry that we certainly didn’t expect. But I think Bill, in all of his wisdom, somehow saw it in us,” she says. “You can’t force yourself to have chemistry with another actor. It just either is or isn’t. So we are eternally grateful that Bill was so psychic in knowing that we would click.”
The Bell family has continued to be part of the DNA of modern soaps, with Lauralee acting, her brother Brad serving as executive producer and head writer for sister soap “The Bold and the Beautiful” and brother Bill Jr. as president of the family production companies who made a deal for “The Young and the Restless” to be seen overseas, with versions in Israel, Canada, Turkey and France, among others.
“It was one of the first daytime soaps that got sold internationally,” says Levine. “I think that has been a key to its continued success and profitability. The money that any daytime soap brings in domestically has lessened over time and the audience has gotten smaller.”
If any viewers need convincing the “The Young and the Restless” has penetrated popular culture, look for further than Mary J. Blige, who sampled the show’s theme song in her 2001 hit “No More Drama.”
That mysterious man in the very first scene was Brad Elliot and ahead of him was plenty of drama — a love triangle with a pair of sisters, a marriage, the heartache of a miscarriage, a diagnosis of blindness and a divorce petition. Surgery restored his sight but his marriage never recovered. He left Genoa City after five years. The show continued.
When Lauralee Bell looks at the TV landscape today, she sees variations on what her parents created in primetime shows like “The Crown” and “Succession.”
“Every show is a soap, every nighttime show is a soap, all of these streaming shows are versions of soap operas,” she says. “So we’re all sort of a little tired of the soaps-are-on-their-way-out — well, every show is a soap, really.”
—Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press