Other soaps began testing the waters with black characters throughout the 1970s, recruiting actors from the stage to play doctors, nurses, and police officers. In other words: stock characters who could come and go as a storyline dictated. A big murder mystery storyline? Bring in a supporting black detective. A leading heroine with a health crisis? Treated by the black nurse. Fully fledged storylines involving romance, marital affairs, and other typical soap plot devices were rare.
Then, Days of Our Lives introduced a black family, the Grants, in the mid-1970s. Its female heroine, Valerie Grant, shared daytime’s first black-white kiss in 1977, even though the romance didn’t last. Valerie was due to marry David, her white boyfriend, but a flood of angry letters from viewers protesting the union—roughly only a decade after some states lifted bans on such pairings in real life—led to writers sending Valerie off to medical school instead. And then, the Grant family disappeared, abruptly written out of the script.
Creating black heroes and heroines, it seems, meant giving them their own families and storylines—but still keeping them at a healthy distance from white characters. This meant limited screen time, no interracial romances, back-burner plots, and limited mobility. To this day, viewers identify General Hospital with the iconic Luke and Laura coupling, a romance that took fans across the world as the pair found themselves embroiled in devious plots engineered by international criminals. During that time period, the soap’s sole black couple, Bryan and Claudia, stayed at home in Port Charles. While Luke and Laura regularly appear in countdowns of popular soap couples, memories of Bryan and Claudia are limited to fan recollection.
Behind the scenes, actors spoke of their confusing place in the soap world—and in show business itself. Despite shows like Good Times, The Jeffersons, and What’s Happening!! having prominent places on primetime, roles for black actors seemed scarce. Soaps, which offered the chance to be exposed to millions of viewers and the possibility of steady work, seemed like an oasis.
"There is nothing in other fields for black actors today—we screwed ourselves with the poor quality of the 'black' films made in the last six or seven years, and about the only thing on Broadway has been musicals,” the actor John Danelle, who played a Dr. Frank Grant on All My Children, told People in 1978, referring to the Blaxploitation films of the day. “At least on the soap, we are role models for just middle-class people—nice, normal people."
The 1980s was the the turning point for both soap operas and black actors on Broadway and in Hollywood. It was the decade of Dreamgirls, The Cosby Show, The Color Purple, and Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson as superstars, showing that black entertainers were a force and that black consumers would pay to see them. In daytime, the 80s brought on “supercouples”: star-crossed young lovers, living against-all-odd romances torn from the pages of harlequin novels. The casts of soaps began trending younger, straying away from the troubles of older married couples and instead revolving around youthful lovers, their friends, and their meddlesome relatives.