A Classic Conversation with Actress Karen Needle of TV's "The Edge of Night"

Herbie J Pilato

[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

[Author's Note: All quotes and commentary that appear in this article were culled from interviews the author conducted with those individuals mentioned.]

Actress Karen Needle appeared on several classic TV soap operas over the years, including Guiding Light and Ryan's Hope. But it was on The Edge of Night - one of daytime's most popular shows (from 1956 to 1984, first on CBS, then ABC) - where she made her strongest mark - as the popular Poppy Johnson.

After Night ended, Needle went on to appear in feature films, such as Family Business, and in prime-time television shows, like The Wayans Brothers. She also performed with Dustin Hoffman on Broadway in the very successful and Tony-award-winning revival of Death of a Salesman (and in the subsequent TV version), as well as national stage tours of Grease (playing Frenchie, alongside former General Hospital star Jack Wagner), Oklahoma (with John Davidson and Jamie M*A*S*H Farr), among others live performances.

Yet again, it was on TV's Edge of Night that Karen Needle made her strongest impression.

It all started with a screentest for the role of Nora. Both Needle and actress Catherine Bruno were up for the part. After extensive callbacks, Needle did not win the role, and it was a disappointment for her. But, fortunately, she was hired to sing on a cruise ship for two months in the Caribbean and Mexico. And it was near the end of that cruise that her agent called her on the ship and asked her if she would be available to replace Rita Jenrette as secretary to Ray Serra's Eddie Lorimar Night character.

Night was sponsored by Procter and Gamble, and allegedly, there was some kind of scandal involving Jenrette, and she needed to exit the series. Needle's cruise contract was up, just as the first day of Night's taping was to commence. So, she was available. Come to find out, there were only two Night tape-days, with possibly more. She later discovered that the show's producers had pulled her screen test, and had planned to write something for her. Much to her delight, they expanded the Poppy Johnson character and penned her in for a year.

I had the chance to speak with the actress about Poppy (and other roles and aspects of her life and career) before attending last week's Daytime Emmy Awards.

Here now is that conversation:

HJP: So tell us a little bit about Poppy's storyline - and with which characters she interacted?

KN: Eddie Lorimar was a funny, but menacing gangster, I was the typical dumb secretary Poppy, and I chose a cute voice for her. I was hired by Eddie to spy on Damian Tyler (Christopher Jarrett) and get him kicked off of the police force. Damian and I fell in love and he in time turned me straight. (Poppy had been in prison for burglary and prostitution.) At one point, my script said she drops the dumb voice. I then started playing a duel character and they adapted the storyline around what I did with the voice. It wound up that I was really the brains behind the organization, and only played dumb. I had the opportunity to work with Alfred Drake, which was amazing. Poppy was friends with Mitzi and together we bought Sid's Tavern, owned by Sid (played by Meg Myles), and started a restaurant business until it was burned to the ground. We got the insurance money and rebuilt it out of stone, and called it The Rock Garden.

HJP: Do you have a favorite scene that you performed on the show?

KN: That would be the scene with Damian in which I had to do pantomime with him because his character was shot in the throat. Actually, they wrote it because they found out he was a professional mime and wanted to make use of it. It was a great deal of fun for us both. Another favorite scene was the fire and having to fall down some stairs as the fire alarm is going off and fire is engulfing us.

HJP: What did you most enjoy about working on the show?

KN: Something that was always amusing to me was working with Ray Serra. He was terrific but rewrote a lot of his own lines. I never knew exactly what I was going to hear. He also had little notes with his lines pasted all around. I enjoyed doing the whole show in sequence. I enjoyed that our producer believed in us and let us run with the ball. He was supportive and the cast was fabulous.

HJP: Did you watch the show before you appeared on it?

KN: Yes, I did watch the show before I appeared on it. It was my mom's favorite show and was always on when I came home from school.

HJP: How would you compare today's daytime soaps to those of the past?

KN: Today's shows are mostly an hour and have larger budgets. We were considered a mystery show. It was dark and had lots of great characters.

HJP: What are some of your favorite TV shows today?

KN My favorite prime-time shows are Grey's Anatomy, and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

HJP: Tell us about your life and career now.

KN: Nowadays, my career is on hold, and I work as an associate producer for the television show Judge Judy. I also book the audiences for Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, and Divorce Court. I travel when I can and do portrait paintings in my spare time as well. Life is more routine now, not as unpredictable, and much more stable. I'm happy.

HJP: Hey - how great would it be if one of the networks brought The Edge of Night back? Would you want to be involved with it in some capacity, either in front of or behind the camera? How would you envision the project? As a complete remake? A sequel? Should they do it as a daytime soap or a prime-time series? What do you think?

KN: Yes, of course, if the networks brought the show back, I would most certainly want and love to be a part of it. I would be happy working on it in either capacity, in front of the camera would be my preference, however now that I have production experience that would be fun too. Soaps are hard work, but they are so rewarding and I'm grateful to have been a part of it.

From left" Karen Needle, Stephen Lang, and Linda Kozlowski in a promo shot for a stage production of "Death of a Salesman"[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA

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