July 4, 2007
Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part III of VI

Shifting Portrayals: The Many Men Who Are Tom Hughes

One important aspect of daytime television is that characters, even as they become so entwined with their portrayers, are also bigger than those actors. It is quite common in American soap opera for a character to be recast if an actor leaves the show, especially when the character is linked to several others. Because the power of soap operas lies in character relationships rather than plot development, an essential character must stay on the show, whether the actor who portrays him or her does or not. The duration of actors such as Wagner, Fulton, or Hastings is impressive because such long-term performances are relatively rare.

Tom Hughes, excluding his time as a baby, has been portrayed by 13 different actors. Starting in 1963, Tom was old enough to have dialogue on the show and began being portrayed consistently by one child actor at a time. The character was aged more rapidly than real time would allow, and his birth date was revised significantly as the show progressed so that the character would be aged enough to allow for certain stories.

This aging of Tom Hughes was accomplished by seven actor changes from 1963 until 1969, when Peter Galman took over the role and played Hughes until 1973 (Galman went on to play characters in several other daytime soaps, as well as act in short-term primetime roles). Galman was replaced by David Colson, who portrayed Hughes from 1973 until the end of 1978.

After a short-term performance by Tom Tammi, Hughes was played by Justin Deas from 1980 until 1984. Deas became famous in the Hughes role, igniting the on-screen romance between Hughes and Margo Montgomery through a real-life romance between Deas and the actress playing Margo's role, Margaret Colin.

Deas won a Daytime Emmy Award for his portrayal of Hughes and has gone on to win five more Daytime Emmys (tying for the most number of awards for an actor in Daytime Emmy history) as an actor on Santa Barbara (NBC, 1984-1993) and Guiding Light. After brief stints by Jason Kincaid and Gregg Marx, Scott Holmes took over the Tom Hughes role on July 3, 1987, and has played the character of Hughes for almost 19 years, becoming the actor associated with the matured Tom Hughes character.

As with any attempt to trace the textual or acting history of a particular soap opera or soap character, the description of a character's history may be in danger of either becoming too trivial or too confusing, but I have included this information to show how complicated discussions of even a single character's history can be on a show as multifaceted as ATWT. For some, Justin Deas or Peter Galman may be the "real" Tom Hughes, and the current portrayer not true to the "real" character, despite Holmes' being in the role four times longer than any other actor who has played Hughes.

The transition from one actor to another often creates a corresponding change in the character's personality, although both writers and actors try to make the shift as natural as possible. As I've previously mentioned, the early actor changes were used to age Tom quickly so that he could be used in more complicated stories. Later shifts in character stemmed from the departure of actors, so that each new actor had to both be true to Tom's history while also shifting the Hughes character to become their own. Thus, Scott Holmes' current Tom Hughes character is much different from Justin Deas' portrayal, although the current Tom reflects those past performances as well.

The Study of Tom Hughes

To understand the way these character shifts are handled throughout decades of material and the ways in which soap operas develop a character, the remainder of this essay will focus on a reading of the textual history of the Tom Hughes character.

An important caveat, however: with a character that has been on the air consistently for 45 years on a show that airs five days a week with no off-season, it will be impossible to trace the full details of Tom Hughes. With casts of 40 characters at one time, soap plots move slowly but involve so many interactions among characters that a comprehensive study of even one character on one show would be difficult enough to fit into a book-length study, much less an essay. This becomes one important reason why I believe scholars have shied away from attempting to understand soaps with any historically grounded analysis of the text, because soaps offer so much text that the scholar can hardly make any sense of it.

Further, because soaps are not commonly replayed or reaired, much of the history of a soap opera is hard to find in the first place, except among some tape traders, but this is hundreds of hours of programming per year.

Analyzing a primetime series with a comprehensive view is difficult enough, and these are programs increasingly available to be viewed and reviewed in full on DVD. Mastering the seven-season run of The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006) is difficult much less the 50 years of ATWT. While ATWT may contain somewhat more redundancy than The West Wing, it also has a much more complex history and character universe to draw off of. Even though soap writers try to make the texts open to new viewers, characters are constantly referred to who have not been on the show for years, references that can only make sense to those with a greater understanding of a show's history.

As a scholar who has a long history with ATWT and who is tapped into the knowledge of the collective intelligence of the ATWT fan community, however, I feel that I have the historical grounding needed to delve into a character's past. I have personally watched most of the years of Scott Holmes' portrayal of Tom. In addition, through discussion groups, online character guides, and friends and family who have watched the shows many more years than I, my own limited understanding of ATWT history is aided considerably.

Furthermore, I feel that a historically grounded textual reading of soaps provides a more nuanced study than most of the extant literature. This is not to diminish the majority of work done on soaps, much of which comes from feminist theory with an eye toward reception studies. The writing by scholars such as Tania Modleski, Ien Ang, Charlotte Brunsdon, and Christine Geraghty have been essential to the growth of the field, but they provide only limited observations and are also primarily focused on soaps in a European context, which misses some of what I see as key observations in examining American soaps in an American context.

Many writers--notably scholars such as Robert C. Allen, Mary Ellen Brown, Jeremy Butler, and Nancy K. Baym, among others--have put that focus on American soaps and American audiences but, in attempting to establish a field of study for American soap opera, have shied away from delving into textual analysis, looking instead at audience reception. Again, this stems from the massive amount of text for a soap.

Because of the unique style and features of the soap opera, many scholars diminish any artistic power of soaps simply because they have not invested the time in understanding where the artistry of soap lies, which is in character development and character portrayal over great periods of time. The key to understanding soaps comes with understanding the importance of character development on these shows, so that the following attempt is what I hope to be the beginning of a deeper understanding of soaps and a deeper appreciation for the accretion of detail involved with the slow development of a soap opera character throughout decades of storylines.