DURING THANKSGIVING WEEK, 2021, the soap opera world lost one of the most memorable, electrifying actors ever to grace the daytime screen: Lisa Brown passed away at 67 after a brief illness. To many viewers, this loss was a great shock, as Brown epitomized agelessness and vitality. Brown set the TV screen on fire in her unforgettable role of the irrepressible social climber Nola Reardon on Guiding Light. In a year that has witnessed the loss of numerous talents on stage and screen, including Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, why does the loss of Brown hurt so specifically?
One reason could be that Brown always delivered fearless performances as the ambitious Nola Reardon. Brown joined Guiding Light in early 1980s as Nola Reardon, a grasping teenager who longed to escape her humble origins as one of seven children living in a boardinghouse in Midwestern Springfield, wanting to enjoy a more glamorous, adventurous life. Even with all the enormous fanfare of the romance of rival soap General Hospital, Brown mesmerized viewers as Nola, who engaged in one scheme after another to break up the show’s own supercouple. When Guiding Light transformed Nola from a villainess into a heroine who was half of her own supercouple, paired with wealthy archaeologist Quint McCord Chamberlain (played by Michael Tylo, who passed away mere months before Brown’s passing this year), Brown’s popularity continued to soar. Already a Broadway vet, Brown at one point played Nola while assuming the role of Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. Brown would play the character of Nola for five years, with a few returns to show during the remainder of the show’s run, including its final week on the air in September 2009.
Perhaps another reason is that Brown, through her performance of Nola, reflected the struggles of members of the LGBTQ community to live fully authentic lives. Nola was constantly criticized by her mother and her siblings for not wanting to settle for a quiet lower-middle-class life, especially when Nola dumped her boring baby daddy Floyd Parker (played by Brown’s ex-husband Tom Nielsen) on their wedding day, choosing not to settle down with Floyd for convenience’s sake. Nola grew tired of apologizing for being “born different” than the rest of her family and decided to forge a more independent life of her own, pursuing excitement through her working relationship and eventually her marriage to the more sophisticated, worldly Quint.
The show’s head writer at the time, legendary soap scribe Douglas Marland, used Nola’s love for old movies and Brown’s own leading lady appeal, by creating vividly performed movie sequences. Viewers thoroughly enjoyed Brown’s performances in classic movie roles, ranging from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to Charlotte Vale, the spinster turned swan in Now, Voyager, played in the actual movie by none other than Bette Davis. Davis in fact wrote to Guiding Light to compliment Brown on her amazing movie-inspired performers. Another actor from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Joan Bennett, had a cameo in the show in 1982 and was similarly impressed by Brown’s portrayal of Nola. Especially through Nola’s cinematic fantasies, Brown in her breathtaking performances encouraged viewers, including LGBTQ audience members, to dream, to soar, to live life to the fullest, to be their most unapologetic, authentic selves.
Brown was obviously one of Marland’s favorite performers, as shown by the factthat once he became the head writer of As The World Turns in 1985 (a position he held until his untimely death in 1993), Brown was cast as Iva Snyder, a have-not heroine, giving similarly powerful performances. However, some of Brown’s most unforgettable performances were her quieter ones in which she was a supportive, nonjudgmental friend to other characters. In 1988, Marland introduced the character of handsome fashion designer Hank Eliot (Brian Starcher) to the Oakdale canvas. Iva entertained having a relationship with the kind, attractive Hank, only to be disappointed when Hank gently rejected her romantic overtures at the famous Snyder pond and revealed that he was gay. In sensitively written scenes conveyed through wonderfully nuanced performances by Brown and Starcher, Iva assured Hank that though she was disappointed, she would always be a loyal friend and confidante for him and that their friendship would remain.
Albeit in different ways, whether intentionally or not, Brown as both Nola on Guiding Light and Iva on As the World Turns seemed to inhabit the voice of love and acceptance. Beyond the TV screen, according to Michael Fairman TV, Brown was a regular performer at the annual “Night of the Daytime Stars” benefit for AMFAR at the height of the AIDS pandemic.
Thank you, Lisa Brown, for your unforgettable contributions as a performer and for being a voice of the LGBTQ community, on and off the screen. You will be greatly missed.