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Melody Strikes a Chord

Daytime Favorite & AIDS Activist Melody Thomas Scott Zeroes In on Teen HIV Infection with A&U's Dann Dulin and also Talks About Staying in Touch with a Special Friend Who Died and the Importance of Advocating for Your Own Health

Melody Thomas Scott and I have a bond. Like me, she’s an I Love Lucy freak. She’s even on the board of The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in Lucy’s hometown of Jamestown, New York. Then, during our interview, I learn that a favorite film of hers is also one of mine, an obscure little gem from 1964, What a Way to Go!, starring Shirley MacLaine [A&U, April 2000] and a coterie of hot male stars of the day. We have another common interest—AIDS.

For over twenty-five years, Melody has played Nikki Newman on the popular soap, The Young and the Restless. Along with her husband and supervising producer, Edward Scott, the couple have promoted HIV/AIDS storylines over the years, garnering esteem from the CDC. Melody is a founding member of TV Cares, the AIDS awareness branch of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “Melody was active before it was popular to do so, and she is still on board now, after many others have become complacent,” remarks David Michaels, founder of TV Cares. “She cares deeply and personally about fighting AIDS and knows how important it is to use her celebrity status to do so. I love Melody Thomas Scott.” Since the start of the epidemic, Scott has also tirelessly raised funds for AIDS charities.

One recent afternoon, we meet on the Y&R set at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, where I used to be a page about a hundred years ago. As I stroll through the corridors, memories resurrect faces that I used to pass daily: Sonny & Cher, Carol Burnett, Bob Barker, and John Ritter. Once in Melody’s comfy, well-decorated dressing room (Cher’s former digs), which is more like a mini-home, we no more settle in and begin to talk when over the speaker the AD calls: Melody on stage, please. “This is what I was so worried about…that they were going to call me,” she complains. Melody apologizes, says it won’t take more than ten minutes, and invites us to join her.

Standing on the elaborate set, the cast appears to genuinely like each other, as there is playful banter back and forth. It’s a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. Good to her word, in less than ten minutes we are back in Melody’s quarters. The room is plastered with Lucy memorabilia (framed pics, autographs, sketches), family photos, and numerous framed magazine covers hanging on the walls featuring Scott (TV Guide, Soap Opera Digest, etc.)—and they are all situated snugly amid brightly-colored contemporary furniture. The place has a country feel to it. Melody is dressed for a Y&R scene in a sexy, low-cut cocktail ebony dress with spiked heels. She’s petite and looks much younger than a woman of fifty. The woman possesses a svelte, sexy figure, is sultry and elegant, but with a girl-next-door quality.

Scott has been in front of the cameras most of her life. She began her career as a child model, appearing in print ads and TV commercials, then landed Hitchcock’s Marnie (“He was scary,” she shivers) portraying Tippi Hedren’s character as a young girl. In one scene of the film, she repeatedly bludgeons Bruce Dern, who plays a horny sailor! As a teen, she honed her craft by working with such pros as Clint Eastwood in The Beguiled, John Wayne in The Shootist, and Kirk Douglas in Posse. (Interestingly, during this time, Melody tested for the role of Marta von Trapp in the legendary musical, The Sound of Music.) Later, she costarred in De Palma’s The Fury, as well as The Car and Piranha. She also appeared on such hit television shows as My Three Sons, Ironside, The Waltons, Charlie’s Angels, and The Nanny. Last year, she costarred in an indie film, Freezerburn, on DVD this December.

Comfortably seated in a sunshine-yellow and azure-blue striped wingback chair, Melody smiles effortlessly and confesses, “Since I knew I was going to see you today, last night I asked my youngest daughter, Elizabeth [Melody has two additional daughters], who’s seventeen and in the eleventh grade, what she and her friends thought about the AIDS epidemic. Were they concerned? She basically answered that they think it’s pretty much under control, that it’s not anything they need to worry about, and that they do have protected sex, but AIDS is not one of the top reasons they do so.”

When Melody told Elizabeth the current statistics, Elizabeth’s jaw dropped. She was so stunned, she suggested that they have someone speak at her school, and Melody agreed. Since Scott frequently speaks at AIDS events throughout the year, and is the self-proclaimed “Statistics Girl,” I mention that she could speak at her daughter’s school. “They really need to see somebody who is young and afflicted,” she specifies. Melody pauses, and in that moment, it strikes her that kids are not taking AIDS seriously. “They need to know!”she exclaims, indicating that PSAs must not be grabbing teens since “Elizabeth watches more TV than anybody on this earth.”

Toward the end of this mother-daughter discussion, Elizabeth brought up the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Melody quickly replied to her, ‘You’re right; however, don’t forget that we have AIDS here in the United States, too.’ She explains to me, “Many people think that AIDS is out of control just in Africa—no!” Melody shouts this last part, boosting up her usual soft, verging-on-sensuous voice. “It’s happening right here in our own backyard. When are we going to wake up?!”

AIDS impacted Melody’s life from the beginning of the pandemic. “I’ve been through the sadness, frustration, and grief,” she recounts of the horror of losing friends, expelling a long, hard sigh. There’s a tender sorrow when she speaks. “I knew about it even before there was a name attached to it; when it was a death sentence.” One of her closest buddies was Greg York, a costume designer on Y&R, who died ten years ago. “He was so multitalented,” she asserts. “He could act, sing, dance, paint, and he designed costumes. I’m still in touch with his mother.” Scott and her family became his second family, which included celebrating holidays together. She reminisces about speaking at his memorial, which was held on the Y&R set. “I had worked on my speech and I thought I was ready to confront his death. But when I walked in, saw the podium, the chairs set up, a beautiful photo of Greg on display, I just completely fell apart. I told someone before I went on, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ But of course I did,” she says. “It was devastating to lose him.”
Soon after Greg’s death, Melody hosted the Daytime Emmys. She had to parade down thirty steep steps with no railings on the Radio City Music Hall stage, dressed to the nines in a Badgley Mischka gown with full six-inch heels. “Live!” she screams. “I was so worried about falling in front of the entire world, and I remember when the stage manager cued me to start, I immediately began talking to Greg. ‘Greg, get me down these fuckin’ stairs! Get me down these stairs!’” she growls in a deep voice, then sing-songs, “and he came through!” Melody admits she feels Greg around her today and still talks to him frequently.

Having buried Greg and numerous others keeps Scott motivated to continue her support for AIDS causes. “It’s part of the grieving,” she explains, “so it’s a very personal issue for me and my husband. It may be the kind of thing that if we were living in a small town in Kansas and had not been touched by AIDS at all, we might not even be aware of it. But living in L.A., being in this business, of course, you are going to know people who have been exposed to HIV. It’s an issue that is much more at the forefront for us than it might necessarily be for others.” She adjusts her dress, tucks one leg under the other, and continues. “But it would be nice to change that, wouldn’t it? It’d be nice if everyone, including those who live in small towns, were aware and understood. Some people have this idea that it is still a ‘gay thing.’ It’s not a gay thing!” she protests excitedly and with obvious frustration. Then she softens her tone and adds, “The risk is a human possibility, no matter what age, no matter what race—and that needs to somehow get out there, though the information has to be subtle. It can’t be something that smacks them upside the head, but yet, it has to grab them.”

Scott knows something about people’s lack of awareness. It took her more than six years to finally get a diagnosis for a painful bladder condition called interstitial cystitis (IC). Frank Tobin, Scott’s long-time publicist who is seated across from her in the cozy living room, brings up the fact that there was little or no information available about IC at that time. “I couldn’t get a diagnosis,” recalls Melody fretfully. “I had doctors telling me to see a psychiatrist. There were no Web sites. This is how it was at the beginning of AIDS,” she notes insightfully, clearing her throat and slightly coughing.

I mention that Fran Drescher [A&U, October 2003] had a similar problem. It took nine doctors and over two years for her to finally get diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Had she not persisted, she’d be dead by now. Melody nods in agreement. “You have to be very persistent. I found that a lot of the medical community does not appreciate the patient doing their own investigation, walking into their office and saying, ‘I think I have this.’” After many dismissals from doctors, Scott searched and finally found the right one. “Dr. Spigelman saved my life…,” Melody says tenderly, with a wide grin, her elbow perched on the armchair, as her hand cups her face.

“At times, the pain was unbearable,” Melody further clarifies. “It was very difficult to deal with, especially when you can’t talk about it. I didn’t wanna go to work and complain, ‘My bladder hurts,’” she scoffs, with a shrug. “I kept it inside and that’s not a very good thing. When you keep things like that inside….I probably turned into a raving bitch!” guffaws Scott, slightly glancing over at the TV, which is on mute. “Pain changes your personality, and you slowly alter who you are in this great effort in hiding. That’s what I did. I’m just now speaking out about it because, thank god”—she knocks on wood—“I’m better. No other celebrity has been willing to talk about it, and I know there are a lot of them who have IC. Somebody has got to start talking about it! Ninety percent of IC patients are women,” she says, clearing her throat, “and that’s what women do is talk. They talk and talk and talk and talk and talk.” She humorously swishes her head from side to side. “We need people to start talking—girlfriends, mothers, daughters—because the more you talk the more you learn and the more the word spreads. Just like with HIV and AIDS. We need to keep an open forum and keep this subject in the media. People should not be embarrassed to talk about these things.”
Scott practices what she preaches, and momentarily revels in the joy of the moment that she and her daughter, Elizabeth, communicate openly. “Last night, it was really cool that we could casually talk about AIDS, sex, and condoms. There’s probably a lot of families who couldn’t do that with their seventeen-year-old,” she says. “I’m grateful that I have a relationship like this with my daughter. Here we were in the kitchen, she’s eating yogurt and I just said, ‘Hey, Liz, I wanna ask you a few questions.’ She never knows what’s gonna come out of my mouth when I say that!” Melody heartily laughs, folds her arms, tilts her head pensively, then, in almost a whisper, concludes contentedly, “It was cool.”

THE SCOTT SCORE

Where is you favorite place to disappear to?  Where do you go to recharge your batteries?
Well, it could be as simple as just crawling in bed reading a book or going to Hawaii.

Do you have a favorite city?
The Big Island.

Out of the many people you have worked with, is there one in particular who stands out who impressed you or inspired you the most? 
Golly, I’m sure there is.

If you could have starred in any movie, ever, what would it have been?
What a Way To Go.  A fabulous movie. One time, I actually sat and counted all her wardrobe changes. I think it was something like eighty-six. It’s a great movie. Shirley MacLaine was so wonderful in it. And oh, and all those co-stars!  There really is nothing wrong with the movie.

Name one of your bad habits.
Not returning phone calls and emails. I’m impatient, as Frank [Tobin, her publicist] probably can tell you. [Frank laughs and declares, She loves mayonnaise.]  I don’t consider that a bad habit [she says with a little girl voice.]  I eat it out of the jar with a spoon.”

What are you most proud of?
My children.  Boring answer, huh? That’s what everybody says probably, huh?

Complete this sentence.  The best thing about being famous is . . .
The opportunity to have the public pay attention to what I have to say.  I don’t do it very often. I’m very careful.

THE SOUNDS OF MELODY

Melody’s quick responses to some of the people in her life.

Alfred Hitchcock: Fear.

Clint Eastwood: Aloof.

Kirk Douglas: Inspiring.

Brian DePalma: Kewl and talented.

Richard Thomas: Ahhh, gentle.

John Wayne: Gentle bear.

Will Geer: Commanding.

James Garner: Easy going.

Lorenzo Lamas: [She casts a devilish smile and giggles. There’s a long silence.] Hardworking.

When asked to give one word to describe herself, Melody answers, “Complicated.” Frank blurts out laughing. Melody fishes: “Are you laughing because that’s wrong or that’s right?”  Frank laughs louder, almost uncontrollably, and begins to turn red.  Melody presses, “You would have to agree with that, wouldn’t you, Frank?”  “Ab-so-lute-ly!" yells Frank, amidst his fits of laughter.

Keep beats on Melody at her Web site: www.melodythomasscott.com. Contact TV Cares at TVCares@aol.com. An enthusiastic thanks to Matthew Hetznecker for his keen eye.

Dann Dulin interviewed actress Jurnee Smollett for the August cover story.

October 2006