Susan Sullivan ‘Struggles’ With Avoiding Plastic Surgery

In the 1980s primetime soap Falcon Crest, Susan Sullivan spent eight seasons battling against Jane Wyman for the vineyard as the righteous and nurturing Maggie Gioberti. Later, she showcased her comedy side as snooty, sophisticated socialites on Dharma & Greg and Castle. “I’ve got her in me,” Susan tells Closer exclusively of playing these merciless country club ladies.

More recently, Susan, 81, has taken on the role of lung cancer survivor. Having undergone successful surgery, the Emmy-nominated actress is now cancer free, with one lingering side effect: immense gratitude. “What it made me appreciate is that I’m on the short end of time, like the queen planning her funeral at the end of The Crown,” she explains. “I’m not afraid of dying at all. I’m afraid of decline.” In the spirit of making the most of every moment, Susan has launched a new project, the internet series What Friends Do, to celebrate the best things about our golden years.

Do you remember your first paying job?

“Money was always an issue in our family. At age 13, I was teaching dancing school and making $30 a week. I worked all the way through high school and then started making real money when I worked as a Playboy Bunny during college.”

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When you started on Falcon Crest in 1981, Jane Wyman was the show’s grand older lady — although she was only 64!

“I certainly did not think of Jane as an old lady, but I also thought that short gray wig she was wearing was horrible. Jane didn’t want to have to bother with all that hairstyling baloney. She was a real actor, an artist who always knew her lines. God forbid you had a scene with her and didn’t know your lines!”

The show started the year her ex-husband Ronald Reagan became president. How did she handle questions about him?

“It was understood that he was not to be mentioned, and it was never brought up. She was a really strong, direct woman whom you didn’t mess with. You never were quite able to get past the protective plexiglass screen she put up around her. She liked to work in the morning and have a glass of wine when she got home. My kind of gal!”

On the show, Maggie became an alcoholic. How did that come about?

“I was the good woman on that show for five seasons. When Robert Foxworth left the series and they paired me with David Selby, I thought this new relationship was so neurotic that it [was] the perfect time for her to start drinking. And that was the perfect way for me to start understanding a little more about my own alcoholic father and what his impulses were, too.”

How did being the child of an alcoholic impact your life?

“I knew as a little girl that if I could say something funny or do something clever, I could break the tension in our home, which became part of my journey as an actor. But the anxiety that accompanies that is something I’ve had to work on.”

Can you recall a time when anxiety got the best of you?

“I remember feeling such anxiety during all 19 appearances I made with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Johnny was one of those men, like Cary Grant, who would look at you and make you feel very special — as long as you were amusing. If you started talking too long and you saw him tapping his pencil, you knew you were in trouble.”

Susan Sullivan 'Struggles' With Avoiding Plastic Surgery
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Netflix

You actually went on a few dates with Cary Grant, didn’t you?

“I can assure you it was not a big affair. I was in my early 20s when I met him at a party. He was just out of his marriage to Dyan Cannon, with whom he’d had a daughter. I asked him what he thought about acting and he said, ‘Oh God — you don’t want to become an actress! You should just become impregnated.’ And I went, ‘Oh, really?’ He went on to tell me all actresses were neurotic, and I asked, ‘Even Katharine Hepburn?’ And he said, ‘Especially Katharine Hepburn.’ The next day he called and asked if I wanted to go with him on a cruise. I didn’t go, but we did go out a few times. Not once was there a kiss.”

You’ve been with your partner, psychologist Connell Cowan, for 35 years. How did you meet?

“I was dating a man in New York who was a mogul. I thought that’s who I should be with, which was so wrong. Dana Sparks, who played my daughter on Falcon Crest, told me about a man just out of a marriage who had written a bestseller, Smart Women, Foolish Choices. I went, ‘Oh, my God. He wrote it, I lived it. I’ll meet him!’ And that was it!”

You’ve aged very gracefully. Did you make an intentional decision to avoid dramatic plastic surgeries?

“The bottom line is I struggle with it. It’s hard to not be the woman who walks into a room and attracts eyeballs. But I feel I look real on screen, like a person with wrinkles. And I’m OK with that. But I have seen shots of me where I go, ‘Oh, my God, no! I don’t want to see that drapey neck.’”

What do you appreciate about being the age you are now?

“Turning 80 is a completely shocking number. You sort of can’t believe it. But I am delighted to be able to tell you that I’ve had such an interesting journey. I am in a puddle of gratitude. Physically, I am very strong. Believe me, there was no way I thought I could have lung cancer.”

What can you share about your experience with cancer?

“There has been such an aggressive upswing in women and lung cancer that my surgeon believes women should have a CT scan to check their lungs, particularly if they’ve been a smoker or are vaping. Also remember that maintaining a positive attitude can change anything.”

Tell us about your Smartphone Theatre digital series, What Friends Do, which is now available to view on YouTube.

“It was such a gift to be able to create characters for actors I love and write dialogue for the first time. The concept is longtime friends who are part of the same upscale retirement community. Now having gone through my cancer chapter, I’m planning to evolve the series into a senior sitcom to see how these characters are navigating this later part of life with humor and fun. I tell you, there is nothing like humor to save you!”

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