Former “All My Children” star Walt Willey is in his hometown of Ottawa this week preparing for his performance in the play “Harvey,” and it’s a good bet two Morris women will be in the audience.Fans Donna Knudson and LeAnn Leadinghouse go way back in their appreciation for their favorite actor.
“I’ve been watching ‘All My Children’ since day one,” Knudson said. “The very first show was in the summertime, and my mom used to watch the Channel 7 shows.”
Willey and his character, Jackson Montgomery, weren’t on the show at the very beginning, but Knudson gravitated toward a new, young star by the name of Susan Lucci, who played Erica Kane.
“I just thought Erica Kane was beautiful,” she said. “I wanted to look just like her. She came on in a mini dress and white patent leather go-go boots.”
Knudson kept with the show, watching during summers and school breaks, then continued as a stay-at-home mother later in her life. She remembers Willey’s first episodes. His character was having an affair with Erica Kane.
“He was gorgeous,” she said. “I always thought he was very, very handsome. At first, he was a little bit of a scoundrel. Later, I found out he was from Ottawa.”
Knudson also learned she was the same age as Willey and knew she had probably seen him once or twice in basketball gyms or at other sports events.
Then, four years ago, her boss at One Sweet Dream limousine company asked her if she had ever heard of Walt Willey. It seemed he had hired the company to drive his mother and aunt to one of his comedy performances in St. Charles. Knudson would be the limo driver.
It’s a day she won’t forget.
“We got there, and I didn’t want to just drop them off and leave them there, so I called him on my cell phone,” she said. “He answered the phone.”
Knudson stayed with her fare until Willey arrived, when he gave her a big bear hug.
“They told him I was a very good driver,” she said, “and next thing I know, he gives me a really big hug. I was beside myself, but I was very professional.”
Knudson’s been driving limos for him, his family, and friends when they are in the area ever since. She’s also gone to almost all his plays and one comedy act.
“We got to be very good friends,” she said. “We grew up in the same era and in the same area ... and we also have a common bond in the theatre. I love theatre, and I was in the Morris Theatre Guild for a while. I think that’s where our bond came from.”
Knudson said she’s a true fan of Willey and that’s not just because of his acting skill.
“He is so nice and down-to-earth,” she said. “He’s not pretentious at all.”
He doesn’t even want a stretch limo when he’s in town, she said. He prefers a more understated sedan.
Fellow fan LeAnn Leadinghouse agrees with Knudson about Willey’s personality, describing him as “charismatic and friendly.”
“He’s definitely a gentleman,” she said. “I feel like he cares about his fans. He almost always comes out after his shows and takes time with each one of his fans. He’s such a charmer.”
Leadinghouse said Willey has quite a sense of humor, too.
“I think he had to be the class clown growing up in Ottawa,” she said with a laugh.
Leadinghouse said Willey surprised her the first time she met him after a comedy performance at the Grand Bear Lodge in Utica. She and Knudson, who are friends, were talking with him and getting their pictures taken with him, and he told everyone Leadinghouse had just grabbed his behind.
Everyone laughed, Leadinghouse said, and even though she was a bit horrified because she had done no such thing. She couldn’t help laughing, too.
“It was all in clean fun,” she said.
But the next time she saw in him person after one of his plays, she decided to turn the tables on Willey and actually put his words into action.
“I pinched his behind,” she said.
That unexpected move turned out to be even funnier than the first one, she said, and even more of a memory-maker.
Leadinghouse, like Knudson, began watching “All My Children” as a young girl with her mother. She loved how handsome Willey was and enjoyed his calming voice.
“Everybody loved Erica and Jackson,” she said. “He never played a bad guy. He was always a favorite.”
She started going to his plays after Knudson came to a scrapbooking get-together one night and told the group, “You’re not going to believe who I had in my car.”
Leadinghouse has seen Willey in Ottawa productions of “The Odd Couple,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and “Plaza Suite.” She hopes to see “Harvey,” as well, and said she admires him for bringing theatre back to his home town.
Willey said he loves it when he sees fans at his performances.
“They’re what the whole thing’s about,” he said. “Because we were in a soap and came in to people’s homes five days a week, we have an inherent relationship with them.”
The ending of “All My Children” last year actually made him and his fans closer, he said.
“Thank God for them,” he added. “That kind of support allows me to do the stage plays. They are the most wonderful foundation on which to build.”
He said Knudson has actually been more than a fan to him and his family the last few years.
“She’s a friend,” he said. “And she’s been key to our success.”
In addition to starring in “Harvey” next weekend, Willey does a one-man show called, “Wild Bill: An Evening with James Butler Hickok,” which he has been taking on the road. It will play in Ottawa Dec. 1 and 2.