Quick — name a transformative black television character.
James Evans. Cliff Huxtable. Olivia Pope. Cookie Lyon. Annalise Keating.
You only paused if you did not grow up, as I did, watching “The Young and the Restless.”
Kristoff St. John, who died this week at 52, originated the role of Neil Winters on “Y & R” — as it is commonly referred to by its fans — in 1991 and played it up until his death. With 28 years in the show’s fictional Genoa City, St. John was the second-longest-serving black soap opera actor, behind James Reynolds of “Days of Our Lives.”
[Read our obituary of Kristoff St. John, who played Neil Winters.]
Black men like Neil have been hard to come by on television. He was a young, up-and-coming executive at Newman Enterprises, fresh out of Stanford. He was self-assured without being arrogant, and down-to-earth without being a caricature or a clown. He was ambitious, he loved his friends, and he got along well with all of those veteran, high-flying executive types.
His obvious romantic interest was Olivia — doctor, sorority sister, beautiful. His longtime love, though, turned out to be Drucilla (Victoria Rowell), Olivia’s outspoken sister, who was also lovely but decidedly rougher around the edges. Drucilla was Cookie Lyon, minus the prison stint, before there was a Cookie Lyon.
I was groomed to care — our mother raised my brother and I while CBS soap operas played in the background. I knew about the Spauldings and the Bauers on “Guiding Light” long before I knew most of my classmates’ names at school.
I was more fond of “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light” — CBS programs sponsored by Proctor & Gamble — but my mother and my brother were all for “Y & R.” It was more glamorous; it had fancier sets and better lighting.
When we got a VCR, “Y & R” had to be taped everyday, so they could watch it in the evenings.
This practice occasionally annoyed me, until Neil, Olivia and Drucilla arrived. Then I got interested. Black folks! And black folks tackling issues of assimilation and acceptance. Could Neil take Dru around his work colleagues, who were not ready for her bluntness? Would it just be easier to woo Olivia and be done with it?
Neil and Dru became not quite a supercouple (see Angie and Jesse of “All My Children” if you want that), but a memorable couple. They dealt with the outlandish stuff that all soap couples endure — infidelity, secret-keeping, family tensions. But they were real with each other.
They teased each other, they fought, they made up, they confided in each other, saying things about the people on their jobs that they would never say in public. They talked about each other’s family members. And they could cut their eyes at each other in a way that eliminated the need for pages and pages of script.
They were hilarious, without trying to be hilarious.
They were black. And working hard. And mostly stayed out of trouble. And they mostly loved each other.
In the 1990s and 2000s, this was rare.
“Y & R” eventually created a whole complicated family life around Neil, while continuing to further his career. He went on to work at Jabot and at Chancellor Enterprises, the show’s other major corporations, and became chief executive at Newman for a time.
After Drucilla disappeared in 2007 (I know!), Neil mourned profusely. Then he got on with life.
He dated, he married, he divorced, he supported his daughter and his son. Whatever storm the Winters’ extended family found itself in, there was Neil, helping to hold it together.
St. John was still a young man on a veteran show. He could have had many more years as Neil, wrangling with a younger generation led by his children, Lily and Devon.
Through it all, Neil was not a thug, not a troubled child, not somebody the white people needed to save. He did not need “help.” He was an equal. He wasn’t anyone’s charity project.
All he needed was a chance, and Genoa City gave him that.
I stopped watching regularly long ago, but at least once a year, I’ll be home on a holiday with my brother and my mother, and one of us will turn on “Y & R.” We will marvel at how this one, or that one, is still on the show. We feel like we know them. We do, in a way. We’ve known them for over 30 years.
I’m sorry that Neil will no longer be a part of that homecoming.