Deborah Goodrich Royce would naturally prefer being recognized these days for her most current accomplishment — as the celebrated author of the suspense novel “Finding Mrs. Ford,” named last year by a wide selection of reviewers as a must-read summer thriller, but she’s well aware her photograph on the book jacket may ring a bell with fans of All My Children, the soap opera that enthralled faithful viewers during a run of more than 40 years on network TV.
“I was cast as the sister of the star of the show, Susan Lucci,” she recalls. “She was Erica Kane, and I played her sister, Silver Kane.”
A best-selling author and a recurring part on one of the most successful franchises in television history? Not bad for an only child who grew up in Warren during the 1960s.
“It was one of those suburbs that developed in the postwar era,” Royce says, “and it really grew up once General Motors put in their Tech Center on what was farmland to the north of Detroit. The street I lived on was called Lorraine. It was very wide and the elementary school was at the end of it, so there was a lot of traffic.”
That meant that when Royce and her friends were young, they were forbidden to cross the street. “The children who lived on the opposite side of the street were like in another country,” she laughs. “We went in a kind of pack up and down our side of the street. As we got bigger, we eventually ventured across the street and onto different streets.”
When the weather was too cold, the kids would congregate in each other’s homes.
“This was the era of the three-bedroom, bath-and-a-half ranch house,” Royce remembers, “and all the houses and rooms weren’t just similar, they were the same — exactly the same. Their living room was where your living room was, and so on. All of the houses had basements with some kind of pressed particle board paneling, and the families would trick them up. My father put in a gas fireplace, which was snazzy, and we would leave it on for hours. We were probably burning our brain cells with whatever the fumes were from it.”
Royce’s father owned and operated a dry-cleaning business, Elwood Cleaners on 8 Mile Road and Van Dyke Avenue.
“For some crazy reason, they got the contract from the National Guard when the riots happened,” she says. “That was the summer of 1967 and I’d just turned 8 or 9, and my memory of it is that everything was green — vast mountains of green undershorts, undershirts, socks, pants, and towels. I remember my cousin and I getting rides on their trucks.”
Royce traces her career as an actress to her early years at Cousino High School.
“For a teenager, the ’70s were really the heyday of arts appreciation,” she says. “One of the things Cousino offered was called Drama Workshop, where we put on plays and then toured to local elementary schools. Also, my boyfriend and I were huge fans of foreign films, which at that time were available everywhere.”
Royce and her group of friends were also devotees of Detroit’s music scene.
“There was a great jazz club on 8 Mile Road on the west side (in Detroit), which is still there, called Baker’s Keyboard Lounge,” she says.
Growing up in the Detroit area, I developed a strong drive and an almost ‘unbeatable’ quality that so many Detroiters have.
— Deborah Goodrich Royce
“I think we saw ourselves as — I mean, it sounds really silly now — maybe not young sophisticates, but sophisticate wannabes. We were trying very hard to increase our cultural understanding, and at that point in high school I was studying French and going to a local community college to study Italian at night. I had this drive to speak four languages.”
That made her the perfect candidate for Lake Erie College, near Cleveland. “It was a very small women’s college,” she says. “They were the first school to have a mandatory semester of junior year abroad. I ended up getting quite a few specific French scholarships, so off I went to college.”
Eventually she wound up in Paris, where she continued to pursue her foreign languages major while also studying dance.
“I came back after my junior year and was doing summer stock theater in Cleveland,” she says. “I auditioned and was hired as a background dancer for a film with Frank Langella and Tom Hulce called Those Lips, Those Eyes.”
This is the part of one of those “she came from nowhere” Hollywood stories where the unknown ingenue makes a show-stopping debut and, presto, a star is born. But that’s not what happened with Royce.
“I had enough credits to graduate after the fall semester of my senior year,” she says. “I went back to Detroit. I had no clue what I was going to do. I had this vague and ill-defined concept of foreign service, and maybe going on to graduate school, but I hadn’t really figured anything out.”
Soon after, she picked up a copy of Variety magazine and saw auditions were being held in New York by the same choreographer who had hired her for the movie in Cleveland. “I packed a suitcase and actually moved to New York the next day,” Royce says. “It was Valentine’s Day 1980. I stayed with the widow of the head of the theater department at my college.”
She didn’t get the gig with choreographer, but she did spend the next year in New York, energetically pursuing a dance career. “I auditioned for everything. I got close to every Broadway show at the time, and it finally hit me that I wasn’t quite good enough as a dancer.”
Undaunted, Royce decided to give acting a try. “That went much better. I did a ton of commercials for everything — Coca-Cola, Visine, Weight Watchers, bacon-flavored Cheetos — that’s a product you’ve never heard of.”
She also began screen-testing for all the soap operas, which is how she landed the role on All My Children. “I did that in 1982 and 1983,” she says, “and I thought that was going to be the rest of my life. It turned out not to be. I was written out of the show.”
Soon after that disappointment, she was flown out to Los Angeles to screen-test for a TV movie. She not only landed the part, but also decided she needed to stay in L.A.
“If I was auditioning for, let’s say, five projects a month in New York, it was five a day in Los Angeles,” Royce said. “I mean, the volume was just exponential, and it began a period of just nonstop work as an actress and it was fabulous. I had a grand time and I loved doing it, but I ended up getting married and having two children.”
Her first husband grew up in Paris and when a job for him opened up there, Royce found work, too. “I was hired by the French film studio Canal Plus as a reader,” she says. “That was really a wonderful job, and the beginning of me being able to envision a career apart from acting.”
When the family returned to New York a year later, Royce went to work for Miramax — and Harvey Weinstein (convicted of sex crimes in March and sentenced to 23 years in prison).
“It’s always a difficult thing to talk about, with everything going on now,” she says. “I certainly have great compassion for the women who went through what they went through. I don’t dispute anything they have to say. But I didn’t work in his office, I wasn’t intimately involved with the details of his life, and all the meetings I had with him were group meetings, all about story.
“As a story editor, the volume at Miramax was enormous. My weekend read would often be 12 scripts and a novel, so it was really intense. The quality was at such a high level, so I feel like I was in the most extraordinary time and place to be there. But my children were in elementary school, and after a few years I ended up leaving, just because I couldn’t handle the volume of the work.”
Her experience at Miramax only piqued the desire Royce had to write. After her marriage dissolved, she remarried and moved to Connecticut, where she and her husband, Chuck, restored and reopened the historical Avon Theater in Stamford. She also began thinking about writing a book, and that led to a long overdue reconnection with her hometown; she hadn’t returned for a visit in 15 years.
“There was this long period after my mother moved to Florida and my father died, and I just didn’t have occasion to go back,” she says. “But then I started going about 10 years ago, and I was so astonished. I got in touch with Preservation Detroit and actually hired a driver and tour guide because I thought, I don’t even know how to visit Detroit. It was the best thing I could have done, and we just went everywhere day after day after day, looking at the revival, looking at the ruins.”
It was the first of several similar visits to Detroit, and Royce not only ended up with a position on the advisory board of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, but she also emerged with the germ of the idea that became “Finding Mrs. Ford,” whose main character is, as Royce once was, a young girl coming of age in Warren in 1979.
“I guess I always had Detroit in my heart and mind,” she says, “and really wanted to write about that time and place when Detroit was in decline but all the vestiges of the past glory were still there for all of us.”
After all these years Royce has come full circle, back to her roots with her book, and she’s delighted to announce she’s on a literary roll: another novel is scheduled to come out next year.
“It’s called ‘Ruby Falls,’ ” she says, “and it’s also a psychological thriller, and my character comes from Michigan.”
Of course she does. After all, Royce’s hometown is clearly a significant part of the inspiration behind her newfound occupation as a novelist. It’s also where her tenacity and resilience were hatched, giving her the uncanny ability to nimbly and quickly pivot from the shutting of one door in her eclectic career to the opening of another.
“Growing up in the Detroit area, I developed a strong drive and an almost ‘unbeatable’ quality that so many Detroiters have,” Royce says resolutely. “The Detroiter in me, when knocked down, gets up again — and again, if necessary. Selling my first book wasn’t easy. It took all of my time and energy, and engendered quite a few rejections along the way. It was a bold, and some would say crazy, undertaking at a stage of life when I might have slowed down. But, seeing the incredible resurgence of my hometown now, why wouldn’t I hold myself to the same standard?”