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updated: 1/10/2012 5:39 AM

Before Pine Valley, Walt Willey was a suburban guy

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  • Walt Willey

      Walt Willey

  • "All My Children" star and comedian Walt Willey lived for a time in Schaumburg.

      "All My Children" star and comedian Walt Willey lived for a time in Schaumburg.

  • Comedian and actor Walt Willey performs every year at the Zanies Comedy Clubs in Chicago and St. Charles.

      Comedian and actor Walt Willey performs every year at the Zanies Comedy Clubs in Chicago and St. Charles.

  • For nearly a quarter of a century, Walt Willey, right, played District Attorney Jackson Montgomery on the soap opera "All My Children."

      For nearly a quarter of a century, Walt Willey, right, played District Attorney Jackson Montgomery on the soap opera "All My Children."
    Photo courtesy of ABC

  • Video: Willey on Jackson Montgomery

  • Video: Willey's skydiving in Chicago

 
 

If you shopped for shoes at Woodfield Mall in the summer of 1975, your salesman might have been "All My Children" star Walt Willey.

"I worked at Morse Shoes. They're long gone by now ... but I was pretty good at (being a shoe salesman), and I met a lot of girls," says Willey, who's in town this weekend with his fellow soap stars for "A Tribute to Pine Valley" Sunday in Rosemont.

"It wasn't such a bad time," Willey said, of his years living in the suburbs. "I was dating a girl from Hoffman Estates. Audrey was her name ... and I remember International Village (apartment complex in Schaumburg). That's where all the Delta stewardesses lived."

Shoe salesman is one of many careers Willey has had. Best known for his 24 years as District Attorney Jackson Montgomery on ABC's now-cancelled "All My Children" -- and one of Erica Kane's eight husbands -- he is also an artist, blogger (wildandwilley.blogspot.com), bed-and-breakfast owner (he and his wife, Marie, run Crystal Mesa Farm in New Mexico), a philanthropist, guitarist and stand-up comedian.

"A jack of all trades, master of none," Willey says, laughing. "What I really am is an entertainer."

What he really is, is a Midwesterner. Willey, who grew up in Ottawa, Ill., volunteers countless hours to boost the theater communities in the Ottawa area and at his alma mater, Southern Illinois University.

Not only will he star in or direct some of their stage shows, but he'll help line up corporate sponsors, put up posters around town, sponsor scholarships, teach classes or bring in "All My Children" actors to join the cast, boosting the public's interest in the show.

"Hopefully down the line, we'll have dramatic arts summer camp for a couple of weeks," said Willey, who also does fundraisers for a variety of charities, including a home for the developmentally disabled in Ottawa.

Originally, his career plan was to be a graphic artist. He majored in sculpture at SIU, but after graduation, moved to the suburbs and started selling shoes.

"I'm not quite sure what those years were about," he said.

It wasn't until he was 30 years old that he decided to act. His charm and good looks landed him bit parts that eventually turned into a starring role in 1987 on "All My Children," set in the fictional town of Pine Valley.

A few years ago, when the networks started replacing soap operas with cheaper-to-produce talk shows, the writing was on the wall for "All My Children," and the long-running soap opera ended in the fall. Despite promises it would continue online, the plan fizzled out.

Willey says he feels for the fans. Many get emotional when they talk to him about the void the cancellation created in their lives.

"These days, when so much is being taken away from us ... financially and even emotionally, the solace that 'All My Children' provided was taken away as well. I mean, who else do you have in your house five days a week at noon? You don't have your best friends and neighbors over that much," Willey said. "You hear a litany of stories, like, 'I've watched with my grandma since I was 6 years old.' Or, 'My mom came from El Salvador in 1979 and learned English by watching 'All My Children.' But we don't want this to be a wake. Wakes aren't any fun, unless they're Irish."

Now Willey, who turns 61 later this month, is starting a new phase of his career.

"To be honest, it's been like, wow, I have to find a job. It's a frightening time and an exciting time. Because for 25 years, I knew what was going to happen every day," he said. "I feel ambivalent about it. I'm unemployed for first time since I was 13 years old."

He spends a few days a week at home in New Mexico with his wife, 16-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter, but spends weekends flying all over the U.S. for various shows and projects. His stand-up gigs have brought him regularly to Zanies in St. Charles, Chicago and, before that location closed, Vernon Hills.

Willey's currently working on a pilot for Comedy Central where he'll play George Hamilton, a cabaret show for the spring and a one-man show he's developing about LaSalle County, Ill., native Wild Bill Hickok.

"All of the things I've wanted to do," Willey said, "I can do now."

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for suburban people in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a good feature, send a note to dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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