If you tuned into daytime television on any given weekday between October 1983 and May 2002, you’re probably familiar with host Sally Jessy Raphael and her signature red glasses. She was a staple within the talk show genre for 19 seasons. But in recent years, Raphael remained under the radar, as she cared for her husband Karl Soderlund who passed away in August 2020 due to complications from his five-year battle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
A close family friend told the Daily Mail that Soderlund “never lost his brilliant sense of humor” as he lived out his final days at their family farm in Dutchess County, N.Y. “They had a wonderful 57 years together and literally never spent a day apart,” the friend said. “Karl was known for his warmth and kindness, as well as his wicked sense of humor. He was loved by all. Sally is asking for privacy during this difficult time as she mourns her beloved husband.”
In June 2020, Raphael took to Twitter to celebrate her husband’s 90th birthday. “When I married Karl, he was 5 years my senior,” she wrote. “Somehow, over 60 years, my Peter Pan husband has remained forever young and handsome! Happy 90th birthday to the love of my life – so glad we can finally be together with loved ones to celebrate your amazing life!”
While Raphael hasn’t had her own talk show in nearly 20 years, the former host hasn’t been afraid to speak out about her showbiz experiences.
Did Sally Jessy Raphael get canned for having cancer?
Before Sally Jessy Raphael became her husband’s primary caretaker in the final years of his life, the talk show host faced her own health battles, as she secretly fought cancer during her last days on-air. In fact, Raphael believes her honesty was the reason producers chose not to renew her show. “All they needed was a 60-year-old that might have cancer,” she told the Daily Mail in 2019. “I was stupid enough to tell them.”
As part of Oprah Winfrey’s Where Are They Now? series (per HuffPost), Raphael told the fellow talk show icon that, while some staffers thought she knew about the show’s impending cancellation, she was just as shocked. “[Network executives] told us that the show was going to go on,” Raphael added. “We had 250 employees. Some of them said, ‘Sally, now, we need to know if we’re going to be renewed. I want to buy a house. My wife and I want to be pregnant.’ Within two months ― after they bought their house or got pregnant or whatever ― I had to go in front of the entire crew and staff.”
Yet while Raphael’s been heralded as a pioneer in her field, as she was the first woman to headline a talk show that focused on human interest and hard-hitting news items, Raphael’s primarily proud of how many lives she touched and changed over the years. “How can you not be slightly tickled by having people love you?”
Sally Jessy Raphael 'hated' the final years of her talk show
Although Sally Jessy Raphael’s career was bookended by radio gigs — she briefly revived her old radio program Talknet with SiriusXM — the host will always be known for her syndicated daytime talk show. If it’d been up to her, however, this groundbreaking hit never would have stooped to the same level as her sensationalist competitors Maury Povich and Jerry Springer during its last years. Despite being the “first female to host an audience-participation, issue-drive talk show,” as People noted, producers forced the host to mirror the subjects of her male contemporaries so the shock value might jumpstart ratings.
“The last years of doing those Maury Povich/Jerry Spring [sic] shows? I hated them,” she told Oprah Winfrey in 2016 (via People). “I was betrayed by some of the producers into doing that. Come to think of it, I should have fought harder for what I knew what right — what I knew that I didn’t want to do.”
As Raphael told the Daily Mail, she thinks she was goaded into making said changes because she valued her reputation as someone who was easy to work with, and the producers knew they could convince her to embrace the stereotypical paternity reveal that has become synonymous with talk shows of the ’90s. “What strikes me, on those shows, ‘Who Is Your Baby Daddy?’… It’s extremely demeaning,” she added. But Raphael need not worry, for her iconic eyewear will always outshine any such missteps.
Sally Jessy Raphael revealed the story behind her signature red glasses
Just as Sally Jessy Raphael became a fixture of the syndicated daytime talk show lineup throughout the ’80s and ’90s, her signature red glasses also made an indelible mark on the genre. Early in her career, veteran journalist Hugh Downs advised Raphael to be normal. “He told me, ‘People last in broadcasting by blending in, by being part of the scene,'” she recalled (per the Daily Mail). “Hugh said to be mild if you want a long career in broadcasting. People want people like them.”
However, she was destined to stand out and her free glasses were the ticket. “Glasses were expensive, everyone knows that,” Raphael told Today in 2017. “They were offering me a Pap smear and an eye test and red glasses. And I said, ‘I’ll take the red glasses.'” Yet, while producers weren’t sold on the look, they ultimately had no choice.
“When we started, I looked at the teleprompter and I said, ‘I can’t read that! I’m going blind!’ she added. “I had to fight to have the glasses. Producers tried to change them. Those shadowy figures objected to everything.” In the years since her debut, Raphael has amassed an extensive collection of glasses in her iconic color — nearly 200, to be exact. Although she never trademarked the look, Raphael’s glasses will forever be synonymous with her legacy. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, and in this case, it created a TV icon.
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