Love is a Many Splendored Thing focused on lives and loves in San Francisco, California. The opening sequence of the show, in fact, was the title of the show superimposed over a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, with a slightly reworked rendition of the movie's signature hit theme. In a rare move for daytime serials of that era, live shots of junk boats from Hong Kong were interspersed with pictures of the real San Francisco, set to an orchestral version of the signature theme from the movie. In 1968, the show switched to its more well-known titles, with just the picture of the Golden Gate, and a retrograded theme moving from costly live orchestral arrangements by Wladimir Selinsky to an in-house organist, the legendary Eddie Layton of Yankee Stadium fame. This occurred when CBS became sole producer and distributor of the show, it was previously a co-production of CBS and 20th Century-Fox's television division.
Veteran serial writer/creator Irna Phillips was hired to adapt the movie for television, picking up the story some years after the end of the film. In the beginning, the star of the show was Nancy Hsueh as Mia Elliott, daughter to the characters portrayed by William Holden and Jennifer Jones in the 1955 film. Mia left Hong Kong to study medicine in San Francisco, her late father's hometown, and there she became involved with two men: Vietnam War pilot Paul Bradley, and later Dr. Jim Abbott. However, CBS censors balked at an interracial love story between a white man and an Amerasian woman. The network was also uncomfortable with a developing subplot in which Jim Abbott was implicated in the death of a young patient, the result of a botched abortion. Unwilling to compromise her story for CBS executives, Phillips quit the series, as the character of Mia Elliott was written out of the series within the first several months, never to be mentioned again. CBS and Twentieth Century-Fox Television were then the co-producers of the show. Phillips' resignation led to the show being moved from Fox's New York studios (and the end of Fox's role as co-producer and distributor) to CBS Broadcasting Center.
In early 1968, Irna Phillips was replaced by husband-and-wife writing team Jane and Ira Avery. The Averys quickly refocused the series on two families: The Donnellys and the Elliotts. The Donnelly family was headed by widower Dr. Will Donnelly (Judson Laire), who had three adult children: Tom, a police lieutenant, Iris, a troubled college graduate, and Laura, a fragile novitiate nun. The Elliotts consisted of wealthy Phillip and Helen Elliott and their son Mark (Sam Wade), a Vietnam War vet who was engaged to marry Iris but secretly desired her sister Laura. As with the Mia Eliott story, Love Is a Many Splendored Thing courted controversy again as Laura tried unsuccessfully to fight off carnal desires for her sister's boyfriend. A storm of controversy necessitated Laura's sudden departure from the church, as the nun plotline was unceremoniously dropped. However, the Averys continued to zero in on the conflict between two beautiful sisters who loved the same man, a conflict that would bring the series strong fan devotion, as well as a spike in the Nielsen ratings, and would drive the plotline for the remainder of the serial's network run.
1967: Mia Elliott, daughter of late war correspondent Mark Elliott and physician Han Suyin, arrives in San Francisco to study medicine. Mia meets Phillip and Helen Elliott, her aunt and uncle, cousin Mark Elliott, her father's namesake, and sisters Iris and Laura Donnelly. At first Mia dates pilot Paul Bradley (Nicholas Pryor), but she later develops a serious relationship with Dr. Jim Abbott (Robert Milli). Laura Donnelly, also known as Sister Cecilia, fights her attraction to Mark Elliott as she prepares to take her final vows. Iris, unsure of Mark's feelings for her and sensing Laura's attraction to him, begins to drink heavily and consort with sneering playboy Jock Porter (John Karlen). During an argument with Mark, a drunken Iris crashes their car, but both escape serious injury.
1968 : When it is revealed that Jock Porter paid Jim Abbott to perform an illegal abortion on girlfriend Terry Andrews, who later died, a disenchanted Mia decides to return to Hong Kong. Iris becomes involved with Jim, but the scandal surrounding Terry Andrews forces him to leave San Francisco for New York. Laura decides not to take her final vows and leaves the church for Mark, who ends his relationship with Iris and begins a career as an architect. Lt. Tom Donnelly (Robert Burr) helps Helen (Grace Albertson, Gloria Hoye) overcome her grief when husband Phillip (Len Wayland) dies suddenly, and after a short courtship, the two marry. Iris finds herself attracted to Spencer Garrison (Michael Hanrahan, Ed Power) a handsome senator trapped in an unhappy marriage.
1969: Laura and Mark (now played by David Birney) marry, and shortly afterward, Laura discovers that she's pregnant. Spence leaves his insidious wife Nancy (Susan Browning) for Iris, who also becomes pregnant. During a flight to Lake Tahoe, Spence and Iris' private plane crashes, resulting in a serious brain injury that leaves Iris blinded. Mark has an extramarital affair with Jean Garrison (Jane Manning), the stepmother of Spence, that is publicly exposed after Jean's ex-husband Steve Hurley (Mark Gordon, Paul Stevens) is murdered. Mark's trial for murder causes Laura to miscarry their baby and have a nervous breakdown. Later, learning that she can never carry another child, Laura instigates divorce proceedings. After Iris learns that her brain injury will cause her death within a year, she and Spence agree that their baby would be better off with childless Laura; however, the court rejects the adoption on the grounds that Laura will be a single mother. Iris persuades Mark and Laura to reconcile for the sake of her baby, and gives birth to William Alex Garrison (Arthur Benoit, Jr.). Andy Hurley (Don Scardino, Rusty Thacker) works for the 'Garrison for Senator' campaign and falls in love with Nikki Cabbott (Jody Locker), a balerina who later is revealed to be his illegitimate sister. They plan to leave San Francisco, but she drops dead onstage while dancing.
1970: Tom's relationship with Helen is strained by the arrival of his ex-wife Martha, an out-of-work actress now calling herself Julie Richards (Beverlee McKinsey). Julie threatens to sue for custody of their son Ricky (Shawn Campbell) if Tom and Helen don't pay her off. After Laura and Mark gain custody of Iris and Spence's son Billy, Iris is cured from experimental laser surgery performed by brilliant neurosurgeon Dr. Peter Chernak (Paul Michael Glaser, Michael Zaslow, Vincent Baggetta). Will is smitten with Peter's mother Lily (Diana Douglas), while Peter's independent sister Dr. Betsy Chernak (Andrea Marcovicci) also joins the hospital staff. When Iris demands that Laura give up custody of Billy, Laura goes insane and kidnaps the child, nearly killing them both in a car crash. Tom is arrested for the murder of Julie's conniving boyfriend Jim Whitman (Berkeley Harris), but eventually Julie confesses that she accidentally killed him during a violent argument, and she leaves town.
1971: A contrite Laura (now played by Veleka Gray) submits to psychiatric therapy and agrees to adopt a baby with husband Mark (now played by Michael Hawkins). Betsy Chernak begins a stormy romance with Joe Taylor (Leon Russom), who works for Senator Alfred Preston (Don Gantry), Spence's political opponent. Iris (now played by Bibi Besch) and Laura are delighted when their father Will marries Lily Chernak. Peter Chernak romances sweet Angel Allison (Suzie Kay Stone) and marries her, but has an extramarital fling with Jean Garrison. Visiting an orphanage, Laura and Mark decide to adopt a young girl named Maria (Lisa Sarafan), unaware that she has a very troubled past. Jealous of Mark, Maria subtly manipulates tension into the Elliott marriage, and when she's unsuccessful at separating the couple, she locks Mark in the garage and sets it on fire, but Mark is ultimately saved. Tom (now played by Albert Stratton) decides to leave the police force and pursue a law degree.
1972: Laura (now played by Barbara Stanger), despondent over being childless, drives Mark to drink heavily. One night in a drunken stupor, he mistakes Iris for Laura and rapes her, resulting in a pregnancy. Fearing that the scandal will harm his chances for re-election in the 1972 election, Iris agrees to keep the rape a secret and pass off the baby as Spence's child. However, blackmailer Walter Travis (John Carpenter) forces Joe Taylor into recording a conversation between Iris and Mark, revealing Mark as a rapist and father of Iris' new baby daughter Maggie. Travis plans to use the tape to prevent Spence's re-election, but the plan backfires when Al Preston dies. Peter marries Angel, and they settle down in wedded bliss. Joe confides to Betsy that Walter Travis is blackmailing him over the murder of Travis' wife, Joe's lover, 7 years ago. Spence wins the election.
1973 : While under Betsy's care in the hospital for minor surgery, Walter Travis is murdered with an overdose of Demerol. Fearing that Joe's possible involvement in Travis' wife's murder will surface, Betsy confesses to the crime. Tom agrees to represent Betsy, who confesses the truth to him. Tom and Joe discover that Travis actually murdered his wife, not Joe, and later prove that Al Preston's secretary Celia Winter (Abigail Kellogg) killed Travis. Joe promises Iris and Mark that Laura and Spence will never the hear the truth about Maggie's parentage, but before she's imprisoned, a deranged Celia reveals the truth to Laura. Desperate for a baby, Laura schemes with Iris' old boyfriend Dr. Jim Abbott (Ron Hale) to get custody of Maggie; however, Tom arranges a private adoption for Laura and Mark, and Laura reconciles her differences with Iris. Peter learns that Angel has incurable cancer and vows to make her last days the happiest of her life. In the final telecast, Joe and Betsy, surrounded by all of their friends and family, are married in a beautiful ceremony. Judson Laire, as Dr. Will Donnelly, steps out of character and addresses the audience, "There go Betsy and Joe, off to a new life. I think this is probably the happiest moment for the Donnellys and the Chernaks, the Garrisons, and the Elliotts, and the Taylors. But, it's a very sad moment for those of us actors who played those characters. I think by now most of you must know that Love is a Many Splendored Thing is going off the air with this episode. On behalf of my fellow actors, I would like to tell you how much we enjoyed the privilege of coming into your home for these five and half years. It's not going to be easy for us; it's hard to say goodbye. But, maybe we'll live on in your memories. It now becomes my sad duty to say goodbye to you on behalf of the entire company: the cast, the crew, the production staff, the writers and the directors...all of us. Goodbye, and God bless you."
As has usually happened to network soaps, the lead characters on Love is a Many Splendored Thing were recast multiple times. Within a few years, star players Charleson, Birney and Mills all departed, and even those recasts were then recast several more times. Talented replacements such as Bibi Besch could not make up for a sense of fatigue that the constant casting changes wrought. The program shifted towards other characters, such as the strong-willed Betsy Chernak Taylor (Andrea Marcovicci), and complex storylines involving politics and blackmail, but the show was not recovering ratings quickly enough for CBS.
CBS replaced Love is a Many Splendored Thing (via a scheduling shuffle involving The Price is Right) with a new game show, The $10,000 Pyramid. In an unusual conincidence, both the show's predecessor and successor were word association games created by the same man, Bob Stewart.
Also a legacy of the show was the music style of Eddie Layton, being more jazz and pop flavored, as opposed to the heavy symphonic/theatre organ style of more established soap operas. This which was transitional between the earlier soap opera styles, and the more contemporary lighe orchestral/synthesizer pop flavored music of soap operas that were later used.
Other actors who appeared on the series and would go on to greater fame in daytime or primetime included Beverlee McKinsey, Andrea Marcovicci, Constance Towers, Judson Laire, Susan Browning, Vincent Baggetta, David Groh, Ron Hale, Paul Michael Glaser, Stephanie Braxton, John Karlen, and Michael Zaslow.