Soap Stalkings

Three daytime glamour queens venture out of the suds and into the mud for a prime-time thriler

Will lighting strike twice for the divas of daytime?

NBC scored big ratings in 1993 with "Woman on the Ledge," a grab-your-hankie telefilm starring actresses from General Hospital, As the World Turns, and Days of our Lives. On the assumption that there's more gold in them there soap hills, the network will try again this week with "Terror in the Shadows." But the two-hour suspense thrilled -- starring GH's Genie Francis, All My Children's Marcy Walker, and Another World's Victoria Wyndham -- does not play it safe.

"The nighttime movies usually offered to soap stars are very much like soaps -- lots of tears, glamour, romance -- but they never think we can do the scary stuff," says Francis. "'Terror' is a breath of fresh air. I can barely get through most of the scripts that come my way. This was a real page-turner."

The premise: Christine Hellman (Walker) escapes from a state mental hospital, makes her way to a sleepy Colorado town, and secretly holes up in the basement of a Victorian home owned by Sarah Williams (Francis) and her husband, Alex (Leigh J. McCloskey, another GH regular). Years earlier, it is revealed, Christine murdered Alex's first wife and their infant child -- and she now has her sights set on Sarah's 6-year-old son.

"This is not a glamorous role," says Marcy Walker, whose character sports unwashed hair and stolen, ill-fitting clothes throughout much of the film. "For a while, I kept having reality attacks. I'd say to the director, 'But if she's living down in the basement for weeks and weeks, how does she take a shower? How does she go to the bathroom?' Eventually it all started to make sense to me, which means I must have been in this business too long."

Wyndham and Francis, who play best pals and co-owners of a coffeehouse, also get the non-glam treatment ("I think we were all relieved not to be puffed and fluffed like poodles," says Francis). And things really got down 'n' dirty for the film's climactic face-off -- shot at night in a torrential downpour without stunt doubles. "Genie and I go at each other in the mud," says Walker. "It was [Dynasty's] Krystle and Alexis all over again."

Thought ABC and CBS have yet to jump wholeheartedly on the bandwagon, NBC has cast daytime actresses in several prime-time movies this year. Among them: All My Children Susan Lucci, One Life to Live's Susan Haskell, and Days of our Lives' Deidre Hall and Lisa Rinna.

"Soap stars are like gold," says Lori Openden, NBC's senior v.p. of talent and casting. "Not only do they deliver the performances, but they bring us publicity -- and an audience -- we might not get otherwise. We're being competitive. There are so many TV-movies done every year, we try to do something to set us apart.

But the network's decision to do "Terror" with an all-soap cast did not initially sit well with Freyda Rothstein, one of the executive producers who brought the project to NBC. Says Openden: "When we told Freyda what we wanted to do, she looked at us like we were loony. It's not that she didn't respect soap stars. She just didn't know them."

Rothstein says she watched tapes of more than 100 daytime players in order to cast the project. "The experience was a trifle daunting," she admits. "It's a bit of a stunt to [make] a film with only soap actors, but we were by no means skimping on talent. I was very impressed with the people we had to choose from." Openden says she was so eager to use Walker and Francis that "it became very important to get one of our own actresses onboard." Thus, a feeler went out to Wyndham -- a leady lady on NBC since 1972. But whereas Francis and Walker were simply handed their roles, Wyndham was asked to screen-test.

"NBC seemed surprised that I agreed," says Wyndham,"but, hey, I'm a New York actor. If they want me, they want me. If they don't, they don't. I didn't want to be shoved down anybody's throat. Besides, it's nice to be anonymous and have to earn your stripes again."

Apparently, the svelte, sophisticated Wyndham was too anonymous. "Somebody," she says with a giggle, "seemed to be under the impression that I was the older, matronly type, because my stand-in was this 60-year-old dumpling. She looked like an apple doll! They took one look at me, realized their mistake, and hustled the poor woman off the set sooooo fast. They were horrified that I would see her -- but I just laughed my socks off."

Soap actors are used to turning out an hour of programming a single day, so the 18-day shooting schedule for "Terror" was almost luxurious. Says Wyndham: "At one point [production] had really fallen behind, and I did my big dramatic scene in four clean takes. I saved the crew three hours. They were falling down and worshipping me like a deity." Adds Francis: "We're a tough bunch. There aren't a lot of really big egos in daytime. It's hard to memorize and shoot 30 pages of soap dialogue a day -- with no retakes -- and still have attitude."

Will we see lots more of these all-suds extravanganzas? Don't bet on it. "If we do too many, they wouldn't be special," says NBC's Openden. "Schedules can also be a problem. The more popular the soap stars, the more [indispensible] they are to their shows." And most prime-time producers, says Walker, "do not want to deal with the politics of getting an actor out of a soap. If the movie goes over schedule, they risk getting the [star's] network on their backs. And in this business, you never know who you're going to work for next. You don't want to make any network mad."

So daytimers must count their blessings -- however mixed. Says Francis: "As much as we'd all like to think we're being cast for talent, things are changing because they've finally realized we bring in the numbers. There can be no other reason -- that's what dictates television."

by Michael Logan