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Death of a soap queen

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By soap opera standards, Megan Gordon Harrison lived a full and rich life. Over the last three years in Llanview, Pa., the fictional town of ABC’s daytime drama One Life to Live, she was kidnapped by a vicious wife beater, romanced by a prince and his evil brother, and blackmailed in a porno scandal. She also tried to steal her sister’s boyfriend, went into shock when she saw her mother get shot, and developed a frisky split personality named Ruby Bright. Even in the world of soaps, that’s quite a résumé. So when Jessica Tuck, the actress who created the role of Megan in 1988, announced she was leaving the series, executive producer Linda Gottlieb and head writer Michael Malone decided to give her the only juicy, melodramatic plot line she hadn’t yet experienced — a fatal illness.

If that sounds like a soap opera mainstay, it isn’t. Daytime characters seem to drown, seem to fall off a cliff, seem to get blown up — but the bodies are rarely found, and the victims return from the dead with alarming frequency. So to die on camera is major stuff. But die of what? After months of discussion, during which Tuck lobbied to perish from AIDS or breast cancer, Gottlieb and Malone settled on a less potentially controversial exit route: a real, old-fashioned demise caused by complications from lupus and a kidney transplant.

”In traditional soap deaths, you can show up later, sometimes with a new face,” says Tuck, 28. ”This is a more real, satisfying end.”

”Viewers can take a sad story line as long as it doesn’t rob them emotionally,” says Gottlieb. ”Of course, there were people at the network who said, ‘Sure, make her dead, just don’t make her dead-dead-dead.”’

”They said, ‘Maybe you could freeze her,”’ adds Malone.

However, Gottlieb and Malone were able to placate ABC by turning Tuck’s departure into a ratings-enhancing gimmick; on Jan. 31, when Megan takes a turn for the worse, the show’s other characters will try to keep her alive with a week of vintage Llanview gossip, illustrated with film clips of deaths, births, murder trials, and shocking revelations from the last 23 years. ”It’s our Scheherazade week,” says Gottlieb. ”If you’ve never watched before, here’s your chance to catch up with 6,000 shows in a week.”

Then, in early February, a very pale Megan (”You can’t die realistically while looking like a soap queen,” says Tuck) will shuffle off this mortal coil amid a snowstorm of sobs, sighs, and sodden Kleenex. As Tuck filmed her last scene, with an assistant tugging on a wire tied around her toe in order to cue her to stop breathing, even the crew sniffled. ”I carried around tissues all week,” says Erika Slezak, who, as Megan’s mother, Viki, shared her teariest dramatic scenes. And then it was over…right? Or is there a way, having become dead-dead-dead in full audience view, that Tuck could return?

”Mmmmm,” Gottlieb says slowly. ”Theoretically, I suppose Viki could have had twins that night long ago, and forgotten.”

Trust her. It could happen.

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