Susan Lucci's move to prime-time television
Susan Lucci is standing in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower on a bridge over the Seine, filming her first recurring prime-time role — as a Dallas femme fatale. After 20 years of playing the conniving Erica Kane on ABC’s soap opera All My Children, the part of wealthy, double-dealing widow Sheila Foley should be a snap, but it doesn’t feel that way to Lucci.
At 5’2”, Lucci is smaller and more fragile than she looks on TV, and she’s not ruling the scene as Erica Kane would. She’s very happy to be shooting Dallas in Paris — but she isn’t getting a chance to see much of the city, and her high school French is painfully rusty. Also, she is always nervous when she works, and this job has the extra pressure of being an important debut. ”Before every scene, I get the jitters,” she admits. What’s more, she’s unsettled by the tabloids back home, which have portrayed her Dallas guest spot as a shoot-out at the Southfork Corral. Lucci’s mother has phoned in from Long Island with the details, and they are lively: Lucci and Larry Hagman hate each other! They’re wrassling and hissing like rattlesnakes!
”I said, ‘Mom, I haven’t even met Larry Hagman!”’ Lucci exclaims between takes. ”’I work with Patrick Duffy in Paris!”’
In fact, Hagman isn’t in Paris — he’s filming episodes back in L.A. — and Lucci’s only problems aren’t related to filming. Whenever French paparazzi swoop down on the set, they aim only at Duffy; nobody here knows who Lucci is. ”Just the American tourists recognize me,” she says, ”but the French people all recognize Patrick. All My Children is not here in France. That’s a little odd for me.”
Some actors might find it a relief to be anonymous for a few days, but Lucci’s not among them. ”I thought it would be a relief,” she says. ”It’s not. It’s very strange!” She laughs. ”I mean, I’ve been doing this my whole adult life. I’ve been on top of the Alps in Austria and been recognized in ski clothes. And suddenly here in Paris, it’s only the Americans who know me.”
If Susan Lucci had a motto, it could be: I’m not a bitch, I just play one. She plays nastiness so entertainingly that the 7 million people who relish her daily schemes and seductions as Erica have made her one of the most popular and highly paid women — she reportedly earns more than $1 million a year-on television. Whenever she has appeared in prime-time (in the made-for-TV movies Mafia Princess, Secret Passions, and Lady Lobster) she has won high ratings, and she’s been nominated for a daytime Emmy a record 11 times. Her other record is that she’s never won.
If Lucci could use a little ego balm, however, she’s about to get it: This could be Susan Lucci Month on television. She’ll be host of Saturday Night Live Oct. 6 on NBC and star in a TV movie, The Bride in Black, on Oct. 21 on ABC, in addition to Dallas (premiering Friday, Nov. 2, on CBS) and her regular work on All My Children. Then there’s her commercial for a new artificial sweetener in which she throws a mock tantrum about her Emmy plight. No wonder she now says, ”I am having the time of my life as an actress.”
Dallas, beginning its 14th season, courted Lucci in hopes of lassoing a bigger audience. ”Susan is the Larry Hagman of daytime,” says executive producer Leonard Katzman. ”We have similar audiences, and with Susan on our show, we’d have our regular viewers, and hopefully most of her daytime viewers too.” The Dallas people were so committed to using Lucci that they arranged the entire production schedule to fit in with hers. The Texas halves of the first four shows had been finished for two months before Lucci could make it to Paris.
Despite the ticklish logistics, there are no complaints from the Dallas brass, who are already plotting Lucci’s return. ”Hopefully later on she’ll be back to resolve everything that happens in Paris,” Katzman says. ”If her schedule can be worked around our schedule?”
”It was just one of those wonderful phone calls,” Lucci says of an early conversation about the part. ”’Hello, will you allow us to write the first four episodes of Dallas and shoot it in Paris?’ I mean, ‘Let me think about it,’ you know? For about 30 seconds!” She plays the widow of a Texas oilman who went bankrupt and committed suicide after OPEC cut prices. Bitter and determined to assign blame, Sheila heads for OPEC meetings in Paris, where Bobby Ewing is honeymooning with April (Sheree J. Wilson). Sheila kidnaps April and poses as Bobby’s new wife so she can infiltrate the group.
For this sunny morning’s scene, Bobby is strolling across the Bir-Hakeim Bridge with Sheila. A Metro train crosses the Viaduc de Passy overhead. Suddenly a Renault 25 pulls up, and Bobby realizes his beloved April is in the back seat. Sobbing, she presses her palms against the window; he runs up and does the same, but the car speeds off before they can speak. Now that she’s proven April is safe, Sheila says, he’d better keep his end of the deal. Just then, Duffy’s 15-year-old son, Padraic, portraying an undercover tail hired by Bobby, wheels by on a racing bike in discreet pursuit of the Renault.
Between shots, Duffy, Wilson, and Lucci swap names of good shops and restaurants. The talk turns to the French dubbing of American TV series. ”Actually, our show is much better dubbed in French than it is in English,” Duffy declares, as Lucci giggles. ”Our acting improves about 20 percent, because this show has that very European drama-movie thing.”
Even so, Dallas probably won’t be the show that finally wins Lucci her Emmy. Her TV movie — in Farrah Fawcett’s patented siren-turns-plain-Jane mode — sounds more promising. In The Bride in Black she plays ”a very shy, simple woman who makes mozzarella cheese at her family’s pork store in Brooklyn — the most of a stretch I’ve ever done.”
Does she wonder why she hasn’t won an Emmy? ”Sure, I think about it,” she says. ”I guess the simplest answer is that whoever’s on that blue-ribbon panel doesn’t like my work as much as they like somebody else’s.” Unlike most awards, the daytime Emmy nominations are decided by an anonymous panel of TV professionals. ”I’m happy that my peers like my work and have nominated me,” Lucci says. ”Some wonderful people have won, you know? I certainly don’t negate it in any way. I just wish sometime it would be my turn.”
During long breaks in the Dallas shooting, Lucci checks in with her Austrian-born husband and manager, Helmut Huber, who’s with her in Paris. They met when both were toiling in the restaurant of the Garden City Hotel on Long Island: He stopped by during her engagement party to another man and whispered to her mother, ”This won’t last.” It didn’t; the Hubers have been married for 20 years. They still live in Garden City and have just finished a beach house in Quogue, farther out on the island. Their children would have joined them in Paris, but Liza, 15, had cheerleading camp and Andreas, 10, was busy with the swim team. Despite the long hours, Lucci and Huber have gotten to sample a few highlights of life in Paris: a magnifique meal at Jacques Cagna, and front-row seats at the Nina Ricci couture show.
The tight-knit Dallas unit has done its best to make Lucci feel like a full partner. Says Lucci, ”It could have been difficult, and in fact, it’s been very easy.” But now that she knows she fits in, will she get to stay for a while? Katzman says there’s only a 50-50 chance Dallas will be around long enough for Sheila Foley to get her comeuppance. Barbara Eden, Hagman’s costar on I Dream of Jeannie, will join the show in the season’s eighth episode, and Katzman says the series’ fate should be clear a week or two after that, by mid to late January.
If Dallas goes on, Lucci is game to return: ”I hope very much that we can work that all out, I really do,” she says. But she is not about to give up playing Erica. In fact, she recently signed a contract that runs through May 1992.
At the very least, however, she has finally found a job that impresses her Austrian in-laws. ”My husband’s family is more excited about my doing these four episodes than anything I have ever done,” Lucci reports. ”I could hear my sister-in-law squealing on the other end of the phone.” It’s not like all of Paris recognizing you, but it’s a start.