September 18, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

It happens again and again in daytime: Stars leave soap operas for supposedly bigger and better things, then come slinking back to their old series when their careers hit the proverbial skids. Just flip on ABC’s General Hospital, where Anthony Geary (Luke) and Genie Francis (Laura) have returned to the scene of their early-’80s glory.

It’s rare to see such prodigal stars in prime time, although it has happened before. Patrick Duffy’s allegedly dead Bobby Ewing rematerializing in the shower on Dallas — turning the previous season into a dream — is the most infamous example. Or remember when John Schneider and Tom Wopat jumped back into the General Lee on The Dukes of Hazzard, after having sat out half a season in a contract dispute? Okay, maybe you don’t, but you get the idea.

This fall, no fewer than three prime-time stars are revisiting their old stomping grounds: Melrose Place’s Josie Bissett, Beverly Hills 90210’s Luke Perry, and NYPD Blue’s Sharon Lawrence. And these shows may need the stars as badly as the stars need them.

Bissett moved out of Melrose in early ’97, shortly after her husband, Rob Estes, joined the cast. ”I was fried,” she told EW. ”But I took a year and a half off, and I’m rested and ready to go.” Actually, she has been on TV once — in the USA Network flick Baby Monitor: Sound of Fear — but better to keep that quiet.

As Jane Mancini, Bissett has begun turning up in Melrose’s new summer episodes, and she’s stuck in the kind of credibility-stretching subplot that caused this series’ creative and popular decline. She hooked up with her scoundrel ex-husband, Michael (Thomas Calabro), and happily agreed to raise the child he fathered with his ex-mistress, Taylor (Lisa Rinna). So far, the actress has had no impact on the soap’s sagging ratings, perhaps because Jane was always wishy-washy, and Bissett was never one of its most appealing stars, a la Heather Locklear. But producers hope her familiar face will remind people of the days when they used to care about this show.

That’s the same strategy behind Perry’s return trip to his old zip code. 90210 is showing signs of age (Nielsen droop, severe lack of buzz), and it could get swamped by The WB’s Dawson’s Creek this fall. With the upcoming exodus of Jason Priestley and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, the show badly needs the sex appeal and star power of Perry (whose Dylan will likely reunite with Jennie Garth’s Kelly). ”It’s an incredible coup to get Luke back,” says exec producer John Eisendrath. ”It clearly offsets the losses.”

Perry could use a boost. After splitting 90210 in 1995, he’s toiled in indie films (American Strays) and done voice-overs for cartoons (The Incredible Hulk). ABC passed on The Game, his sports-agency pilot, and his latest movie, Indiscreet, went straight to HBO. But just to make sure he won’t be playing Dylan forever, his new Fox deal includes a fresh pilot when he’s done with 90210.

Of course, that new show could flame out as quickly as Sharon Lawrence’s NBC sitcom, Fired Up, did, which is why she’s back with NYPD this fall. Frustrated that her character, ADA Sylvia Costas, had a lesser role after becoming a stay-at-home mom, Lawrence curtailed her presence to occasional guest shots last season while starring as an over-the-top PR exec in Fired. Wisely she didn’t sever her ties, so she’ll be around for at least this season’s first 10 episodes of NYPD (which needs a strong female foil for Dennis Franz’s Sipowicz, her TV hubby) and possibly longer. Now, if they could just get David Caruso back… (Additional reporting by Kristen Baldwin and Dan Snierson)

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