Imagine this scenario: 17-year-old aristocratic beauty Catherine Oxenberg is seated next to eligible bachelor Prince Charles at dinner. They look deep into each other's eyes, fall in love and get married. Oxenberg knows all about royal protocol and responsibility as the daughter of HRH Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. She plunges into the public life of a princess without complaint or creating scandals.
Here is the truth: Oxenberg does sit next to Charles at dinner, but instead of beginning a romance they start a food fight. Charles marries Lady Diana Spencer while Oxenberg runs away to America, becomes a model and in 1983 portrays Diana in "The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana." Meanwhile, Diana's storybook marriage begins to crumble. Oxenberg plays her again in "Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After," airing Sunday on ABC.
Far from a princess herself, Oxenberg says she could never have stomached life in a palace. She's too free a spirit, too outspoken a rebel. "I loved playing Diana for a month," she says, "but then I went back to living my life again. To have to play that character for the rest of my life would be miserable."
A bouncy personality with a young daughter named India and no husband, Oxenberg lives comfortably in a French provincial-style home with Santa Fe touches in Beverly Hills. Because her father is American, she considers herself American, too, but she's clearly a product of England, where she was raised.
"I never ever could have bought into that (royal) lifestyle because I knew what they went through," Oxenberg says in her upper-class English accent. "So many people I grew up with did live like that, whether it was my mother's first cousin, Princess Alexandra, or Prince Charles, who is my mother's second cousin and a good friend. So I really know what it entails. You see them opening 50 toothpaste tube factories. It's exhausting. It's a life of service and no privacy."
As to her own brush with Buckingham Palace, Oxenberg says with some humor, "I didn't do too well during that dinner. I didn't consider myself a royal, so I hadn't studied my family's lineage. Charles was appalled that he knew more about my history than I did.
"I have tremendous compassion for him. He had to pick a wife based on certain criteria, none of which were probably love, and (he) could never find the privacy to have a courtship.
"Diana is so good at what she does. It's tragic that the two can't seek what most commoners would seek, which is marital help."
"Unhappily Ever After" begins with scenes from the royal wedding and then follows the course of the relationship up to the present, detailing how the couple came to be so estranged. Roger Rees, a Royal Shakespeare Company actor best known in the United States for his work in "Cheers," plays Charles.
Oxenberg, whose two-year stint on "Dynasty" as Joan Collins' daughter brought her into the American mainstream, was reluctant to reprise her role of Diana, even though the first time around Charles had sent an encouraging message through her mother. "I did say 'no,' "she recalls. "I'd been offered the CBS project (the recently aired "The Women of Windsor"), and I was shocked at how tabloidy it was. But when I read this script, I was impressed by how favorably Diana came off."
Oxenberg met Diana only once, at the wedding ball. She describes the princess as "tremendously naive and innocent in the beginning. ... She changes from girl to woman through the birthing of her children. That's when she starts to take authority."
Never hesitant to speak up herself, Oxenberg says, "When I was younger we'd stay at stately homes, and at the end of dinner women would have to leave the table. I used to sit there. I wouldn't leave."
Oxenberg came to school in the United States at 13. At the time, her mother, who had been divorced from her father since she was 3, was engaged to Richard Burton. Although the marriage never took place, getting to know Burton inspired Oxenberg to become an actress. "It's amazing what one positive role model in your life can do in five minutes," she says.
At 18, she was accepted at Harvard University, but her determination to pay for it herself prompted her to defer college for a year and take up modeling. "During that year my whole career took off. I transferred to Columbia so I'd work during the day and go to school at night. I never finished. I got engaged and started acting."
In 1984, "Dynasty" invited her to join the cast. "It was not a very sympathetic environment," she recalls of her short stay. "I guess it never is when the ratings start to slip. Everybody was a scapegoat. ...I really didn't want to come back. I was threatened. 'You'll never work in this town again!' And for awhile I didn't work, and that was scary.
Would she go back to series television? "As a mom, my priorities have changed," she says. "If I accept, I'll never have to worry financially again. I'd never ever had that thought before, but now it's pretty tempting. If the devil himself was courting me, he couldn't have found anything better."
P.S.: Oxenberg just agreed to star in the syndicated series, "Acapulco Heat," to start filming next summer in Mexico.
"Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After ? " airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC.